Could You Live On $4,000 A Year?
Mr Akira Ito making tea, photograph by Mr Andy Couturier
A new book celebrates the abundance of less.
There are many elements of contemporary existence that make it all feel, somehow, inescapable. The onslaught of information, the omnipresence of technology, the relentless pace of city living, the commute, the pay cheque, the rent. But although most of us feel more or less obliged to live this way, it’s by no means compulsory.
Such is the revelation offered by The Abundance Of Less, a book that profiles a series of men and women who are living entirely self-sufficient lives in rural Japan, including woodblock printmaker Mr Osamu Nakamura, who lives on $4,000 and never accepts payment for his work, and Mr Kogan Murata, a man who splits his time between growing his own rice and playing a traditional kyotaku bamboo flute. Each chapter focuses on a single subject, explaining how, by doing things the slow way, with their own hands, they are able to survive without much in the way of material possessions or money.
Mr Masanori Oe in his rice field, photograph by Mr Andy Couturier
The book has clearly been a labour of love for its author, Mr Andy Couturier, a writer and environmental activist who has spent more than 15 years visiting and living in Japan to compile these stories. “I feel like I’ve had the privilege of meeting some people who’ve found a way out,” he writes, via email. “So whether I say it’s my responsibility to do this, or rather, that I’m inspired to do this, I feel on fire to get this message out to people.” Beyond that, it’s also a unique insight into a way of life that is seldom represented in the mainstream media, and a far cry from the typical Western portrayals of contemporary Japan as a neon-lit megalopolis.
“Living in this way in an industrialised country can be thought of as a kind of art form,” says Mr Couturier. “Whereas people living in small villages in Nepal – where many of my subjects learned about the way of life they wanted to live – are born into a situation of what we might call simplicity. Each of us in the West has to negotiate a way to make time for what really matters. It’s about drawing lines, and sticking to them firmly. And then seeing what kind of satisfaction that delivers to you.”
Living this way is not exactly easy. For Mr San Oizumi, an artist and potter, to make his year’s supply of miso, he has to spend three days working with his family, “making and keeping the fire burning, mixing the miso, splitting the wood”. Another of Mr Couturier’s subjects, Mr Koichi Yamashita, a professor-turned-farmer, has to work for weeks weeding his organic tea plantation to preserve the crop’s flavour. By the time he’s finished all the sections, the weeds have regrown where he first started. But according to Mr Couturier, “easy” is a word we need to look at more closely in this context.
Mr Osamu Nakamura's woodshed, photograph by Mr Andy Couturier
“You could say that it’s not as easy as living the way everyone else around you defaults to,” he says. “But it’s not exactly easy to work 70-hour weeks and then rush to catch up on all our emails and bills and payments. And all the stress-related illnesses so many people get are not exactly easy either.”
According to Mr Couturier, although much of the work involved in self-sufficient living may seem laborious, or even back-breaking, there’s something deeply rewarding about doing things by hand, of appreciating the fact that craft wasn’t always a luxurious idea. Such skills evolved out of necessity. “When we make something that we actually need and use, as opposed to purchasing that thing or pushing a button to get it, there’s a kind of satisfaction that’s almost indescribable,” he says. “The more you do for yourself, of course, the less you have to purchase, so the less you have to be on the work treadmill to produce more income. It’s a simple formula, but we somehow keep forgetting it. So I think we need regular reminders.”
Does it take a certain type of person to live this way? Could we all do it, if we wanted to? Mr Couturier thinks, at the very least, there are lessons to be learned here. “Each person in the book is notable for their ability – or is it a decisiveness? – to stop, and really consider and plan for their life,” he says. “It’s why I think of them as good teachers for the rest of us. I believe they get something from the ambient culture of Japan, and from their living in India and Nepal, where they learned many habits of mind and behaviour. But to me, that just says that these kind of habits and values are learnable. And what a victory to achieve the abundance it gives us, a victory of your spirit against the set-up of the world as it is.”