Welcome to Sophelia's Japan

A blog about adventures, academia, adoption and other things starting with the letter 'A'.
I'm a geek, a metal head, a shiba inu wrangler and a vegetarian, and I write about all of the above. You have been warned!

Smiley hikers

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Comfort, Food and Culture Shock


In Norwegian "appelsin" is orange. My sister was a bit embarrassed by how funny I found that.
My son asked for his third helping of dinner the other night, then asked if I knew why he was eating so much. My first thought was worms, but I kept that to myself and asked why. "食欲の秋!" He replied, "autumn appetite". Apparently I'm not the only one who loses my appetite in the hot sticky summer; Japanese even has a term for the return of one's appetite with the cooler weather (other autumn terms are  読書の秋 and 運動の秋, referring to the desire to read books and exercise... you can guess which one of those most appeals to me). Glorious though it is to be cooking and enjoying yummy food again, it has gotten me thinking about the link between food and comfort, particularly since my parents recently visiting bringing with them a suitcase of comfort foods from home. While these days if you live in a big city in Japan it probably isn't hard to find at least some foods from your home country, when you are in the country side it isn't as simple as driving to Costco. The internet gives us many more options than we would have had in years past, but it is hard to explain the pleasure of your first Arnotts Mint Slice in three years. And, of course, there's the fun of talking about food with people who may appear to share your language but in some ways really don't... just try getting Americans and Brits to agree on what a biscuit is! Kirsty has a great post about it with an interesting political twist at the end (do read the entire post):
It was my first introduction to the fabulously popular international game of  Name That Food. A game which is closely related to the slightly more frustrating past-time of hungry travellers Find That Food.
I’ve spent the last 14 years of my life playing both games in various forms around the world. If the game stretches out for too long it usually ends with me doing an interpretive dance/game of charades while standing in a vegetable stall. Do you know how hard it is to mime an eggplant?
Over the years I’ve enhanced and developed my culinary vocabulary. Capsicum to peppers. Zucchini to corguettes. Spring onion to scallion. Rock melon to cantaloupe. Eggplant to aubergine. Jam to jelly. But there is also the world of the unknown. Right name, wrong food.
In North America I quickly learnt that gravy was not gravy, biscuits were not biscuits and jelly, jam and jello could have me requiring a dark room and a panodol – except there was no panadol. In a cafe in Canada the little travellers searched for the bubbles in the lemonade I’d ordered, “oh this is home-made” I explained, “it’s not fizzy drink, it’s kind of like lemon cordial. I’ll ask what they call lemon fizzy drink.”
“Ma’am, I don’t think we want to go there today do we?” the waitress replied.
Beyond simply missing familiar flavours, though, when you are still struggling with reading Japanese it can be a real challenge just to feed yourself. One friend purchased a can of what he thought were kidney beans and used them to make tacos... they were azuki, incredibly sweat red beans used in deserts. I've many times experienced a particularly awful mix of hunger, helplessness and panic that comes from perusing the menu of the fifth restaurant in a row and realising that here, too, there is nothing vegetarian and my lunch break is almost over. Eryk has a great post on this:
I heard so many stories of newcomers to Japan having breakdowns in the grocery stores, panic attacks from cramped spaces and the true vulnerability that comes from an irrational fear that obtaining food had become impossible. It is a primal place, the grocery store, despite its illusion of order. We are hunting and gathering here, and we have learned to read these aisles the way our ancestors could read flora and fauna. The labels are our environment, the brands and colors marking which mushrooms we can eat, which plants are poisonous. In the grocery store, I was a Canadian Goose set loose on a tropical island. I knew that this was all food, but I had no idea what I could really eat.
For me, culture shock has been the experience of going from being an articulate, self-confident member of society to an incompetent outsider without the ability to express my ideas and feelings fluently. Food has been a big part of that, not because I can't find my favourite flavour of potato chips but because my inability to do something as basic as feed myself unassisted reinforces to me how profoundly my sense of self is challenged by my shift from independence to dependence. Furthermore the "common sense" and ideas about logic I inherent from my home culture often don't make sense in Japan, and the frustration of being unable to communicate something that seems obvious to oneself leads, probably more than anything else, to some of the more hostile thoughts expats experience about Japan. In my case this is often tied to food. In my university days I visited the same cafe several times a week, and always ordered a hot sandwich that contained an omelet, bacon and lettuce. Each time I asked for it without the bacon, and each time I was served by a different staff member we had to go through the same lengthy argument about whether this was possible:

                                      "But it comes with bacon."
                                      "I'll pay the same amount, I just don't want the bacon."
                                      "But it is a bacon sandwich, I can't make it without bacon."
                                      "Look, make it like you always would, but when you get to the bit where
                                        you put the bacon in, just don't."
                                      "I'll have to ask the manager."

Every. Single. Time. Sometimes the staff member would flat out refuse, stating categorically that it was impossible then furiously back-tracking when I pointed out that I had ordered the same thing about a hundred times, so that seemed unlikely. Others tired to intuit what I "really" meant, and would dice the bacon and mix it into the omelet. Others served it on the side. What to me seemed like a simple request that was self-explanatory caused a great deal of stress and confusion to the cafe staff. "Culture shock" is a concept and experience that is widely misunderstood, as Sarah passionately expresses in this post:
 It seems to me that seeking out cultural differences and appreciating them serves no purpose other than to create a comforting distance between the two cultures being compared. It also seems to be something that Japanese people like to do frequently. It's reassuring. It defines the person who is differentiating as being on one side of a divide, while I (the other) reside on the other side. Separate. Isolated. Different. Its a frustrating situation to experience and after constance bombardment, it begins to wear down on your defences. Just as McNeil sad: "When people constantly point out differences, it feels almost like you're isolated, like you're being pushed away." 

Its a little disconcerting when you make a huge gesture like moving across the globe to live in another country so you can work at a school, and your co-workers fail to understand the stress this can take on an individual, refusing to acknowledge the possibility that I could experience periods of high stress, even distress, known as "culture shock," but rather that this "culture shock" is the experience of petty and sometimes offensive cultural differences which can also take the form of cultural stereotypes.
I've written about the same thing, actually, although from a slightly different point of view:
The trope of “she seemed so totally different from me, but then we discovered that we both loved ice-cream, so I guess really we’re the same!” is incredibly frustrating in its trivialisation of difference. An American kid eating a sandwich while a Japanese kid eats an onigiri isn’t emblematic of cultural difference, it’s window dressing. The differences that cause conflicts, misunderstandings and international tensions are differences in world view, different priorities and different ways of assigning responsibility. Bread versus rice is not why the world is more suspicious of post-war Japan than it is of post-war Germany.
One girl had done a short home stay in New Zealand. She related her surprise when her host mother told her to turn the lights out and go to sleep at eleven pm. Thinking that this was a peculiarity of her host family, she checked around the town and discovered that in fact, going to sleep by eleven was normal for thirteen-year-olds. She pointed out in her speech that it would be impossible to complete the daily schedule normal in Japan without staying up until one or two am at least. If one were to unpack this, some really deep-seated and interesting differences in educational systems, the role children play in society and beliefs about health, wellbeing and parenting would emerge.
 Food taps into something behind the rational, a deep place of raw emotions. The comfort of whatever it was your mother fed you when you were a sick child has as much to do with your memories of nurturing and care as with any health benefits of the food itself, whether it be chicken noodle soup, okayu or in my case ladyfinger biscuits. Or perhaps I should say cookies? It stands to reason, then, that the inability to understand the available foods or obtain food that makes sense to you provokes the very opposite of "comfort". If you are newly arrived in a strange land, dear reader, be kind to yourself. It passes. You'll figure it out. What seems strange and unfamiliar now may become your go-to comfort food in a few years! To return to Eryk:
I was recently in Paris, where I don’t speak a word of what they’re talkin’. I didn’t understand why I had to pay 18 euros for a ham sandwich (and not even get the top slice of bread). It was a beautiful city but it was also impenetrably dense with a culture and customs I couldn’t grasp. I knew how to eat brie and baguettes, and did so until I was sick. I spent one day walking around refusing to eat until I found a place that made sense to me, my blood sugar contributing to an internal monologue that would have had me banned from most online forums.
I ended up walking into a Japanese restaurant, where I was greeted with irrashaimase, and I could order the food in a language I understood in a manner I understood and could make small talk with a waitress from Hakodate. I ate a plate of yaki soba in Paris, and made everyone smile when I said gochisou sama deshita.

This post is my contribution to the J-Bloggers' Carnival. Please visit http://sopheliajapan.blogspot.jp/2014/11/comfort-j-bloggers-carnival-3.html and check out all of the wonderful participants!
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Comfort: J-Bloggers' Carnival #3

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Welcome to the third J-Bloggers' Carnival, and our first autumn edition. The theme this time was "Comfort", and I am delighted to share a wide range of takes on the topic.

Paul write about missing the scent of autumn in Japan at

Paul a.k.a Blue Shoe, was an ALT on the JET Program in Hyogo from 2008-2011. For the past five years he's been blogging about both the odd and mundane of life in Japan. Be sure to check out www.jadij.com for anecdotes, Japanese study tips, and general Japan-related musings and news.

Jamie  wonders what makes a comfortable life in Japan at

Jamie is a part time seamstress (you can see her designs modeled exclusively on her), full time TV watcher, occasional movie goer, amateur vegetarian chef, part time Master's student and bookworm.  Frequently she gets lost in Japan and when not embarrassed blogs about it at http://japansstyle.blogspot.jp/.  She lives in Tokyo and is currently planning her wedding.

Chicchai Mitsu shared her daily comforts at

Stacey writes about the pleasures of autumn in Japan at

Stacey is an Australian, slightly forgetful mother of three boys living in Kobe. On top of working full time, she writes her own blog Can the kids speak Japanese? and for the KA mothers blog. What is KA? Just a bunch of kick-arse foreign mothers living in Japan and coping as well as we can!

While we don't usually associate pregnancy or visiting the doctor with "comfort", Life in Japan With Toddlers shows that in Japan these things can coincide at

My contribution actually looks at discomfort, just because I am contrary! I wrote about the role of food in culture shock.

For more posts of autumny goodness, check out




A huge thank-you to everyone who participated, I hope to see you again for the next carnival!
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Sunday, 5 October 2014

J-Bloggers’ Carnival 3, Autumn Edition: Call for Submissions

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Photo Source (Before text was added)
The theme for the next carnival is “Comfort”, and submissions are welcome from anyone up until November 1st, Japan time. Never participated in a blog carnival before and don’t even know what I’m talking about? No problem! It’s very easy. Just email me a link to your blog post (or even someone else’s post you think fits the theme and I’ll try to get in touch with them). It can be a new post you wrote just for the carnival or something ten years old, it really doesn’t matter. Just add a link in your post to either one link I’ll email you or if you are feeling very community minded you can link individually to each of the carnival participants, then once the carnival is live please read the other contributions and leave a comment for them. The idea is to build connections with other bloggers, get a different perspective, and have some fun! Some of my favourite blogs are ones I first encountered through carnivals I was participating in. The theme is intentionally broad so that you can adapt it to fit your blog’s focus and your own writing style. Plus, comfort is just the first word that springs (ha ha) to  mind when I think of autumn in Japan… kotatsu, gluhwein, a good book and roasted chestnuts.

The previous two carnivals were both in spring, but my original intention was actually to do one each season. I’ve been procrastinating about putting up a third because there hasn’t been a great deal of interest, but on reflection I enjoy it so what the hey, I’ll go ahead and if participation stays low I’ll just include links to some of my favourite relevant blog posts!

So, if you are interested please email me at sopheliajapan@gmail.com with “carnival” in the subject line. If you don’t have a blog but want to contribute something I am also very happy to host it here, and I welcome contributions in any format (photo essays, video and multi-media, comics… please don’t feel constrained but my text-heavy style!). I would also appreciate anyone who can sharing this call for submissions to help get the word out and hopefully round up some more participants :)
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Friday, 3 October 2014

The Chair of Gynecological Doom

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I recently had my first ever visit to a Japanese OBGYN, and I found the experience of THE CHAIR* so weird that I wanted to share the story here. Be warned, however, that this post contains words describing "lady bits". If that makes you feel all funny, you should probably stop reading now and never again click on a link that has "gynecological doom" in the title. Pro tip.
Image Courtesy of http://tidbitsanddollops.wordpress.com/2012/05/03/gynecologists-say-the-darndest-things
So, I needed an ultrasound and I was aware that they are usually done trans-vaginally in Japan, so I was a little psyched out but (I thought) prepared. I was ushered from the general waiting room into the more private inside waiting room, which had pink squishy walls to, I assume, get us feeling all pink-squishy-ready. From time to time a nurse escorted a man through (I assume an expectant father come to see a grainy image of his off-spring), but only after announcing loudly "a MAN is entering the area". I guess the manly presence might ruin all the pink squishy psychological preparation. My turn came and I was told to enter the "internal examination room" and lock the door behind me. It was a small cubical with walls on three sides but instead of a back wall facing the wall with the door, there was a ruched pink curtain. THE CHAIR was facing the door, and I wondered how an examination was going to work in such a tight space. I stripped off my lower half, sat on THE CHAIR and draped a beach towel over my knees. So far, so good. Then THE CHAIR started talking to me in that soothing voice elevators have. "The chair is about to move. Please keep your legs and arms inside the chair and do not try to stand up" she said. The chair swung up into the air then pivoted to face the curtain. "The bottom is about to retract" she said, and the part of the chair I was sitting on dropped away leaving my bum suddenly exposed. THE CHAIR then spread my legs open and, bum hanging free and legs akimbo, propelled me towards and through the pink curtain, up to my waist. Sadly there was no music, but in my head the sound track was something like this:

A nurse on the other side of the curtain asked me to confirm my identity, at which point the complete ridiculousness of the situation overcame me and I burst out laughing. The doctor asked if I would prefer to have the curtain open, to which I responded "yes please", much to the consternation of the nurse who seemed decidedly uncomfortable about putting face-to-vulva as it were. "Foreigners always want to curtain open" the doctor told her, and she shook her head at our foreign strangeness. Behind the curtain was a small office space with some other nurses bustling about doing various things, but perhaps the oddest thing was that the doctor was sitting on a wheeled chair. After a very quick in-out examination he pulled his gloves off and rolled sideways. As the nurse was cleaning me up I heard the doctor already talking to the woman in the next cubical: "This is your baby's head, here's the heart..." and I realised that there may be a whole row of disembodied genitals on bumless chairs poking through ruched pink curtains, waiting for the doctor to roll from one to another. I began to laugh again, as THE CHAIR informed me that we were about to begin moving again. When I got home and told the man person about what had happened he added: "imagine the lab where they design those chairs? Do you think they take turns test-riding them?"

*I think these chairs or similar are used in lots of places (although probably not in conjunction with curtains and voice-overs), but I'd never encountered one in Australia so the whole thing was distinctly strange to me.
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Friday, 26 September 2014

Orientation Meeting for Prospective Adoptive Parents (Flashback Friday)

The gorgeous image is by Brett Davies, taken from here.

This is a post I wrote over a year ago, and it has been sitting in my draft folder because I was worrying about potential invasion of the privacy of the other people I discuss. After a log time thinking about it, I'm confident that it would be impossible to identify any individual mentioned here, so I am publishing it.

It’s interesting how telling people we were adopting opened floodgates of infertility stories. I wonder how many Japanese couples are struggling to conceive while feeling like they are the only ones. One teacher I worked with who had recently had her first child told me that she tried for eight years, another for five. One of my naginata friends and her husband were never able to have a child. I feel like an interloper in this world of private pain and monthly disappointments. I’ve never tried to conceive and have no reason to believe that I couldn’t. We are adopting as our first choice, not as a last resort after all else has failed, but the people around me always assume the latter. Early in our exploration of adoption in Japan we attended an orientation meeting with a private adoption agency. It was a pretty eye opening experience. Our cheerful responses about looking forward to adoption seemed incongruous in the atmosphere of sadness. At the start of the meeting we all introduced ourselves, and the other attendees all discussed the length of time they had been trying to conceive and the fertility treatments they had tried. After the introductions we realised that the majority of couples there were not potential applicants but successful adoptive parents who were there to help with the orientation. In fact, only one other couple was there for the orientation, which was the only meeting in Kyushu that year and was compulsory for applicants with the agency.
After the introductions we watched a video about the agency that outlined their policies, after which we were expected to give 感想, responses or impressions. There seemed to be an expectation that we would object to the policies, for example not being permitted to request a specific kind of child (age, race, sex or ability). We then watched a second video about a couple whose adopted daughter experienced some delays in her physical development, and how they felt about it. Again we were asked for feedback, and again there was a heavy expectation that we would be uncomfortable with the possibility of adopting a child who may be disabled. When we responded that if we conceived a child naturally we would have no control over sex or ability either, there was some surprised murmuring around the room, as though the comparison hadn't occurred to anyone else. I learned later that the government agencies (CGCs) often prefer to keep infants in institutionalised care until they are old enough to access if their development is "normal" before placing them for adoption; a policy that becomes a sort of self-fulfilling-prophesy since it is a well documented fact the institutionalisation in early life causes developmental delays.  After running through the policies in greater detail and also going over the costs, we broke for lunch.

The afternoon session was "small group time", and we sat with a group of parents who had successfully adopted through the agency. Most had brought their children with them, and the kids had a fine time playing together while the adults talked. This ongoing support network was the thing we most liked about the agency, although we later learned some less positive information and are happy that ultimately we did not proceed with them. After telling us about their experiences the "sempai" parents then asked us some questions and encouraged us to ask them anything. In a slightly humorous moment, one gentleman asked us earnestly if we were comfortable with the agency's policy that required us to tell our hypothetical future child s/he was adopted. Trying to keep a straight face I responded that a Japanese child with two white parents would probably not find that to be particularly shocking news. This led to some questions about race; were we really OK with not having a say over the child's race? One woman explained that while she was OK with the rule when it came to disability, she had difficulty agreeing to accept a child of any race. "What if the baby were black?" She asked. "I mean I don't mind, but other people might be so cruel and I really worried about if I could handle that."

In the late afternoon we merged back into a single group and the two prospective adoptive couples were asked, again, to make some comments. We said we'd enjoyed seeing all the children playing together and that this ongoing support was wonderful. The other couple said they had decided to try a few more rounds of fertility treatments before revisiting the idea of adoption.
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Friday, 19 September 2014

Vindicating My Face (Flashback Friday)

OK, my face can be kind of scary, but I've got nothing on this terrifying "training baby" doll!
The infant home we spent a couple of years visiting had a very progressive attitude toward having people through for training purposes. University social work students, prospective foster parents and all sorts of other interested parties were able to spend time there getting first hand experience of the system and of the children's needs. Some were timid and earnest, wanting to learn everything and assume nothing. Others, usually women who had experience in education or childcare, were overly confident that "all children are the same" and that exactly how they had always interacted with other children would be just fine with institutionalised kids as well. On one occasion I had a slight run in with one of the later kind of visitor.

The very first baby I held at the home was a little boy just a few months old who I shall call Napoleon, because his real name is equally grandiose and also because he was particularly tiny. While a lot of babies were in and out of care, or stayed for a month or two then left for good, no one ever came back for Napoleon. Visiting every week, I was able to develop much more of a bond with him than with kids I saw less frequently. One day, when he was about 15 months old, Napoleon was having a hard time. He was teething, he had a slight fever, and another kid had hit him over the head with a wooden block. I was giving him a cuddle but he was crying very hard. At this in-opportune time, a staff member came in with a new "observer", an older lady who took one look at the situation and announced "He's scared of you because he isn't used for foreign faces, I'll clam him down." She confidently strolled over, plucked Napoleon from my arms and spun her back to me to shield him from the terrifying sight of my big nose and lack of epicanthic fold.  "There there" she said, "you're OK now."

Actually, for a few seconds Napoleon did stop crying. I guess being unceremoniously grabbed by a complete stranger will have that effect. Before she could congratulate herself on her success, however, the "observer" copped a punch to the face (from Napoleon, not me). He punched and kicked and squirmed until she put him down, upon which he ran back to me, threw himself into my lap and buried his face in my neck.

Miss you, Napoleon. My scary face thinks of you often.
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Friday, 12 September 2014

Rural Depopulation, Japan Agriculture and the Failure of the Concrete Solution

Road through Japanese forest in fall, inoshishi visable
Wild boar foraging for acorns by the side of the road: There is so much beauty when the pachinko parlors are out of sight!
Japan's ailing agricultural sector, demographic crisis and the death of rural towns and villages are not new topics, but I hope you'll forgive me bringing them up when you read this brilliant and passionate recent post:


I thoroughly agree with the criticism of how zoning laws make the Japanese countryside look dingy and messy when it could be so beautiful. What really interested me, though, are these comments about Japan Agriculture:
Japan’s agriculture actually contributes zero to GDP because the Tokyo Foundation estimated that subsidies balance the economic wealth generated by the agricultural sector.

Tragically, real farmers, who want to grow rice profitably, find it hard to buy farmland. Greedy gerontocrats sit on their micro-plots in the hope of a re-zoning windfall, and because owning farm land exempts their family from inheritance tax. Real farmers also find it hard to lease land because lessors are worried by the strong protection the law grants leases. Furthermore, non-farm investors like public companies are officially barred from buying land. These measures are all remnants of well-meant US efforts post-1945 to prevent the rise of usury, rural exploitation, tenant farming and absentee landlords.

In short, the farm lobby is ironically destroying Japanese agriculture. Their perverse policy of using tariffs on rice of almost 800% and of being paid subsidies NOT to grow rice in order to keep prices high has been disastrous. Although Japanese rice is good quality and in demand abroad, a lack of concentration and scale is preventing Japanese rice farmers from doing for agriculture what Toyota and Panasonic did for manufacturing – take the world by storm with excellent export products.
Many moons ago I studied the influence of Japan Agriculture in the LDP (the relationship is under strain at the moment) and the way voting district allocation gives farming areas a disproportionate representation that leads to extraordinary pork barreling (more so in the '80s and '90s). It's not a new topic. I do have a different perspective on it having lived in a rural area though. Just the other day we were driving up into the mountains looking for a river swimming hole and we passed through a small group of old farm houses, of which only three or four looked like they were still inhabited. There was an old overgrown gas station and an ancient looking vending machine facing the dirt road. Yet just on the other side of this little settlement there was a brand new, two story concrete JA office resplendently modern-looking with a car-park that looked like it had until recently been a rice field. When riding the local bus a recorded voice gives information about each stop: "get off here to transfer to south-bound routes" and so on. Before the bus stop that is actually named Japan Agriculture, however, the voice over tells me that Japan agriculture is defending Japan's farming culture and giving us safe crops we can be proud of, before playing the JA jingle. I'm deadly serious.

Autumn rice fields~ hard work getting a shot without power lines or (much) concrete in sight

So, as young people abandon the unattractive (in many senses) countryside described in The Delphi Network article, how are those communities responding?

The tiny Japanese community of Mishima was desperate to reverse its shrinking population so officials came up with what they hoped would be a game-changing plan: free cows. Anyone willing to pack up and move to the remote southern village of 379 residents would get a no-cost calf or 500,000 yen in cash.
Mishima’s bovine brainwave has fallen well short of expectations, however.
“The program has been going for more than 20 years, and so far there has only been one person who took us up on the cow, and that was two decades ago,” village official Shingo Hidaka told AFP, adding the cash had only a handful of takers.

Japan needs to stop its population from cramming into the capital and create towns "overflowing with individuality and charm," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Tuesday at a roundtable on reinvigorating the countryside.
One unheralded Yubari success story is its rewilding, although no Japanese administrator would use that expression, which smacks to them of defeatism.
As humanity recedes, nature returns. By a railway station on Yubari’s somnolent branch line, a man who in a small act of public spiritedness is watering the bare concrete floors of the station building (“It keeps the dust down”) points to a Sika Deer doe in the nearby undergrowth. “Unusual to see one around here until just recently.” More deer vaulted in front of my car on Yubari’s main street the following day, forcing a swerve. Good use is being made of the return of nature, too: an abandoned elementary school has been turned into a nature academy, where big-city kids can kayak down the now pristine rivers and catch stag beetles.
 That last quote brings is very nicely to Alex Kerr, who wrote in Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan over a decade ago about the failure of the government response to dying villages and offers a different approach which he describes in this 2013 TEDxKyoto talk:

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