David Pilling’s excellent, thought-provoking book Bending Adversity tries to get beyond the tired snapshot of Japan as a stagnating economy with an ageing population. You will have to read the book to see what his opinions on the clichés are, but one of his observations is how the Japanese have an ability to re-invent themselves and recover from all sorts of shocks and disasters, including the dreadful 2011 tsunami.

We read the book on its release and since then, in our own small way, we have observed this phenomenon too. Out of 16 makers, 4 have been badly affected by natural disaster in only the last 18 months:

  • one kiln has been washed away in a mudslide,
  • another was covered in mud by another mudslide but after digging it out it didn't have to be rebuilt,
  • one kasuri weaving workshop has been flooded after torrential rain meant the local river burst its banks, and
  • one wood-turning workshop has burnt down.

Each time, strangers have turned up on their doorstep to help clean up, other local workshops have donated tools and supplies to help the business recover, and others have helped deliver fresh food and water. Each area has its own commercial ecosystem and everyone knows that friendly competition and co-operation is the only thing that will keep their traditional skills and communities alive. So everyone pitches in to help when another family or workshop gets in trouble – especially in the event of a natural disaster which can hit anyone at any time.

But all of the families affected have asked us not to highlight their misfortune. Natural disasters are common in Japan and to play up their individual problems is to focus too much on being a victim when so many others are so often much worse off. This communal self-sufficiency and unassuming resilience in the face of potential and real catastrophe is at the heart of rural Japan, and it is amazing to see it in action.

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