Setsunai (切ない) and Japan’s Countryside

It goes without saying that the Japanese countryside is different from big cities like Tokyo. It’s more calm and more relaxed, money is not as much of a focal point or stressor as it is in cities where the cost of living is higher. Many people farm on a personal or large scale, and they generously gift their harvested fruits and veggies to neighbors, family and friends. There’s simply a charm and warmth that can’t be matched by urban environments.

You may have heard of the author Haruki Murakami. He wrote Norwegian Wood and 1Q84. He’s from Tokyo, but he often sets his novels in the countryside. I didn’t grow up in the countryside of Japan, but I had the privilege of living there for three years, and I can understand why an author would set their stories in such an idyllic area.

So, why aren’t more people living in Japan’s countryside?

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The Countryside of Japan

In rural areas, the most common types of work offered are rather low-paying and simply can’t compete with the white-collar job salaries found in the city. So young people move to the city and never look back. This is called “rural flight”.

The shrinking population of this super-aged nation is also affecting the countryside. Young couples sometimes return to their countryside hometowns from the city to raise their children as it’s a safer, more wholesome environment, they can be closer to a support network of family and the cost of living is lower. However, due to the costs of living in the city, long work hours that don’t allow for a good work-life balance and more women getting degrees and joining the professional workforce instead of settling down and becoming housewives, young city dwellers aren’t having children. This means fewer people have a reason to return or relocate to the countryside.

As a result of rural flight and more indirectly, the shrinking population issue, Japan’s countryside is struggling to survive. Small businesses are shutting down, schools and buildings are abandoned, residents are getting older without enough young people to take their place, and local traditions are being forgotten. All of this has led to a feeling of despair and loss among those who remain in rural areas. That’s where setsunai comes in.

What is Setsunai?

Have you ever been driving through the countryside and felt a sudden pang of sadness mixed with nostalgia? Have you ever felt homesick? If you have, then you may have experienced setsunai. This feeling is often associated with the Japanese countryside, but it can be felt by anyone, at any moment and anywhere in the world.

Setsunai is a Japanese word that doesn’t have an exact English translation, but it roughly translates to “the pain of things” or even “sweet sorrow”. It’s derived from the kanji 切 (setsu), which means “to cut”. It’s a mix of happiness and vague sadness, nostalgia or longing for someone or something that you can’t have, or even something that you can’t quite put your finger on or never experienced. The feeling is often brought on by external triggers like looking at old photos or hearing a song from your childhood.

origins of setsunai

What are the Origins of Setsunai?

There are several theories about where the idea of setsunai comes from.

One theory suggests that it is a residual effect of living in densely populated areas. In Japan, nearly 80% of the population lives in urban areas, so it’s not surprising that people might feel a sense of longing for wide open spaces and fresh air. Another theory posits that setsunai is a response to the changing seasons. In Japan, seasonal changes are very pronounced, and each season has its own unique beauty. As one season comes to an end, we may start to feel nostalgic for the beauty of the previous season.

But in recent years, setsunai has come to be strongly associated with the feelings surrounding the dying countryside of Japan.

While that sounds like a bit of a downer, not all hope is lost! Japanese people are known for their persevering spirits, and there are people in the countryside who are fighting to keep local traditions and areas alive. Whether or not they realize it, they are part of the rurbanization movement.

Rurbanization in Japan

There are some people who are trying to resist a certain fate by reviving the countryside. They’re called “rurbanists.” These are people who want to create a new way of life that combines the best of both urban and rural lifestyles–modern, global trends, fusion restaurants that use local ingredients to make innovative dishes, Sunday morning farmers’ markets where you can find local produce sold next to craft beer from one of Japan’s only zero-waste towns. These rurbanists want to bring young people back to the countryside — or at least keep youth from leaving–by instilling a sense of pride in the area with job opportunities and concepts that intelligently marry modernization and long-held traditions.

Rurbanists are still a small group, but they’re onto something. The countryside has so much untapped potential. Let’s see about some of the things that can be leveraged.

Why You Should Still Visit Japanese Countryside

1. Beautiful Nature

One of the best things about Japan is its natural beauty, and the countryside has that in abundance. Every season has markedly different scenery. Whether you’re hiking through misty mountains or strolling along peaceful riversides lined with sakura trees in full bloom, there’s always something to admire. In autumn, the leaves create a stunning, fiery landscape of auburn. In the countryside, these fall foliages look mesmerizing a backdrop the sky. As it gets colder, snow caps begin to form on mountain peaks around the country, and you have to get out of the city and away from the skyscrapers to truly take in their beauty.

Check out: Best places to enjoy Momiji (autumn-leaf viewing) in Japan

2. Delicious Japanese

In places like the US, “farm-to-table” has become all the rage in the past few years as we have strayed so far from the source of our foods. But Japanese people have done a little better in maintaining that connection with food, especially in the countryside. This is another great reason to visit the countryside. If you want to try authentic Japanese cuisine, you need to go straight to the source — the closer to the land, the better. From freshwater fish to succulent fruits and veggies, there’s an endless variety of delicious dishes waiting to be discovered. Every area has the dishes or produce they are famous for.

And of course, no trip to Japan would be complete without trying sake, the traditional, fermented rice wine. Certain areas are more famous for their sake as the quality and mineral content of the water may be more ideal. But even less celebrated sake can still be delicious and found in rural areas throughout the country.

How the Pandemic Helped the Countryside in Japan
Grilled ayu fish

When I lived in Tokushima, the sudachi citrus fruit and ayu, a freshwater fish, were two famous foods. You could often find grilled ayu served with sudachi to squeeze on top. I knew which restaurants to go to if I wanted locally-sourced ingredients. In fact, in many cases, the owners and chefs of the restaurant would catch the very fish or grow the vegetables they served!

I was also constantly gifted fruits and vegetables that my friends had grown themselves. I was even inspired by all of the local farming I saw around me to start my own vegetable patch, which was quite fruitful for a few seasons. The amount of gratitude and satisfaction you feel when you know exactly where or who the food you’re eating has come from is indescribable. It’s an experience that’s much easier to find in the countryside versus in the city.

Further, a lot of Japanese people became acutely aware of how important living close to food sources was at the height of the COVID pandemic. This actually helped some rural areas.

How the Pandemic Helped the Countryside in Japan

You know how in zombie apocalypse movies, everyone in the city is infected and it’s pure chaos, but a safe community can almost always be found out in the rolling, green hills of the countryside? That was definitely the vibe I got as I watched coronavirus unfold around the world from the relative comfort and safety of a rural, Japanese town. Apparently, I wasn’t alone in that feeling.

At the height of th pandemic, supermarket shelves around the world were emptied. Japan was no exception. But the lack of fast-moving consumer goods was seen most in the overpopulated cities like Tokyo and Osaka. Many countryside towns never experience this. Toilet paper remained in stock and no one seemed worried about food security because an abundance of produce could be seen growing all around us.

City-dwellers, on the other hand, began fearing for the near future as food security seemed like it might become a serious issue. Many saw the pandemic as an opportunity to relocate to the countryside and be closer to food sources. Further, rural areas in general experienced fewer COVID cases per capita as people don’t live on top of each other or commute in overcrowded trains.

If you want to read more about how the pandemic helped the countryside, this Reuters article could get you started.

Ryogokubashi, Tokushima, Japan

In today’s globalized world, it can sometimes be easy to forget that Japan has a unique culture with its own customs and traditions. Venture away from the bright lights of Tokyo and Osaka, and you’ll find a side of Japan that tourists generally don’t think about.

In rural areas, you can still see farmers working in rice paddies or harvesting tea leaves using methods that haven’t changed in centuries. You can also learn about traditional crafts like pottery and woodworking, or take part in festivals that have been held for centuries.

In Tokushima, where I lived for three years, there were pockets of people and small businesses helping the local economy thrive and instilling pride in both locals and foreigners. In Tokushima City, the traditional Tokushima dance, Awa-Odori, is highly celebrated and marketed. There is an Awa-Odori festival once a year as well as a museum at the foot of Mt. Bizan with a cable car to the top where there is a fabulous view of quite a stretch of the prefecture. A famous taiyaki stand can be found that has decades of history behind it, the sudachi citrus fruit is even the mascot of the prefecture — Sudachi-kun. As far as nightlife, I was good friends with young Japanese people who were passionate about hip-hop culture and often hold cyphers (freestyle rap battles) around the prefecture that draw decent crowds. City and town halls sponsor cultural exchange events and provide good support for foreigners in their areas.

During the seeding season for rice, the local board of education partnered with farmers to allow primary school students to take field trips to rice paddies and help plant seedlings by hand. It gave the students a cultural lesson that was also interactive while providing a bit of free labor to the rice farmers. A smart and cute win-win!

Conclusion

Setsunai might sound like a negative emotion at first, but it actually represents something beautiful: the complex feelings evoked by Japan’s countryside. This once-thriving region is now struggling to survive due to a declining population and lack of resources. But despite the challenges faced by Japan’s countryside, there are still people fighting to preserve it. They recognize the importance of keeping alive the traditions and ways of life that make Japan’s countryside unique. And in doing so, they’re teaching us all about the value of setsunai.

That is precisely why now more than ever, it’s important to visit these areas and support the people holding steadfast.

From its breathtaking scenery to its delicious food and kind inhabitants, the setsunai countryside has something for everyone. So on your next trip to Japan, don’t forget to venture off the beaten path and explore everything rural areas have to offer.

What does setsunai mean?

Setsunai is a Japanese word that doesn’t have an exact English translation, but it roughly translates to “the pain of things” or even “sweet sorrow”. It’s derived from the kanji 切 (setsu), which means “to cut”. It’s a mix of happiness and vague sadness, nostalgia or longing for someone or something

Can foreigners live in rural Japan?

A lot of foreigners live in rural or countryside Japan under the JET program, where they work as an ALT for a Japanese school. However, this isn’t always the case. Japanese countryside is a great place to live because of its nature, close community and low living cost. A lot of people choose to live in rural Japan because they like it.

How can I move to a Japanese countryside from outside Japan?

The best course to move to the Japanese countryside is by enrolling in a Japanese language school. Study abroad services like Coto School Finder can help you find and apply to a language school outside of big cities like Tokyo or Osaka. We provide almost 20 schools all over Japan, so you can pick which prefecture or town in Japan you want to live!

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