For this Sunday, a short reflection about identities, time and places…. when writing meets with social sciences.
Hope you enjoy it!
The need for lasting
Some days ago I read an article about a village, Nagoro, nestling in the valleys of Shikoku, in Japan.
That could be a common place, similar to any of its kind in an industrialized country, far in the East. We might think how thriving Nagoro is, how overcrowded its streets, or even conjure up a rather populated hamlet, with muddled noises, people crossing in a hurry and hordes of tourists putting their own lives at risk to get a selfie.
But that would not be Nagoro. The dark truth about it is that Nagoro is a village about to disappear.
So, at a stroke, we as readers erase all our previous thoughts about a Nagoro that does not exist. And then, the most obvious question is: who cares about a place which does not produce money? And then again, who cares about a village located in the far East where no selfie sticks are sold and Mc Donald’s is not a choice? What is the reason to keep alive a place like?
For the first two questions there is one answer: its own inhabitants. For the last one, another: identity.
When Ayano Tsukimi went back home to Nagoro, twelve years ago, she found an almost desert place where loneliness had already set in. Firstly she thought of working in the field, but no matter how many furrows she made the result was always the same: the seeds would not sprout. Hence, she decided to make up scarecrows. But she wouldn’t stay at that. She went further.
Nagoro’s current population is about 350 inhabitants. This might be quite a decent figure for a village surrounded by mountains and cliffs if it were not for the fact that only 30 of them are humans. The rest of its inhabitants left the village in search of employment or they simply died.
When Ayana discovered how good she was at making handicrafts, she decided to populate the village with her human-size dolls. She started by her own family, trying to be respectful of the features and expressions of her relatives. Later, new inhabitants came to life.
So Tsukimi has decided to populate the village with human-size dolls, made by her. What is striking is each of them represent a former resident. You may come across a teacher standing behind a desk with a dozen of students paying attention to her or a former fisherman holding a row in rubber boots, waiting patiently for his catch. If you are luckily, you’ll find someone furrowing the field or standing under the boiling hot waiting for the bus.
What is striking about these creatures is that each of them represents a former resident. You may come across a teacher standing behind a desk with a dozen students listening to her lessons or a former fisherman in rubber boots holding a rod, waiting patiently for his catch. If you are lucky, you’ll find someone ploughing the land or in the scorching heat waiting for the bus.
A matter of identity
The term “identity” is applied to a person or a group on the basis of a cultural or biological trait. As a result, we may refer to a cultural identity, ethnic identity, racial identity, among others.
The Nagoro case may be considered a clear example of the importance of the identities within a group. According to the anthropologists and psychologists, the “group identity” is considered a kind of first identity –due to a specific trait that can be easily identified among the members and that resembles to the same degree of cohesion that only a family, the church and, sometimes, the school generate. In contrast, the identity of second degree would be the one that links the citizens with their state.
According to Iris Young, up to a certain extent, the individuals are constituted by the group and consequently act with a high sense of belonging. The members are connected by a bulk of symbols, ideologies and values that provide them with security and belonging. Ayano seems to understand it well. For her, keeping the village alive, with the same attractiveness that once had is the utmost importance. And she admits putting her own safe at risk while being in such a remote place (the closets hospital is 90 minutes far).
The discursive elements play a key role in the construction of the identities. A history or a tradition helps to highlight a common difference that is necessary to delineate, and reinforce, the symbolic frontiers of the group (we) against outsiders (the others).
The every one’s story is something that Ayano cares about. In fact, she keeps a register-Scarecrows’ General Ledger-, which is displayed near her house. A notice nearby reads: “We are not like normal scarecrows. We each have our own names, our own personalities, and life stories—all of which are written in this book.”
The fear of disappearing goes hand in hand with the fight for survival. More and more, some communitarian identities are becoming more intolerant, closer, just to harden their identities and prevent them from disappearance.
The dwindling populations is a stark reality in Japan. The communities are called genkai shūraku, literally “settlements at their limit”, a name that explains quite well the difficulties they have to deal with to function as a community and even to survive, when their existence are threatened by population decline and aging.