I had another huge decline in my condition when I was 28…. I was swollen, feverish, and couldn’t even get up to use the bathroom. This time, my parents came to my rescue and took me to the hospital. I wasn’t living with them, so I had been lying to them, saying that I was still just being treated for back pain. In front of the X-Ray room, I tearfully told them the truth. I was checked in to the hospital that night, only to receive more inconclusive test results. I still had a fever, and sitting up in bed took all of my strength. In such a state with an unknown cause, the doctors put me into quarantine as a precaution. I spent a month there. One day the doctor came in to tell me that a test had finally come back with results: a genetic test showed that I had a collagen disease that was causing the rigidity and pain in my muscles. “It’s incurable,” he told me.
I was ecstatic. I thought that all of the alternative treatments had eliminated my cancer. Despite the collagen disease being incurable, I knew I could handle it. My future opened up in front of me after having been limited for so long. For so long, I had been living for the moment. All the time that I had spent drawing I thought, I have to finish this before I die. I can’t afford to wait until tomorrow; it has to be done today. This was the real turning point for me. I now realized how important it was to enjoy my life.
The kanji for “collagen disease” are quite complicated. They look like this: 膠原病. But I prefer to use a different set of kanji: 幸源病 (happiness-origin-disease). This disease gave me a new perspective. I had never had any interest in agriculture, but I began thinking about getting my hands in the dirt and growing my own vegetables. My illness means my body is often cold, but growing vegetables in the sun covered in dirt always warmed me up. Once I started, I began to feel better right away.
Then, I developed an interest in fermented foods traditional to Japan. Realizing that I was growing soybeans, I thought I could perhaps make miso, and if I could make miso, I could certainly make shoyu, and it kept growing from there.
My drawings also changed. When I first started, they were all about my imminent death. Now, they were about my aspirations.
The three mouths in the kanji for cancer now came to represent the new, good things in my life: one circle for my illustrations and carvings, one for agriculture and fermentation, and one for therapy through warmth. I’ve been living this way ever since.
On the back of an American one dollar bill, there’s a pyramid. Japanese society is a lot like this. The ones who work the hardest are the ones who rise to the top, but not everyone can do this. In school, I was always at the bottom of the bottom of the pyramid, and I beat myself up over it. Things like cancers and collagen diseases are autoimmune disorders: diseases where your body attacks itself. All of the time that I spent in this pyramid, I told myself that I couldn’t study, that I was scrawny and dim-witted – I hated myself. I think that those thoughts, in some way, brought on my illnesses. But from my experiences travelling and working in the fields, and through the treatments that I received, I began to find the good in myself. I discovered what I enjoyed doing.
In economically modern societies, like Japan’s, everyone works hard (頑張っている). The more energy you put into your work, the more likely you are to reach the top of the pyramid. The money moves upward, too. The majority of the money that major corporations like Aeon, Jascom, and McDonald’s make, is converted to dollars and goes to the US. For me, it wasn’t a fun life, being inside that social pyramid. Of course, some of the people in the pyramid say that they’re happy, but I wasn’t.
Later, I realized that by achieving self-sufficiency, I was in effect removing myself from that pyramid. Think about it: if I grow my own food and prepare it at home, there’s no change of hands. Everything stays within my house. That’s not at all a part of the socioeconomic pyramid.
We, my family and I, manage to use very little money. The four of us spend about 3000 yen a month on foods that we can’t grow. The house we live in is owned by a family friend, and in exchange for the work I’m doing on renovating it, he’s reduced our rent to a mere 1500 yen a month. We also have some utility bills, so outside of my home routine, I work part time at night. This way, my family can live a well-balanced life for about 80,000 yen a month. In the economic sense, we’re poor, but we’re rich in happiness.
When I was inside that pyramid, I thought that the people outside of it were the oddballs, and yet somehow over the course of 13 years, I myself have left the pyramid. I’ve only had to buy rice three times in that time, during a period of depression. The rest of the time, I eat rice when it’s given to me by neighbors. In the countryside, when you have a surplus of something, you take it to your neighbors. Everything rotates between people. Somehow, without owning a purse or pulling out a wallet, you are able to get everything you need to live. There’s never a reason to overwork, and never the feeling that you have to be more than you are.
People with goals to be powerful, famous or wealthy end up in the pyramid. Those kinds of values are inherently linked to it. But my family and I have different values. There’s a folk tale you might have heard of called “Kasa-Jizo.” In the story, there’s an old couple that makes kasa hats, and the old man goes into town to sell them, but with little success. Then, on his way home, it was snowing, and he came across these six Jizo (bodhisattvas that protect travelers) statues, and he thought, “Those poor things! They have nothing to protect them from the elements!” So he took the five kasa that he couldn’t sell and put them on the heads of the Jizo, and for the sixth one that he didn’t have a kasa for, he gave the tenugui he had wrapped around his own head, and came home with nothing. When he got home, he told his wife the story, and she praised him for doing such a good deed. But surely, if it had been the woman next door, she would have berated him for giving their hard work to statues.
My wife is sympathetic and supportive like the old woman in that story. She went out with me despite my health, and moved to the countryside with me despite growing up in a city, but every day she tells me how happy she is, how wonderful our place in the country is for raising our children. We’ve only been married for a few years though, so who knows what she’ll think down the line!
Anyway, the point that I want to make is that humans need to be connected with nature. In the confines of a socioeconomic structure, you really have to work hard. I myself worked far too hard. I started thinking, “Hey, the word ‘cancer’ (gan) is linked to the phrase ‘work hard’ (ganbaru), isn’t it?” I learned the hard way that if you work too hard (頑張る), the cancer sticks to you (癌貼る), or you pull the cancer toward you (癌張る). But I also discovered another sense of ‘work hard’: the kind of hard work that puts a smile on your face (顔晴る). With this sense of ganbaru, enjoyment becomes the foundation of your work. Enjoying your life and smiling is what brings good health. My current condition is the best testament to that. Laughter really is the best medicine, the best remedy, and my family has truly allowed me to put this idea into practice. People on the outside who have no idea how we survive surely think we’re strange, but the truth is, by living this way, our lives are so rich and filled with love.
As I said last month, if you think of anything you’d like to ask Savo, leave it in the comments! I’m going up to visit them soon and if I gather enough to ask, perhaps I can also do an interview for a future Miso Green. Or you can always email me with your questions.