I is for Inaka

“Ooo-aar!  Geroff moi laaaand!”  Is just one phrase you definitely here people from British Inaka say, usually farmers wielding pitchforks and a trail of straw flying behind them as you as they chase you away from your weekly visit to Daisy the cow.  I’m not sure what the American Inaka equivalent would be: maybe you just replace the pitchfork with a gun.

But what is the Inaka?  ‘Inaka’ is the Japanese word for ‘countryside’, and we if we look at the kanji for the word (田舎) we see the kanji for rice-field and cottage.  Lovely.

Except, not really.  See, in the English lexicon, the word ‘countryside’ conjures up cosy, positive images of babbling brooks, rabbits tumbling through a bramble patch and the burnt out husk of a car half-drowned in a pond.  Pretty nice stuff, right?  Yet watch the smirk on a Japanese person’s face the second they mention the Inaka.  Positive image it ain’t.  In fact, it’s something of a derogatory term.  ‘The Sticks’ or ‘Bumpkin Central’ are better translations.

And I don’t blame them to he honest.  Have you been to the Japanese Inaka?  I mean, it seems a moot point to say it, but it is definitely not like the English countryside with some shrines and temples pasted over it.  I’m not saying either is better, just…different.  But the attitude towards the Inaka does raise some interesting cultural food for thought.

Let’s take a look at a typical ‘Inaka’.  Your typical ‘Inaka’ includes a single-line rail with one train per hour if you’re lucky.  Alight from the train, and you’re confronted with the busiest part of this Inaka town: a small car rotary that is devoid of cars, a few ramshackle wooden houses, one of which may be a shop: it’s hard to tell, there’s a signpost but it looks as if it ceased to be anything a couple of decades ago.

That’s the busy part.  Step away from the humming center, and you will be presented with rice fields, rice fields, and – for a bit of variety – dirt tracks between the rice fields.  You won’t be alone, though: expect to see the obligatory old guy wearing a tank top and hobbling along on a bicycle so slowly you’ll be amazed that he is staying upright.  And the old lady with a back that goes out more than she does, wearing a hat with a rim wider than a 4-man tent.

Not exactly a rose-tinted image, is it?  And I apologize if I sound derogatory, I don’t mean to – I lived in the Inaka for a few years myself and there are many advantages to it – but this is just how many Japanese urban-dwellers view the Inaka.

It seems contrary, doesn’t it? The supposedly nature-loving Japanese turning their nose up at their smaller towns and tiny villages. Well, I think there’s two reasons for this: firstly, when we talk about ‘the countryside’, we think of the actual nature, right? The trees, the animals, the sepia tones…but mention ‘Inaka’ to a Japanese person and they are envisioning the urbanised part of it, such as it is. Which leads me onto my second point: Japanese people LOVE being big city dwellers, and they have high standards for what counts as a city. This is a problem unto itself, worthy of a whole other blog post. But this changes what the Inaka is: my other half’s home city has a cinema, 2 shopping malls, a large train station and rush hour traffic. She still regards this as ‘Inaka’. Go figure.

So it seems like ‘Inaka’ is a deragotry term for ‘Not a huge city’, or more accurately ‘Not Tokyo or Osaka’. It’s sad, really; the Inaka offers so many benefits as I mentioned earlier. It’s more relaxed, quieter, more friendly, and cheaper to live in. Just because you have to travel more than 10 minutes to the mall doesn’t mean you should count it out.

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