For many Japanese, one word sums up their entire lives: “busy.”
. . . Salaried men and women who log in 12-hour days and then return home just in time to turn around and head back to work again. . . . Housewives who dedicate every single nanosecond to helping their kiddies squirm through the legion of tests in the entrance exam years. . . . Children who never stop bouncing from school to clubs to cram classes and back again like balls in a giant pinball game.
Being busy is such a part of daily existence that to admit to the opposite — to claim not to be busy — is almost to commit cultural sacrilege. The average Japanese would never come out with such an admission. Indeed, for many people, the words “I’m busy” seem to be the natural rejoinder to, “Hi, how’re you doing?”
Of course, this “busy fever” rubs off, and the longer they live here, the more foreign residents are likely to catch it.
Or appear to catch it. For many of us are also skilled in the delicate art of one-upmanship, as the following “busy” conversation shows.
“I tell you,” I begin, “I am so busy that if I couldn’t catch a nap on the train, I’d have no time to sleep at all.”
“Humph,” says my friend Sloth. “That’s nothing. I’m so busy that the only time I have to sleep is at the office urinal. So I’m forced to drink tons of coffee just in order to squeeze in a few extra winks.”
“Well, that’s nothing,” notes our other friend, Slug. “I myself am so busy that I only sleep during leap years. And even then only on Feb. 29th at my desk while waiting for my computer to boot.”
“Impressive,” I tell them. “But as for me, I am so busy that I never just walk down the street. I always sprint so I can save more time for working.”
“Yeah, but that’s nothing,” says Sloth. “I’m so busy that I not only sprint, I carry my electric razor and shave while I run. That way I save even more time for work.
“Pshaw!” says Slug. “That’s nothing whatsoever. I’m so busy that not only do I sprint down the street and shave, but with my other hand I also brush my teeth. And let me tell you, when you mix up the hands, it’s hell.”
“Maybe so,” I say. “But I myself am so busy that I only have time to dine on instant food . . . and sometimes without adding water.”
“So what?” says Sloth. “That’s absolutely nothing. I’m so busy that I have to suck down my meals through a hose that I have rigged to the office fridge. That way I don’t have to leave my desk.”
“Yeah, yeah, tell me about it,” says Slug. “That is total nothing. I myself am so busy that I don’t even have time to eat. I just download images from restaurant sites and lick the screen.”
“Oh yeah?” I counter. “Well, listen to this. I am so busy that I almost always disconnect the phone when I work. That way I can concentrate more on my job and keep my sanity as well.”
Sloth shakes his head. “I tell you, that’s nothing. I’m so busy that not only do I disconnect the phone, I use the cord to tie up my boss, then cram my cell phone in his mouth for a gag. Not only can I get even more work done, I stay saner too.”
“Well,” says Slug, “I have to say that’s nothing. I am so busy I disconnect the phone in every building on the block, then tie up everyone I can with the cords. Then I put Disney songs on the company speaker and crank up the decibels so I can drown out every nonwork sound. And that’s how I stay sane.”
“OK,” I say, “but listen to this. I am so busy I sometimes wear the same shirt and slacks for weeks. I don’t have time to change.”
Sloth almost spits. “Yeah, but that’s nothing. I am so busy I haven’t changed clothes since high school. When I want to clean up, I just dash in the shower as is. It’s all wash and wear, you see.”
“Guys,” says Slug, “why, that’s nothing. I’m so busy I don’t wear clothes at all. A few years back I had a suit tattooed on my body, and now I never bother with clothing whatsoever.”
“Well,” I clear my throat, “I’m so busy that I can sometimes go for days and days without seeing my wife and dog.”
“Oh yeah?” says Sloth. “Well, that’s nothing. I’m so busy that I often forget which is which — wife or dog. That’s how seldom I get home. So I make them wear name tags to help me out.”
“Ha,” says Slug. “That’s nothing at all. I’m so busy that my wife and dog up and left me years ago — for this guy who sticks Post-its on their chins, one written ‘wife’ and the other written ‘dog.’ “
That silences us for a while until Sloth raises his hands and says: “Hey, don’t look at me. I use cards with safety pins.”
The ball goes to Slug. “I am so busy,” he says, “that my high score on computer solitaire is only 6,600.”
“Ha, that’s nothing,” says Sloth. “I am so busy that my high score is only 6,500. But I’ve hit it a thousand times.”
“Boys, boys,” I conclude. “What can I say except, ‘That’s nothing!’ I am so busy that I can’t even play computer solitaire. No, I have to deal out the cards by hand.”
Hmm. Now THAT, they concede, is busy.