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Making work a lifestyle choice instead of just making a living

by Philip Brasor

In an effort to get some idea of why the suicide rate among college students is on the rise, the weekly magazine AERA recently sent a reporter to the Muroran Institute of Technology, where there have been seven student suicides in the last two years.

One university official blamed impersonal technology, such as cellular phones and e-mail, “which makes people’s lives less substantial,” presumably because their users have less real contact with other people.

This is a common complaint about technology, and one that the AERA reporter seemed to buy, but it ignores a larger, more complex truth about the gap between making a living and the desire for ikigai, which translates as “a fulfilling life.” One of the suicides said in a note that he did not “derive any pleasure” from his future. “I do not feel as if I am truly alive,” he wrote.

According to the article, this young man was intelligent, and on his way to what we would call a promising future. He had friends. He seemed to be set, but spiritually he was desperate, because he didn’t see anything fulfilling outside of the material realm. Thus he deemed himself a loser.

His dilemma is comprehensible because everyone has contemplated whether or not his or her life is worth living. In fact, as the media brings the world closer to us, we are constantly reminded of our own worth, since we can’t help but compare our lives to others. It is an incontrovertible fact of modern existence.

Personal aspirations and spiritual fulfillment are central concerns to so many people that advertisers understand they must address them directly, because everyone wants to be spoken to as an individual. “Drive your dreams,” the catchphrase of the current Toyota ad campaign, is a statement that, besides being semantically ambiguous, is adaptable to each person’s need for something to strive for. Cars used to be sold on the basis of looks or performance; now they are sold on the basis of a vague spiritual need. Of course, spiritual needs have always been a central aspect of advertising, but nowadays they are addressed directly rather than indirectly or even subliminally.

Before the communications revolution, one’s idea of work was shaped by observation; now it is shaped by the media. These days there is no more powerful measure of self-worth than one’s occupation, so rather than sell jobs by concentrating on the prosaic need to make a living, employment magazines use words like ikigai and yarigai (something “worth doing”) to attract young people to jobs they may not otherwise be attracted to.

Because the media encourages solipsism, even entertainment is taken personally. In the current Fuji TV drama series “Hero,” superstar role model Takuya Kimura plays a kind of punkish public prosecutor. The show is ostensibly about law and government, but it mainly sells images of self-fulfillment: not what the job entails, but what a rush it is to have such a job.

It wasn’t always that way. Only 10 years ago, trendy dramas featured men and women in sexy occupations (architects and editors were particularly popular) but they weren’t about those occupations. They were about love. The idea was that these people had fulfilled all their material needs, including their jobs, and so they could concentrate all their spiritual energy on fulfilling their romantic dreams.

Now work is being sold as a spiritual need. A common complaint of high school students who write to the Asahi Shinbun’s “Teen’s Mail” column is that they are criticized by parents and teachers for not having definite visions of their futures. One 16-year-old girl wrote that she doesn’t have “any dreams at all, and that makes every day very difficult.”

In response, that week’s celebrity advice-giver, Dorian Tsukekawa, told her that he himself became a musician not to fulfill some larger aspiration, but because he wrote songs “on a day-by-day basis” about his life.

Some people will accuse Tsukekawa of encouraging apathy, but all he is saying is that you find your way in life by living it directly, not vicariously. If a job is fulfilling, it is only fulfilling on a day-to-day basis. Sometimes you like it and sometimes you don’t. You can only hope that the former happens more often than the latter.

In any case, the primary purpose of a job is monetary gain. If the media likes to talk about the self-actualizing power of occupational fulfillment, it’s mainly because the media itself is considered a desirable industry to be in. Media people are “driving their dreams,” as it were.

Or are they? In reference to a visit he made to a prep school on an installment of “News Station” broadcast around New Year’s, host Hiroshi Kume joked that all the University of Tokyo graduates who work for TV Asahi are actually rather boring. As with many of Kume’s jokes, it was meant to express a truth.

It reminded me of another joke I heard years ago, the one that said the Japanese TV industry is made up of graduates of prestigious universities who couldn’t get jobs in the bureaucracy. If you can’t have prestige, then you might as well settle for glamor.