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It’s not that easy to quit

by Michael Hoffman

“If you don’t like it, quit.”

That ill-tempered remark, lately uttered by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, echoes a sentiment frequently encountered in people in authority — but how true is it? How free are we to “quit” what we don’t like?

Hashimoto was addressing the 513 city workers defying his order to come clean about their hidden tattoos, if any. Back in February, recounts Weekly Playboy magazine, a staffer at a local children’s facility flashed a tattoo at the kids — presumably to amuse them, but it backfired. “Tattoo” to many people suggests “yakuza.” Gangsters do sport them, but not exclusively — tattoo parlors are open to the general public and body art is not criminal. Like many things, tattoos are easier to acquire than to erase. Given the prevailing prejudice against them, a tattoo can turn into a kind of brand. Many gyms, hot springs, swimming pools and other public resorts won’t let you in with one. The children’s facility staffer should have thought twice. He presumably knew — it’s common knowledge — that Hashimoto’s late father was a gang member. It’s a fact likely to awaken acute sensitivity in a politician. Be that as it may, Hashimoto reacted by issuing a questionnaire to all 33,500 municipal employees under his jurisdiction — did they have hidden tattoos? Anyone refusing to answer would, he vowed, be denied promotion. Unfair? Arbitrary? Too bad. Don’t like it? Quit.

Quitting an oppressive environment is certainly liberating, but it’s not enough to just quit. You need somewhere to go. Not everybody has that. If ever an environment seemed suitable for quitting it’s the hot zone and its immediate vicinity near the gutted Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant — and yet the young Horikoshi family, profiled in Friday magazine, have decided to stay put. Why? They have a newborn infant. Shouldn’t less radioactive surroundings be an urgent priority? You can question their judgment if you like, but are you so sure you’d behave differently in their situation?

Tamura City, where the Horikoshis live, affords a close-up view of the Fukushima No. 1 plant 20-odd km away. It stands “eerily silent,” says Friday, against the mountains. Takayuki Horikoshi, 28, works at that “eerily silent” place, helping to clean it up. The family’s choice is stark — uproot and go jobless and homeless into the wider world, or cling to their home and income, hoping the colorless and odorless but pervasive presence known as radiation is not as harmful as many, but not all, experts say it is.

“Our lives were bound up with the plant before the earthquake, and as long as I can make a living here, this is where we’re staying,” says Horikoshi, sounding a little desperate. He’s not claiming to have made a good choice, only that in his situation there are no good choices, and yet a choice must be made. It’s the devil you know versus the devil you don’t. The devil you know, or at least can imagine, is unemployed homelessness. The devil you don’t is radiation, which — to him absolutely and to his wife Ai somewhat less so — seems the more manageable of the two. Ai, also 28, says of their 3-month-old son, “Will he grow up normally? What effect does radiation have on a child? I don’t know anything. With a first child, there’s so much anxiety even at the best of times. I just haven’t any anxiety left over for the nuclear power plant.”

She’s right about the ubiquity of things to worry about, and maybe she’s also right about the futility of focusing on any one worry exclusively. Take, for example, smartphones. If you’re going to start worrying about worrisome things, they’re a good place to start, suggests the weekly Shukan Gendai. Who’s watching you via your ultra-clever smartphone? You never know, is the magazine’s point, but bet on it that someone is.

Its article is titled, “Your life is on full display.” The problem is the devices’ extreme vulnerability to malicious software. “Spyware,” “malware” — the neologisms proliferate and somehow make it all seem normal; shades of George Orwell’s “1984,” where too an invented vocabulary sanitized the frightfulness of being “on full display.” The number of those whose private information — names, addresses, phone numbers, contacts, website viewing history — have been stolen and broadcast could be in the millions, according to the National Police Agency. Unpleasant consequences range from fraudulent demands for payment to a general sense of being watched, listened to, photographed and tracked everywhere you go.

It’s curious how blasé most people are about this. You’d think it would weigh more heavily than it does. It’s not “1984″ in that there’s no Big Brother, but it is in that free human beings are not meant to be “on full display,” even to nameless and numberless little brothers. Shukan Gendai puts it this way: “You can’t even have a love affair anymore.”

If you don’t like it, quit, said Hashimoto. But quitting, whether it’s a home, a job or a convenience, is not easy.