Pair log off, hit street to meet, hear real people

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Once addicted to a social-networking service, 27-year-old Lim Moon Hyang suddenly got tired of responding to instantaneous feedback from her online friends and realized with terror just how deep her SNS obsession ran.

“There was a time I was logging on to Mixi every five minutes,” Lim, a student in Tokyo, told The Japan Times, referring to an SNS popular with young Japanese. “But I didn’t really socialize with people in my real life.”

And so began Lim’s quest for an authentic human relationship. Just as she gradually outgrew her infatuation with cyberspace, she came across an NHK documentary featuring a young couple in Osaka who listened to passersby complain about their lives.

Inspired, Lim is now doing the same at the Pal Shopping Mall in the Koenji neighborhood in Suginami Ward, Tokyo, with her partner, Shinichi Tokita, 29.

For about a year now, the two have been showing up in Koenji every Saturday with a small desk and a sign that reads: “We listen to complaints, free of charge.” These sessions start at around 3 p.m. and routinely last until 7 p.m. or later.

Lim, now a student at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, says her tendency toward introversion grew only worse as she got older. Upon finding out about the couple in Osaka, she decided that following their example was a now-or-never chance to vanquish her pent-up resentment with herself.

“I had so many complaints back then I even fantasized about having an empty box to spill all my frustration into,” she said.

Tokita met Lim online 10 years ago.

He likewise had some serious behavioral flaws. Lim described him as extremely opinionated while at the same time prone toward the negative and occasionally even suicidal.

But now, Tokita said, he has come to realize he can just be himself.

“I gradually realized people have different ways of thinking, and that I can’t really expect every single one of them to agree with what I have to say.”

Most of the complaints from passersby have to do with irksome routines at work, unsuccessful romances and complicated relationships, the two say, with the number of daily visitors — male and female of all ages— averaging about seven.

Last Saturday, a woman stopped at their table to complain about the bureaucratic nature of the police and how badly they treated her.

“I’m telling you, they’re so despicable,” said the woman, who declined to provide any personal details because she is considering suing the government. “All they say is they can’t answer my question because ‘the person in charge is currently not available.’ “

Although Lim and Tokita took the flood of anger in stride, neither is interested in becoming a professional counselor.

“It’s not like we’re being driven by some virtuous sense of mission to reduce suicides,” Tokita said.

“Getting paid for what we do is just out of our character,” Lim added, saying their primary aim is just to listen. Not getting paid also frees them of any pressure and allows them to respond as they like.

“We just want people to come by as if they’re talking to friends,” she said.

It is apparently this stance that draws visitors.

Another Tokyo woman who stopped by Saturday said her life suddenly began to unravel in April when she was laid off by her longtime employer. The stress has made her vulnerable to an erratic pulse, she said.

“If I were talking about all this to my friends, my pride wouldn’t allow me to be so completely honest . . . so I very much appreciated having impartial judges like them,” she said after the session was over.

Rika Kayama, a professor of psychology at Rikkyo University, said today’s young people are becoming increasingly preoccupied with refraining from saying anything that might be considered boring by their friends.

“So that’s why they vent their frustration on the Internet, where they can remain anonymous,” Kayama said. “But deep down, they still have an instinctive desire to get some face-to-face reaction, and talk about their problems to real human beings.”