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Still dreaming of an end to household drudgery

by

Special To The Japan Times

As amazing as technology’s ability to solve our problems is its inability to solve our problems. (Its tendency to create new problems is a subject best left for another day.)

Last month the Asahi Shimbun Globe supplement heralded “the day housework is no more.” We’re almost there. One article among several is titled “My butler is a robot.” Those few short words usher us simultaneously backward and forward in time — backward to an age when the poor served the rich, forward to a universal aristocracy, living like lords without exploiting or demeaning anyone.

“The technology is evolving rapidly,” the writer notes, stating the obvious, and it won’t be long, surely, before robots release us altogether from whatever drudgery remained to plague us after indoor plumbing, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, rice cookers and so on liberated us from the worst of it beginning a century or so ago.

The present is not quite the future, of course, and working couples return exhausted at night to houses that still need a degree of looking after, but houseworklessness is so nearly within reach, along with countless other jagged-edge-softening improvements, facilitations and automations of processes that persist in demanding human time and effort — though less and less — that we can at least begin to imagine the utopia that lies ahead.

Timelessness and effortlessness! Only our jobs will drain us, as long as there are still jobs to do. What we’ll do with ourselves when there aren’t is a problem for the 22nd century to solve. By then, no doubt, means and ends will have “evolved” so far beyond present conceptions that speculation is useless.

Here, in short, stands humankind on the cusp of a revolution of overwhelming implications. Just a little farther and we’re there. We’ve come very far already. The utopian visions that proliferated beginning with the first and most famous of them all, Thomas More’s “Utopia” (1516), are dirt and squalor compared to what even we have attained, let alone what our children and grandchildren will take for granted. Will they hope and dream and strive to attain better? Or will they have acquired the wisdom to simply bask in their blessings?

Well, anyway. Time to bring this flight of New Year’s fancy thudding back to Earth. It’s easy; the weekly Shukan Josei paves our earthward trajectory.

“The anger of housewives” is its theme. Housewives, it turns out, are very angry indeed: “In an impromptu poll of 200 of our readers” — this is primarily a women’s magazine — “more than 70 percent declared themselves angry right now!” Less exclamatorily, to the question “Have you felt anger this year (2015)?,” 75.6 percent said “yes.” The next question, naturally, is, “At what, or who?” The top six responses, in descending order, are: husband, kids, the world in general, parents, mothers-in-law, neighbors.

The famous French proverb will surely be dancing before the reader’s eyes: “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” The more we progress, the more we stagnate. There are over 60,000 centenarians in Japan (their longevity itself a symbol of breathtaking progress), 87 percent of them women. It would be interesting to poll them, asking, “Does this sound familiar to you?” What else could they say but, “The more things change …”?

Husbands, kids … husbands above all. What an impossible species! “I tell him over and over again: ‘When you’ve used something, put it back! When you’ve eaten, clean up after yourself!’ I may as well be talking to the wall!” “I talk to him and he totally ignores me.” “He tells our kid not to play computer games or watch TV during meals — but he plays computer games and watches TV during meals!” Such are the complaints of wives — who, as mothers, have still more to say:

“My daughter goes off to school wearing my stockings so I’ve nothing to wear to work. Then she comes home with the stockings all clotted with mud. The stains won’t wash out, I have to buy new ones! It’s a drain on the budget!” “My son in college refuses to get up in the morning! When I come in to wake him, he mutters, ‘Don’t bug me’ and goes back to sleep.’ Let him pay his own tuition fees next year!” Sure.

Is there a statute of limitations? Do graduation and, presumably, adulthood put an end to it? Hardly. “My son won’t get a job. He travels abroad instead. He’s ‘finding himself.’ ‘Send money,’ he emails. ‘Earn your own living!’ I want to shout at him — but don’t, and end up hating myself for my weakness.”

Imagine the knowing smiles on the faces of the centenarians.

The third-ranked item on the list, “the world in general,” is interesting. You’d think, given the ominous turns the world is taking of late, it would be No. 1 — as in fact it was, Shukan Josei tells us, in a similar survey two years ago. What happened in the meantime? Not an easing of global tensions, certainly. Nor, observes lifestyle counselor Atsuko Okano, has the domestic climate soured notably. On the contrary, Okano sees hope in the rising shrillness of household complaining. It’s a good sign, she says: “It proves that couples are not giving up.”

Many are, of course — one Japanese marriage in three ends in divorce — but among those who stay together, frustrations vented and not repressed can open up a path to that ultimate but elusive goal in lifelong matrimony: harmony; or, in less exalted language, ripening mutual tolerance of each other’s repulsive but probably incurable, all-too-human grossness.

A possible corollary to Okano’s reasoning is that with respect to “the world in general,” its fall to third place suggests people are giving up on it. If so, who can blame them? It’s just too big, too vast, with too much happening too fast for individual fretting about it to make much difference.

Or maybe that’s not it at all. Tomorrow, “my butler” will be a robot. And the day after tomorrow? My husband and my kids? Robots? Maybe technology can solve all our problems after all!

Michael Hoffman’s new book is “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan.”