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Japan is as happy as it feels — miserable

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Special To The Japan Times

Who are the unhappiest people, asks Spa — the married, the single or the divorced?

The negative question is characteristic of this chronically depressed magazine, which could as easily have asked who are the happiest. Or perhaps not. Japan, with so much going for it, is not a happy country.

What does it have going for it? It is a democracy, it is at peace, it is the world’s third-largest economy, and it enjoys to the full the emblematic happiness of our time — a level of technological empowerment that the less fortunate past had to conjure up in fantasies of genies, wizards, magic rings, magic mirrors and such-like supernatural extravagances.

Happiness is hard to define and harder still to measure, but modern times are shaped by the pursuit of it, whatever it is. In 2012 the U.N. began issuing its annual World Happiness Report, and on the release of the fifth one last month, economist Jeffrey Sachs, a co-editor, said, “Measuring self-reported happiness and achieving well-being should be on every nation’s agenda.”

“Self-reported happiness” — you’re as happy as you feel; there is no contradicting an unhappy population by saying, “But your country’s gross domestic product is the world’s third highest!” All you prove by that is what individuals have long known and governments are lately learning: Prosperity and happiness are not identical. They may not even be close relatives.

So Japan, with all its advantages, ranks 53rd in this year’s report, down from 46th in last year’s. That places it closer to Denmark, this year’s happiest country (last year’s was Switzerland) than to war-shattered Syria, the 156th happiest, but there’s small consolation in that.

For a country at its level of development, Japan is shockingly unhappy. Happiest of all are the developed countries that make the fewest international headlines: Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Canada, Holland, New Zealand, Australia, Sweden. That’s the top 10. The U.S. is 13th, Germany 16th, Britain 23rd, France 32nd. Reading down the list from France to Japan is a surprising experience. Can Japan really be more unhappy than 37th-place Spain, with its 20 percent unemployment; 44th-place Venezuela, racked by political and economic crises; 48th-place Nicaragua; 49th-place Uzbekistan?

To return now to Spa. We are introduced to three characters who, taken collectively, constitute (though Spa makes no mention of any such intention) a kind of composite portrait of Japan today — at least of middle-aged, male, financially secure Japan, for the three are men, in their 40s, with annual incomes ranging from ¥4.7 million to ¥6.8 million. Mr. Yamano is married, Mr. Taniuchi single, Mr. Miyata divorced. All three are wretched.

Yamano, 42, is the highest earner of the three. He’s also, though married, apparently the loneliest: “Two weeks will go by without me saying a word to my family.” His two daughters despise him, his wife won’t look at him. “The harder I work for them, the less they know I exist.” When he does come home, “I go straight to my own room with my convenience-store bento. I come out only to use the bath and toilet.”

No wonder Taniuchi, single at 47 and living with his parents, says nothing about wanting to marry. His need for change expresses itself in compulsive job-switching. He’s a shy, withdrawn sort: “I can’t stand people looking at me. Relating to other people is more tiring than my actual work.” His last relationship with a woman ended five years ago, which seems to bother him less than the fact that his bosses find it easier to dump the wearying business trips on him rather than on married colleagues whose family lives would be upset by travel. His discontent is general rather than focused. There’s simply nothing in his life to make him happy — except maybe one thing: “With nothing to lose, I can quit my job whenever I get too fed up.”

Miyata, 45, caught his wife having an affair and the couple divorced two years ago after 20 years of marriage. He now lives alone in a one-room apartment. He got over the worst of his initial despair and began to look on the bright side — he was free, still relatively young and, with a good stable income (¥6.1 million a year), he could start over again. But he couldn’t: “When I think of my wife’s bare-faced betrayal, I can never trust another woman again.” Her deceit continues to this day: “She tells our daughter that I’m the one who wrecked the marriage!”

There may not be anything peculiarly “Japanese” in the unhappiness of these three individuals — but then again there may be. It’s hard to put your finger on — a kind of loneliness that you’re a lot less likely to see in happy Denmark, certainly, but even in not-so-happy Venezuela and Uzbekistan: the loneliness of people who have everything within reach and are defeated, or overwhelmed, by that very fact.

Spa’s poll of 600 men in their 40s inquires about their sex lives and their friendships. There seems little of both in all three of the categories under scrutiny. “Zero sex” is reported by 99 married men, 121 divorced men and 133 single men; sex 10 or more times a month by, respectively, 7, 8 and 4. To the question “How many friends do you see regularly?,” 82 married men, 71 divorced men and 85 single men reply, “Zero.”

A preamble to this year’s World Happiness Report notes a perceived connection between individual happiness and a nation’s level of social equality. Japan, increasingly, is an unequal society, its rich growing richer, its poor poorer, its riches concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. There’s that, and also the inescapable and pervasive influence of Japan’s demographic burden — the elderly aging, youth shrinking. A government survey asks young people if they look forward to a bright future. Fewer than 30 percent say they do — as against, in similar surveys elsewhere, 40 percent in South Korea and France, 60 percent in Britain, and 70 percent in Germany and Sweden.

Why are Japanese young people so unyouthfully down in the mouth? One reason surely is the hyper-consciousness society forces upon them of the grimmest realities of old age. They start out in life prematurely weighed down, psychologically if not financially, by the cares of senescence. What sacrifices will their parents’ old age require of them? What sacrifices will their own old age require of their children, if they have any?

The Constitution defines the pursuit of happiness as a right. A revision proposed by the government under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would emphasize patriotism over happiness, national goals over individual ones. When unhappy people turn patriotic by default, is the cause of peace served? Not if the past is a reliable guide to the future.

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