If you want to learn about perseverance — about sticking doggedly to a task despite the difficulties, and patiently bearing discomfort to achieve a wider goal — then Japan is the place for you.
I used to work alongside a French-language teacher in Kobe. The reason he came to Japan was his love of martial arts, and his desire to attend a dojo here. He found one with a reputable teacher and popped in on his day off to ask about starting lessons. He was told that the teacher was unavailable, but was invited to wait for him. Two hours passed and the teacher did not appear. The would-be student again asked if he could see the teacher, and was again asked to wait. A further two hours passed. Eventually, the teacher appeared, congratulated my colleague on passing the test of his resolve, and accepted him as a student.
If taken at face value, this is a good illustration of the importance traditionally attached in Japan to perseverance. A proverb neatly encapsulates the thought: 石の上にも三年 (ishi no ue nimo san-nen). This literally translates as, “Three years upon the rock.” Have you been working at that good-for-nothing company for a year now and are sick of it? Well, tough luck. This proverb implores you to stick at it for another two years. The uncomfortable rock beneath you might finally start to soften.
This is no philosophy for snowflakes, but perhaps it is an appropriate one for the present. It has been around 18 months since the first state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic was announced in Japan, and there have been on-and-off restrictions ever since. For those living in the compact urban apartments so common here, it may feel more like a year-and-a-half under the rock, rather than three years on it. With vaccinations reaching more and more arms, though, isn’t it time to receive some reward for all of our patience?
I am 40 years old, with a checkered history of medical complaints, and I finally got my second dose of vaccine last month. One part of my brain keeps trying to remind me that I live in a wonderfully odd and vibrant part of the world, and that I used to go to live music venues, night spots and karaoke bars, and it’s urging me to start socializing again.
On the other hand, practical difficulties and ongoing restrictions are trying to tell me the opposite. My 5-year-old son’s nursery is currently closed, for example, because one of the children tested positive for COVID-19. And 18 months of self-restraint is habit-forming. I’ve become as predictable in my routine as an old man. I remember my grandfather eating regularly in the same cafe, ordering the same bacon roll, and drinking the same brand of gin. “Ah, that’s old age,” I thought. Now, I drink coffee between the same perspex partitions in my local coffee shop, and order food from the same window seat at a quiet local restaurant. Impulsive day trips, crowded festivals and randomly accepting invitations to meet up all seem like a part of my youth.
“Three years upon the rock” can be turned on its head, however. The three years could be interpreted as an upper limit rather than a lower one. If you have been sitting on a rock for as long as three years, and it still hasn’t gotten comfy, then you’d better get up! Perseverance has its limits. Personally, I always wondered whether that martial arts teacher who taught my French colleague that valuable lesson was not, in fact, simply a little scatterbrained. Maybe he’d actually forgotten about his potential customer and was just good at thinking on his feet?
In short, without being complacent about new variants and ongoing restrictions, now that I’ve had my second vaccine dose, I am going to make an effort to enjoy the charms of Tokyo a little more, lest I age myself prematurely. There’s no turning back the clock. The city has changed, and compromises are necessary. When I recently stretched my legs and ate out at a nice restaurant a couple of train rides away from my regular haunts, they served me my coffee before the meal as a clear signal to eat quickly and leave without dawdling. But the chatter, camaraderie and loud “irasshaimase” welcomes put a spring in my step. It’s not healthy to live under a rock for too long.
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