This is the season of our national discontent

Japanese readers search for happiness, direction and emotional catharsis


Last week’s edition of Aera (Sept. 3) looked at the current “Age of Discontent,” while Bungei Shunju published a special issue in August on ways to find happiness. Both themes currently feature on the shelves of Japanese bookstores as well.

A story in Aera titled “Fukigen na Jidai” highlights the current popularity of “ill-humored” celebrities, such as sports idols Ichiro Suzuki and Hidetoshi Nakata, SMAP member Takuya Kimura, and, from the political world, Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara and Nagano Gov. Yasuo Tanaka. Their reluctance to smile on cue, unlike the average TV star, can be seen as a form of protest against tradition and authority, which resonates with a public that is also vaguely dissatisfied with the status quo.

Such inarticulate protest is especially vivid in the glaring and sometimes knife-wielding toddlers of Yoshitomo Nara, which can be seen in an exhibition at the Yokohama Museum of Art through Oct. 14. In an 1998 interview (quoted in Metropolis, Aug. 17), Nara explained, “I’m not making art to give the viewer hope. I’m articulating a scream for them.”

The Aera story concludes with a look at the popularity of Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro, more familiarly known as “Jun-chan.” In this gloomy age, people respond to Koizumi’s optimism, but Aera wonders how long he will be able to maintain his good spirits as he inevitably runs into more and more obstacles to his reform plans.

The public’s dissatisfaction with Japanese politics as usual and its extremely high expectations of Koizumi are reflected in the recent boom in Koizumi books. According to the Yomiuri (Aug. 11), over 30 Koizumi-related books have been published since the prime minister took office. In Kokoku Hihyo’s August issue (devoted to Japanese politics), political journalist Soichiro Tahara attributes Koizumi’s popularity to (1) frustration with backroom Liberal Democratic Party politics, (2) anger at corrupt money politics and (3) the desire for an end to the faction-based political system.

People hope that Koizumi, even though he is an LDP insider, will succeed in breaking the old LDP system because of his reputation as a “henjin” (crazy person). Tahara speculates that if Koizumi fails to convince politicians and bureaucrats to cut their own throats and voluntarily give up their power base, the public will blame the LDP rather than Koizumi and the result will be a major reconstruction of the Japanese political system.

Koizumi’s idol status can be seen in the range of Hello Kitty-like goods available that feature his likeness, including mobile phone straps, T-shirts and cute Lionheart stickers. According to Kokoku Hihyo, the LDP had sold 965,000 Koizumi posters as of July 23. In the same issue, three admen note that Koizumi (like Ichiro and Nakata) has small eyes without much white showing; they think he resembles Snoopy, while the women’s magazine Josei Seven ran photos showing the presumed resemblance of Koizumi to Richard Gere, especially in the nose and mouth.

The other two most popular political idols, judging by the number of volumes devoted to them in bookstores, are Ishihara and Tanaka. In fact, a new study of Ishihara, “Ishihara Shintaro no Kisetsu,” by commentator Fukuda Kazuyo, has just come out.

The other major publishing boom continues to be life-advice books translated from English (such as “Who Moved My Cheese” and “Rich Dad, Poor Dad”) and inspirational nonfiction (such as the new book by Mitsuyo Ohira, who overcame “ijime” and yakuza life to become a lawyer). Of the top 20 bestselling books for the first half of 2001, six were translated from English and four were fiction (Tohan list). Of the four fiction titles, one was a Harry Potter book, one was an entertainment novel made into a movie and two were mysteries.

Earlier this summer, novelist Mari Akasaka criticized recent inspirational themes in a special feature about the everyday misery of ordinary people published in the June edition of Chuo Koron. She doesn’t feel it’s healthy for readers to be seeking drama in the life of the “other,” whether it be the physically handicapped such as wheelchair-bound Hirotada Ototake, whose “Gotai Fumanzoku (Nobody’s Perfect)” started the genre, or those who have made heroic comebacks, such as Ohira.

Akasaka found 19 books in this “kando (emotional)” genre in the bookstore, all with large photos of the author on the cover and following the same general format. With the establishment of such a formula, all individuality is leached out of the subjects’ life stories, and tears and struggle become a consumer product.

She fears an exceptional case like Ototake, who enjoys considerable family and other support, will be considered the norm and that the handicapped will suffer the common fate of others in Japan of being pushed into a mold and expected to solve all problems by enduring and persevering, even though the necessary societal infrastructure is lacking.

Young people in Japan are pushed on to a set path and the only real alternative is dropping out and becoming a “hikikomori” (recluse). In a sense, Akasaka points out, hikikomori are professional children. But Japanese parents and schools and society infantilize children by robbing them of the ability to think for themselves and pushing them to simply do what they’re told. How then can they reject the hikikomori?

Part of the strong fear aroused by hikikomori, she feels, stems from discomfort with people who haven’t found their place in life by the age of 29 or 30. Ordinary people in Japan may have found a place for themselves but know it might disappear tomorrow; therefore, they have a visceral fear of hikikomori because they feel they may end up suffering the same fate.

Akasaka acknowledges that ordinary people suffer isolation and the lack of an individual face and voice; they have no clear-cut goal or passion in their daily lives.

But she scorns their search for easy catharsis in the drama of other people’s lives. They want to be assured of the purity of their hearts by being moved by a book. They want to be inspired by a happy ending without the inconvenience of actually trying to change their own lives.