Clean poverty, clean living and love on a shoestring


Special To The Japan Times

Okane wa doko ni itteshimattanoka (お金はどこに行ってしまったのか, Where has all the money gone?). Until a few years back, the tone among Japanese business pundits used to go like this — a little humorous and slightly hopeful, almost as if we were all playing kakurenbo (かくれんぼ, hide-and-seek) with money, and money was proving to be especially adept at the game.

Sadly, that illusion has gone out of style. The automatic assumption is that money has disappeared and, like some runaway rock-musician teenager son, ain’t about to show up again. Just the other day, a nakazuri kōkoku (中刷り広告, hanging advertisements in train cars, often broadcasting the headlines and blurbs of various weekly magazines) proclaimed wistfully: Okaneyo sayonara (お金よさようなら, Farewell, money). How final does that sound?

My great aunt used to call cash oashi (おアシ, reverent legs), which is a generational turn of phrase, and one that she grew up hearing from her own mother. The logic was that cash grew legs as soon as it entered the house, and would hotfoot it outside at the nearest opportunity. This great aunt also said, “Kane wa tenkano mawarimono” (「金は天下の回りもの」, “money journeys the land and eventually comes back to one’s wallet”), so we shouldn’t worry too much about it. Personally, I’m more willing to embrace the latter.

Interestingly, poverty (貧乏, binbō) in 2012 has an entirely different texture from the poverty of, say, 20 years ago. Back then, the Japanese could still remember what it was like to subsist on not much more than daikon no shippo (大根のしっぽ, the tail end of a daikon radish) and a little rice, to work 18 hours a day for weeks on end, and for whole families to squeeze into 6.5 tatami-mat apartments with a leaky ceiling. True, most of the nation didn’t live like that, but there was a shared memory experience embedded in the country’s DNA. And that memory alerted people to the fragile, unreliable nature of wealth and plenty. It’s only fitting that a landmark bestselling collection of essays from the ’90s had the title “Seihin no Shiso” (「清貧の思想」”The Philosophy of Clean Poverty”).

Seihin is poverty on a loftier level, and it’s widely acknowledged that until the kōdo seicho (高度成長, rapid growth) era of the 1960s to 1970s, the Japanese were all experts in this particular field. Most everyone had basic seikatsuryoku (生活力, living skills) down — men and women alike knew how to mend clothing, fix flat bicycle tires, repair broken china, and the all-time kingpin living skill of them all: sakana wo sabaku (魚を捌く, to scale, gut and prepare fish). Currently, people who can do these things are so rare they appear on TV as celebrities.

The fact is, poverty in Japan has become markedly more comfortable and far less interesting. The homeless in Osaka and Tokyo used to have to fend for themselves now vast hordes of homeless rely on government-sponsored takidashi (炊き出し, outdoor soup kitchens) manned by volunteers. Young men who have lost their jobs via tōsan (倒産, company bankruptcy) or hakengiri (派遣切り, mass firing of temp staff) duck into the world of Net cafes and never come out. After all, for a little over ¥400 an hour, they can count on warmth and digital connectedness in the privacy of a little booth.

And those who can’t afford the net cafes? They may register with blacklisted companies specializing in the trendy hinkon bijinesu (貧困ビジネス, poverty business), which skim off unemployment and welfare benefits while ostensibly claiming to help people get back on their feet. It’s one way of waiting for something better to happen.

Still, seihin is at the core of Japanese culture, and has some sway with the way we think and how society moves. Older Japanese used to say that danihōshoku (暖衣飽食, being well fed and well dressed) will rot the nation. Young people were expected to kurō wo suru (苦労をする, suffer and work hard), for it was considered the only path to genuine satisfaction and happiness. Today, such thoughts still make some sense, and somewhere at the back of a lot of minds is that cashlessness is nothing to be ashamed of. On last year’s bestseller list is a book that depicts the life of a University of Tokyo graduate and former political aide in his late 40s, who now lives off odd jobs and does just fine on an annual budget of ¥1 million.

My great aunt used to lament the way young Japanese would give shikinbusoku (資金不足し, lack of funds) as a prime reason to not get married. “Kurō shigai no aru otokoto kekkon shinasai” (「苦労しがいのある男と結婚しなさい」, “Marry a man who will make hard times seem worth it”) was one of her phrases, and to prove it, she toiled throughout a cash-strapped, 50-year marriage. We in the family never asked whether her husband was worth it. But her face never registered anything but fukufukushisa (福福しさ, rosy prosperity) until the day she died.