Language | BILINGUAL

Could happiness be the new frontier?

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

Bookstore shelves all over Tokyo are stacked with shiawase hautsū bon (幸せハウツー本, how-to-be-happy books), which, surprisingly perhaps, outnumber the dire-prediction books that spin tales about what’s ailing the global economy and how Japan will chinbotsu (沈没, sink) in five years or less. Apparently, shiawase (幸せ, happiness) has become all the rage, as it has never before, which is a little disconcerting to a crank like me.

Just a decade ago, philosopher/writer Takaaki Yoshimoto (Banana’s dad) declared the Japanese temperament was completely unsuited to the pursuit of personal happiness. Dutch journalist and writer Karel van Wolferen has written that it’s practically impossible to experience happiness in the Japanese system. Though plenty of Japanese may disagree, there’s evidence to indicate that these guys had it right; shiawase may be the concept of the moment but it and the Japanese ultimately don’t gel. Besides, the characters for shiawase, consisting of sachi (幸) and fuku (福), basically mean honor and prosperity. No mention of happiness.

Truth be told, the Japanese have traditionally placed their priorities elsewhere, and it seems the majority of the nation’s adults would choose fumanzoku no manzoku (不満足の満足, the satisfaction of discontent) — an ancient Buddhist concept — over personal gratification, and anzen (安全, safety) over adrenaline.

Such thoughts go through my head whenever I get stuck in the labyrinth of a stalled public transportation system (read: Shinjuku Station during a freak spring storm) and witness the long, long lines of kitaku konnansha (帰宅困難者, people who have difficulty getting home) with saintly, patient faces standing around for what seems like hours. Since March 11, 2011, it has become a life truth among people living and working in the shutoken (首都圏, metropolitan) area that an earthquake of major proportions will strike. And that between then and now, any number of taifū (台風, typhoon), fubuki (吹雪, blizzards), tatsumaki (竜巻, tornadoes) and other natural disasters will occur with increasing frequency, as preludes to the inevitable sonotoki (その時, the moment of calamity).

In the face of this life truth, the primary concern is whether or not one can get home okay in order to commute to work the very next day, preferably 10 minutes before the kachō (課長, section chief) gets in. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t there something weird about this picture? Or something pervertedly optimistic? In any case, the work-obsessed shutoken logic goes like this: no one believes in the city or government systems but the kaisha (会社, company) is forever. As long as there’s an office desk to sit at and a conbini (コンビニ, convenience store) to buy one’s lunch at, donna kotodemo gaman dekiru (どんなことでも我慢できる, one can endure anything).

Chinamini (ちなみに, by the way), according to a U.S. survey on happiness, Americans feel happiest when being with their spouses or friends, and least happy when commuting. In Japan, people are most happy when they are shumi ni bottō shitieru (趣味に没頭している, engaged in their hobbies), and least happy when they have okane no shinpai (お金の心配, money worries). Rather a different outlook.

As far as tsūkin (通勤, commuting) is concerned, few shutoken Japanese have ever complained about the average 80-minute train and/or subway ride they take twice a day, year after year. A man I know commutes from Takao (yes, the mountain) to Shibuya — approximately 2½ hours katamichi (片道, one way) and he’s done it for the past 15 years. He says that, what with the mortgage and education fees for his kids, genpatsumondai (原発問題, nuclear-plant issues) and so on, commuting is the very least of his worries. This is his take on happiness: “Nannen mo shiawase ka dōka nante kangaeta kotonai” (「何年も幸せかどうかなんて考えたことない」, “I haven’t thought about happiness in years”).

What he thinks about instead, is sonae (備え, being prepared). In accordance with the old saying sonae areba urei nashi (備えあれば憂いなし, being prepared for eventualities means being free from anxiety), he says that having a little money in the bank and a secure position at the kaisha is all that counts. Plus, the knowledge that every member of his family has a saigai pakku (災害パック, disaster pack) stashed in the closet. Indeed, the bestselling household items for the past year were the otomari setto (お泊まりセット, overnight toilet kit) that includes soap, razor and underwear for the kitaku konnansha who find themselves stranded, and the more heavy-duty disaster pack that includes small bags of pre-cooked rice, bottled water and a flashlight. Interestingly, such products are geared toward the single, working person, and are totally unsuitable for sharing. Some retail staff are calling them the jibundake tasukarebaii shōhin (自分だけ助かればいい商品, the I-don’t-care-about-anyone-else-but-me products). So much for finding happiness in human relationships.

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