The challenge to which this installment of “Big in Japan” seeks to rise is that of happiness. Is it possible, in these grim, sad, threatening times, to write a happy story without doing violence to journalistic relevance?

We know how bad the news is, both domestically and globally. In the midst of it all, one very happy episode, the rescue of the Chilean miners, has warmed hearts all over the world. Two dark thoughts intrude: that the disproportionate joy over what was after all a very small victory over death and destruction is itself a measure of our collective angst; and, also, somewhat incidentally, that it occurred about as far from Japan as it is possible to be in this world.

Never mind. The nation ages, its population sinks, its economic edge dulls, its intellectual life dims (if a recent annual British survey ranking universities worldwide is a fair indication) — but does happiness have anything to do with that? Conventional wisdom certainly associates happiness with youth, wealth, academic distinction and various other assets increasingly out of reach for a growing number of people — but is the conventional wisdom right?

What if we can show that age and relative poverty are not inimical to, and may even be conducive to, happiness?

It’s a daring proposition, though hardly new. Ancient sages were forever sniffing at wealth, insisting true happiness lay elsewhere: in virtue, freedom, enlightenment and so on. Something of that spirit lives on, well hidden but not imperceptible. A lingering recession is the very thing to bring it out in us.

Last April, the biweekly Sapio mused, “Why is Ryokan loved even today?” Ryokan (1758-1831) was a hermit-monk- beggar-poet who sang, “Rags and tatters, rags and tatters, rags and tatters — that’s my life.” He wasn’t boasting, exactly, but he wasn’t complaining either, and Sapio is right: He is a beloved figure; not much imitated but regarded all the same with a kind of wistful reverence bordering on envy.

Maybe there’s a Ryokan in all of us. If there is, Shukan Gendai ventures a tentative explanation: “People were not designed to gain happiness from money.” Humans branched off from the primates 6 million years ago, but agriculture, with its attendant possibilities of accumulation, surplus and trade, goes back only 10,000 years; too short a time ago to have altered our deepest, most ancient instincts.

Strange thing, money. No amount of it satisfies us; we never think we have enough. Therefore, says former Kansai University professor Keiji Uejima, quoted by Shukan Gendai, “If happiness is what you’re after, better not think about money.”

Not original, but the courage of one’s convictions is always noteworthy. Seven years ago Uejima quit his job. He was 56, free but terrified: “I don’t have an income!” Theory is one thing, reality is another; the latter hits harder. But Uejima rallied his spirits, and now, at 63, he spends his time traveling the world: to Ethiopia, Morocco, Armenia, Nepal and other places where the yen goes a long, long way, if you don’t mind minimal standards of comfort. Comfort, too, it seems, has little to do with happiness.

What does have to do with happiness? Three elemental ingredients: freedom, friendship and love. Poverty accepted with grace means freedom from wage slavery; as for friendship, Uejima claims his best friends are poor and that the camaraderie he finds at mah-jongg parlors and ramen joints is brighter, if not more enlightening, than learned professorial discourse.

Love? You can’t buy it, it’s often said, so poverty needn’t bar anyone from that road. But what about age? Rising poverty and soaring age are Japan’s twin afflictions — or challenges, if you prefer. The poor can love as well as anyone; better maybe. But can the old?

Yes indeed, says Shukan Asahi, introducing a couple it implies proves it. He was 73, she was 49, and what we’re invited to witness is a kind of sexual awakening. The man and his wife ran a neighborhood coffee shop where the woman and her husband were regular customers. Both marriages were unsatisfying. One day, seizing a moment when they happened to be alone in the shop, the man astonished the woman by taking her hand and whispering, “I love you.” He kissed her as she’d never been kissed before (“I thought they only deep kissed in porn novels,” she says), and they consummated the relationship not long afterward in a love hotel — another first for her. Three years later, the man died. The woman knows the photos she has of him in her cell phone could get her into trouble with her family, but she doesn’t delete them, preferring to run the risk.

So that’s the fire a man in his 70s can kindle in a woman approaching 50. Living poor (relatively speaking) and living old are what Japan will have to get used to. That’s bleak only if you think it is.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.