National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Japanese 'good-for-nothings' heart Bhutan

by Michael Hoffman

Japan is in love — with Bhutan, a supposed Shangri-La of a country nestled in the Himalayas, famous for deemphasizing gross domestic product (GDP, the standard measure of well-being) in favor of a more abstract, possibly more human metric known as gross national happiness (GNH).

Everybody loves happiness. Japan, profoundly unhappy, has quite lost its heart to the little kingdom, 97 percent of whose 700,000 people claim, despite an unimpressive GDP, to be happy. The Bhutanese king and queen, visiting Japan last month on their honeymoon, glowed like happiness personified. If the Japanese were infatuated, who can blame them?

The difficult phase Japan is going through is well captured by the young men’s magazine Spa! in a series of articles addressed to “good-for-nothings.” For decades postwar Japan had waged war on the economic front, imposing an almost martial discipline on itself, sacrificing personal happiness to the god of national and corporate prosperity, offering unstinting, unquestioning, wholehearted, unending effort to job, department, company — and for what? Twenty years of economic stagnation were raising that question even before the earthquake-tsunami-meltdown of March 11. What was the point? Where does it get you? Maybe, Spa! suggests, the good-for-nothings had it right all along.

“Good-for-nothing” — dame ningen in Japanese — is a figure of speech, not meant literally or pejoratively either in Spa! or here. It refers to people who take their jobs less seriously than you were taught you were supposed to in Japan. Their numbers are growing, and Spa! points out that even in the workplace, let alone in life as a whole, they may do better than their more dogged, earnest, competitive colleagues. For example:

Yamamura-san, as Spa! pseudonymously calls him, couldn’t land a full-time job after graduating from college, and so took a part-time position that paid little and seemed to lead nowhere. That was 12 years ago — he’s 34 now. His job was overseeing the company’s website. His communication skills were minimal, his cyber-knowledge negligible, but by confining his responses to, “Yes,” “Good,” “OK,” “Right,” he somehow gave the impression of being cooperative, a good listener, and no fool. The company unexpectedly grew and Yamamura was taken on full-time. Factions formed, rivalries deepened. Yamamura, unclubbable as always, remained shyly aloof. People who do that are generally looked down upon, but as hatred and back-stabbing poisoned the atmosphere, Yamamura’s star rose — nobody hated him. People quit in disgust, Yamamura stayed put, and finds himself now, rather to his own surprise, doing pretty well for himself. Dumb luck, or something else?

One more brief case history, begging the pardon of any reader who may be wondering what all this has to do with Bhutan.

It concerns a young man who, promoted beyond his ability, broke down in tears in front of everyone when his incompetence showed. That should have finished him; instead, it launched his success. His subordinates sympathized, respected his sincerity, went all out for him. In short, concludes the consultant from whom Spa! hears the story, the superficially incompetent employee has at least “the ability to be helped,” which may — who knows? — be the most important ability of all.

The news magazine Aera, seeking insights into the secret of Bhutan’s happiness, interviewed several Bhutanese living in Japan. One, a 29-year-old electrical engineering grad student, said two things in particular surprised him about Japan when he first arrived two and a half years ago. The first was the Japanese people’s “lack of faith.” The majority of Bhutanese are Tibetan Buddhists, most of the rest being Hindus or Christians. Belief tends to be fervent. Belief in reincarnation is a comfort — if this world is bitter, the next one is likely to be better. Before coming to Japan, he said, he’d never met anyone who didn’t believe in something beyond the here and now.

The second surprise was how often the trains stopped. Why should that happen in such a high-tech country? Asking around, he learned that the problem was people committing suicide by jumping in front of speeding trains, thus snarling the network. “In Bhutan,” he said, “before anyone gets to the point of committing suicide, he or she would turn for help to family, to friends. The Japanese are so polite, so kind — why are so many so isolated?”

It’s easy to love a place from a distance. Happy or not, Bhutan no doubt has its problems. Japan Times staff writer Minoru Matsutani reminded us of one — the forcible expulsion since the 1980s of 76,000 ethnic Nepali Bhutanese. King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Queen Jetsun Pema said many agreeable and charming things in Japan, but on that subject they and their Japanese hosts were silent. What other skeletons might there be in Bhutan’s closet? What is the price of happiness?

But those are questions for another time. Japan is right to feel it can learn from Bhutan, and the fact that it feels it can is itself progress of a sort. Twenty-five years ago the thought would probably not seriously have occurred — nor, very likely, would Spa!’s celebration of “good-for-nothings.” Failure and disaster have at least this to be said for them: They make us think — hard.