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Japan needs a little Cuban-style happiness


A Japanese journalist in Cuba sees decaying buildings and undernourished citizens and wonders, “Why aren’t these people depressed? Why, on the contrary, do they seem positively happy?”

She asks around: “What’s the secret?” To which one wag replies, “There’s no order-in pizza here; we can’t become hikikomori.”

So hikikomori is known even in distant Cuba. It’s as Japanese as anime and manga. It refers to a pathological withdrawal from all social activities into the solitary security of one’s own room, often for years, sometimes for life. It’s alarmingly widespread in Japan — 700,000 hard-core cases and an additional 1.5 million considered borderline, government figures for 2010 show. Many live on ordered-in food, hence the joke. To indulge in misery you need wealth, infrastructure. Cubans have neither. They can’t afford to be depressed.

So they’re happy, and Japan — materially blessed, relatively speaking, despite its sputtering economy — must watch the party from outside, wondering why it wasn’t invited.

Maybe the relentless pursuit of economic growth precludes happiness. Happiness is the price you pay, rather than the prize you claim, for prosperity. That seems to be the inference journalist Makiko Saito draws from her travels in Cuba, which she describes in the weekly magazine Aera.

She cites as supporting evidence the Happy Planet Index compiled in 2009 by Britain’s New Economics Foundation — not strictly a national happiness ranking, for it factors in environment-friendliness as well as personal satisfaction (which is one reason the U.S. ranked 114th), but still a measure, however imperfect, of well-being. Cuba ranked 7th, Japan 75th. Nine of the Top 10 happy countries are Latin-American, led by Costa Rica in first place. Himalayan Bhutan, famous for its stress on “Gross National Happiness” at the expense of Gross National Product and for surveys showing 97 percent of its citizens consider themselves happy, placed 17th.

The average Cuban wage as of 2009 was a miserable ¥1,500 a month. But education and medical care are free, and a food rationing system guarantees everyone the bare satisfaction of basic needs. Hotels, restaurants and cellphones are beyond most Cubans’ means, but love, Saito finds, flourishes. Men and women mingle with a free-and-easiness scarcely imaginable in a depressingly postsex Japan. A glance leads to a smile, a smile to a date, a date to … Well, you know. It used to happen here, too, but somehow doesn’t much any more.

Bhutan’s happiness seems very different from Cuba’s, though similarly grounded in economic weakness. Late last year, when Bhutan’s king and queen paid Japan a visit and Japan went through a brief spell of Bhutan-envy, Aera interviewed some Bhutanese residents here and heard from one how surprised he was at the Japanese people’s lack of religious faith. Faith, mutual help and close social bonds, he said, rather than love as the Cubans experience it, underpin Bhutan’s happiness.

Any discussion of Japan today is bound to come back to the events of March 11. Disaster on that scale changes everything. Some changes are clear, some not. Some are immediate, others embryonic. Most are for the worse. Some may be for the better. A dash of Cuba, a hint of Bhutan in Japan’s psychological makeup wouldn’t hurt. Are they in evidence?

To deal with faith first. Journalist Kandai Ogawa discussed this in Shukan Asahi magazine last month. Not only schools and public buildings but temples too opened their gates to disaster refugees. Curiously enough, priests Ogawa speak to are quick to downplay the religious impulse in their relief work. “I didn’t think to myself, ‘As a man of the cloth I must do something,’ ” says Kenya Honda, chief priest of the Baikeiji temple in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. “It just so happened that the temple escaped damage, and so we took people in. We could hardly turn them away. If it was my house and I wasn’t a priest, I’d have done the same.”

Still, “The temple was heaven,” says Kazuhiko Abe, a 54-year-old local who spent three months at Baikeiji. “I lost my home and my job in the earthquake, but what the temple did for me gives me something happy to remember.”

“Happy” is not “religious” — or maybe it is, against a catastrophic background. Another priest, having visited numerous shelters as a volunteer, said, “At schools and public buildings, refugees who had lost families and property were terribly on edge. Sometimes fights broke out. But at the temples, harmony reigned — maybe,” he adds, “because the Buddha was there.”

As for social ties in general, a once relatively obscure Japanese word is lately on everyone’s lips — kizuna, meaning precisely the old communal, familial and comradely bonds that the pressures of modern life seemed to have severed but which resurged in the face of the worst calamity most Japanese now living have ever imagined, let alone been through. The weekly Josei Seven reports sharp rises in marriages, purchases of “two-generation homes” for extended families and of appliances such as espresso machines and home bakeries, suggesting domestic intimacy is gaining the upper hand over wining and dining out and the like.

It will be interesting to ask Cubans and Bhutanese a year from now how they view Japan. Maybe what springs to mind then will not be hikikomori and other forms of isolation.