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Is Japan as busy as it first seems?


Are things what they seem? Can you tell a book by its cover? Does the face reveal the heart? Does your appearance give you away?

It does indeed, says brain researcher Yuji Ikegaya, writing in Shukan Asahi.

Your deepest secrets are written all over your face. Why otherwise, he asks, would the human brain be as sensitive as it is to faces? Sensitivities evolve because they’re useful, meaningful. When you look at a face and think to yourself, “He’s trustworthy; she’s weird; he’s a gentle, fatherly sort,” you won’t always be right, but you will be often enough, researchers increasingly believe, to give the lie to King Duncan’s observation in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”: “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.”

There is an art — or is it science? For example, just before an election, show candidates’ photos to politically innocent children and ask them who they’d choose to be captain of the ship they’re sailing on. They’ll pick winners, Ikegaya says, roughly 70 percent of the time.

With that in mind, you might take up this challenge: Next time you’re on a commuter train, examine the faces of the suited, briefcase-toting hordes and see if you can pick out the “office NEETs” among them. What’s an office NEET? NEET means “not in employment, education or training” — not in anything; idle. The term was coined in Britain in the late 1990s and spread to Japan in the early 2000s, when NEETism here was becoming a serious social problem. It remains one today. “Office NEET” seems an oxymoron, and yet it describes no less than 8.5 percent of the workforce — 4.65 million people — according to government statistics quoted by the magazine Spa!. They are workers with no work, employees with nothing to do.

Why would companies hire people they have no jobs for? They don’t intend to, obviously, but the frenzied scramble for a share of a shrinking economic pie leaves no time for the intensive on-the-job training that once characterized the Japanese workplace, and rookies are left to muddle through on their own. Some can, some can’t. Those who can’t, languish and fade — not quite out of existence, but close.

It beats unemployment, but it can be terribly humiliating. A 32-year-old accountant interviewed by Spa! has been an office NEET for 10 years. He’s given insultingly elementary tasks to perform, and drags them out as long as he can in order to at least look busy. The futility of it all is enervating, and he despairs as he feels his skills draining away. One wonders why he doesn’t do something about it, take some action — rebel, quit, go berserk, anything. His failure to do so may suggest the character deficiency that landed him in this wretched plight to begin with.

Then there’s the 28-year-old man in his firm’s planning department who, after five years of being ignored and given nothing to do, took to spending time in the washroom playing games on his cellphone. His presence had gone unnoticed; not so his absence. “Listen,” his boss said to him one day, “unless you’re sick, don’t go to the john so much. It doesn’t look good.”

“It was the only place I felt human,” the man laments to Spa!, “and they took it away from me.”

It’s awful what goes on in those beehive structures called office buildings, the secret lives and living deaths that unfold beneath the veneer of perpetual, purposeful, exhausting but tireless activity. Meet “Kawada-san.” He’s an office NEET too, but proud, triumphant. At age 37, he’s risen to section head, and seems destined to rise higher. He admits to being quite useless, but he’s a likable guy and a good delegator. If nobody can credit him with any notable achievement, there are no debacles to lay at his feet either, and his life sails smoothly on, as life always does, or seems to, for some lucky people. Taking whatever life throws at you and making the best of it is a talent in itself. If you have it, you’ll go far.

Idleness in these busy times comes in many forms. You won’t detect it in the face of a 30-year-old housewife profiled in the women’s weekly Shukan Josei, because her face is not to be seen — she never leaves the house. She doesn’t need to, and that’s the point — that in an age of hyper-convenience things have perhaps grown a trifle too convenient.

The woman, however, is quite pleased with what she calls her “good-for-nothing lifestyle.” Before she married, she worked in sales and was busy enough, but as a full-time housewife there’s no need to lift a finger, so why bother? Doing housework is superfluous because “it’s just the two of us so the house doesn’t get dirty.” Once every three days she puts a load of laundry through the machine. Cooking? Her husband as a bachelor lived on convenience-store bentō lunch boxes. The instant cooking he comes home to now seems a step up and is much appreciated — at least it’s hot.

The wife shops online, banks online, socializes online. Her home is her castle, and there she reigns supreme, supremely content. “It came as something of a shock,” she says laughing, “when one day I suddenly realized that in the whole of the past year I had worn shoes exactly twice.”

Japan’s looks nothing if not busy. Could Ikegaya, the brain researcher and face reader, detect the idleness beneath the surface? Can you?