Some animals are solitary. Others live in flocks or herds. Human beings are somewhere in between. Our sociability and our economic needs force us into communities, where our misanthropy, meanness and selfishness — or maybe it’s an instinctive craving for solitude — can make our neighbors’ presence intolerable. We can’t live without each other, but we can’t live with each other either. It’s a predicament that 5,000-odd years of civilization have failed to solve.

It’s getting worse, not better. We think of police primarily as crime fighters, and yet in 2011, according to National Police Agency statistics cited by Sunday Mainichi magazine, officers nationwide handled 166,172 complaints involving family members, neighbors and colleagues. That’s up from roughly 120,000 in 2007. Increasingly, the people we hate and fear are people we know, not sinister strangers lurking in dark shadows.

In extreme cases annoyance breeds rage that turns feral and even murderous. On Oct. 10 in a quiet Tokyo suburb an 86-year-old man stabbed to death a 62-year-old woman. They had quarreled over flower pots. He said her pots were on his property; she insisted otherwise. He sprayed the pots with pesticides. She gave him a shove. He went to the police, then to a lawyer. But due process is long and the fuse is short. Seizing a Japanese sword, he ran her through, then killed himself. He was, as it happens, a retired police officer.

It rarely comes to that, of course. But it sometimes does. Barely a week earlier in Hayama, Kanagawa Prefecture, a 42-year-old woman allegedly killed two of her children, aged 9 and 9 months. Speculation is she was driven over the edge by neighbors’ relentless complaints that her four children were noisy and disturbed them.

More typical (fortunately) is this story, courtesy of Sunday Mainichi: A young family with two children moved into a Fukuoka apartment building. The downstairs tenants were an elderly couple who found the kids noisy. The parents were understanding and did their best, but it was no use. The elderly couple went to bed at 8 o’clock. There’s a limit to how quiet children can be. The complaints persisted. Finally the young family threw up their hands and moved out.

In the Internet age, the whole webbed world is your neighborhood, and neighborly sniping can come from anywhere. Each of the two magazine articles that were sources for this story bore a headline featuring an English loan word. Sunday Mainichi’s was “trouble.” That’s an old one. Shukan Post’s was new: “ego-search.”

It means googling yourself, and it’s surprising (or maybe not) how many do it — 60 percent of Net users, by one estimate. If sanity and peace of mind are important to you, take Shukan Post’s advice: don’t. An IT journalist to whom the weekly speaks puts it in a nutshell: If you get hits, most of them will probably be insulting. If you don’t, you’re left bemoaning your feeble impact on the world.

Several people discuss their own ego-search experiences. A 55-year-old manager of a new sales outlet his company opened was interviewed by a newspaper at the grand opening. The interview was innocuous but found its way onto a Net bulletin board and drew comments that astonished the manager. He was cursed for noise in the neighborhood, heightened traffic jams, even — this was the biggest shock — sexual harassment. What can you do? You shake your head, click your mouse and move on, hoping nobody important to you sees the muck thrown at your name.

A 55-year-old dentist had his day ruined by remarks such as “quack,” “uses old-fashioned equipment,” “pushes implants at the drop of a hat.” “Clearly, harassment by my competitors,” he figures.

Then there’s the 37-year-old “bijin chef.” “Bijin” means “beautiful woman.” She was a chef who was thought attractive and complimented accordingly. That’s nice. She was proud. She googled herself and read, “She’s had plastic surgery,” “She’s a total bitch,” and so on. “The bad-mouthing escalated to the point it affected my work,” she says.

Our neighbors on the Net are invisible and anonymous and can get away with verbal murder. Why would they want to, though? What is that malicious streak in us that delights in tearing people down, raining on their parades, sowing unhappiness as though it were wild oats?

Your Net neighbors, at least, you can turn off, as you cannot your neighborhood neighbors. No one forces you to ego-search. But you are forced to live, at least to some extent, with the folks fate has placed next door or above or below you. The police were mentioned above as handling over 160,000 cases of neighborhood friction. What does “handling” mean? In most cases, very little. The police are notoriously reluctant to intervene in domestic and neighborhood disputes. That’s probably for the best most of the time. How much of a police presence do free citizens want in their lives, after all?

Human nature is not simple. Each of us is simultaneously a social being and a recluse. It’s an uncomfortable mix. What’s to be done? Anyone who went to high school in the West will surely remember Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”: “Alone, alone, all, all alone,/ Alone on a wide wide sea!” The alternative to “all-aloneness” is the community, with all its demands, impositions and harassments. Choose.

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.