National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Tales from the city show cracks in the system

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

Why are people unhappy? Think back to just about any historical period you like, from the remote past to times within living memory; imagine people then looking at us now and saying, “How dare you be unhappy? You haven’t earned the right!”

It’s hard to deny they’d have a point. We have peace, a high standard of living, relatively good health, long life, inexhaustibly abundant and endlessly varied entertainment, and of course mass technological empowerment that would have left any strutting god-king of old utterly aghast at what the meanest of us can do at the twitch of a thumb (which soon won’t be necessary as the power of brainwaves are harnessed).

How would we justify our unhappiness — for unhappiness abounds — to past generations who had far better cause than we to know life’s misanthropy and yet carried on regardless, grateful for what crumbs of joy they could wrest from their sullen, angry gods?

We might begin with the observation that our many blessings may be less blessed than they appear. We have peace, yes, but can it last? Regional tensions suggest the danger of taking it for granted, and the capture of a Japanese hostage in Syria last month seemed to shrink the physical distance shielding us from a ghastly, feral conflict.

The high standard of living is a fact, but an equivocal one — not all reap its fruits. Naturally, perhaps. A highly competitive society spawns winners and losers, and the losers may well be unhappy. Whether their unhappiness is an indictment of the competitive society is no easy question. The weekly Spa! does not pose it in so many words, but in a feature titled “The ‘povertization’ (hinkonka) of the young,” it portrays a kind of despair that begs the question: How have these bleak circumstances survived and even spread in defiance of the most stunning progress the human race has ever achieved?

One blunt answer might be that no amount of progress will ever inoculate us against our proven and seemingly limitless capacity to screw up our lives. Less curmudgeonly explanations would assign varying degrees of blame to an imperfect or uncaring society. Spa! sketches some case histories. This one, for instance:

“Yuki,” 29, has known better times. He completed vocational school and found work in the nightlife sector, earning as a nightclub host a princely ¥500,000 a month. Whatever made him leave? A brush with police. The infringement was minor and he was never indicted, but, briefly in handcuffs, he saw himself as he imagined his parents would see him and burst into tears.

This wouldn’t do, he decided. He would reform, go straight, join the conventional workaday economy. Not easy! The conventional workaday economy is less than welcoming to a young man with modest education, few skills and no work experience he’d dare boast of. So it was one wretched part-time job after another, until at last, his bank balance near zero, he took an opening with a clothing shop chain that promised — not yet; eventually — full-time status.

Meanwhile his boss is a woman younger than himself who takes every opportunity to berate, belittle and humiliate him in front of the rest of the staff. What should he do? Hold out, put a clamp on his tongue? Or let it loose on his tormentor, tell her what he thinks of her, and walk out? How satisfying the latter would be, and how mortifying the former! Alas, the satisfaction would not be lasting. And so Yuki grinds on, hoping against hope that the mortification won’t be either.

The story of “Mika” shows that women too fall through the cracks. She’s 28 and living — sheltering, rather — in manga cafes. She’s a university graduate and used to work in finance. She quit to get married. Her husband turned abusive. Divorced at last, she found her old career closed to her and settled for part-time work, whatever she could find. She moved back with her parents and encountered domestic violence — from her brother, of all people. “Anything rather than this,” she thought, and hit the streets, sleeping rough. But it’s pretty scary out there for a young woman. Dubious men leered, begged, threatened. Manga cafes offered protection. She looks into the future and sees emptiness, but holds on to this bleakly consoling thought: “It’s better here than at home.”

Maybe it starts with childhood. The Asahi Shimbun earlier this month ran a story about “day care centers without playgrounds.” What’s a day care center without a playground? The charges are three and four years old. If they can’t play at their day care center, where can they play? Indoors? You call that playing?

Small children need to move, fling themselves about; their growing bodies demand air, open spaces, activity — as anyone who has ever been a child knows. The Asahi quotes experts who cite the declining number of steps urban children take in the course of a day — from 10,000 to 12,000 around 30 years ago to 5,000 nowadays. That suggests a kind of stunting that may well predispose us to frustration and unhappiness.

Day care demand is growing: Many centers are opening in multipurpose high-rises. Municipal parks are few and crowded: Neighbors, often aging, retired and home all day, are increasingly touchy about noise. Fortunately there is no end of electronic devices that keep kids quietly busy — or maybe just quiet.

Is there no place in today’s society for children and their childishness, their noise, their anarchic vigor? The weekly Shukan Post takes up the theme in an article about the increasing strictness of rules in public parks. A reporter happens upon some junior high school kids in a Tokyo park, clustered around a bench fiddling with their cell phones.

“How come you’re not playing ball or something?” he asks them. The kids point to signs posted around the park: “No ball-playing. No bicycle riding. No loud voices.” It makes you want to scream.

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