National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Goto's stories put Japan woes in perspective

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

“More than diamonds, I want peace.”

Kenji Goto knew hell as well as anyone who doesn’t have to live there. He was a journalist. His place, he felt, was where suffering was greatest, misery deepest, evil ugliest, cruelty most feral. He covered genocide in Rwanda, anarchy in Sierra Leone, AIDS in Estonia, religious-tribal hatred on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. His mission, as he saw it, was to show his compatriots how low human beings can sink — also, sometimes, how high they can rise.

He wrote four books. Shukan Gendai magazine, which profiles them, says they were written primarily for children, in simple language, the idea being to introduce Japanese children to children in other places living lives that a typical Japanese upbringing scarcely gives one the means to imagine.

“More than Diamonds, I Want Peace” (“Daiyamondo yori Heiwa ga Hoshii”) is the title of his book on civil war in Sierra Leone. The subtitle is, “Confessions of a Child-Soldier Named Muria.” He was 10 when his parents were killed before his eyes, 12 when he was dragged off by a guerrilla band to fight against the government. Two months’ training turned him into a trained killer. What he did is no more, and no less, than what everyone around him was doing — killing, torturing, mutilating and destroying, if not being killed or tortured or mutilated. At 15 he escaped and made it to an aid station — a gateway, hopefully, to a new life.

Sierra Leone is rich in diamonds, hence Muria’s remark, which Goto adopted as the book’s title. Shukan Gendai says nothing of the boy’s postwar life. Goto had no postwar life. His mission consumed him. It drew him to wars, disease and persecution. He traveled the world, armed with pen and camera. Where possible, he helped — persuading, for example, an Afghan village woman to defy custom and let her daughter attend school. But mostly he witnessed, seeking to breach the indifference that tends to come naturally with comfort, prosperity and the sane, safe, maybe somewhat dull and dulling day-to-day routines of peace.

How long can you live as Goto lived without dying as he died? In his case, 20-odd years. His end — his execution by a band of jihadis known as Islamic State — the world knows and mourns.

Peace. How war’s victims must long for it. We know what Goto told Japan about them. What would he have told them about Japan? We can imagine people like Muria listening wide-eyed as Goto describes the peace, prosperity and security that are taken for granted here. Kids go to school, not to the killing fields. They get an education, build careers, rise in the world, buy homes, cars and consumer goods. It must sound like some sort of fairy tale. “Why couldn’t I have been born in Japan,” he may well have wondered, “instead of in this hell-hole?”

To someone like Muria it must seem like gross ingratitude, a betrayal of all the gifts life showers so abundantly on some while withholding them so utterly from others, to be as blessed as Japan seems to be and yet unhappy. Is Japan unhappy? The weekly Aera thinks so. “Why,” it asks, “are Japanese families suffering?”

They’re not, by Muria’s standards. But his standards are not universal. “The Japanese family is tottering,” Aera warns. Couples fall out of love. Work is a grind. Kids are a pain. Exhaustion, alienation, stress, depression — this is the good life?

Overworked, undersexed Japan is old news by now. The new news is that, for all the talk of “work-life balance,” so little seems to have changed. Some figures — courtesy of a 2014 survey of 25 countries, conducted by a Dutch travel agency and cited by Aera: Thirteen percent of Japanese respondents “are preoccupied by work during off-hours,” versus 8 percent of South Koreans, 6 percent of Americans and 2 percent of Irish and Norwegians; 26 percent of Japanese “feel guilty about taking their paid vacations,” as against 20 percent of Singaporeans and 8 percent of Spanish and Mexicans; Japanese on average take 50 percent of their paid holiday time, compared to 100 percent for Brazilians, French and Australians, 98 percent for Hong Kongers, 74 percent for Americans.

Work is important, and hard work can be immensely satisfying, but there are natural limits that Japan seems to disdain. Maybe it’s the old samurai ethic of self-sacrifice. Or maybe it’s something else.

“Listen,” Aera quotes an executive in his 50s exhorting a newly married subordinate who shows signs of wanting to head home for the evening, “if you get used to working late while you’re young, by the time you hit your 40s you’ll be prospering and your kids, if you have any, will say, ‘What a fine papa we have!'”

If they ever see him. Aera’s report is full of papas still at work at 2 a.m.; of mamas who must cope alone and unaided with household worries and emergencies; of kids for whom papa is a virtual stranger.

It’s not always the pitiless hyper-competitive economy or insensitive workaholic bosses who chain men to their desks till all hours. Sometimes the slavery is self-imposed — though half-heartedly in the following poignant example concerning a man in his 40s.

It’s 8 p.m.; he’s at his desk. “If I go home right now,” he thinks, “I’ll see the kids awake. They’ll have had dinner, have had their bath. Yes, but…” He hesitates. “What if they’re just getting off to sleep? I’ll walk in the door and wake them.”

He thinks of his wife. She works full-time herself; she’s tired too, probably in no mood to start fussing with his dinner. There’s this consideration and that. The work he’s doing can easily wait till tomorrow; on the other hand, his presence at home would disrupt the domestic routine.

“Home,” he muses, “when all’s said and done, is a mother-and-child world.” Sighing, he shifts his thoughts back to his computer screen. Home finally at 10, he throws something instant into the microwave and dines alone.

Once, this same man returned from an overnight business trip with souvenir cakes for his little daughter. She looked at him in surprise.

“Oh,” she said, “were you away?”

Michael Hoffman blogs at

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