‘I hope,” read an email from a colleague boarding an Osaka-bound shinkansen in Tokyo last week, “nobody sets himself on fire.”
Black humor. There’s nothing funny about a man immolating himself on a crowded train, killing himself and another and injuring 26 — but laughter is anarchic. It obeys no rules. It comes when it comes. Blame it on the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, or on the endorphins it secretes, or on the sheer absurdity with which we have to cope — increasingly, it seems, as the world gets older.
We’re six months into a year that began with a terrorist assault on the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. To the perpetrators it made perfect sense: offenders of Allah and Muhammad must die — what else? Shocked and outraged, much of the world shouted back, “I am Charlie!” If the 11 dead Charlie Hebdo staffers are guilty, so am I. Fine, shrugged the avengers, we’ll get you too. Attack followed attack. Wikipedia counts more than 1,000 dead in 125 terrorist events worldwide so far this year. This is getting surreal. We really are all Charlie, this could happen to any of us, anytime, anywhere: in church, in a mosque, in a cafe, on a street, on a plane, at school, on a beach; even (who would ever have thought so?) on a shinkansen — the common premise being that murder is justifiable in a good cause, a good cause being whatever the terrorist feels strongly enough about to provoke in him or her a murderous rage. Some kill the infidel for God, or political enemies for political friends, or members of one race for members of their own.
Black humor: a senryu (humorous haiku) published by the Asahi Shimbun says of the shinkansen episode, “Innocent victims in yet another suicide terror attack.” The comparison is not strictly apt. Haruo Hayashizaki, the 71-year-old man who set himself alight as oblivious of collateral damage as he was of his own agony, was a pensioner overwhelmed by debt. The purely personal nature of his despair seems to set him apart from terrorists operating in the name of vast causes. If Hayashizaki had a social agenda — to punish society for increasing economic inequity? — he kept it to himself, hardly characteristic of suicide terrorists.
Rationality is based on the premise that every event has a cause. Let’s say the cause of Hayashizaki’s suicide was his poverty. That’s reasonable and comprehensible. But what of Yoshiko Kuwahara’s death? Does it have a cause? Yes, in the sense that she was on the same train in the same car as Hayashizaki, positioned so many meters away from him, at such and such an angle to a combustible event attaining such-and-such a temperature which generated carbon monoxide which, when inhaled at such-and-such a volume per unit of blood, induces death. To that extent we’re still in the realm of reason. To that extent only, unfortunately. Reason, applied a certain way, is not incompatible with absurdity and may even further it, a lesson Japan was forced to absorb scant weeks after we all became Charlie, when two Japanese were beheaded on camera by a terrorist group claiming to constitute an “Islamic State” in Iraq and Syria.
We’re heading into gruesome, incomprehensible times. Veteran journalist Nobuhiko Ochiai, writing in the monthly Sapio, speaks of “an era of a new world war.” That’s a long-term view. Short-term, he sees a deadly clash between the United States and China in the South China Sea as all but inevitable, with Japan, all but inevitably, getting sucked into it. His logic is tight — nothing absurd here except for the outcome: The world flung before it knows it into a situation ghastly for all and good for no one.
China’s vigorous militarization of South China Sea islands in defiance of rival claims by various other nations is based, says Ochiai, on China’s insistence it owns 80 percent of the sea in question. Imagine, he says — and it’s only too easy to — a Chinese Air Force pilot inflamed with heroic and patriotic enthusiasm impulsively dropping a bomb on an American ship patrolling the area. It could happen. Anything could happen. Reason helps us analyze events after they occur but imposes few limits on them beforehand. Whatever does happen, reason teaches, will bring consequences. Which ones, though, among the infinite number of possibilities? Mutual forbearance? All-out war? Something in between? All-out 20th-century war the world knows, to its cost. All-out 21st-century war we do not yet know. A plausible prediction: Absurdity will abound.
The gist of Ochiai’s article is a castigation of the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for naive recklessness, or reckless naivete — a failure to grasp the absurd that can only contribute to it. Abe’s current bid to remilitarize Japan to support American global policies is rooted, Ochiai argues, in an exaggerated unspoken faith in America’s reciprocating by defending, say, the disputed Senkaku Islands against Chinese occupation. The issue is conspicuously absent, he notes, from parliamentary debate on pending legislation to weaken Constitutional restrictions on the Self-Defense Forces. “Why,” he asks, “doesn’t anyone in Japan clarify the point with the American side?” Because, he says, answering his own question, “we’re afraid to learn the truth.” About that and a lot of other things.
Sleep would be a refuge, but it grows increasingly elusive — in Japan especially, says the weekly Shukan Gendai in a piece that links lack of sleep to ailments physical and mental, from the deadliest disease, cancer, to the most absurd, dementia.
So much happens to us that it’s hard to believe we spend a third of our lives asleep. At least we’re supposed to. The Japanese are among the developed world’s worst sleepers. A 2014 OECD survey ranked Japan 25th among 26 countries analyzed. Japanese sleep on average 7 hours 43 minutes a night, far, far behind world leader New Zealand (8 hours 46 minutes) and the runner-up U.S. (8 hours 36 minutes).
The sleep experts Shukan Gendai speaks to describe a kind of war within the body between sleep hormones and stress hormones, the latter gradually gaining the upper hand. You have to wonder how Americans manage to sleep so well, given the weight of their country’s global responsibilities, so much greater than Japan’s. As Japan’s increases, a proportionate increase in insomnia seems a reasonable hypothesis. Then what?
Neurologist and sleep therapist Takuro Endo, in his talk with the magazine, makes a point with implications beyond the immediate issue. It has been made by others, but it bears repeating. Humans evolved, he observes, in settings and under circumstances so radically different from anything we know today that it’s no wonder we’re at sea, drifting ever deeper.
Michael Hoffman blogs at www.michael-hoffman-18kh.squarespace.com.