Why aren’t people nice, good and kind?

It sounds like a stupid question, and probably is. Still, you’d think that, having outgrown the feral competition of our “nasty, brutish and short” phase, we’d have evolved in a kinder, gentler direction — as we have, of course — but here’s a statistic, courtesy of the 2007 Kandersteg (Switzerland) Declaration Against Bullying in Children and Youth, that challenges all complacency on that score: An estimated 200 million children and youths worldwide are bullied by their peers. The spread of cyber-bullying since then probably already makes that look like the good old days.

Japanese schools, responding to an education ministry survey in the wake of the October 2011 suicide of a 13-year-old bullying victim in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, reported more than 140,000 cases of bullying during the six months from April to September 2012. The suicide this past July in Yahaba, Iwate Prefecture, of another 13-year-old boy who’d been bullied felt like him saying to us, in effect, “You’ve accomplished nothing; are you even trying?”

Is there anything we can do? Last month the Asahi Shimbun conducted an Internet survey asking, “Is bullying eradicable?” Among 1,200 respondents, 662 said flatly it is not; 196, less definitively, said “not really.” Seventy-one percent, in short, see bullying as more or less inherent in human nature.

Among children and teenagers the pessimism runs even deeper, with 74 of 85 elementary, junior high and senior high school students — 85 percent — declaring themselves resigned to bullying as a fact of life.

Here are some of their comments:

“As long as people live together in groups there will be bullying.”

“You can’t remove bullying from a society that runs on competition.”

“Everyone wants to have a sense of belonging to a group. That means making outcasts of others.”

This sounds like children growing worldly and wise before their time. A few more years of innocence might be nourishing.

An abundance of research links bullying victims to heightened potential for depression, crime and suicide later in life. Extremes aside, early experiences of this sort seem a natural incubator of excessive aggression or timidity. Spa! magazine seems to have tapped into precisely this in a feature whose leading idea is summed up by the somewhat unusual word shachiku — literally, “company beast.”

“Beast of burden” is the obvious implication, but an interesting linguistic shift reveals a social shift. “What used to be a term of derision,” Spa! reports, “has lately become an expression of pride.”

We’re given a brief history of the species. It was first noticed in the 1980s. High growth fed conspicuous consumption, which fueled the corporate machinery, which made increasing demands on its workers but also compensated them generously. Yes, shachiku’s overtones were derisive, but what the hell! The salary you brought home almost made up for the fact that your work left you no leisure time to enjoy it.

Everyone knows what happened in the ’90s: Boom turned to bust; salaries flattened, benefits shrank, expense accounts tightened and “restructuring” became a popular euphemism for axing employees, many of long and honorable standing, who suddenly found themselves “redundant” amid stringent budget-cutting.

Old attitudes die hard. Shachiku remained shachiku, but grudgingly. Beasthood in the corporate zoo seemed preferable to beasthood on the unemployed street, so people slogged on. But the old enthusiasm was gone.

The new century dawned, and its first decade saw a rise in moonlighting. A second job fed thoughts of freedom: There’s life outside the company after all. “Nomads” of the early 2010s — drifters from job to job — made the shachiku look staid and out of it; yes, but gave them power too: with changing jobs no longer taboo, those who stayed could demand respect, or else.

The economic revival dubbed “Abenomics” — how real it is is much disputed, but it is at least apparent — has breathed new life into the shachiku. The derisory implications are gone now, Spa! says. Prosperity seems to be returning, stripped now of the tendency in the ’80s to take it for granted. The “company beast,” “company slave,” “company drone” — translate it as you will — is proud to have a company to slave for, regular employment itself being seen as symbolizing a golden, or at least hopeful, future.

Shachiku are not all of a piece. Spa! classifies the various types: “the slave type,” “the clinging type,” “the family type” and so on. The slave type slaves not out of company loyalty but from insecurity, and his efforts go little appreciated — they seem too much like what they are, cover-ups for incompetence. The family type may or may not have a real family, but while on the job he is, in his own mind, “at home” — he joins office drinking parties not, as others do, to make contacts and glean information but for the sheer pleasure of it. The clinging type is not quite what he seems. His company is a necessary part of his identity, as the term implies, but with a twist: “Give him a good early retirement package,” says Spa!, “and he’s out like a shot.”

The “Watami type” is interesting. Watami is better known lately as Japan’s prototypical “black company” — grossly underpaying and overworking its employees, to death in extreme cases — than for the chain of izakaya pubs it operates. The Watami type of shachiku, according to Spa!, takes a perverse pride in being mistreated — bullied? — by his employers. He sees it as a test, and his endurance as proof he passed. He’s got guts, confidence, will and strength. Does the future belong to him? Spa! seems to think so, giving his “survival” prospects an eight-star rating, as opposed to five for the slave and family types and six to the clinging type.

A junior high school girl may have spoken more deeply than she knew when she told the Asahi Shimbun, “Bullies bully so as not to be bullied themselves.” Aggression and timidity, power and its victims — kids must get out of school thinking that’s all there is: To not be among the latter you must wield the former. From school they move up into the corporate world — to become shachiku? But there’s an intermediate phase — the part-time job that sees you through university, and increasingly those jobs, too, are “black.”

Back in April the Asahi was reporting on buraku baito — black part-time jobs. Students speak of being forced to work such long unpaid overtime hours in restaurants and stores and the like that they’re too exhausted to attend class, let alone study. They speak of being weighed down with impossible sales quotas — particularly during the traditional summer and winter gift-giving seasons. Those unable to meet the quotas must buy the merchandise themselves, or get their families to. Store managers say it’s not their fault — they themselves are under the same intolerable pressures from those higher up.

Why aren’t people nice, good and kind? That’s why. The nice, good and kind ones get eaten alive.

Michael Hoffman’s forthcoming book is “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan.”


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