National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

One slip can sink a salaryman’s career

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

‘I’ve always been shy,” says Kazuo. “Face-to-face communication never came easily to me.” At 48, he’s been out of work five years. He lives with his mother, who’s close to 80 — mostly off her pension. A typical day — typical not only of him, says the weekly Spa!, but of an increasing number of middle-aged men like him — goes something like this: Up at 10 a.m., Net-surfing till noon; more Net-surfing plus DVD-watching after brunch until dinner at 8 p.m., then back to Net-surfing till bedtime at 3 a.m.

This is the sort of thing Spa! invites us to contemplate — men aging alone in tiny rooms staring hour after glassy-eyed hour at tiny screens, with little hope that tomorrow, or next week, or next year will bring anything better.

Kazuo graduated from university and got a job in finance, spending years at a company without, owing to his painful reticence, speaking a word to anyone beyond the bare requirements of office routine. Starved for companionship, he’d pass whole nights chatting online, showing up zombified at work the next morning. One day he nodded off while his boss was reading him a lecture on his poor performance. His professional life ended there.

Not his working life — there followed a year of bouncing around from one part-time job to another. Part-time work can be the modern equivalent of slavery. It takes its toll. Diagnosed with depression, he escaped, shutting himself up in his old room in his parents’ home. That was too much for his father, who one day strode out of the house and hasn’t been heard from since.

“I know it’s my fault,” says Kazuo. “I wake up every morning and ask myself, ‘Am I still alive?'” He is. He says he’d rather not be.

Hikikomori is a Japanese word that went global around the turn of the century. It means “shut-in” and referred originally to young people who, either crushed by a demanding and unresponsive school regime or unable after graduating to squeeze into a shrinking economy offering fewer and fewer job prospects, withdrew from society into the depths of their rooms. In 2010, the government estimated their number at 710,000, their average age 31 — and rising, of course. To natural aging we must, Spa! tells us, add a kind of unnatural aging as more and more men in mid-career — in their 40s and 50s — lose hold and fall through widening cracks in the social fabric, into private hells like Kazuo’s. Accurate figures are hard to come by, but the government’s Cabinet Office cites, as of November 2015, 470,000 unemployed people aged 35-54.

“In my 20s I was earning ¥10 million a year,” says Daisuke, now 55 and unemployed for five years and two months. He was a rising consultant living a fast life. Amphetamines were his undoing — “I must’ve been crazy!” Yes — well, it happens. You fall, pick yourself up and start over, as Daisuke did, until his second career was derailed by a quarrel with his boss — “Looking back, it was all so trivial!” He quit, and woke up too late to the fact that his big spending had left him with meager savings. Haunting the local Hello Work office was a humiliation he swallowed bravely, but there was nothing for him — past a certain age, employers aren’t interested in you except maybe for menial work. He’s getting desperate enough to take even that, but a drug arrest is hard to conceal. “What am I supposed to do?” — the unanswered, unanswerable question.

For Akira, 42 and unemployed for 18 years, it’s been one damned thing after another. After high school he failed an entrance exam to a vocational school: “That was the start of my hikikomori.” His parents gave him spending money, but alone in his room, glued to his computer screen, there was nothing to spend it on. Finally he blew it on a liquid-crystal-screen TV and a sound system.

His grandmother died, and Akira’s parents were sucked into a family dogfight over the inheritance. It was repulsive, but it woke him up. He’d make something of his life after all. He tried another vocational school, got in, did well, got a job, moved out — “I thought I was on my way.” But the boss was a tyrant. In a fit of anger he fired five people, thrusting their work on Akira. The 12-hour days, with no overtime pay, wore him down. He quit after three months.

Wait, there’s more. He persevered with his training, raised his qualifications, got another job — only to see it vanish in the rubble of the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011.

A man can take only so much: “I completely lost my will to work.” He’s back in his old room at home, back to hikikomori. “‘It’s not so bad,” he says — “I get three meals a day, and I almost never see my parents.”

It is amazing how precarious life is, how vulnerable the most basic stability to an upheaval that could be just around the corner, or just beneath your feet. You have a bad day, you fall ill, you turn right when you should have turned left — and it’s all over, you’re another Kazuo or Daisuke. That’s always been true but seems truer lately as competition intensifies in a globalizing economy, as more and more companies go “black,” meaning ruthlessly exploitative — exhausting their personnel to the point where illness and bad judgment are all the more likely.

It’s heartening, then — or is it merely amusing? — to observe the irrepressible optimism of a publication like President, a business magazine whose name suggests elite pretensions. Earlier this month, President figured in this column as a cheerleader for the favorable impression. Make one and you’ve got it made, it seemed to be saying. And it’s so easy! Adorn your face with the right expression, your body with the right clothes, your backbone with the right posture — and off you go down the road to success!

We reintroduce the same magazine now for its related foray into the realm of the smile. “In business,” it says, “teeth are life!” — not the teeth you bite with, the teeth you smile with. Take care of your teeth. Cultivate your smile. The Japanese, says “smile consultant” (seriously) Yoshihiko Kadokawa, are not ready smilers. Fortunately that defect can be corrected. It’s a matter of training. Practice smiling with a pair of chopsticks clamped between your teeth. Seriously. Kazuo, Akira, Daisuke — surely there’s a pair of chopsticks in your room?

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