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Poverty and boredom gnaw at Japan

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

Boredom, poverty and war: three themes you’d think (wrongly) would be extinct by now — war because humankind as a whole is more peaceably inclined than ever before, poverty because of an abundance of riches and boredom because … doesn’t it go without saying, given the endless stream, not to say flood, of instantly accessible entertainment available? Even real life, if not always (or even often) entertaining, is undeniably interesting. You can say anything you like, good or bad, about the times we live in, but it would seem to require an unusual degree of apathetic detachment to be bored by them.

War we can discuss another time. Boredom and poverty are quite enough to fill one column.

Poverty, of course, is relative. “Extreme poverty,” defined by the U.N. as “severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information,” is endured by an estimated 1.2 billion people worldwide, most of whom, if they have any thoughts at all to spare for Japan, would likely envy even the poorest of poor here.

Japan’s poverty is real enough all the same, and among its indicators is the faltering of an institution — marriage — that, perhaps more than any other, has been a rock of stability down the ages and across the cultural spectrum, in conditions of dearth, plenty and everything in between.

For a soaring number of young adults, it just isn’t happening, and the predominant factor is economic. Part-time employment is all 40 percent of the Japanese workforce can secure nowadays. Part-time salaries, with no or few benefits, bonuses or raises, are pocket money given Japan’s cost of living; you’d be hard-pressed to raise a family on one. Factor in the lack of job security, as part-timers must, and marriage becomes, for many, a luxury forever out of reach. Today, 25 percent of men and 15 percent of women aged 18-34 think of themselves as “lifetime singles,” says the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research — figures that are expected to rise within 20 years to 29 and 19 percent, respectively.

Shukan Toyo Keizai magazine is struck by this anomaly: Eight years into a “marriage activity boom,” marriage remains stagnant. “Marriage activity” translates the buzzword “konkatsu,” which covers a variety of orchestrated events — parties, outings, travel and so on — aimed at giving singles a chance to meet and pair off. The orchestrators include private companies, local governments anxious to replenish sagging populations and parents despairing of ever knowing the joys of grandparenthood.

It’s not that the young people resent this as interference in their lives. They’re willing enough to cooperate, but … well, here’s “Yuichi’s” story, courtesy of Shukan Toyo Keizai: He’s a 47-year-old part-time care worker who has made the rounds of the proliferating marriage agencies, but “as soon as they hear I’m part-time, they cut me short.”

An agency insider confirms that dispiriting impression.

“Most women aren’t interested in part-time workers as husbands,” he explains. “So part-timers’ chances of success are slim to begin with, and then when they fail, they complain to us about having wasted tens of thousands of yen in membership fees.”

Surely not all women reject part-timers out of hand? In bygone days, when being female pretty much doomed a person to lifelong financial dependency, women naturally sought a good provider — but now? Haven’t times changed?

They have and they haven’t. More women than ever are self-supporting, that’s true. “Yukie” is 31, works in IT and earns ¥4 million a year. All she wants in a husband, she insists, is “someone I feel comfortable with.” She doesn’t need, and isn’t after, a sugar daddy.

“I don’t care if he makes no more than I do” — which sounds modest enough, but does she realize, Shukan Toyo Keizai wonders, that 70 percent of unmarried men earn less than ¥4 million?

Which is worse, poverty or boredom? To the poor, boredom might seem the lesser of the two evils (if not an out-and-out luxury). If you’re well-off and bored, you might beg to differ. Boredom can seem like a deadly disease to those who suffer from it, with no known cure and only short-term palliatives. Poverty is intractable enough. “Ye have the poor with you always,” said Jesus 2,000 years ago, and he has yet to be proved wrong. Still, the hope persists, and it seems a not irrational hope, that wiser economic policies, fairer distribution of goods, can produce desirable results, in theory at least. But those who strive desperately to neutralize boredom with excitement, distraction and novelty learn the futility of it. Boredom simply refuses to be entertained to death. On the contrary, it seems to grow, feeding on its supposed suppressants.

The weekly magazine Spa! examines boredom and finds it triumphant over the manifold excitements of our time. Polling 300 salarymen aged 35-49 — the prime years, one would think — it finds 72 percent declaring themselves “more bored now than five years ago,” the leading cause (for 49 percent) being work.

Blame, perhaps, Japanese society, which puts such a premium on work and career as to smother other forms of activity and self-development. There’s truth in that, but Japan is hardly alone among developed nations in stifling the personality with long hours of unfulfilling labor. And, work aside, Spa! discovers plenty of other root causes of boredom — middle age itself, for instance. Doesn’t everyone, having reached a certain age, come face to face with the hollowness of youthful dreams, the futility of effort and yet the impossibility of effortlessness? Effortlessness, after all, yields a futility of its own, more restful than effort but, in the end, no less boring.

You start out in life with hopes, dreams, plans. You’ll work hard and “make something of yourself”; you’ll fall in love and live happily ever after; you’ll have children who will look up to you; you’ll grow over the years into the sort of man or woman you dreamed of being as a starry-eyed adolescent.

Good luck, says Spa!, in effect. More likely you’ll peak at 35 and what’s left is a long, slow slide into deepening, deadening boredom — routine job, no hobbies, no friends, no romance (the magazine cites an OECD survey showing Japanese middle-aged men as the world’s loneliest, with — more markedly than men in other developed nations — “absolutely no” human relationships outside of work and family). Even wealth is no help: Asked what they would do if ¥1 million suddenly fell into their lap, 122 of the 300 replied they had no idea.

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan.”