“In recent times, reflections on the future of Japanese society have not generally been couched in optimistic terms,” says Yuji Genda, a professor of Labor Economics at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Social Science.
Many people probably know what he means. First, there’s the massive problem of an aging society and a declining birthrate. Then there’s economic hardship outside of the big cities, known as the “shrinking regions” problem. And then there are fiscal deficits, concerns about North Korea, as well as problems that other nations face such as increased globalization and growing social inequality.
“These overwhelmingly gloomy prospects for society as a whole may in turn be taken to signal a widespread loss of hope,” says Genda, “which raises the question of whether, and in what form, hope exists among the individuals living in such a bleak society.”
I hope you are still reading after that downbeat beginning, because I want to talk about Genda’s comparison of hope between Japan, the United States and Britain.
Genda prepared a survey titled “The International Survey of Life and Hope” and sent it via research agencies to people aged between 20 and 59 in those three countries. As a result, 1,276 people in Japan, 1,316 in the U.K. and 1,321 in the U.S. responded to the same 20 questions. The survey was conducted in 2014-15 and has been published in Social Science Japan.
Hope feels different in Japan. That’s perhaps because in English hope is mainly used as a verb: “I hope the train isn’t late.”
In Japanese, however, hope is used as a noun: “My hope is that the train isn’t late.”
However, you don’t really hear people saying that — and not just because the trains are never late. Instead, it’s more common to hear people say, “Shoganai” (“Nothing can be done”), which is basically an acceptance of fate.
So there is a cultural difference about what hope means. Make of this what you will: The Japanese module on the International Space Station was named Kibo (“Hope”); Britons overwhelmingly voted to name a ship “Boaty McBoatface” (before it was rejected).
However, let’s see what Genda found in his survey.
The first question was, “Do you consider yourself to be happy?” The proportion who said they are “very happy” is 23.8 percent in the U.K. and 33.2 percent in the U.S. In Japan, it is 18.5 percent. More people in Japan responded that they are “somewhat unhappy” or “very unhappy” than in the U.K. or the U.S. This doesn’t feel too big a “happiness gap” to me — and I wonder even if it might be explained by a greater reticence among Japanese to answer that question positively. Or perhaps it is a greater honesty.
However, I was more concerned by responses to the next question. Genda asked, “Do you have ‘hopes’ in the sense of things you want to realize in the future?” In Japan, 54.5 percent of respondents said yes. Not bad, but in the U.K. that figure was 86.7 percent, and in the U.S., 93 percent.
Only 7 percent of respondents in the U.S. were literally hopeless — saying they had no hopes for the future — but 45.5 percent of Japanese responded in this way. The proportion of those who are doing many things to realize their most fervent hope is 41 percent in the U.K. and 51.6 percent in the U.S., but 25.4 percent in Japan. It is hard to look at these numbers and not see a lethargy, even a despair, among people in Japan.
Genda dug into the reasons why hope and happiness appear to be in short supply in Japan. The biggest factor, he found, was a distinct lack of friends. In the U.S. and U.K., more than 30 percent of people replied that they have many friends; in Japan, that number is only 8 percent.
“Given that the perceived number of friends has a steady impact on hope, the perception of having few friends is a substantial reason why Japanese respondents are less likely to express feasible hopes,” Genda says.
The next issue Genda considered was how people responded to setbacks. If somebody is injured in some incident, they suffer a drop in happiness but a boost in hope in all three countries. If somebody suffers two or more such incidents, people in Japan still respond positively.
“These results confirm that ordeals may influence people to act against difficulties in order to realize their hopes,” he says.
The most important finding, Genda says, is that ordeals negatively impact upon happiness, but positively upon hope, whereas many other factors affect happiness and hope in the same way in all three countries studied. In other words, humans are resilient.
“There is no story without setbacks or failures, for such a story, if it exists, would be uninteresting,” Genda says. “Only the experience of overcoming a setback can lead to the acquisition of eloquent words to talk about improvement in the future.”
As a result, Genda sees a way to increase hope in Japan: Tell personal stories. We need to create a society where people are not afraid of being perceived as losers if they recount setbacks in the stories of their lives. It is the experience of overcoming a setback that inspires hope.
Finally, a potentially hopeful finding from the survey found a shift in attitudes in Japan in recent years. It used to be the case that people placed their hopes for work above those for family, but now it’s the other way around. Genda thinks the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, played a big part in recalibrating people’s views on what is important. If that’s true, it may be something good that has come from that disaster.
Natural Selections covers issues related to scientific research in Japan on the fourth Saturday of the month. Rowan Hooper is the news editor of New Scientist magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rowhoop.