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Japan’s impoverished are finding it hard to enjoy freedom

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing Writer

Freedom comes in many forms, as does “unfreedom.” You can be a prisoner in prison, a prisoner in a prison-state, a prisoner in your job, a prisoner in your joblessness. Who is freer — a poor person in a free country, or a rich person in an “unfree” country?

Japan, by most standards, is a free country. North Korea, by all standards, is not.

Journalist Park Sun Min, interviewing residents of Pyongyang for Shukan Bunshun magazine, asked a woman of 50 what she would most like to have. A radio, she said, “so I can know what’s going on in the world.” She stands out among the 13 other interviewees, who all emphasized material deprivation. She and only one other among the 14 expressed dissatisfaction not related to a straitened economy.

The other is a 38-year-old man whose recorded telephone conversation with a rural hometown childhood friend is replayed to Park.

“How’s life?” the friend asks.

“It’s hard to get enough food to stay alive,” is the reply. “Worse than last year.”

“I thought Pyongyang was better off.”

“If you think so, come here yourself!”

The friend, apparently at Park’s behest, turns the talk to politics. “What do you think of (North Korea’s recent string of) nuclear and missile tests?”

“What are you, the secret police, ha ha ha!” One can only suppose the laughter is bitter.

Consider now a Tokyo woman interviewed by Spa! magazine. A single mother since age 16, she went through a period where, in addition to raising her son, or rather in order to raise him, she juggled three jobs — at a nail salon, a nursing home for the elderly and a hostess bar. Is this freedom? Yes, in the sense that she was presumably free not to become a single mother; also in the sense that her plight was escapable — not by everyone, perhaps, but, as it turned out, by her, for she’s better off now.

Overwork undermined her health. She lived on public welfare for a time. Now 33, she’s working again, and off welfare, but financially pinched. Education for her son was an unaffordable luxury. He left high school without graduating. He’s also working. He’s 17, facing a future of limitations, deprivations and frustrations, if not absolutely insurmountable — because in a free country no limitations are — could well lead him into the sort of life such that, in 10 years’ time, or five, should someone offer him more comfortable circumstances in Pyongyang, he might not reject the offer out of hand. And if his mother or someone else were to say, “But Japan is free and North Korea is not,” one can easily imagine his answer: “You call this freedom?”

The theme of poverty in the midst of plenty is one Spa! has made its own over the past few years. In that time it has become a master of the thumbnail sketch. There is, for example, the woman in her mid-20s who declares proudly, “I’ve graduated from Net cafes!” — by which she means she no longer sleeps in them or supports herself with the form of “compensated dating” known as enjo kōsai. She got lucky. A woman she struck up a friendship with at a cafe said: “You live here? Come with me, we’ll share a room.” Now she sleeps between clean sheets and works part-time in a neighborhood coffee shop.

Japan is unquestionably free, and prosperous, and yet there are so many cracks to fall through — even before full-fledged adulthood, let alone after.

“Aoki-san” (as Spa! calls her) is 21, a fourth-year university student graduating this spring and saying to herself, in dark moods, “I wish I’d never gone to college!” Her student loan hangs like a millstone around her neck. She’ll begin life ¥2.4 million in debt. It’s not unusual — half of Japan’s students are similarly fettered, Spa! finds.

Aoki thought little about it until she began job-hunting last year. Entry-level salaries are sobering. She did some calculating and figured debt-freedom was 10 years down the road, minimum. Ten years is an eternity at 21. There was, fortunately, an alternative — mizu-shōbai (the “water trade”). Hostessing at a “girls bar,” she could earn ¥2,000 an hour — ¥2,500 if she donned a bathing suit. From there she drifted into deriheru (“delivery health”) — sexual services delivered to a client’s door.

She’ll be all right, though, it seems. Her savings have grown, the company she wanted to work for hired her, and when she starts her new job this spring, she vows, she’ll leave the sex industry for good.

The solution to a lack of freedom arising from poverty would seem to be prosperity, but let’s not jump to conclusions. An ¥8 million-a-year income seems reasonably comfortable and yet, as Shukan Post magazine pointed out in December, the middle-aged, middle-management employees typical of that wage level are apt to feel more saddled than free, given the expenses they’re liable to face — children’s tuition (Aoki’s parents paid half hers), nursing care for elderly parents, mortgage payments, a looming retirement to plan for and so on. And these are the people, the magazine adds, who will be hit hardest by a planned tax reform aimed at redistributing more of their income to the needier.

So who’s rich and who’s poor? Maybe everyone’s poor in a hypercompetitive society in which the good life comes at so high a cost. And yet, here’s someone who’s not. Spa! introduces him — namelessly. He’s 32, works part-time, earns little and is going nowhere. He doesn’t seem to mind. To make sense of that, we must shift our attention to his girlfriend.

She’s 38, a University of Tokyo graduate and megabank economist who married a high-level bureaucrat, had a daughter and quit her job to raise her. That was 13 years ago. What made her turn to online deaikei (encounter) sites? Loneliness. Her husband, focused on his career, had no time for her.

Who would, in this busy world? The nameless 32-year-old man.

“Everyone else I met online was like my husband,” she says. “Only this person was different. He has no money, but he does have time.” That’s perhaps the ultimate form of wealth.

And of freedom.

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