National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Confusing power with powerlessness

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing Writer

“We’re all terrified. It’s like living in a mass grave.” It’s an underground shelter. “No water, no food, no ventilation, no toilets. Explosion after explosion. It never stops.”

The civil war in Syria grinds on. Noncombatants are powerless, helpless, living as if dead, if not actually dead. The shelter described above is in Eastern Ghouta, a Damascus suburb under heavy aerial bombardment. An Asahi Shimbun reporter in Istanbul spoke by telephone earlier this month with one of the shelter’s inmates, a man in his 40s, who went on to say: “Residents are being bombed indiscriminately. We’ve lost our homes. Our children are starving. Why are you silent? You should be here instead of us. Your silence is killing us.”

“You” is plural. Who is he addressing? The world? Japan? “Why are you silent?” We are not silent — just helpless and powerless, like him.

There are many forms of powerlessness and many forms of power. War and dictatorship bring out the worst of both — the ruthlessness of the latter, the suffering of the former. But daily life in peacetime democracies cleaves along the same fundamental line: the powerful on one side, the powerless on the other.

If you work, your boss is powerful and you are not. If you are a working woman, you may be doubly powerless — as a subordinate and as a woman. The worldwide Me Too movement has brought sexual harassment to the fore. An office worker in her 30s responds to an Asahi Shimbun survey of the issue in these terms: “A male executive often invites me to dinner. He touches my hand, says he wants to kiss me. People say, ‘If you don’t like it, turn him down,’ but it’s not so simple. My job evaluation depends on him.”

A temp worker in her 50s says, “I’ve been sexually harassed any number of times by full-time male employees. My position is so vulnerable, it’s impossible to lodge a complaint. … Temps like me get harassed a lot worse than full-time female staff. It’s very demeaning.”

Silent, smiling, winsomely helpless servitude is a feminine virtue that other modern, developed countries have left farther behind than Japan has. The U.S. first legislated against sexual harassment in 1965; Japan, in 1998. Belated and toothless though Japan’s law may be, it is all the same a law, and Josei Jishin magazine, a weekly addressing itself mainly to women, reminds its readers that sexual harassment is a crime.

That is progress, to be sure, though arguably more symbolic than real. If even saying no takes more firmness of will than many victims are prepared to muster, if protesting to upper management threatens to derail your career, cost you your job or consume more physical and emotional energy than you have to spare, the prospect of a prolonged, bitter and costly court battle is liable to stymie all but the most fiercely committed. Osaka University sociologist Kazue Muta, in her contribution to Josei Jishin’s package of articles, expects little progress as long as women remain under-represented in politics, business and the media. How under-represented are they? An indication is Japan’s 111th-place ranking in the World Economic Forum’s 2016 report on global gender equality.

Sexual harassment is a form of power harassment, which implies the harasser is powerful, but is he (or she) really? Spa! magazine (whose standpoint is masculine) has doubts. Harassment, it suggests, however obnoxious and menacing, is often an expression of the very opposite of what it seems to express — not power but powerlessness. The 40s are a dangerous time for men. “Mental health,” precarious at best, comes under siege. Family life can shrivel into money worries: college-bound kids, home loan payments, infirm parents and so on. At work, new responsibilities can either overwhelm with their urgency or fail to materialize, leaving you stagnant and adrift. Social life — what social life? “It thins like one’s hair,” says Spa! bleakly. A middle-aged man is more likely to have colleagues and a family than friends — but colleagues and family are not always enough. The outside world calls, but simultaneously — again, like one’s hair — recedes. You can resign yourself and risk despair, or assert yourself and risk seeming predatory.

Spa!’s theme is neither power nor harassment but a kind of second adolescence that aging men harassed by circumstances are liable to fall into. It’s not power they want, it’s the desire “to be liked,” and the fear of not being liked can drive them into a stance that to a subordinate may well look like a display of power: “Like me or else.” Unwanted attention from an office superior, however innocent, cannot but put the subordinate on the defensive.

“My boss emails me photos of his cat,” says a 26-year-old banker. “If I say something complimentary he sends more, taken from different angles. If I say nothing, he corners me at the office: ‘What did you think?'” What she thinks is, “I’m not interested in you or your cat.” It’s what she’d say, if her future wasn’t in his hands. But it is, and she curbs her tongue.

In Japan there are people who want to die. The man in the Eastern Ghouta underground shelter speaks of horror, fear and acute deprivation but not, significantly, of suicidal despair. But in Japan, between 20,000 and 30,000 people a year take their own lives, while others, unprepared for so final a plunge, endure life as an intolerable burden. Some are ill, others emotionally disturbed, others still defeated, or exhausted, or abysmally unhappy. It is the ultimate form of powerlessness — wanting to die but being unable to. Japan recognizes neither euthanasia or assisted suicide. Debate about them is muted, although bubbling beneath the surface, as noted by journalist Yoichi Miyashita in a piece for Shukan Post magazine in December. Neither at war nor critically deprived, Japan nonetheless faces a massive encounter with death as postwar baby boomers, now in their 70s, approach an end that many will want to hasten.

Miyashita makes an interesting point in that connection. In Western countries, he says, euthanasia is defended as a human right — the right to die one’s own death, at one’s own time, in one’s own chosen manner. The emphasis in Japan, he says, is different, the main concern being “not to cause trouble to others.” Universalized and removed from the sphere of death, it’s an aspiration that could save the world much heartache.

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