National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Solitude appears to have an image problem in Japan

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing Writer

“Is solitude an illness?”

The Asahi Shimbun raised the question in an op-ed feature last month.

Or is it an intensified form of health — a view that informs the monthly magazine Bungei Shunju’s treatment of the subject.

A child playing alone evokes pity — misplaced, perhaps. An elderly person dying alone arouses feelings too complex to name — pity, certainly, but also something akin to horror; fear too, in those who feel vulnerable to a similar fate. That, too, may be off the mark.

Human beings are hybrid beasts. Unlike naturally solitary creatures — bears, moles, skunks, sloths — we have limited tolerance for our own company. But we’re not hive or herd animals either. We have in us something called a “self.” It needs private nurturing.

Our solitary streak is one side of us. Our need for love and friendship is another. One predominates in some, the other in others. Feeding one without starving the other can be difficult. True now, true always. But true now as never before is the multitude of our contacts simultaneous with the intensity of our solitude.

Japan, famously group-oriented, is all the same not without some training in solitude. As sociologist Yoshikazu Nango points out in his contribution to the Asahi feature, 17th- and 18-century Edo (present-day Tokyo) swarmed with single men — feudal lords in obligatory periodic attendance on the shogun, their vast retinues, and hordes of itinerant merchants catering to them. Single-occupant dwellings sprang up along with early-modern restaurants and bars. The solitary diners and drinkers who patronized them are the remote ancestors of today’s o-hitori-sama — bold proponents of the solitary social life.

That said, modern Japan’s loneliness, in statistical terms, is formidable. Some 18.4 million adults live alone — twice as many as did 30 years ago. An estimated 1 in 5 adults today never marry. Within 20 years, 1 in 4 won’t. In 2017, some 45,000 people nationwide died alone, unnoticed and unmourned.

Nango speaks of an emerging “society without ties,” a society of solitary individuals unrelated to one another. He does not condemn it. Solitude, he says, is “what you make of it, for better or for worse.” He stands on neutral ground between two opposing views, crisply summed up by the titles of two recent books. Psychologist Junko Okamoto’s is “Sekai Ichi Kodoku wa Nihon no Ojisan” (“Japan’s Old Men are the World’s Most Solitary People”). Her answer to the Asahi’s question is yes, solitude is a disease — or at the very least a contributor to disease.

Author Akiko Shimoju’s best-selling title is “Gokuju no Kodoku” (“First-class Solitude”). Her article in Bungei Shunju amounts to a celebration — though qualified — of living alone, being alone, finally arriving at a level of self-knowledge that the sociable can never attain. They’re too busy knowing others.

Shimoju, 82, is herself a solitary. A childhood bout with tuberculosis took her out of school for two years, spent mostly alone in her room at home. Fine, she said. A natural reader, she read; a natural observer, she observed. Her imagination transformed stains on the ceiling into monsters. Spiders fascinated her. They seem to disappear into their webs. Where do they go? She became an explorer of spider webs, and found them, lurking silent, motionless, almost invisible, waiting, waiting. She felt herself waiting with them.

These are experiences the sociable, generally speaking, don’t have. Okamoto, in her talk with the Asahi, doesn’t denigrate them in so many words but stresses the value of communication — with people, not spiders. The Japanese, she says, are poor communicators. Solitude is both cause and effect. Japan has evolved no institution comparable to the Christian church, with its weekly worship and regular socializing. Political activism, another social magnet, is chillier here than elsewhere. When modern life frayed traditional community ties, nothing arose to replace them. Even family life took a back seat to company life, and office communication, hierarchical by nature, kept people in their places except when drunk, which explains the prevalence of business-related drinking. But drunken intimacy is one thing, sober intimacy another. The “old men” of Okamoto’s title are those who, having grown up and aged in that culture at its peak, are now retiring en masse — into a void, all too often, of “no human contact whatsoever.”

Shimoju acknowledges the danger. Solitude, even “first-class solitude,” is “a double-edged sword,” she admits in Bungei Shunju. She recognizes in herself an unfortunate inability to be open with people, get close to them. She worked for a time in broadcasting: “As an announcer of course my job was to talk, but other than that I spoke hardly a word.” She liked to drink but “I could never get drunk.” Knowing yourself is important; so is forgetting yourself from time to time.

Self-knowledge is hard, she says. What you learn about yourself isn’t always nice. It’s a fine line, she suggests, between knowing yourself and “being interested only in yourself”; the former enlightening, the latter merely selfish. The “intense relationship you build with yourself” is not for everyone. Japanese soil nurtures it grudgingly, if at all: “Solitude in Japan tends to have a poor image. Why? Because Japanese have no individuality.”

No individuality, says Shimoju; poor communication, says Okamoto. To Shimoju, solitude is health; to Okamoto, disease. She cites evidence: Those living alone, she says, are statistically more prone to Alzheimer’s, alcoholism, depression, heavy smoking. One could counter that those whom solitude strikes down in this way are not made for it, and that statistical liabilities have nothing to say to those who are. Involuntary solitude is indeed bleak — not necessarily more so, however, than involuntary social ties.

Dying alone plays out in the media as corpses rotting for days or weeks until at last the smell draws nauseated attention. There is that, surely. Still, Shimoju would choose solitary death — preferably at dusk. An individual in life must be an individual in death. “They say,” she says, “that the ear hears until the very end. It’s impossible to die well with people talking around you.”

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