National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Heisei Era hindsight gives new meaning to established terms

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing Writer

The ubiquitous word “productivity” last summer acquired a new meaning — or at least a new twist. Members of the LGBT community, wrote Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Mio Sugita, “do not reproduce. In other words, they are unproductive. I wonder if it is appropriate to spend taxpayer money on them.” So naked a linkage of reproduction to production, of birth to manufacturing, of an intimate private matter to the supposed services a citizen owes the state, clashed so jarringly with the temper of the times that Shincho 45, the magazine in which Sugita’s musings appeared, surrendered to public outrage and ceased publication.

Japan is as obsessed with productivity as most advanced nations; more so, if long working hours and exhaustion are the measure — as indeed they are, of obsession if not of productivity itself, defined in terms of gross domestic product per hours worked, in which category Japan ranked 20th as of 2015 among the 38 nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

As the Heisei Era draws to a close, Japan gears up, somewhat uneasily, for rest — a 10-day release from productivity. Not for everyone, certainly, but for many people, April 27 will be the last working day of Heisei, and May 6 the first of a new era. The uneasiness arises from a tendency, or instinct, to equate productivity with life itself. If we’re not productive, what are we? At rest — but as the Asahi Shimbun observed last month in a feature tellingly headlined “Relaxation reform,” rest is an art Japan has yet to master.

There’s more to being at rest than simply not being at work. A junior high school teacher the Asahi Shimbun article quotes says she had to spend three years working overseas in order to learn what her home country couldn’t teach her — how to turn work off after hours. If work gets under your skin, there’s no purging it in a weekend or even in a paid vacation — if Japanese even take their full paid vacations, as 50 percent do not.

Japan is a restless country. It’s rich but poverty looms, or seems to, and only hard work can keep it at bay — if even it can. Women are particularly vulnerable, says Spa magazine (Feb. 5). Single motherhood is theirs alone. Professional, pecuniary and social glass ceilings cramp their upward mobility. Japan gives them less support and encouragement than other advanced nations; 54.6 percent of single mothers in Japan are officially poor, versus 35.8 percent in the United States and 29.6 percent in Canada.

Spa introduces (pseudonymously) “Michie Goto,” who at 38 earns ¥90,000 a month as a part-time caregiver. On this, with a little help from her mother’s meager pension, she supports herself and her 4-year-old daughter. Her divorce from her abusive ex-husband was frantic; details such as child support payments were neglected. She will not go on welfare, she vows: “I feel my colleagues at work and the other mothers at my child’s day care center are watching me.” At all costs she will keep up appearances. “Maybe,” she says, “I’ll try to qualify as a care manager.” It’s unlikely the era-end pause will find her resting.

Likewise “Masataka Ikuta,” a 67-year-old security guard Spa introduces in a separate piece on elderly workers. Life lengthens, pensions shrink. Long life costs money. A restful, unproductive retirement is for many an unaffordable luxury — maybe not even a luxury, stretched out over decades instead of years. Post-retirement employment, necessary or desirable or both, is a growing fact of life.

Elderly workers, like women, are vulnerable. Their choices are limited. They must take what’s available — part time and low-paying, as likely as not. When Ikuta retired from his career in the transport sector, he was 57 and starting to feel his age, but unemployment suited him neither temperamentally nor financially. Security guards, it seems, are always needed. Applying at an agency, he was hired on the spot. To his new colleagues he was “just a kid!” Most of them were well into their 60s. One was 85.

Ikuta is happy. It’s an exhausting round — on call sometimes four days running, napping when he can; but he’s active, engaged, involved. When on duty at a public event, as on last month’s Coming of Age Day, he feels part of the celebration he’s guarding. It’s a good feeling — a healthy feeling; he’s no longer ailing. He, for one, is pleased to surrender rest to those who need it.

Restless in every era, new or old, are the young. Spa introduces a new breed of restless young males: mama-katsu men. Papa-katsu has been around longer, referring to young women who pursue older men for pocket money, wisdom, sympathy, whatever. Their male counterparts are saying in effect, “Why not us, too?” There are smartphone apps that cater to this sort of thing. Contact is made, and it goes where it goes. Journalist Reiko Shinya, 42, researching the phenomenon, met up with “Minoru,” 23, a university student majoring in gender studies. He has a lot to learn, she concluded.

Her first surprise was that he took no trouble at all over his appearance. He was a disheveled mess. He hadn’t bathed in days. Well, research is research. Holding her nose, she took him to dinner. He had little to say for himself. Was mama-katsu really for him? On second thought she detected a possible deeper meaning in his apparent ineptitude: “Maybe he thinks his frank naivete will open doors” — an overgrown little boy appealing, consciously or unconsciously, for affection of the purely maternal kind. He struck out with her, but may not with someone else.

Lawmaker Sugita’s attack on sexual minorities reminds us that the era ends with eros in restless ferment. Sexual preferences once damned, genders neither male nor female, demand and, slowly, are receiving, acknowledgment. Last September, the Sugita-inflicted wound still fresh, another lawmaker took a stand. Tomomi Higashi, a member of the municipal assembly of the Tokyo suburb of Machida, publicly and proudly declared herself an asexual. “The city was showing no support at all for LGBT people,” she told Aera magazine (Dec. 10). “I want to widen the discussion.”

It’s wider than ever, and getting wider. One can only wonder where it will be by the end of the next era.

“People like you are destroying Japan,” is one recurring comment Higashi draws on social media. But another is, “Me too; I’m asexual too.” Productivity is not everything.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s new book, “Fuji, Sinai, Olympos,” is now on sale.

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