National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Japan searches for remedies at the dawn of the Reiwa Era

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing Writer

Japan’s weekly magazines do not consider their primary role to be reporting cheery news. It would be more correct to say their practice is to proceed from a pessimistic perspective and then, after readying readers to rude realities, encourage searches for sustenance and survival, if not salvation.

To celebrate the advent of the Reiwa Era from May 1, the government has extended the traditional Golden Week string of holidays and weekends, beginning this year from April 27, to 10 days. Masashi Omuro, an occupational health physician, warns in an interview with Weekly Playboy (April 22) that this celebratory act may not bode well for the nation’s salaried workers.

Omuro predicts that the dreaded “May disease” (gogatsu-byō in Japanese) — the name for a malaise that often strikes weeks after the typically frantic month of April — is likely to be “the worst ever recorded.”

May disease, Omuro says, affects both new hires who begin their jobs from the start of the government’s fiscal year in April, as well as regular staff, whose careers may be disrupted by promotions or job transfers. It seems that an extended holiday to come so soon after the start of the new business year can lead to a “collapse” of workers’ physical and mental equilibrium, resulting in anxiety, fatigue and a whole host of physical and psychological ailments.

“In past times, while people at Japanese companies may have felt symptoms similar to May disease, they were sustained by various activities on the job and afterward, such as going out together for drinks or playing golf on weekends, or even engaging in matchmaking to help a younger colleague find a prospective marriage partner,” Omuro says. “So while perhaps people confronted pressures or annoyances, at least they didn’t feel lonely.

“Now, however, it’s become easy for a new worker to resign just by tapping out a short message via Line or some other SNS app.”

With the current worker shortage in Japan, Omuro concedes that people in their 20s who walk away from jobs will face fewer problems to find new ones. “So if they are under the impression that a new job wasn’t what they expected, they just stop going to work.”

Last month, American Alex Kerr, a longtime Kyoto resident and author, in collaboration with Yumi Kiyono, published a 220-page book with the Chuo Koron imprint titled “Kanko Bokoku-ron” (“The Theory of National Decline Due to Tourism”). In a wide-ranging interview in the Nikkei Marketing Journal (April 3), Kerr denounced the impact mass tourism is having on Japan’s environment.

In 2018, the number of foreign visitors to Japan surpassed 30 million. The annual figure is projected to approach or even exceed 40 million in 2020.

Kerr has no problem with France’s Michelin Guidebook rating Tokyo the world’s best in terms of quality dining facilities. On the other hand, he feels tourism is generating distortions and the residents are left to deal with the mess.

“The overcrowding at Kyoto’s temples has come to resemble Tokyo’s Yamanote loop line during the rush hour,” he complains. “This is cultural pollution. And, unless controls are enforced, ruin will result.

“Look at Japanese manufacturing industries, which were once terrible polluters,” Kerr says. “But they got that under control, and still manage to churn out high-quality products. Japan’s water and air are clean. Tourism should be the same. We have got to impose controls on forms of cultural pollution.”

As one means of keeping the number of visitors manageable, Kerr stresses “quality over quantity.”

“The fees for museums in Japan are too low,” he remarked. “The best facilities should charge ¥4,000, even ¥5,000 per person. There are lots of people who would even be willing to pay ¥10,000 to climb Mount Fuji.”

Now imagine, if you will, patronizing a restaurant that may not only get your order wrong, but may even overlook that you’ve ordered something in the first place.

Its name is “Restaurant of Mistaken Orders,” and the eponymous NGO’s English website (www.mistakenorders.com) states: “You may think it’s crazy. A restaurant that can’t even get your order right. All our servers are living with dementia. They may, or may not, get your order right.”

Shukan Asahi (April 12) carried a two-page report on a one-day operation at the establishment, part of the movement to spread awareness about dementia “and make society … more open-minded and relaxed.” It was held March 10 in the town of Yugawara, Kanagawa Prefecture, at a cafe terrace attached to an art museum.

An all-female staff of 18, ranging in age from 71 to 94 years, were residents of care facilities in the town or in the neighboring city of Odawara, and suffer from varying degrees of dementia. Organized in teams of five, they worked 90-minute shifts, serving tofu-based dishes developed offsite by a local specialty restaurant.

Each member of the restaurant staff was assigned a worker and a volunteer.

To avoid mistakes, the staff reconfirmed orders bearing check marks placed on the menus by customers. This, however, appears to be no assurance that the order will be delivered correctly.

Three customers — themselves welfare workers who learned about the event from a locally circulated flyer — were upbeat over their experience nonetheless.

“At care facilities, you never see this kind of happy smile,” one remarked, adding “Just being here is enough to cheer us up.”

More than 250 patrons came to dine during the one-day event, a larger than anticipated turnout credited to dissemination via social media.

Yuji Kawaii, operator of the group home where some of the restaurant workers reside, admits that the name of the establishment may invite misunderstandings.

“But once they see the atmosphere and faces of the workers, you can tell the customers become captivated by their warmth,” he told Shukan Asahi.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.

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