National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Uncontrollable rage is largely a sober phenomenon

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing Writer

How we hate each other.

The pertinent Japanese word is kireru, suggestive of a sudden outburst of uncontrollable rage. The Asahi Shimbun last month described a kireyasui shakai (a society in which it’s easy to lose your temper). Surveying 1,586 individuals at random, it found 29 percent admitted they had exploded at strangers. Thirty-nine percent said they’d been victims of explosions. Seventy-six percent said they feel explosiveness rising.

“On a train station platform I asked a young man to stop smoking. ‘Old hag!’ he shouted. Then he spat in my face.”

That’s one snippet featured in the Asahi Shimbun report. Here are two others:

“I’m driving in a no-passing zone; all of a sudden this vehicle streaks past me — a bus from a driving school no less!’ I tore after him, forced him to stop, and told him what I thought of him.”

“My friends and I were on a train, talking and laughing, not too loud — we were going out for the evening. A woman who I guess was coming home from work in a bad mood snapped, ‘Not everyone on this train is having fun, you know!'”

If hatred is too strong a word, we at the very least rub each other the wrong way. Our facade of mutual tolerance, or indifference, is increasingly brittle. Once it cracks, there’s no telling what we’ll do, or how far it’ll go.

What brings out the worst in us? Shopping. Store clerks bear the brunt of our suppressed rage. They’re vulnerable — the customer is always right and must be humored. Next: lining up. It’s infuriating to see someone cutting in ahead of you. Will you let yourself be trampled on like that? Suddenly you erupt, surprising even yourself, perhaps. Rage, once unleashed, is eloquent — you hear yourself verbally avenging every slight you’ve ever received.

Road provocations come third, then train and station provocations — someone bumping into you, people talking loudly. Surprisingly far down the list, in eighth place, are drinking situations. Kireru is largely a sober phenomenon.

Rage is terrifying; road rage especially so. A famous incident in 2017 left two people dead. In August, a motorist swerved in front of another, forced him to stop and assaulted him. Video from the victim’s dashboard camera led to the suspect’s arrest following a nationwide manhunt.

“(Typically) the perpetrator thinks he’s the victim,” Kyushu University traffic psychology professor Kazunori Shidoji tells the Asahi Shimbun (Oct. 1). The attacker has been cut off, or prevented from passing, or issued some other real or imaginary challenge. Typical also, says Shidoji, is a big-car-little-car relationship, the former bearing down on the latter with menacing implications. A sense of victimhood fused with a sense of power has nasty potential.

Frustration of one sort or another seems a general fact of life. Who’s to blame? Your boss, who is unassailable; “the system,” which is here to stay; “the times,” which are changing but probably not to your satisfaction. What to do? Who to lash out at? Store staff know one answer to that, because they are it. “Why is that item sold out?” a customer shrills at a female sales clerk in a report on “claimers” (unreasonable complainers) in Josei Seven magazine this month.

The sales clerk has problems of her own; she’s part time and underpaid, and goes home at night after a long day’s work to an aging mother-in-law who is a claimer of a different sort — a domestic claimer.

“If (her grandson’s) grades are not good it’s because he’s not being raised right!” she fumes. Patience, counsels Josei Seven. “Thank you for taking such an interest in the child,” the tired, beleaguered victim should say. How disarming! If people were saints, there’d be no tensions to defuse.

Her options at the store are doubly constrained — by commercial realities that give customers all the overbearing lordship they choose to exercise, and also, Josei Seven notes, by the internet, on which angry customers have been known to vent their spleen together with the clerk’s identity and photograph. It’s damage that, once done, is hard to undo. Better bend over backward to avoid it.

What’s at the root of all this? The business newspaper Nikkei MJ may have hit it last month with a one-word headline: “Harasumento” (harassment). It’s a plague; it’s everywhere and, like any plague bacillus, it mutates: powahara (power harassment), sekuhara (sexual harassment), morahara (moral harassment), matahara (maternity harassment, against women taking maternity leave), patahara (paternity harassment, against men taking paternity leave), and if that exhausts the list for now it’s not likely to for long, mutation being inexhaustible.

Nikkei MJ cites a survey last June by the recruitment agency Workport — 76.4 percent of respondents saying they suffer harassment of some sort. Ninety-two percent of it is power harassment. A distant second (43.7 percent) is moral harassment; third (23.7 percent), sexual harassment. Precise definitions of these makeshift terms are elusive. Maybe it’s best to lump them all together into “bullying,” as the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry does in a 2018 report showing a 15 percent increase in it over the previous year — to 82,797 known cases nationwide.

Harassed, we harass — if not our harassers, who are stronger than we are, then someone else; any vulnerable person will do: an inoffensive woman in a train station, a sales clerk who could lose her job for standing up to you. Failing physical confrontation, there’s always social media — where truth hardly matters and moral support is easily found.

Anger is good for us. We couldn’t have survived primeval conditions without it, the Asahi Shimbun hears from Dr. Kaoru Umetani, a specialist in psychosomatic medicine. It stimulates, energizes. Even civilized, it’s hard to imagine us purged of it altogether. It would tame us, but also kill something in us — something human and vital. Maybe we see too much of each other, jostle against each other a little too often and too brusquely. It rubs us raw sometimes. There are so few escapes. Spa magazine this month suggests one sanctuary: the business hotel.

The rooms are small, the facilities spare but the quiet is enveloping, the self-containment total. No sooner do you close your eyes than the walls cease to press, and you find yourself in the widest space of all — the space whose name is solitude.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is an essay collection titled “Fuji, Sinai, Olympos.”

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