Life is tragic, life is comic; the glass is half-empty — no, half full. Point of view is all. Two magazines — President and Spa — represent the opposite poles of optimism and pessimism. For President, bad luck and good luck are all in the mind. The former is a failure of will, the latter always within reach. Just master a skill, develop a knack, adopt a winning mannerism and be a winner. Fail today, succeed tomorrow. Laugh and the world is funny. Laugh and your body is healthy — seriously, it’s on record, as we’ll see in a moment.
For Spa, that’s all smoke and mirrors. Life is a losing battle with fate. Individual problems are soluble, but solutions generate new problems, generally worse ones, and the person who reaches 50 undefeated and unbowed is scarcely to be met with — certainly not in its pages.
Here’s one of Spa’s “case histories” — part of its feature this month on the deadly 50s. It’s a dreadful decade. Life’s worst assaults on individual happiness — economic, psychological, physical — all seem to hit at once; or, if they don’t, you fear they will, with consequent anxiety that makes real victimhood seem almost preferable.
The story concerns a 54-year-old man pseudonymously introduced as “Ryu Hayashida.” Ambitious and able, he joined his company after graduation and worked his way up — high up. At 30, he had older people working under him. There was resentment, jealousy. At 40, higher up still, his office life was poisoned by colleagues out to bring him down. Doggedly he kept on. His salary rose, he sent his three children to private schools; they knew nothing of their father’s agony, probably wouldn’t have cared — it’s what parents are for.
He turned 50 and collapsed. Exhausted, ill, he took leave, returning finally to a cold welcome: He was told he was no longer worth his pay; he’d be kept on but demoted — a different department, a lower salary. His new boss is a younger man, a nasty brute, a bully. It’s intolerable, but what can he do? Change jobs? To what — security guard? That, he found, is what’s available for men his age. “I can’t sleep at night,” he says. A second collapse seems just around the corner.
President’s theme in its first issue this month is “Interesting people, boring people.” Interestingly enough, a survey it conducted shows 60 percent of respondents consider themselves boring. Well, make yourself interesting, President says in effect. Easier said than done? Why? There are advisers, experts — Eishiro Noro, for example, a TV comedy writer turned public relations consultant — to teach us how it’s done. For example: Meeting someone for the first time, you naturally want to make a good impression. So what do you do? You talk up your good points, your successes.
Error! People aren’t interested in your successes — they’re interested in their own. Yours, short of greatness, are boring. Failure is another story. It’s bitter but interesting — in small doses, of course; don’t come across as a loser. It’s a delicate balance. A little practice makes perfect. Another thing: Boring people are boring because they talk only about themselves, too self-absorbed to notice they’re putting their audience to sleep.
The brain is a natural boredom detector, neurologist Toshinori Kato says. Bored, it dozes off. Interested, it wakes up. It’s measurable. Brain waves dance on hearing something new, subside when the story is familiar. Make yourself an unfamiliar story, says Kato — which means, he adds, echoing Noro, thinking outside and beyond yourself.
Ryo Sakamoto, a professor of medicine at Kinki University, has made laughter his special study. That laughter is interesting goes without saying. It’s also therapeutic. Sakamoto cites the celebrated case of U.S. journalist Norman Cousins (1915-90). Diagnosed in 1964 with an agonizing, crippling, incurable disease, he dismissed his medical team and devised his own treatment: vitamin C and laughter. He had little enough to laugh at, one might think. The life with which laughter is bound up regardless of circumstances is a rich life indeed. Cousins survived, remembered today as one of the world’s great international pacifists.
Did laughter save him? It’s possible, Sakamoto writes in President, citing the pleasure and stress-easing hormones mirth releases. If Spa’s characters could only learn to laugh. Daily life wears them down. Their generation is squeezed between lost youth and looming age, children to educate and parents to nurse. Present reality measured against past dreams can seem crushingly banal, with no time ahead to regain lost footing.
“Takeshi Soma,” 52, entered a major corporation straight out of grad school. Twenty-seven years later, he asked himself, “What next?” He could stay put and more or less languish, or take a chance on a revivifying second career. Where? Somewhere else. His credentials were solid, his knowledge wide. It was a gamble, of course — like life itself.
He leapt too soon, quitting only to realize too late how much age had diminished his market value. He’d been earning ¥8 million a year. Now he was being offered ¥3 million. “What?” he thought — “less than half?” He turned this down and turned that down; ¥3 million a year would not see his two kids through college. Finally he faced the fact; he had no choice. “I’d figured on my retirement pay seeing me through old age,” he says. “It’s all going into the kids’ education.” The fear it won’t be enough keeps him awake at night.
“Shingo Fushimi,” 57, is cast perhaps in the Cousins mold. The analogy is strained but plausible. He was 41 when his father, at 65, showed symptoms of dementia. “Not again,” thought Fushimi. First his mother, helpless after a stroke, and now his father. Was his whole life to be consumed by nursing? His mother died. His daughter was killed in a car crash. Suddenly, “I felt my father was all I had in the world.”
Does he laugh, like Cousins? No, but “there are happy moments,” he says — hard to put your finger on: a smile, a memory, new depths discovered in simple things.
That’s as optimistic as Spa gets.
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.”