National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Paradise lost: Japan longs for simpler times in trying days

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing Writer

The Japanese weren’t always workaholics. Once upon a time, work had its place and knew its place. It didn’t swallow life whole. Other pursuits were given their due. People worked without being consumed by work.

Author Jiro Asada, writing in PHP magazine (April), refers us to the Edo Period (1603-1868). “Even for samurai,” he writes, “work was daytime activity.” Day done, work was laid aside. Free time beckoned — the public bath, the theater, the glittering pleasure quarters where sex was an art and a commodity, one among many, as crude or elegant as your tastes and budget commanded.

You retired at 40. The word Asada uses, inkyo, suggests a passage from active to contemplative life — a “second life” qualitatively different from the first: deeper than mere leisure, loftier than a second career.

Workaholism came with the succeeding Meiji Era (1868-1912). Japan, backwater among nations, awoke. The outside world was on its doorstep — industrializing, progressing, armed and dangerous. It was eat or be eaten, catch up or be submerged. China, dismembered by European imperialists, was a warning. Japan heeded it. Nose to the grindstone, it furiously set to work.

It is doubtful whether Edo Japan was the idyll that Asada’s hasty pen sketch makes of it. There was more poverty than wealth, much of it bitter beyond almost anything known today. There was no welfare state, no social safety net. The power of those above was absolute over those below, a life-and-death power with no right of appeal.

So much for grim reality. But Asada’s main point about the present stands on firm ground. The Japanese, he says, have forgotten how to play.

Not Americans. They work hard, too, but in tandem with, not at the expense of, play. “It’s too bad,” he writes, “that Japan didn’t learn that from them.” They learned less fortunate things instead — among them the American division of society into “winners and losers.”

It’s the only class distinction Americans recognize, Asada says. One flings oneself into the struggle for the good things in life. Winners claim their prizes, losers lick their wounds, priming themselves to re-enter the fray and win next time.

Japan, prior to its makeover in the American image, was not like that. Its social order was hierarchical. To some extent it still is — as in the importance company employees attach to their office titles. But ancient ways die hard, if at all, and Japan’s high suicide rate, proof of its imperfect adaptation, stems, in Asada’s view, less from financial anxieties than from the despair of being branded a “loser.”

Relax, he urges. Let’s play. Forget winning, forget losing. Take the family to a south sea island for a week — or why not two? You’re entitled. A paid vacation is a right, not a favor you dare not ask for fear of burdening colleagues — or, worse, of your absence going unnoticed, giving the lie to your supposed indispensability. We’re all dispensable. Accept it. Bask in it. Wrap yourself in it and escape the grind.

Is the grind escapable? Perhaps no more so than the raging coronavirus dogging the escape routes. Take Edo, since the subject has come up. Edo Japan was no south sea island, but sanity, leisure and what we today call a sound work-life balance had yet to be toppled, according to Asada, by the relentless modern pressures that force us through our frantic paces. Was it so?

A famous story of the time suggests otherwise.

It’s a true story, cast in the form of a puppet play by the great playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725). The play is called “The Love Suicides at Sonezaki.” First performed in 1703, it features Tokubei, a 25-year-old soy sauce merchant, as the lover of a pleasure quarter prostitute named Ohatsu, who loves him in turn, despite his poverty, but is claimed by Kuheiji, an oil merchant who can afford to buy her — partly on the strength of money that is rightly Tokubei’s.

Wily, clever and utterly amoral, Kuheiji easily gets the better of his trusting, simple-hearted erstwhile friend, whose personal seal he steals, preliminary to a crime familiar to us today as identity theft.

For Tokubei and Ohatsu there is but one way out: suicide — for “did our promises of love hold only for this world?” Of course not. Their midnight journey to the Sonezaki Forest near Osaka is one of the most famous scenes in Edo theater. Tokubei first slits Ohatsu’s throat, then his own. They breathe their last as the narrator chants, “They have become models of true love.”

Innocence is vulnerability. It’s as true now as it was then. If “play” means embracing innocence — indulging the “Tokubei” side of your nature — go ahead; only don’t forget the Kuheijis out there. They abound.

Shukan Josei magazine this month tells this story: A man drinking in a bar late one night staggers home to find his smartphone missing. What could he have done with it? In tipsy panic, he runs back to the bar. No luck. First thing next morning, he calls the phone company. His account is immediately frozen. Too late! Why hadn’t he locked the device? Well, he hadn’t, that’s all — he didn’t expect to lose it. Whoever found it had a few hours of all-you-can-splurge, and went to town. Next month came the bill: 51 transactions, ¥2.9 million.

Variants range from unpleasant to morbid. A woman misplaced her smartphone at her office. She found it almost immediately — too late! A male colleague had got from it what he wanted, and became the woman’s stalker, dogging her every movement. She found he’d installed a remote app, giving him access to her information, her photos. What she’s doing about it we’re not told. The damage has been done. There’s probably not much she can do.

Never let your guard down, is the magazine’s plain message. Villainy lurks everywhere beneath a veneer of good manners, generous intentions, technological know-how.

We imagine Chikamatsu’s Tokubei coming back to life among us, surveying the scene and sighing, “The more things change, the more they remain the same!”

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s new book,”Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History,” is now on sale.

Coronavirus banner