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Jan. 1, 2020, dawned bright and clear. So it seems at least in retrospect.

Few would have chosen those adjectives at the time. “Dark and murky” would have seemed more like it. The United States and Iran were on the brink of war. North Korea threatened to produce new nuclear weapons. Australian forest fires raged. Hong Kong was paralyzed — or animated — by mass and swelling protests against Chinese rule. Protesters worldwide drew inspiration, poured into the streets, put arbitrary and oppressive governments on notice. Democracy was reviving.

Where would it end? In freedom, or in bloodbath? No one knew.

Japan, less volatile politically, was shaken by drama of a different color — ousted Nissan Motors chief Carlos Ghosn’s spectacular escape from house arrest pending trial on charges of aggravated corporate malfeasance.

Next door, in China, a mysterious virus had broken out. Few outside China paid it much heed.

Reduced to a few key strokes, such was the state of the world we woke to on Jan. 1. Add the emergence of a new global hero, teen Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, and happy anticipation of the summer Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, and the adjectives “bright” and “clear” do seem, tentatively, to hold — if not in the sense of buoyant and untroubled, at least in that of comprehensible and manageable. It wasn’t all good, much of it was frightening, but it was at least the world we knew, life as we knew it.

That’s something, at least. In fact — as we now know — it’s a great deal.

The five months separating then from now have swept us from there to here, to a hitherto unknown planet called COVID-19. Everything’s different. Orientation has scarcely begun.

Ask people in normal times what constitutes happiness to them, and answers would no doubt vary widely. Ask now and, conceivably, they would all boil down to one: normality. “Give me back my old life!” Such would be the cry, pervasive if not unanimous.

What’s “normal”? Diversifying lifestyles have stretched its meaning and rendered any exclusive definition unacceptable, but, broadly and unexclusively speaking: children in school; parents at work; daily life, daily business, whatever yours happens to be; an atmosphere in which exhaling is not potentially murder or inhaling potentially suicide. Is that too much to ask? For now and for the foreseeable future: Yes.

In normal times, we seek happiness. In times of crisis, we seek normality. That’s normal. Still, as Spa magazine reminded us last month, normality and happiness are not synonyms. Sometimes they’re antonyms. Normal life at work is all too often a grind; normal life at home, a disillusion. Normal circumstances are as apt to derail us as to speed us on our way.

Power and infirmity (two faces of the same coin?) dog us. Masayuki Kazama and Makoto Ishino (both pseudonyms) are 45 and unemployed — Kazama, a victim of power (his boss’), Ishino of infirmity (his mother’s). Kazama was a local government bureaucrat. For five years he put up with “power harassment,” wanting to quit but fearing the insecurity of private sector employment. At last he took the plunge, landing a job with a small PR firm.

No sooner free of his past bondage, he wished himself back into it. He’d been hasty, stupid. He’d thought nothing could be worse. Not so. His new colleagues — superiors, subordinates, equals — dripped contempt for “the bureaucrat.” What did a bureaucrat know of “real life,” with its grim quotas, its relentless competition, its dog-eat-dog, sink-or-swim struggle for survival? The bureaucracy sheltered incompetence, bred laziness, rewarded sloppiness. Wasn’t he, Kazama, proof?

He was hounded until he quit, going on to a series of part-time delivery jobs that broke him physically and left him finally a shut-in case with dwindling savings, leaving his room only for late-night shopping at an all-night supermarket where produce goes for half price after hours.

A poll Spa conducted of 1,000 middle-aged unemployed men found 32 percent had quit jobs to care for infirm parents. Ishino is one of them. His mother’s dementia was worsening. He was her only child. He gave up a job in the auto sector paying ¥7 million per year to become her full-time caregiver. She wanders and is incontinent. She needs constant watching. It is exhausting — emotionally and financially draining. Physically fit, she may live for years. “And after she dies?” asks Ishino plaintively. “There won’t even be her pension. Will I be able to get a job?”

This, for many, was “normal life” — pre-COVID-19.

And now? Shukan Gendai magazine last month introduced Yoshimasa Kubota (another pseudonym) — corporate executive, 49, rarely home normally, suddenly house-bound, teleworking. Banned from taking his office computer home, he works on the family computer in the family living room with the family — his wife and teenage daughter — glaring daggers at him in the background. What’s he doing here? they seem to be asking.

Does he love his family? Do they love him? He’d never asked himself. His family was “normal.” They got along “normally,” lived “normally” — he at work, they doing whatever they did. Now, the tension rose and rose, no one saying anything, but you could feel it.

Then came the shock. The teleconference with his office over, Kubota got up from the table, turning the computer over to his daughter, who had long been showing her impatience. Flinging him a glance that was none too friendly, she gloved her hands and set to work scrubbing the keyboard with alcohol disinfectant.

“It’s come to that!” he laments to Shukan Gendai. “They treat me like a virus!”

A 71-year-old man wrote a letter to the editor of the Asahi Shimbun last month. He is in treatment for cancer — stressful enough in normal times, doubly so now, with the medical system at risk of breakdown. After treatment, he says, he proceeds to a neighborhood park to admire the flowers. A feeling of peace comes over him. Flowers — how simple, quaint, ordinary, normal. We need more of them, he says. He may be right.

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

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