Kids say the drollest things.
Family, dinner, nice restaurant, good food, grandma’s treat. “Granny!” burbles the 5-year-old granddaughter. “You’re paying for all of us? Thank you!”
“You’re very welcome!” says grandma. “And when you’re grown up, you can take granny out for dinner, how’s that?”
“Oh, but granny,” says the little girl, “you’ll be dead!”
One can imagine the expression on the parents’ faces. But grandma is all smiles. “No, child,” she says, “I’ll be sure not to die until after our dinner.”
The story is courtesy of the grandmother herself, who sent it in last month to an Asahi Shimbun column on the lighter side of life.
Life needs a little lightening this year — or a lot. Only a young child can do it. This one is just small enough, perhaps, to pass through a year such as this unscarred. Sitting over dinner with grandma 15 years from now, will she remember 2020 at all?
Most of us will never forget it. We entered it in all innocence. There was turmoil enough in the world, and anxiety aplenty, but we’re used to that and take it in stride. A new year is a fresh beginning. How did 2020 look on Jan. 1? Like the year of the Olympics, Japan hosting and shining.
That’s ancient history now. We’ve spent the year reeling from a blow out of nowhere, assimilating realities inconceivable then, scarcely conceivable now. ’Tis the season of bōnenkai (end-of-year parties; literally “forget-the-year parties”) — rousing celebrations featuring drink and song and joyous year-end forgetfulness. Few years have given us more to forget — but you don’t party with impunity in a pandemic. Year-end parties are on hold, the traditional channels dammed.
Weekly Playboy magazine this month delivers the eulogy. Year-end parties tend to be workplace affairs, whose popularity has waned with the waning of company loyalty. Wistful notes are sounded, but “good riddance” prevails. “Office partying meant I was never home for Christmas,” says a 50-year-old banker. “My grown daughter was saying, ‘I have no memories of a family Christmas.’ It sent a pang to my heart. From now on I want to give more time to my family.”
A 51-year-old ad executive is no less disgruntled. He recalls the freewheeling inebriated banter of office parties of yesteryear. “Lately,” he grumbles, “everything you say to young people is ‘harassment.’” To hell with it — “I’ll do my drinking with people my own age.”
What else about this Year of the Rat turned Year of the Virus would we forget, if only we could? Men’s fashion magazine Oceans (January 2021) beguiles us with the headline, “Let’s try it! Digital detox barefoot by the sea.” A photo shows a laughing young man running barefoot along the beach. Why barefoot? He is “earthing.” The concept is simple. Earth is therapeutic, the sea doubly so. Daily life puts us in shoes, sets us on floors and pavement, drowns us in data.
The website earthing.com explains: “When we make direct contact with the surface of the Earth with our bare feet or hands, our bodies receive a charge of energy that makes us feel better fast.” Good. We need that. So quick, so easy. A mere 10 minutes is restorative, Oceans hears from Kazuaki Tanaka of Earthing Japan.
As for “digital detox,” if earth and sea can work that magic they’ll render a service scarcely less valuable than a coronavirus vaccine. Communication digitized is communication multiplied, amplified, engulfing, overwhelming, admirable as to quantity, increasingly doubtful as to quality. The term “post-truth” was coined to describe the phenomenon. It was Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year in 2016, the year Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. Trump’s presidency turned a sad lament into a proud boast.
Trump’s lies, amply documented — the Washington Post in September counted 23,035 “false or misleading claims” in 1,331 days — are uttered proudly, brazenly, “truly,” it might almost be said, in the sense of transparently, unfogged by hypocritical lip-service to truth. He lies to assert that truth has no value. “Super-spread by social media and cable news,” notes U.S. magazine Atlantic (January-February 2021), “(his lies) contaminated the minds of tens of millions of people … dissolving the very distinction between truth and falsehood.”
Post-truth infiltrated Japanese politics and mutated. The local environment required adaptation. The chosen medium here is less the bare-faced lie than the stony silence. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party wields it doggedly, reported the Asahi Shimbun in November, citing research by Ritsumeikan University sociologist Keita Sakurai.
Democracy is not, by its nature, silent. It speaks — constantly; emptily or pithily. It also, theoretically, listens. Silence spoken is, “I want to refrain from replying.”
Sakurai counted the government’s use of that phrase in Diet question-and-answer sessions. The count rose above 500 annually from 2017 through 2019. Whether a government so bent on stifling debate can meaningfully be called democratic — or whether post-democracy is an inevitable concomitant of post-truth — is a question best left for 2021 and beyond.
What does 2021 have in store for us? It’s the rash survivor of 2020 who would venture a prediction, prediction itself being a casualty of so wildly unpredictable a year. Post-Trump, post-Abe — that much we know (or think we do). Post-COVID-19? Hopefully. Post-post-truth? Possibly.
Let us imagine in conclusion the soft music and intimate lighting of a cozy little restaurant and, sitting opposite each other, smiling, a young woman of 20 and her grandmother. It’s 2035.
“You see, child,” says grandma, “I kept my promise. I stayed alive.”
“And I’m keeping mine,” says the young woman. “More wine?”
“A splash. To post-2020! A dark, dark year! You, of course, wouldn’t remember.”
“Oh, but I do!”
“Impossible! You were all of 5!”
“Some things I remember very clearly: School closed, daddy and mummy home, teleworking — it was new, then. I couldn’t go to school, couldn’t go out to play, couldn’t see my friends. … I knew something terrible was happening but I couldn’t understand what. ‘Coronavirus,’ people said; I’d say, ‘What’s coronavirus?’ Mummy said this, daddy said that; I understood nothing. And masks, masks. Masks everywhere. Everybody was masked. I remember how frightened I was.”
“We were all frightened, dear.”
May the dawning year of the stolid, long-suffering ox, unmask us once and for all.
Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”
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