If only words were magic. Well, they are. They give shape to the world, hope to the hopeless, comfort to the troubled — or the reverse. Maladroitly or maliciously deployed, words can do great damage. A new “mook” (part magazine, part book) by psychological counselor Shinrai Oshima bears the title, “Magic words to make life go well.”
The word “coronavirus” is conspicuously absent. That’s a magic word in its own right, so magically ubiquitous its absence leaves a magical void, more likely to remind us of the elephant in the room than distract us from it. Perhaps the point is: Anxiety predates the epidemic and will survive it. What’s the magic cure? Words.
Coronavirus aside, there is much to be anxious about — big things and small; global, national, local and personal. Is climate change out of control? Is democracy mortally wounded? Does information technology inform us, or strip our intellectual gears? What about artificial intelligence — is it ally or nemesis, an agent of human growth or a monster rendering humanity obsolete?
Then there’s demographics. Japan is at the forefront of a worldwide aging revolution. We’re living longer — much longer, and having fewer children — far fewer. Can this work? Every year in Japan an estimated 100,000 people quit jobs to nurse older care-dependent family members. If you’re not one of them, you can’t help knowing that one day you may be.
“I am a university student,” a 20-year-old woman wrote in a letter to the Asahi Shimbun in October. “I am obliged to help my parents nurse my grandparents. I can’t work or study properly. My parents are of retirement age. After my grandparents die, I’m afraid I’ll have to start caring for my parents. I’m afraid my whole life will be taken up with nursing care.” The fear hangs suspended over an entire generation.
The word the mook uses for “words” is not the standard kotoba but hitorigoto, which actually means “talking to oneself.” We all do it — in private where it’s healthy, if not in public where some consider it suspect. What we say to ourselves carries a lot of weight, Oshima says. An illustration accompanying the text shows a man, barely awake, staring at himself in his bathroom mirror and muttering, “I’m no good.”
Oshima fears we are more inclined to talk ourselves down than up. This may be a defense mechanism, armor against the slings, arrows, derision and scorn we see, or anticipate, others directing at us. There’s a case to be made for modesty, and an equally good one for realistic self-assessment. The trouble is, Oshima explains, the brain takes the message only too much to heart. It takes words seriously, though you may mean them only as a talisman. You tend to become what you say of yourself — ugly and stupid, if you take modesty too far. An exaggerated awareness of your own inadequacies can heighten those inadequacies. Clinical depression may not be far behind.
Then there’s the opposite extreme. Oshima imagines this inner monologue: “I don’t understand it! I’m good at my job, I keep a good home, I dress well, I’m unfailingly considerate of others, and so modest too — why does nobody praise me?”
It’s a different expression of the same symptom — unfocused anxiety. We don’t know where we stand with people — not where we want to; that at least is clear. What can we do about it? “Talk to ourselves,” is Oshima’s implied answer. If we talk honestly and credibly and at the same time with due tolerance of our flawed humanity, we can believe ourselves about ourselves and stand proud, though not arrogant, against the indifference or hostility of a cold and distracted world.
Once upon a time none of the above was true. Is it possible? Of course not — but nostalgia (Oshima does not discuss this) plays tricks with our minds. “Showa nostalgia” began almost as soon as the Showa Era (1926-89) ended. It’s alive to this day. There’s magic in this, too. The fearful wartime phase slips out of mind, and “Showa” comes to mean “postwar,” as if that’s all there was to it. Ah, if we could only go back to those rollicking years of rising prosperity, wholehearted dedication and deep fellowship founded on a common goal — that of building a new society on the ruins of the old!
We can go back, says the lifestyle magazine Pen this month. Here and there, in this neighborhood or that, the urbane connoisseur or the lucky saunterer will spot a back alley, an arcade, an unpretentious little quarter, crammed to critical mass with the bars, restaurants, food stalls and animated little shops of pre-supermarket, pre-smartphone yesteryear. Here ambience comes first, profits second. Everyone knows everyone else, everyone has a name, the vendor-patron relationship is easygoing and friendly, establishments share customers rather than compete for them. “Today,” says Pen, “everyone is obsessed with smartphone convenience, our lives are ruled by social networking, we’re all on edge, we suppress our deepest feelings rather than express them.” The past was different. The past is always different — gritty enough when present, cleansed of impurities in its passage into the past. The farther back, the cleaner and purer.
There are other views of the postwar Showa Era that Pen’s nostalgia obscures. Shukan Gendai magazine in November introduces us to a retired eye doctor, age 73, whose wife died five years ago.
“It was laughable how little I knew about housework,” he says, not laughing. Never mind cooking — “I didn’t even know where the dishes were. I couldn’t get the washing machine going.
“Men of my generation” — the Showa generation — “never gave housework a thought. We worked like demons at our jobs and left everything else to the wife.”
Few wives complained. That was simply the way it was, back in the good old days of the Showa Era, when everyone knew his or her place, cast personal feelings aside, and soldiered doggedly on.
Progress has led us away from that; nostalgia leads us back to it. We don’t know what we want. Finding what we seek only shows us that what we sought isn’t it.
“Changing the way we talk to ourselves,” says Oshima, “can have a great positive impact.” No doubt it can — if only we can find the right words.
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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