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Relax!

It’s easy to say, not to do.

“No sooner do you stop running than you feel uneasy,” says PHP magazine in its March issue. We’re here but should be there, doing this and leaving that undone, perpetually chasing our own tails, running ourselves ragged and accomplishing nothing, or less than we might if we could just slow down, pause, relax; so we slow down — not to relax, however, but to address that gnawing guilt that frantic times foist on the idle.

Chin up, says PHP: “Isn’t that just the time to gather your courage and slow your pace?”

The ultimate relaxation, in the magazine’s view, is not idleness but suitable activity — doing what you want, which does take courage. The two sketches that follow show a willingness to court, or a strength to endure, failure.

Meet, first of all, children’s book author Joko Iwase. She found her vocation relatively late in life. Now 71, she looks back on a long, meandering road that long seemed to lead nowhere. Fresh out of commercial college, she savored her loose ends for a while, looking on bemused as her classmates made the rounds of companies, taking tests, doing interviews. Stirring herself at last, she applied for a position at a leading petroleum company.

“Who do you respect?” asked the personnel officer of a group of applicants. “Florence Nightingale,” said one. “Albert Schweitzer,” said another. “Nobody,” said Iwase.

“It was the only honest answer I could give,” she tells PHP. Honesty doesn’t pay. She wasn’t hired.

She found a job with the local municipal office. It was easygoing and boring; she stayed two years and quit. That set the pattern. She’d take a job, enjoy learning the ropes, get bored once she’d learned them, quit and move on. Her parents were mildly reproachful; she was “self-willed,” they said. It was not a compliment.

Outwardly serene, she worried inwardly: “What will become of me?” She was growing older, earning little, bracing against a poverty-stricken old age. The turning point hardly seemed like one. She happened to attend a lecture by literary scholar Yoshitomo Imae. His theme was children’s literature. It lit a spark. She wrote a story, showed it to Imae, basked in his praise, published it with his help and went on from there.

“I’m still poor,” she says — but not destitute, and “I’m doing what I want.”

Then there’s “Hiroshi,” a 49-year-old loser turned winner, a YouTube phenomenon beguiling a million viewers with his comedy routines. The sweat that went into them doesn’t show. He grew up poor, unpopular and bullied in Kumamoto. He’d show the bullies. He’d become an entertainer, be famous, get revenge by stoking envy.

It’s one thing to daydream, another to get somewhere in this world. His first job after college was selling insurance. He lasted six months. He registered with a talent agency. They tore him to pieces. He went home, holed himself up in his room, did nothing, saw no one. Then, to Tokyo – “another two years wasted.” Nearly starving, he took a job as a nightclub host: “It was hell.” Socializing was not his forte; nor was drinking — it made him sick.

Adversity can be good for you. It toughened him. It gave him material. Life is funny, if you can take it that way. He learned to. And now people do, indeed, envy him. He, too, is “doing what he wants.”

Relax, relax. Visit a sauna. Six million-odd Japanese people do, once a month or more, says tourism publication Kanko Keizai Shimbun. One takes heart. Is workaholic Japan learning the art of the therapeutic lull? President magazine, which this month cites the figure, hates to pour cold water on so comfortable a notion, but is not sold on the idea. Its report sounds a warning. Sauna bathing is for the fit and healthy. They can well call it, as in fact they do, “hot yoga.” Short of peak condition, the risks seem prohibitive. At worst: brain hemorrhage, heart attack, sudden death.

Not only that. The word “hara,” shortened from “harassment” in English, peppers Japanese discourse these days. There’s sexual hara, tech hara, power hara, moral hara, alcohol hara, age hara – it’s a very long list, to which President adds “sauna hara” – sauna-loving bosses or clients pressing sauna invitations on subordinates or suppliers who don’t share the enthusiasm but can’t say no. Another name for it might be relax hara — relax, or else.

A recently published book bears the title “How to live stress-free 365 days a year.” Its author, business consultant Wataru Hoshi, explains in his introduction that he wrote it in response to what his clients seem to want most. It’s easy, he says, it’s all a matter of attitude. In a chapter titled “Upgrade your self-assessment” he counsels, “Don’t think, ‘What kind of person am I now?’ but ‘What kind of person do I want to be?’”

To put it another way, as the Scottish reformer Samuel Smiles (1812-1904) did over a century and a half ago: “Life will always be to a large extent what we ourselves make of it.” Smiles’ book “Self-Help,” published in 1859, was a best-seller in Japanese translation in the 1870s. Japan then was in the first throes of Westernization and modernization. Smiles’ homilies caught, conveyed and fostered the spirit.

Is life really “what we ourselves make of it”? Maybe so – until a global pandemic, to cite just one possibility, emerges out of the void to remind us of the power of brute circumstance. Then there’s our own built-in human fallibility, that propensity of ours to do just the wrong thing at the least opportune moment. This doesn’t contradict Smiles, it only dims his optimism.

Shukan Gendai magazine last month told a pertinent story. An older man fell critically ill. Regaining consciousness in hospital and fearing death was near, he made his decision. There was a weight on his conscience. He longed to unburden himself — to relax, in short, if only in preparation for death. “I have a lover,” he confessed to his wife.

The man recovered. Marital relations, formerly easygoing, are now icy. If only he hadn’t spoken. Too late now.

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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