What liars we are. One thinks immediately of the rich and powerful, corrupted by wealth and power. A seemingly endless succession of government and corporate scandals shows the truth, for all the homage paid to it, being given very short shrift by the very people who should embody our highest values. Daily perusal of the news makes cynics of us all.

Does it make liars of us, too, or are we liars by nature? For it’s not just the rich and powerful, it’s all of us. Friend lies to friend, spouse to spouse, parent to child, child to parent — the painful truth palliated by the painless (or seemingly painless) lie. Social intercourse would be impossible otherwise. Psychiatric patients lie to their psychiatrists, the Asahi Shimbun noted in March.

Maybe it’s as human to lie as it is to err. The swamp of deceit in which some of Japan’s leaders swim hardly shocks anymore. The Moritomo Gakuen scandal (discounted sale of public land to a government crony, subsequent document-tampering to cover it up, suicide of a bureaucrat who was allegedly involved) roiled the public in 2017. The four years since have hardened us. The alleged wining and dining of government bureaucrats by Tohokushinsha Film Corp. executives, among them the prime minister’s son, ripples perceptibly more faintly. Familiarity breeds numbness.

Up to a point. Surprise persists over the incurable failure of people clever enough to rise so high to take in the bird’s-eye view their heights afford them. How much mud can they hope to throw in the public eye, fortified as it is by bristling, twitching media outlets ready to pounce on just about anything untoward? The steady stream of malfeasance revealed and humiliation exacted ought to give pause. It doesn’t — a fact well worth pondering.

The rewards of successful lying and truth-evading are, of course, very great. There are valuable prizes to be won: corporate influence in government; a ruling party’s claim on powerful supporters who owe it favors; escaped accountability for blundering or criminal individuals or entities (earthquake shock absorber manufacturer KYB Corp. was forced to admit in 2018 it had been falsifying safety data for more than a decade; pharmaceutical company Kobayashi Kako in December admitted to concealing as long as it could the accidental mixing of sleeping medication in a drug for athlete’s foot — two people dead as a consequence).

Why would psychiatric patients lie to their psychiatrists? Essayist Tamaki Miyata, writing in the Asahi Shimbun, ventures a hypothesis, the gist of which is a conviction, or at least suspicion, on the patient’s part that certain deviations from normality (his or hers) are not illness but health; that normality, not deviation, is the sickness that needs treatment; that “standardized” treatment will produce a “standardized” personality, the desirability of which is open to question, as a glance at “standard” conditions in the neighborhood and the world may well suggest. The lie, in short, is the patient’s way of saying to “sane” society at large: “Hands off.”

“Sane” society is itself pervaded by lies, most of them innocent enough. Think, said Josei Seven magazine last month, of all the things we pretend to enjoy but don’t. COVID-19 has exposed the truth. We’re not as sociable as we pretend to be. For all those sighing with regret over canceled office parties, neighborhood festivals, lunch with the other moms in the kids’ classes, school sports days, school parents’ days, holiday visits home to show the children off to aged parents in the regions and so on, there are as many sighing with relief over not having to bother. Waste of time, waste of money, Josei Seven hears many saying — muttering, rather, for “you can’t say it out loud.” Conviviality is excellent, no doubt, but busy lives need time to themselves, a need not duly acknowledged by society in restless and insatiable pursuit of it knows not what — a pursuit whose “sanity” a mental health patient seeking refuge from it all may well dismiss as dubious.

“Sincerity moves heaven,” ancient Chinese wisdom claims — but how far does it get us here on Earth? Not far at all. Maybe nowhere. Whatever you do, Shukan Gendai magazine warned its aging readers in February, don’t discuss your finances with your grown children. They’re predators and you’re prey. Be watchful. Be on guard. Shut up.

It tells of a woman, newly widowed, anxious about her financial future. Her son was reassuring. “Leave it to me,” he said. “I’ll take care of you. Come and live with us.”

She’d scarcely settled in before the wheedling began. The children’s education fees were draining. Couldn’t grandma help? The family needed a bigger house — how about it, mother? Very well, said mom — take ¥10 million, keep the grandchildren in private school, buy a new house, be happy.

They were; she wasn’t. Her new environment didn’t suit her. She’d be better off living alone, in a group home perhaps. With moving in mind, she checked her bank balance and found it nearly depleted. So much for openness.

“The truth shall set you free,” says ancient Christian wisdom. It can also enslave you, adds modern secular wisdom. This is the story, reported by J-Cast News in March, of a Twitter storm raging round a municipal bus driver. His job rarely provokes controversy, but here he was — and here he is seen to be, thanks to the ubiquitous camera eye that can whisk anyone off to cyberspace in the blink of an eye — in the driver’s seat of his parked bus, reading manga.

It takes very little to get a Twitter storm going, and this apparently did it, most tweeters disapproving. The bus company promised disciplinary action if it could identify the driver. J-Cast took the matter all the way up to the transport ministry, whose spokesperson declared the driver’s conduct “inappropriate.”

Photographs don’t lie, it’s often said. If a photograph shows a driver reading manga, the driver is reading manga. There’s no escape for him, unless he can preserve his anonymity. The question the episode poses and leaves hanging is: How much truth is good for us?

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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