Let’s travel back in time for a moment. The 1966 edition of Fodor’s Guide to Japan and East Asia contained a 34-page introductory essay by famed translator and literary scholar Edward Seidensticker titled “Japan: A crowded, lonely land.”
“Although a Japanese is seldom alone, it may be said that he is frequently, perhaps even characteristically, lonely,” wrote Seidensticker. “Japan is not a society of relaxed, easy associations. … All in all it is a chilly, fragmented, constricting world.”
Whether the above is true or not, the government under Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga recently announced steps to address the problem of loneliness, which over the past 14 months has almost certainly been aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Feb. 12, a new Cabinet-level post called kodoku, koritsu taisaku tantō daijin (minister of loneliness and isolation) came into existence, with veteran LDP politician Tetsushi Sakamoto appointed to take charge.
For the record, Japan was not the first country to create such an office; that honor goes to the U.K., whose former Prime Minister Theresa May appointed Tracey Crouch as the nation’s first minister for loneliness in 2018.
Weekly Playboy (April 5) devotes six pages to the topic, quoting Sakamoto as saying government efforts to address the problem up to now have been conducted in a piecemeal fashion. For the new department to achieve any results, Sakamoto remarked, the various ministries and agencies will need to coordinate their efforts, while also harnessing local governments and NPOs.
Weekly Playboy proceeded to survey 500 men between 25 to 49 years of age, segmenting them into three income groups: 200 earning less than ¥3 million per year; 200 earning between ¥3 million to ¥7 million per year; and 100 earning over ¥7 million per year.
The questions focused on “social loneliness” and “psychological loneliness.”
In the case of social loneliness, for example, as opposed to 40% in the lowest income group who replied that they “almost never feel lonely,” the figure for the medium income group rose to 50.5%. And for the top income group, 59.3% said they almost never felt lonely — a roughly 20% difference between the bottom and the top groups.
Conversely, respondents saying they always felt lonely correlated inversely with income levels, at 22.8%, 9.9% and 4.2%, respectively.
The responses concerning psychological loneliness also reflected sharp differences based on income: from lowest to highest, 45%, 53.7% and 63.5% said they seldom felt lonely, whereas those who replied that they always felt lonely were 20.6%, 9.9% and 3.1%, respectively.
Roughly two-thirds of respondents in the lowest income segment said they lacked a sympathetic ear with whom they could discuss personal problems or work-related concerns — at 65% and 69.4%, respectively. That’s a major contrast with men in the highest income bracket, at 28.1% for both.
From responses to its survey, Weekly Playboy concludes it’s clear that a “cruel correlation” exists between annual income and degree of loneliness.
All three groups were in agreement that efforts by the government were unlikely to achieve much success in alleviating loneliness. Positive responses by those in the lowest income bracket — i.e., those who stood to benefit most — reached only 20%.
Is a samurai revival near?
For many decades in the previous century, the genre of jidaigeki (period dramas) held a respectable share of commercial TV fare. Due to the diminishing interest among younger viewers, however, reruns of old classics and a small number of new productions are now mostly broadcast to paying subscribers on Jidaigeki Senmon, a dedicated cable TV channel.
Some in the industry, however, are very much determined to keep the genre alive. Yukan Fuji (March 22) reports that a new consortium called Jidaigeki Partners has been formed in the hopes of reviving flagging interest in swashbuckling samurai.
One of the group’s first moves was to announce plans for three full-length films in 2023 and 2024. Two will feature the exploits of assassin-for-hire Fujieda Baian, a trained acupuncturist who kills swiftly and silently using a special needle that leaves practically no marks on his victims. Actor Etsushi Toyokawa, 59, is slated to appear in the lead role.
Then, in 2024, comes “Onihei Hankacho” (“Casebook of Hei the Fiend”), with 48-year-old kabuki actor Matsumoto Koshiro X portraying Hasegawa Heizo, a real-life lawman who headed Edo’s robbery-arson squad in the late 18th century.
All three are based on works by Shotaro Ikenami (1923-90), one of the most popular and prolific writers of the genre.
In addition to producing films for posterity, head producer Tomoyuki Miyagawa of Nihon Eiga Broadcasting Corporation discussed his strong sense of duty toward maintaining the authentic replicas of old towns and villages in Kyoto, where the period dramas are filmed. He also underscored the importance of nurturing younger production staff, who can only obtain the necessary technical skills through hands-on experience.
“Through period dramas, Japanese can encounter the qualities of giri (duty) and ninjō (compassion),” says Miyagawa. “I want to firmly describe their feelings of furtive romance and love for one’s family.”
Nonetheless, Miyagawa concedes it’s also necessary to cater to today’s audiences by incorporating elements into the scripts that relate to the present.
Perry Ogino, a researcher of period dramas, sees appeal in their seemingly “absurd” aspects, such as how people in former times would unhesitatingly kill or commit seppuku (suicide by ritual disembowelment) to demonstrate loyalty to their lord.
“Unlike contemporary works, which strive to invoke a sense of empathy with audiences, the old stories provide us with a different set of values, by which we can look back on ourselves,” he says.
“Preserving these traditions will foster the creation of other unique works,” Ogino remarks, adding, “We can look forward to the further enrichment of the period drama culture.”
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