In an editorial deploring Japan’s disgraceful world ranking with respect to gender equality — 120th among 156 countries, according to the Swiss-based think tank World Economic Forum — the Asahi Shimbun on April 1 wondered why Japan is unable to change. Could it be, it speculated, that voters are indifferent, resigned?

If that is the explanation, it in turn demands one. Present circumstances, domestic and global, concerning this particular issue and many others besides, press so urgently on every side, clamor so insistently for attention and commitment, that indifference or resignation seems hardly compatible with living and breathing. The world is in ferment. Japan alone, it sometimes seems, is inert.

The April 3 edition of Shukan Gendai magazine considers inertia from a purely personal standpoint, challenging its aging readers to fling it off at last. For some months now it has been running a series on life at the end of life. People in their 60s, 70s and beyond should get their affairs in order — sort out their finances, settle their bequests, prepare for life alone before (not after) death claims a wife or husband. Husbands should learn housework, wives asset management. Many are the poignant tales of widowers who can’t cook themselves a decent meal (or even operate the washing machine!), and widows who know nothing of what’s owned and what’s owed.

The inertia it weighs in the balance this month concerns personal relationships. Are the obligations they entail worth their rewards? If not, why fulfill them? Because you always have? Because custom demands it?

A small but significant liberation was achieved by a certain Mr. Nakamura who, 65 and retired, was wrapping the traditional five ¥10,000 notes as a gift to a nephew about to start his first job. His wife protested: “We can’t afford that any more.” Nakamura paused. It was true. Still, custom is custom! One’s nephew is one’s nephew!

Perplexed and embarrassed, he telephoned his younger brother. He explained. “You do understand, don’t you?” “Yes, of course,” said his brother, readily enough. And so the gift was scaled down.

How much of life is ruled by custom? asks Shukan Gendai. We socialize with people we don’t much like, humor the whims of relatives because they’re relatives, assume this obligation and that because society seems to demand it of us, and meanwhile our lives ebb away. If ever there’s a time to seize freedom, to live for oneself, the final years are surely it, the magazine says. “Be brave,” it urges. “Don’t let others rob you of time that is your own.” Where inertia rules, you do not.

Gender equality is a global theme. It’s discussed everywhere, advocated en masse, pursued tenaciously and implemented more or less vigorously across an increasingly broad spectrum. Japan itself was volubly committed to it for seven years under former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who in 2013 promised “a society in which women shine.” Japan then ranked 105th.

Inertia is not all bad. If paralysis is its negative face, calm is its positive one. The world at large is not calm. Japan, relatively speaking, is. (Even the COVID-19 pandemic has, relatively speaking, dealt mildly with Japan.) Most Japanese, awed though they may be by the heroism of perfectly ordinary people like themselves standing boldly in defiance of the bullets, jails and implements of torture wielded by thuggish, amoral and murderous regimes digging in from Venezuela to Hong Kong, Belarus to Myanmar, are probably pleased to be living where calm prevails and heroism is superfluous.

Citizens becalmed are apt to doubt their own capacity to rise to an occasion calling for heroism. Put to the test, they may surprise themselves. Protesters by the thousands and tens of thousands knowingly and unflinchingly putting life, limb and personal freedom on the line around the world were themselves ordinary citizens until altered circumstances called forth in them qualities they very likely did not know they possessed. If Japan is ever overrun by the sinister forces gaining ground elsewhere, its own ordinary citizens may do themselves no less proud.

Very little of the global turmoil makes its way into the Japanese weekly magazines that are this column’s prime sources. COVID-19 has forced some degree of globalism into their reporting, but other countries and their tortured politics are scarcely acknowledged. Increasingly over the years, national politics too has faded from view. Shukan Bunshun is the outstanding exception. To it we owe much of our knowledge of the amoral filth that poisons Japan’s political and commercial air. The ethical and legal lapses the magazine’s investigative reporting has bared run the familiar gamut: cronyism, coverup, data falsification, wining and dining and vote-buying. Otherwise, post-politics prevails. What’s post-politics? The purely personal — ordinary people pursuing ordinary goals, politics considered only to the extent that it furthers or hampers that pursuit.

If political tyranny is dormant, there are other kinds that are not. Pawahara (harassment by those in power) has seeped deep into the national vocabulary since its coining in 2002. A third of Japan’s workforce suffers from it, labor ministry statistics show. Complaints of it numbered 87,570 in 2019 — a doubling in 10 years. A law against it went into effect last year. Its impact awaits assessment.

Political tyrants can kill, jail and torture. Corporate tyrants can fire, demote, cut pay, abuse and insult with virtual impunity. Who are the worst power harassers? “Elite seniors,” Spa magazine declared in a March report. A 26-year-old office worker describes the aggressive frustration of his company’s 75-year-old president, a powerful man accustomed to getting his own way but at sea in the new digital universe. “Buy your own!” he thunders when prodded about the office computer shortage. When your livelihood is at the mercy of people like that, you live under tyranny in fact if not in name.

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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