“A characteristically human trait,” writes zoologist Tadaaki Imaizumi in The 21 magazine, “is our capacity to think of others.”
But how delightful not to have to, he adds wryly.
We are social animals — but how refreshing, restorative, maybe even choice-worthy over society, is solitude!
The magazine devotes almost its entire April 9 issue to it. There’s good solitude and bad solitude, happy solitude and sad. Is the solitude chosen, or is it inflicted? Are you temperamentally suited to it, or not? Does it hang like a shadow over you, or beckon like a sunny day through an open window?
Good or bad, it’s spreading. Shrinking families and new technologies that free us (or cut us off) from collective engagement all favor it; the COVID-19 pandemic enforces it. Once the choice of hermits and the fate of unfortunates, solitude is now as mainstream as its opposite — community.
The magazine’s tone is upbeat; its overall title is “Enjoying solitude.” Half the battle is effacing its negative image. In too many minds, solitude is synonymous with failure — a failure to bond, to fit in, to attract a mate. Those are worthy pursuits for those who value them, pointless otherwise. The fact that nowadays there is always an “otherwise” — a non-mainstream option to draw, with society’s blessing, the non-mainstream individual — will perhaps be seen by future ages as our time’s greatest step forward.
The danger lies in the unconscious, all-too-common fusing of two words whose common root in Japanese blurs their distinction: kodoku (solitude) and koritsu (isolation). The former is potentially an asset. The latter is invariably a problem.
There’s solitude at home, and solitude at work; the solitude of the empty house and the solitude in the midst of the family grown indifferent; the solitude of a lonely decision-maker at the top of an enterprise, and the solitude of an aging employee out of step with the ever-changing times. There are so many ways to be alone.
“The manager,” writes Kazuhiko Toyama, CEO of Japan Platform of Industrial Transformation Inc. (JPiX), “is alone.” It’s exhilarating and terrifying. If you can’t take the terror, you won’t relish the exhilaration. Be a subordinate, then.
As such you’ll be a valued member of the team — gathering information, offering advice and keeping out of the boss’ way at decision-making time, for the decision is the boss’ alone to make, and he or she makes it in no-man’s land, population: one. Bold or cautious, imaginative or tried-and-true, a decision may prove right or it may prove wrong, even disastrous — well, that’s life! You lick your wounds, swallow the I-told-you-so’s, blame no one but yourself, cut your losses as best you can and move on, the richer for your pain and what it has taught you, the more resolved to be wiser in future.
The solitude of the homebound teleworker is on a different level altogether. Here the problem is separation from the group of which you’re a part. You miss the others’ encouragement, criticism, friendly banter. How can you function alone, in silence, with no one’s eye on you to keep you concentrating and industrious; surrounded, moreover, by all the distractions that make up your private life — games, widescreen TV, manga, the versatile smartphone and its multiple pleasures.
Hide the phone, counsels consultant Hideya Aihara. Remove the batteries from the TV remote control. Stuff the games and manga into a box; make them hard to get at. Well, that’s easy. If it’s not, what’ll become of you when real trouble strikes? What’ll you do when you get old?
Aging is where kodoku can blur into koritsu — healthy solitude into enervating isolation. The workplace today is not the workplace you knew when you had the youth and energy of those now scorning or pitying your out-of-step floundering in a new era not of your making and not much to your liking. So much novelty to adapt to, at a time of life when adaptability typically wanes in favor of other qualities, such as a stubborn conviction that the old ways were best and newness mere surface glitter concealing an empty core — and this at a time, moreover, of rising lifespans and mounting pressure to work into your 70s and beyond. Somehow youth and age will have to come to terms with each other — the former speeding the latter up, the latter perhaps slowing the former down to a less frenetic, more thoughtful pace.
Work done for the day, we head home. What awaits us? Anxiety, as likely as not. The interesting thing about anxiety, observes Junko Matsubara, whose NPO SSS Network assists people aging alone, is that no amount of security seems proof against it.
An empty house, an empty savings account — anxiety stripped naked. What sort of relief would a person aging in that situation wish for? Money and a family. But families spawn anxieties of their own and, as for money, “You can have ¥80 million in the bank and still be anxious,” Matsubara says.
Odder still — human feelings are capricious to this degree — you can be poor and alone and carefree. It’s all a matter of temperament — or of a mental discipline that molds the temperament to an accommodation with life as it is, however it is.
Japan is not conducive to it, Matsubara notes. Japan, she says, does not nurture self-reliance. Other nations do better. She mentions the Netherlands and Germany. There, young people typically leave the nest at 18. In Japan, childhood has no such abrupt termination. Sometimes it has no termination at all.
Imaizumi, the zoologist, says most animals are solitary. Herd animals seem social but bond, he says, “like crowds in Shibuya or Shinjuku” — hardly at all. Is aloneness, then, our natural inheritance?
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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