Aera magazine last month told this story: A 39-year-old woman working in her Tokyo apartment was interrupted by a buzz from the interphone. The caller was furious. “Will you kindly stop pacing the floor like that all day long? Thud, thud, thud! It’s driving me crazy!”
The woman was astonished. Through the peephole she recognized the man living directly below her. She hadn’t been pacing, she said, she’d been working on her computer. “Don’t give me that!” the man barked.
Frightened, the woman hung up and called the building superintendent — who found that whatever noise the man had heard could not have come from her. Possibly it had come from another residence. Soundproof tape was applied to the relevant vents. But the woman’s peace was shattered. She hardly knows the man. Is he sane? One never knows. “If I’m found dead, he’s the one who did it,” she told friends, only half joking.
Tower mansions have an ambience all their own. The very name suggests it. It’s a Japanese coinage, meaning high-rise condominium and commonly abbreviated as “tawaman.” Spa magazine this month spins its own variation on the tawaman blues.
It features among others celebrity-entrepreneur Yuta Misaki, 31-year-old “prince of green juice” — aojiru, a juice made from green vegetables, bitter to the taste but healthy enough, apparently, to make it palatable to those of hardcore commitment. Misaki, who started his own marketing company in 2007 at age 18 and was soon turning over ¥13 billion a year, had a better idea. He’d sweeten the drink and extend its appeal. Thus his nickname.
Rise high, fall hard, as the proverb has it. Misaki’s conflict with the tax authorities got him bashed badly on social media. Fans and admirers are the harshest judges when the going gets tough. The celebrity forsaken — is there anything lonelier than that?
There is, Misaki tells Spa. “Never have I felt more alone,” he says, “than when, at the height of my success, I moved into a tower mansion.”
It’s in the heart of Tokyo. He looks out his window at night and the whole vast city winks up at him. “Take me, I’m yours,” it seems to say. Rent is ¥1 million a month. Interior decorators he set to work on his dream nest billed him ¥30 million. He got his money’s worth. He had everything. Why, then, the sudden onrush of despair? Inexplicable but inescapable. Human nature is strange. There’s no accounting for it. Having everything you want can feel as empty as having nothing you want.
Tower mansions figure only incidentally in Spa’s and Aera’s coverage. The larger theme in both is how home can turn into a kind of prison, the coronavirus standing guard. But the syndrome predates it. The four walls shrink. Inmates are restless, irritable, sometimes explosive. Aera records incidents of neighbors, formerly strangers, now getting unpleasantly acquainted via stray noises, tobacco and cooking odors, trash — whatnot. It takes so little to set us at each other’s throats. No wonder there are wars in the world.
Spa’s theme is loneliness. It’s pervasive. A salesman working at home due to the virus feels it acutely. Faces on-screen are not faces off-screen, not alive in the same way. The virus will end, he’ll return to his normal rounds — sadder, though and wiser, because now he realizes how few friends he has in the world apart from work. It’s a discovery being forced on many.
A career woman newly back at work after maternity and child care leave fights a different loneliness. Reassigned to a different department, she’s a fish out of water, her old skills useless, new ones not yet mastered. It would help to have someone to talk to about it. Her husband? “He has his life, I have mine.” Independence has its price. She’s paying it.
A 19-year-old girl Spa speaks to lives with her father. The virus that keeps them home together has them on “Cold War” terms. Silently they glare at each other. She needs money for college. “Go out and earn it,” he growls. Trolling the net she discovered papa-katsu — providing paid companionship to older men. She goes through the motions, feeling lonelier than ever.
In January 2019 the BBC introduced a 69-year-old pensioner named Toshio Takata: “Small, slender, and with a tendency to giggle, Toshio looks nothing like a habitual criminal, much less someone who’d threaten women with knives.” The story’s headline puts it in context: “Why some Japanese pensioners want to go to jail.” They’re poor, they’re lonely. They’re fueling a rise in elderly crime. Takata flashed a knife at some women in a park, figuring they’d call the police. They did. The police came, the law took its course. It relieved Takata of the burden of freedom.
Many elderly in Japan are similarly minded, the BBC found. Poverty is a struggle, loneliness a black hole. Takata’s first offense, committed at 62, was bicycle theft. He rode the stolen bike to a police station and turned himself in. He served a year, was released. The knife symbolizes impatience with short sentences. The longer the better. “Just get me out of here,” he seems to be saying — “here” being the outside world.
On a soccer pitch in Chiba in May, as Myanmar’s national anthem played, Myanmar goalkeeper Pyae Lyan Aung raised three fingers — a stunning gesture, a symbolic revolt. Was it premeditated? Impulsive? Either way, there’s no going back now. Fearing arrest if he returns, he applied for asylum and was granted a six-month visa. With freedom crushed in his homeland and under threat in much of the world, he staked all he had on freedom — and on Japan. His implicit message to Japan is: Be worthy.
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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