Positive thinking is wonderful. Many are the paeans sung to it. It promotes health and upward mobility. It’s self-fulfilling — or so positive thinkers think; they wouldn’t be positive thinkers otherwise. If you think you’ll succeed, you’re likely to.
Negative thinking, too, can be self-fulfilling. To launch an enterprise in the uneasy spirit suggested by a U.S. Bureau of Labor finding that 70% of start-up businesses fail within a decade is to court failure within a decade, if not sooner.
Last month, President magazine touched on this theme in its feature on sleep, which this column discussed on Aug. 7. Yasuma Kuroki, a retired Japan Airlines crew member, looks back on 20,000 hours in the air over 30 years. He’s been round the world some 860 times. There’s not much he wouldn’t know about jet lag and other sleep-related problems associated with air travel. His solution? Positive thinking.
As chief purser he had ample opportunity to observe passengers. Those in first-class tend to be high-ranking executives, VIPs — first-class people, as some arrange the human hierarchy. They have a characteristic in common, he tells President. They think positive.
It’s partly a matter of brain waves. The alpha waves spawned by (and spawning in turn) optimism favor relaxation and ultimately deep, restorative sleep — no small reward, as Japan’s many insomniacs know. Pessimism generates beta waves, which can keep you awake at night. Optimism seems worth cultivating on that account alone.
And it can be cultivated, Kuroki believes. He gives an example. Making small talk with passengers, he’d say, “Nice weather we’re having.” “Yes,” someone might reply, “but the forecast said rain this evening.” Well, the forecast might have said that — but why mention it? The typical first-class passenger knows better: “Very nice indeed,” he or she smiles, raising a Champagne glass to sunshine and blue skies.
South of mainland Japan is a beautiful stretch of ocean known as the East China Sea. The islands of southern Okinawa Prefecture are blessed indeed, if beauty is a blessing. White sand, turquoise waters and prismatic coral reefs suggest paradise itself — to the divers and snorkelers the islands draw in droves, if not to soberer observers like Bungei Shunju magazine, whose August issue, though having much to say about Miyako, Irabu and Shimoji islands, seems almost blind to their seductive beauty. It focuses instead on their proximity to Taiwan.
Taiwan casts a long shadow. China claims it, and the moral right to invade it. Japan, in alliance with the United States, upholds Taiwan’s independence. Upheaval in Taiwan would roil Miyako’s waters and churn Shimoji’s sands. Thus the military vigilance there of which Bungei Shunju writes, symbolized in particular by the presence of the American III Military Expeditionary Force, whose motto — “Forward. Faithful. Focused.” — is reassuring to some, ominous to others, depending on point of view, positive or negative.
Positive thinking applied to one’s personal life is, if it doesn’t come naturally, a discipline more or less easily acquired. The world at large is different. Or maybe it isn’t — but at the very least it’s very much larger, and therefore less amenable to a sunny outlook that defies the gravity of things. China, its power and confidence surging, inspires no sunny thoughts in partisans of freedom, human rights and peace.
“The malign influence of the regime in China, the world’s most populous dictatorship, was especially profound in 2020,” writes the nonprofit nongovernmental human rights group Freedom House in a report titled “Freedom in the World 2021: Democracy Under Siege.” Bungei Shunju’s visit to the lovely Okinawa islands is in connection with its own variation on that theme, titled “The Ambition and Pathology of the Chinese Communist Party.”
They are boundless and ruthless, in the magazine’s view. Examples raised, besides Taiwan, are repression in Hong Kong and human rights abuses in the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region — amounting to slave labor, say some; to genocide, say others. As typical of democracy’s tepid response the magazine cites Japan’s Fast Retailing, parent company of clothing giant Uniqlo, which, pleading political neutrality, continues to use cotton produced by Uyghur labor.
The Freedom House report constitutes a formidable challenge to positive thinkers. “As a lethal pandemic, economic and physical insecurity, and violent conflict ravaged the world in 2020,” it says, “democracy’s defenders sustained heavy new losses in their struggle against authoritarian foes, shifting the international balance in favor of tyranny.”
Under tyranny, at least, life goes on, after a fashion. In 1947, an organization called the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists created a Doomsday Clock to assess even deadlier thrusts of fate, viciousness, recklessness and stupidity. In its words, “The clock has become a universally recognized indicator of the world’s vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change and disruptive technologies in other domains.”
The clock now stands at “100 seconds to midnight” — “closer than ever.” “In the nuclear realm,” the Bulletin writes, “national leaders have ended or undermined several major arms control treaties and negotiations during the last year, creating an environment conducive to a renewed nuclear arms race, to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and to lowered barriers to nuclear war.”
One reads that and shudders and then, maybe, forgets it. A positive thinker might say, “They’ve been preaching doom since the dawn of the atomic age; we’re still here; much ado about nothing.”
On climate change, positive thinking is harder. Former U.S. President Donald Trump is its outstanding exemplar, but increasingly extreme weather mocks his periodic dismissal of the threat as a hoax. (He was a positive thinker on COVID-19, too. “It’s going to disappear,” he declared very early on. It may yet.)
A report released earlier this month by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirms the worst fears of negative thinkers — a disastrous and irreversible global warming within 20 years, barring urgent action not so far in evidence.
Positive thinkers, do not let that be the last word on the subject.
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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