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The vexed question of happiness rarely brings a smile. Maybe we approach it wrong. Originally a state of mind, happiness at a certain point became a pursuit, a restless, consuming pursuit that seems to leave little time for enjoyment.

Here’s a portrait — courtesy of a magazine called PHP Archives (January) — of a happy man.

Koyuza Sanyutei never pursued happiness. He seems to have been born with it.

The year of his birth — 1947 — is significant, an island of calm between the war just past and the hyper-competitiveness soon to come. His elders were shell-shocked and hungry; his juniors, busy either cramming at home or cramming at after-school jukus, the next exam always looming, prospect-blighting failure forever threatening.

He was born between two fires. So were many others, of course, not all of them happy. And Sanyutei’s childhood has a gloomy, melancholy cast that seems an odd seedbed of happiness.

When Sanyutei was 10, his father was 60 and his mother 50 — relics, as the boy saw them, of a vanished age, the Meiji Period (1868-1912). Dad, as became an aging Meiji patriarch, was sternly taciturn. “Shut up and eat,” he’d snap at dinner if the boy started to speak of what he’d done at school that day. Turning to his wife, he’d grumble, “It’s your fault the boy is such a nuisance!”

Only the sourest of fathers would find so easygoing a child a nuisance. The boy was calm and uncomplaining, obedient and undemanding, a good student not because he was ambitious — decidedly he was not — but because studying came easily to him. The small pleasures of the day and the moment satisfied him. He gave no thought to the future. His sisters and brother, a decade and more older than he, were weekend companions, alternate parents. The weekend over, the house would seem eerily silent for a time — but that was normal, nothing to brood over. “There was nothing I lacked,” he tells PHP, “nothing to make me unhappy.”

A possible moral of the story: Happiness and unhappiness are within, not (short of extreme good or bad fortune) external. Another: A child who can grow up happy in such a household must have a talent for happiness not possessed by many.

Young Sanyutei listened to rakugo (traditional storytelling) on the radio. He liked it, absorbed it, mimicked it, performed for friends, won applause — and thought no more about it until, years later, a college friend asked, “What’ll you do after graduation?” What indeed? “Rakugo,” he said without a moment’s hesitation, surprising even himself.

And so it was. He is an eminent performer to this day.

Sanyutei’s is one of several miniature pen portraits PHP Archives strings together under the title “How to live each day happily.” If the stories breathe an innocence that hardly seems of this world, the word “archives” supplies the perspective. The stories are old. Sanyutei’s, the most recent, dates to 2018 — our era, chronologically, and yet pre-COVID-19; innocent at least in that sense.

Two events that year suggest the ambiguous nature of happiness these days. Thirteen former members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult were hanged for crimes that included the 1995 sarin gas attack on a Tokyo subway. And journalist Junpei Yasuda came home three years after his capture in Syria by one of numerous marauding war bands – the happiness of closure dimmed by the horror of that which was closed.

Meet my friend, Y-san, says author Yoshizo Nanba, addressing us from 1988 — as distant from us as late Meiji was from the child Sanyutei. What was happening in the world? It takes an effort to recall. Perestroika and glasnost — the liberalization of the Soviet Union. The first cracks in the Iron Curtain. The first detection of an extrasolar planet, now one of nearly 5,000 known. In Japan, the opening of the undersea Seikan Tunnel, then the world’s longest, linking Hokkaido and Honshu by rail. All in all, things seemed to be looking up. A new century, fast approaching, glimmered, maybe, like a new dawn.

What makes for happiness? Drink, says Nanba: “I’m not a drinker, I’m a big drinker” — an expansive drinker. Drink dissolves social constraints. You can talk loud, talk big, sing, dance. There are happy drinkers and sad drinkers, today’s happy drinker sad tomorrow — or maybe not, you never know.

A sad toper is no fit companion for a happy one. Nanba and Y met as writer and film producer. Y sober, says Nanba, is soft-spoken, self-effacing; tipsy he merrily spouts French and Chinese, whether correctly or not is another matter — who cares? Anyone can learn a language and speak it more or less correctly; it takes flair to speak pidgin beautifully, and that, says Nanba, is Y’s “hidden talent.” He doesn’t say what his own hidden talent is — maybe the ability to be happy, if only, or at least especially, under the influence. “People who don’t drink,” he says, “live in a narrow world — or maybe,” he adds diplomatically, “that’s just a prejudice of mine.”

Actually all the individuals PHP introduces in these “archives” live in a narrow world — their own. The wider, outside world doesn’t intrude. Happiness is private — as perhaps it must be, with the world lurching from crisis to crisis. Imminent as Nanba and Y drank all those years ago were revolutionary bucklings of the world they knew. They spawned the world we know. The Soviet Union crumbled, East and West Germany united. Yugoslavia broke up, the parts soon at war. Iraq invaded Kuwait and ran aground against a U.S.-led international coalition.

Drunk or sober, happy by nature or sad, you could look at all this and see hope or despair, neither mood doing violence to the facts. Today’s perspective must factor in COVID-19, global warming and democracy endangered — sobering prospects. Drink, said Nanba. Relax, said Sanyutei. It’s no longer that simple.

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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