Japan: “What are you up to now?” has become a taboo question

With the world economy in a recession, the local auto industry in the slumps, even department store hours curtailed in an attempt to cut costs — not to mention temporary facilities, parks and net cafes filling up with the country's new homeless — many in Japan have lost some of their hope in the future.

In an entry that attracted a great deal of sympathy from readers [ja], blogger koheko reflects on the impact of the slowdown in the national and global economy on human relationships with friends and colleagues [ja]. Not only has life become difficult in material terms, the blogger explains, but it has also made conversations difficult, as many topics — particularly those to do with work — are now taboo:


Over the new year I met with friends of mine for the first time in a while, and I was glad to learn that they are all doing well. But at the same time, we've all hit our thirties now, and there were some things that concerned me. First, what was most interesting, or should I perhaps say shocking — feels to me like a complex phenomenon — but the question “what are you up to now?” seems to have become taboo.


Maybe it's a sign of the times, but when ten or so people come together, there will always be one or two who of them who are living the life of a freeter. I guess it was out of consideration for these people, but because of this, [when meeting with my friends,] the question, “What are you up to now?” was taboo, and people were doing all they could to avoid the topic of work.


On top of this, one of my friends who came to the party brought his girlfriend along, and as it turns out, asking the two of them about “marriage” is also taboo. I was earlier introduced to the girlfriend of a friend of mine, and when I asked her, “So are you getting married?”, the atmosphere suddenly turned really uncomfortable. Someone else who was there later told me, “You can't ask people questions like that!” Really?


Reminiscing about old times is not a bad thing, but those kinds of [conversations] will not last. Everybody is putting all they can into living their lives, and I guess they have a lot of things on their minds. Also, it is not necessarily a bad thing to form work relations with old friends. In my [meeting with my] group of friends, though, this was also taboo. I guess this is a kind of [unwritten] rule to avoid causing harm to each other. I also have to wonder, though, if those kinds of [work] relations [between old friends] can really hold up for a long time.


There was a period during which I myself, as a researcher, was not able to support myself independently, and so whenever I met with friends, I would get incredibly nervous. Friends of mine who at the time had worked at a company for 3-4 years would scoff at my precarious situation, and throw some template line at me — “Lucky you, easygoing life you have!” — and when I would respond [by explaining that] “It's hard work, you know”, they would shout at me “you've got to be kidding”. The life of company employees is hell, and there's no way that I would understand, apparently.


Those are difficult memories for me, but I have learned from those experiences and become stronger thanks to them. At the time, I used to get angry, but I also felt very keenly how much of a pushover I was. I thought to myself, what I'm saying is not compelling, that's why they're making such a fool out of me.


So I thought: this year I will try and explain to people what it is I am doing, try to get them to understand. I'll also offer [them] a listening ear when they talk about their hardships. Before I knew it, however, the path to becoming a researcher seemed not to be regarded as such a terribly difficult thing. The ones facing the most difficult times right now are company employees, and even more so those who do not have work, who have to live every day enduring scorn from other people.


By the third or fourth drinking party [with my friends], the number of attendees had dropped, and little by little the tone of conversations turned negative. I guess up until then, everyone had just been holding it in. I was lectured at great length about how unpleasant a place companies are. Honestly, there were things that I also wanted to complain about, but it was not at all the kind of atmosphere where I could cut in [and make my point]. But what was really scary to me was that, among my whole group of friends, there was not a single person who felt any pride in the company where they worked.


And this is how we kicked off our thirties. In our twenties, all of us were running full steam ahead, taking the long route to life. But now the fatigue has built up, I think we're all just tired. Out of our whole group, there was not a single person who, thinking about how they would spend the next ten years, envisioned a bright future. Everyone was concentrating their attention on just getting by for the time being, and nothing else.


I have to wonder, is Japan really such an affluent country? It's a mystery. At least among my friends and I who are living here, we don't tend to think of ourselves as happy. Trample over the next guy to get by, but you could also be trampled over at any time, that's the way we live. You can't rely on your boss, and everything your subordinates say to you irritates you. Not everybody is in such a dire situation I guess, but at least among those who are working at companies, more than a few of these phrases will ring true.


I smile when I talk about the work that I am doing right now. It seems that it's a real luxury to be able to do that nowadays. But it's also not something that is impossible to achieve. After meeting my 30-year-old friends, I thought to myself that in ten years from now, I hope I will be able to talk about “what I am up to”, and also be able to ask them the same question — [I made that wish to myself], and then I left the party.

This blog entry was translated in its entirety with permission of the blogger.

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