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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:

正月に久々に会った友人たちは皆元気そうで安心した。ただやはり我々ももう30歳を迎え,気になることはいくつかあった。まず,一番面白いというかショックというか複雑な現象だなと感じたのは,「今何やってるの?」という質問が禁句になっているということだ。

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.

10人ぐらい集まると,ご時世なのかもしれないが,1人2人はフリーターのような生活を送っているものもいる。そういう人間への配慮だろうか,「今何やってるの?」は禁句であり,仕事の話も極力避けようという空気があった。

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.

さらに,ある友人は彼女を連れてきていたのだが,この2人に対して「結婚」の話題を持ち出すのもタブーである。以前私はある友人に彼女を紹介され,「結婚するの?」と聞いたところ空気がものすごくどよーんとしたことがあった。同席者には後から,「あんなこと聞いちゃ駄目だよ」と怒られた。そうなのか。

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?

思い出話も悪くないが,それだけでずっと持つものではない。皆一所懸命生きているのだし,色々と思うこともあるだろう。また,旧友たちと仕事上の関係を持っておくのも悪くない。しかしそれは我々のグループにおいてはタブーとなってきている。お互いを傷つけあわないようにするためのルールなのだろう。しかし,そういう関係は長続きするのだろうかという気もする。

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.

私も研究者として自立できているわけではないから,旧友たちと会うのはひどく緊張する時期があった。当時会社に入って3〜4年の友人は,私の不安定な立場をなじり,「いいよなあ気楽で」とテンプレートのようなことを言い,「こっちだって大変だよ」と言った私に対して「ふざけるな」と声をあげた。会社員がいかにつらいか,お前らに分かってたまるかということらしい。

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.

それはそれで悲惨な思い出ではあるのだが,私もその経験を乗り越えて強くなった。当時,怒りもしたが,しかし自分の甘さを痛感しもした。自分の言葉に説得力がないから,彼は私を馬鹿にしたのだろうと思った。

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.

そして,今年は今自分がやっていることを皆に伝え,理解してもらおうと思っていた。相手の苦労も聞いてあげたいと思った。しかし,いつの間にか,研究者への道を目指すということは,それほど大変なこととは認識されなくなっていた。今,何よりも大変なのは会社員であり,さらに現在職を持たない人間は,他人からの罵倒に日々怯えながら生きていかないといけないような立場にあるのである。

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.

飲み会は3次会,4次会まで続き,参加人数が減ってくると,徐々に場の話題はネガティブなものへと移ってきた。みんな実は我慢していたのだろう。会社という組織がいかに不愉快な場所かという話を延々聞かされた。私も正直愚痴りたいことはあったが,とても切り出せるような空気ではなかった。とにかく恐ろしいことは,今自分が所属している会社を誇りに思っている人間が,我々のグループの中には1人もいないという現実であった。

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.

我々の30代はそんな感じで幕を開けた。みな,20代の頃は寄り道しながらも精一杯走ってきた。少し疲れがたまってきたのが今の我々だろう。この10年間をどのように過ごすかということについて,明るい未来を想像している人間は,我々の中にはいなかった。とにかく,生き残ることのみに皆関心を集中させていた。

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.

日本は豊かな国なのだろうか。不思議になる。少なくともそこに生きる我々は,あまり自分のことを幸せだとは思っていない。他人は蹴落とす対象であり,自分もまた他人にいつでも蹴落とされる存在である。上司は信用できず,部下の言うことはいちいち腹立たしい。みんながみんなそこまで病んではいないだろうが,会社で働く人間であればそういう要素を少なからず持っているように思う。

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.

今自分がやっている仕事の話を笑顔でする。それはもはや贅沢なことであるようだ。しかし実現不可能なことではないはずだ。30歳の友人たちに会って,私は,10年後,「今自分は何をやっている」という話を自分が出来て,友人にも聞くことができる状況になっていることを心から期待して,その場を後にした。

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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