As Japan's Star Fades, Many Struggle for Hope

As Japan's economic growth continues to shrink each year, the Japanese, more and more disconnected from their families and friends thanks to grueling works days and the Internet's erosion of personal relationships, are finding it difficult to put on a happy face.

Many are pessimistic about Japan's future. With rising unemployment and a widening income gap shrinking the middle class, Japan was outpaced by neighboring China in economic growth in 2010, knocking the land of the rising sun into third place in global rankings.

General elections in December 2012 ushered Japan's conservative party back into power, but so far this has not done away with the country's economic uncertainty.

But at a time when most people would turn to their family and friends to help manage the stress, the Japanese find that their personal relationships at home, in the workplace, and within their local communities are weakening. According to a government survey on Japanese lifestyles, Japanese people today have less time with family and friends due in part to longer work hours. People have even coined two new terms in Japanese to describe this lonely condition – “Muen Shakai” [ja], meaning “isolation society,” and “Komyu-Shō” [ja], meaning “communication disorder” to describe a person's poor ability to communicate or foster relationships.


Image by Flickr user FireWaterSun. Used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

So how can people possibly chin up with such a depressing state of affairs? Dr. Kei offers a clue to readers in the following post [ja], reprinted with permission, to help them hold on to hope and regain a sense of happiness despite the times:

Life is Good As Long As You are Alive

-When Japan Flies in Low Altitude”

Where is Japan headed? Where or what will the Japanese people aim for in their lives?

I feel such questions were often asked last year. The general election at the year's end seemed to have reflected the tough situations people live Japan. In the election campaign, the most emphasized slogan was “Let us restore a strong Japan”. What is “a strong Japan” [ja]…

There was a time when Japan was strong, the days we used to be called “number one” [ja] in the world, and was caught up in a moment. It was a time when Japan was a technology-orientated nation and the world was excited by products “made in Japan”. “Walkman” dominated the world. A large number of nuclear plants were constructed to exploit the new “nuclear power” energy resource. Japan was once strong.

But originally, Japanese people also understand well the fact that “it's impossible to keep winning” and “anyone can't remain in power forever”. Although it is free for individuals to envision power, everything changes eventually and no one can prosper forever. Such common ideas are another side of Japanese culture.

[The following quote is from a the Tale of the Heike [en], a narrative story of two major clans in the late 12th century]

祇園精舎の鐘の声 諸行無常の響きあり 沙羅双樹の花の色
盛者必衰の理をあらわす おごれる人も久しからず ただ春の世の夢のごとし
たけき者も遂には滅びぬ 偏に風の前の塵に同じ

The knell of the bells at the Gion temple
Echoes the impermanence of all things.
The colour of the flowers on its double-trunked tree
Reveals the truth that to flourish is to fall.
He who is proud is not so for long,
Like a passing dream on a night in spring.
He who is brave is finally destroyed,
To be no more than dust before the wind.

[ The translation by P.G.O'Neill sited from The Tale of the Heike]

Do we have to remain a “strong nation” in the world?
Do we have to aim higher?
Do we have to live as a developed nation exploiting nuclear power?
Do we have to “grow”?
Do we have to carry out public projects and build more roads?
Do we have to seek wealthier lives?

Certainly, the energy to “go higher” is important. I myself also live with the aim to “go higher” everyday, and I think the power of “higher” should never be denied. In addition, nobody can deprive anyone of the freedom to want to be stronger or richer. It is possible for anyone to be strong or rich and it's natural for a human being to pursue such desires.

But when I observe Japan as a whole, I increasingly see people who cannot be vocal about going “higher”, people who have given up on going “higher” or those don't even think about it from the beginning. Rather, they are “maintaining the status quo”, “flying low”, or “sinking”. People who don't have enough physical and emotional energy to aim higher. Instead of saying “even if I'm poor, I'll be rewarded someday so I'll make an effort”, there are people who say “I'm poor and I won't be rewarded so it's hopeless”.

It's free to aim for a “strong Japan” but when I see Japanese living in Japan, they seem to become weak long ago. Of course some people are strong, but in general, for me they appear weak, crying and tied down and unable to move.



“Joy”, by Flickr user ooberayhay.
Used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I think Japan is taking a downturn… Everybody feels this. Even if we aim for a stronger Japan, it will only increase the “national debt” [ja] in reality and it's probably impossible for us to escape economic stagnation in this lifetime. This is because we're approaching the unprecedented “hyper aging society” [ja], which nobody has ever experienced before.


Under these circumstances, we need to pay closer attention to the basics of life. It is not a time for excessive luxury. It is even difficult in this era to have “small luxuries”. We need to put value on something other than material wealth. Ultimately, it is “the realization that we are alive”. As long as we are alive, it is fine. We are alive and we have something to eat for now. In which case, isn't it important to be able to have a sense of satisfaction for now?

You have family. You have someone close to you. You can listen to your favorite music. You have food. You have shelter for now. You have clothes to wear. You have the sense to feel satisfied with those. In other words, to feel satisfied with your daily life as it is and to feel happy that you can live life everyday. Perhaps happy people, rich or poor, may have this interpretation. Unhappy people cannot feel such happiness over being alive. What they feel is “insufficiency”, a “lack”, and an “inferiority complex”. We don't learn this at school. These are things that come from home or somewhere else you belong. We exist on this earth now. We can live. We're still alive. Can't we find hope in it?

translated with help of Isamu Yoneda, Keiko Tanaka and edited by L.Finch


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