Time for ourselves is both a curse and a blessing

Last month, Aera magazine told this story: A 39-year-old woman working in her Tokyo apartment was interrupted by a hum from the intercom. The appellant was furious. “Would you kindly stop pacing like this all day?” Noise, noise, noise! It drives me crazy!”

The woman was surprised. Through the peephole, she recognized the man living just below her. She hadn’t paced, she said, she was working on her computer. “Don’t give me that!” barked the man.

Frightened, the woman hung up and called the building superintendent – who discovered that the noise the man had heard couldn’t be coming from her. Maybe he came from another residence. Soundproof tape has been applied to the affected vents. But the woman’s peace was broken. She barely knows the man. Is he sane? We never know. “If I was found dead, he was the one who did it,” she told friends, half-joking.

The mansions of the towers have an atmosphere of their own. The name itself suggests it. It is a Japanese currency, meaning a condominium and commonly abbreviated as “tawaman. “Spa magazine is offering its own variation on the Tawaman blues this month.

It presents among others the celebrity-entrepreneur Yuta Misaki, “prince of green juice” of 31 years – aojiru, a juice made from green vegetables, bitter in taste but apparently healthy enough to make it palatable to enthusiasts. Misaki, who started her own marketing company in 2007 at the age of 18 and soon made 13 billion yen a year, had a better idea. It would sweeten the drink and expand its appeal. Hence his nickname.

Rise high, fall strong, as the saying goes. Misaki’s conflict with the tax authorities sharply criticized him on social media. Fans and admirers are the toughest judges when the going gets tough. Celebrity Abandoned, is there anything more lonely than this?

There is, says Misaki to Spa. “I have never felt more alone,” he says, “than when, at the height of my success, I moved into a mansion tower.”

It is in the heart of Tokyo. He looks out his window at night and the whole vast city winks at him. “Take me, I am yours,” he seems to be saying. The rent is 1 million yen per month. The interior designers he put to work on his dream nest billed him 30 million yen. He gets his money’s worth. He had it all. Why, then, the sudden rise in despair? Inexplicable but inescapable. Human nature is strange. There is no accounting for this. Having everything you want can seem as empty as having nothing you want.

Tower mansions only incidentally feature in the coverage of Spa and Aera. The larger theme of the two is how the house can turn into a sort of prison, with the coronavirus standing guard. But the syndrome is earlier. The four walls are shrinking. The inmates are restless, irritable, sometimes explosive. Aera records incidents of neighbors, once strangers, now getting to know each other unpleasantly via extraneous noises, smells of tobacco and cooking, garbage – and so on. It takes so little to get our throats down. No wonder there are wars in the world.

The theme of the spa is solitude. It’s ubiquitous. A salesperson working from home because of the virus feels it intensely. Faces on-screen are not off-screen faces, not alive in the same way. The virus will end, he will return to his normal tours – sadder, however, and wiser, because now he realizes how few friends he has in the world outside of work. It is a discovery imposed on many.

A career woman newly back to work after maternity and childcare leave struggles with a different loneliness. Reassigned to another department, she is a fish out of water, her old skills useless, the new ones not yet mastered. It would help to have someone to talk to about it. Her husband? “He has his life, I have mine. Independence comes at a price. She pays him.

A 19-year-old Spa girl talks about life with her father. The virus that keeps them together at home has them in “cold war” terms. Silently, they look at each other. She needs money for college. “Go out and win it,” he growls. Dragging the net, she discovered papa-katsu – provide paid companionship for older men. She goes through the movements, feeling more alone than ever.

In January 2019, the BBC introduced a 69-year-old retiree named Toshio Takata: “Small, slim and with a tendency to laugh, Toshio looks nothing like a regular criminal, let alone someone who would threaten women with knives. The title of the article puts it in context: “Why some Japanese retirees want to go to jail.” They are poor, they are alone. They are fueling an increase in crime among the elderly. Takata pointed a knife at women in a park, thinking they would call the police. They did it. The police came, the law took its course. It relieved Takata of the burden of freedom.

Many older people in Japan hold the same opinion, the BBC found. Poverty is a struggle, loneliness a black hole. Takata’s first offense, at 62, was theft of a bicycle. He drove the stolen bicycle to a police station and surrendered. He served a one-year sentence and was released. The knife symbolizes impatience with short sentences. The longer, the better. “Get me out of here,” he seems to be saying – “here” being the outside world.

On a soccer field in Chiba in May, as Myanmar’s national anthem played, Myanmar goalkeeper Pyae Lyan Aung raised three fingers – a startling gesture, a symbolic revolt. Was it premeditated? Impulsive? Either way, there is no going back now. Fearing that he would be arrested if he returned, he applied for asylum and was granted a six-month visa. With freedom crushed in his homeland and threatened across much of the world, he staked everything he had on freedom – and Japan. Its implicit message in Japan is: be worthy.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues debated by national media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History”.

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