Japanese Isolation: is a culture of 'saving face' sustainable?
I have been out in Japan for over 3 months now and I’m still growing accustomed to the vastly different society that is my new home. Japan is a world away from the frank, analytically-minded Europe I know and love. Despite geographical proximity, it is likewise a whole different ballpark from the hustle and bustle of China. Japan is unique, as various vloggers such as this one seek to demonstrate. The rest of the world marvels at the Japanese for their diligence, efficiency, selflessness, and politeness. It would be hard to argue that on a population level the Japanese are not some sort of Übermensch, a superhuman race, if you will. But at what cost to mental health of the individual?
One of the huge factors influencing mental health in the Far East is the notion of 'saving face'. It is a social phenomenon that has always puzzled me and one that I am still getting to grips with. In China and Japan it determines how people think and behave in a social setting, but it is not something that really crosses the Western mind - at least not on a daily basis. The Merriam-Webster definition of 'save face' is "to avoid having other people lose respect for oneself". Here in the Far East, saving face dictates many social and professional codes. To give an illustration, while a Westerner may feel it is necessary and indeed helpful to offer a contradictory opinion to a senior in a meeting setting, to the Japanese, this would cause the senior staff member to 'lose face' and should therefore be avoided at all times.
It is easy to see how Westerners, from the outside, uphold Japanese behaviour and consideration for others as hyper-civilised. It's true: their culture is about as far away from Hobbes' "brutish" man as it's possible to be. However, Japan is not quite the cultural utopia foreigners imagine it to be. Increasingly, the Japanese are suffering from crippling loneliness. For example, an article by Japan Times reports that 15% of people have no social interaction outside of their family. This is not surprising when one considers that, according to a Japan Times article, more than 3 million unmarried Japanese aged 35 to 44 still live with their parents. Perhaps this is a reflection of the rising number of NEETS or the trend of being a 'lifetime single' (currently 20% of the population). It could equally be a symptom of the famous Japanese work ethic and long working hours; nearly one quarter of Japanese companies require employees to work more than 80 hours of overtime a month, according to a 2016 survey. We're talking about generations being lost to history, where around 30,000 people each year die alone in Japan. Solitary death is so commonplace that the Japanese even have a word for it: Kodokushi (孤独死)
It is possible that the issue lies in a long history of glorifying suicide. In feudal Japan, a dishonoured or captured samurai would split open his guts with a small dagger, and this act, referred to as seppuku (切腹), would restore his reputation and honour. You might see it as the ultimate means of saving face. For a fascinating, highly intellectual insight into the ritual, read Sun and Steel (1968) by Yukio Mishima. You can download the essay for free here.
However, honour suicide is not simply a thing of the past. The current suicide rate in Japan is 16.6 for every 100,000 people, ranking it third among the G20 states. Youth suicide is also at an all-time high in Japan, according to CNN.
As a cultural and racial outsider, I can grasp a little of what it means to be lonely in Japan. Social interaction is challenging at the best of times. On my daily commute to work, quite by coincidence, I began reading 100 Years of Solitude (1970) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It is a book that has been on my to-read list for years. The book portrays with heart-wrenching accuracy the pain (and also the relief) of solitude. Isolation can be awful, but a life without it is equally unbearable. The constant noise and interruption that was my daily experience living in Shanghai was frustrating and often exhausting. Japan is certainly a preferable alternative.
So can there be a positive side to isolation? An interesting opinion piece I read recently points out the vital importance of time to oneself. The author, Brigid Schulte, emphasises the need for isolation in order to achieve 'flow': a state of mind in which one can reflect and develop ideas. For her, the lack of solitude accounts for the professional gap between men and women. Likewise, Virginia Woolf, famously writes in A Room of One's Own (1929): “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. In a technologically advanced and increasingly egalitarian country such as Japan, it is not just the wealthy middle-aged men who have the time to experience 'flow'. Of course, long working hours can seriously stunt valuable time for reflection, but the government is making efforts to change work culture, such as mandating at least five paid vacation days a year.
I find myself arriving at the following conclusion: that solitude is indeed a necessary part of a healthy, intellectually-fulfilling life, provided that it is a choice. There is nothing heathy about depressive loneliness. Aristotle said "Man is by nature a social animal", and I would hasten to agree; and yet, alongside our social lives there must be space for pause and reflection. As regards 'saving face', the instances of shame in some ways seems a fair price to pay for a wider culture of respect. Awareness of mental health and overwork does seem to be improving steadily. Although the Japanese, much like the rest of us, haven't yet found the perfect equilibrium, I would argue that they are closer to it than anyone else in today's world.