Finding Happiness in Japan


Sometimes it’s worth reevaluating your life.

The Stranger

If I’m spotted in my town, there’s little chance I’ll escape attention. In a town with a population of 1600, it’s hardly surprising. Everybody seems to know everyone else, so any new individual is bound to shake things up.

As I walked to the school this morning, bright and early at 8 am, the first car that approached stopped. “Good morning” came the shout. “Kinyoubi desu ne.” Ah, it’s the preschool teacher. Indeed, I would be seeing her on Friday. Two minutes up the road and the vice principal at one of my elementary schools waves out his window. “Ohayou gozaimasu.” A bit further up and the local grocery owner who’s washing his shop exterior gives me an “Ohayou” before returning to work.

Some look at behavior like this and claim it’s a number of things:

  • Typical Japanese politeness and relationship building. Of course a fellow staff member would say ‘hi’. Not doing so could be construed as contempt in the workplace.
  • Classic small-town behavior. Every tiny village out there is acutely aware of any newcomers, especially when the newcomers are the lifeblood of a dying town.
  • English practice. Free English practice at that too. Many people recognize the value of English and don’t want their English to dissipate into nothingness.
  • They’re lonely. You only see a few people every day. Might as well make the most of every encounter.

But foreigners often come to Japan with another belief:

  • I’m special. They’re saying ‘hi’ to me because I’m a unique member of this new society. Japan is 98.5% Japanese, so a foreigner is an amazing thing!

I don’t know where to stand.

I think all of the above are true, but most foreigners often distill it down to the final point. In fact, the prominence of this belief is best noted in the disillusionment that comes with the “invisible Gaijin”, or the foreigner that’s always mistaken for a native, usually because of an Asian ancestry. They’re not treated as well or as specially as foreigners that are obviously foreigners (especially white foreigners).

A post I read about “GYPSYs” and our “Generation Y” from the great Wait But Why got me thinking about foreigners who live in Japan. The article can be essentially distilled into two points:

  • People born between the 70s and mid-90s have inflated egos and expectations.
  • They have a lot of frustration at coming to terms with those egos and expectations.

Foreigners in Japan have essentially the same problems. They think they’re worth a lot more than they are. They think of the positives of being a celebrity. Japan initially rewards them by telling them that they are special, and they expect a lot because of this. But if they discover that Japan was just telling a white lie, if they see the reality, that often sparks their resentment. Life is much harder than they expect it.

Where I disagree with most others is that I don’t believe life in Japan is significantly more difficult than anywhere else. True, you have a social pressure to stay at work until you drop, literally. Karoushi, or “death from overwork”, is a well-documented concept. Combine that with a social structure that rewards age over ability, and we walk away with a pretty bleak image of modern Japan. But it’s really not that bad.

What Is Happiness?

What is happiness? Well, it’s obvious what it’s not. And what it’s not is unhappiness. Happiness is not unhappiness. I’m waiting for my Nobel Prize, guys.

People’s unhappiness ultimately lies in their expectations. The article puts it well:

Happiness = Reality – Expectations

If your reality is worse than your expectations, then you’re left in the negative. If your reality is better than you expect, you’re feeling pretty good. Easy enough, right?

The problem is that people often try to control their reality, thinking that their happiness will come about from pushing their own situation past their expectations. But I pose the question: Whose reality could compare with their imagination? Our imaginations are boundless. Though our realities can reach extraordinary heights, to believe that they can compete with a world created in our mind is foolhardy. Thus, when imagining our own lives, it is necessary to curb our expectations in order to acquire happiness.

Some people look at this and think it’s pathetic. “It’s sad that your reality is so bad. You need to set the bar lower?” “Why not aim for the moon and hit the stars? You want to be content with a plain life? Is that happiness?” But it’s missing the point entirely. My life, for instance, is very fulfilling. I enjoy my work, my relationships, and I feel like I’m improving every day of my life. I’m at a good point. But by ‘setting the bar lower,’ a good life becomes even better. The lower you set your expectations, as long as you set your ambitions high, happiness is easy to achieve.

Curb Your Enthusiasm

Yet when people come to Japan, and Japan gives them so much attention—in some parts, celebrity levels of attention—it goes to their head. It literally feeds their expectations. So when their rosy glasses come off, they’re left with the picture of a bleak world that is significantly worse than their expectations. A…normal world.

It’s essentially hype. When I read “East of Eden,” I was convinced it would be terrible because I hated John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” ‘Lo and behold, when it turned out to be good, it became one of my favorite books. The quality of the book is static. The difference is that I went into it thinking I would leave with negative feelings and came back with positive ones. When I went to China, I thought it would be an awful country with a language that was anything but beautiful. Now I feel like I could enjoy the rest of my life there. Same idea.

It’s hard of course to control expectations, and it takes a lot of practice. We are emotional beasts, so reigning in that element takes time and effort. Far less effort than the impossible amount it would take to try and live the life of your dreams, but effort nonetheless.

Nowadays, when I recommend something, I try my best to play it off as an ehh-whatever-kind-of-thing. “Oh, Oldboy, yeah. You should see it, I guess. It has a few interesting bits that are worth seeing.” Never mind that it’s one of my favorite movies. If I mentioned that, you’d probably think it was good, raising your expectations.

Try to see Oldboy is what I’m getting at here. Pretend it’s the worst movie out there. Maybe it is, for all you know. I dunno. Your tastes are different than mine. It’s probably going to be a waste of your time. But at least it’s a test of your endurance, yeah? I hear you’ll need a lot of that if you want to live a happy life.

Also, don’t watch Oldboy for the first time with your 14-year-old cousin. Just, not a good idea. Also, don’t watch it with people that were scarred for life by it. They’ll punch you.

Punches hurt.

2 thoughts on “Finding Happiness in Japan

    • I was sitting around a table yesterday with some friends and somehow Oldboy came up and everyone pretty much agreed it was amazing. You’d have to be crazy not to like Oldboy! 😛 That being said, it was better to watch it with you than it was to watch it with my sister. I just didn’t realize all the sexual violence that happens in that movie when I decided we should watch it.

      To be honest, I think I was more afraid at that time that someone older was going to come down, think we were watching porn or something, and haul you off. That was the only bad part of the idea. I was super relieved when we finished without incident. 🙂

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