There remains this enormous and wicked sociocultural myth. It is this: Hard work is all there is.
Work hard and the world respects you. Work hard and you can have anything you want. Work really extra super hard and do nothing else but work and ignore your family and spend 14 hours a day at the office and make 300 grand a year that you never have time to spend, sublimate your soul to the corporate machine and enjoy a profound drinking problem and sporadic impotence and a nice 8BR mini-mansion you never spend any time in, and you and your shiny BMW 740i will get into heaven.
This is the Japanese Puritan work ethos (much like that in America of course), still alive and screaming and sucking the world dry. Work is the answer. Work is also the question. Work is the one thing really worth doing and if you’re not working you’re either a slacker or a leech, unless you’re a victim of Koizumi/Abe Co’s budget-reamed Japan and you’ve been laid off, and therefore it’s OK because that means you’re out there every day pounding the pavement looking for work and honing your resume and if you’re not, well, what the hell is wrong with you?
Call it “the cafe question.” Any given weekday you can stroll by any given coffee shop in the city and see dozens of people milling about, casually sipping and eating and reading and it’s freakin’ noon on a Tuesday and you’re like, wait, don’t these people work? Don’t they have jobs? They can’t all be students and trust-fund babies and cocktail waitresses and drummers in struggling rock bands who live at home with their mums.
Of course, they’re not. Not all of them, anyway. Some are creative types. Some are corporate rejects. Some just take up space, posting photos of their cats to Facebook or chasing glory on PartyBingo.com. Some are recovering cube slaves now dedicated full time to working on their paintings. Some are world travelers who left their well-paying gigs months ago to cruise around Vietnam on a motorcycle before returning to start an import-export business in rare hookahs. And we look at them and go, What is wrong with these people?
It’s a bitter duality: We scowl at those who decide to chuck it all and who choose to explore something radical and new and independent, something more attuned with their passions, even as we secretly envy them and even as our inner voices scream and applaud and throw confetti.
Japanese city culture allows almost no room for creative breaks. There is little tolerance for seeking out a different kind of “work” that doesn’t somehow involve cubicles and widening butts and sour middle managers monitoring your e-mail and checking your Web site logs to see if you’ve wasted a precious 37 seconds of company time browsing mixi.jp or reading up on the gay marriage apocalypse.
We are at once infuriated by and enamored with the idea that some people can just up and quit their jobs or take a leave of absence or take out a loan to go back to school, how they can give up certain “mandatory” lifestyle accoutrements in order to dive back into some seemingly random creative/emotional/spiritual endeavor that has nothing to do with paying taxes or the buying of products or the boosting of the GNP. It just seems so … un-Japanese. But it is so, so needed.
Case in point No. 1: A Woman. She is deep in medical school right now, studying to be a naturopathic doctor at Bastyr University just outside Seattle, the toughest school of its kind in the nation, and the most difficult to get into, especially if you’ve had no formal medical training beforehand, as this particular lady hadn’t.
She got in. She bucked all expectation and thwarted the temptation to quit and take a well-paying corporate job and she endured the incredibly brutal first year and rose to the top of her class. Oh and by the way, she did it all when she was over 40. With almost no money. While going through an ugly, debt-ridden divorce.
Oh you’re so lucky that you have the means to do that, we think. I’d love to do that but I can’t because I have too many a) bills b) babies c) doubts, we insist. We always think such lives are for others and never for ourselves, something people with huge chunks of cash reserves or huge hunks of time or huge gobs of wildly ambitious talent can do. It is never for us.
And truly, this mind-set is the Japanese plague, a fate worse than death.
And while it must be acknowledged that there are plenty who are in such dire financial or emotional circumstances that they simply cannot bring change, no matter how much they might wish it, you still always gotta ask: How much is legit, and how much is an excuse born of fear?
The powers that be absolutely rely on our lethargy, our rampant doubts, the attitude that says that it’s just too difficult or too impracticable to break away. After all, to quit a bland but stable job, to follow your own path implies breaking the rules and asking hard questions and dissing the status quo. And they absolutely cannot have that.
Case in point No. 2: Another lady, a specialist in goddesses and mystics and world religions, who is right now working on a book, a raw funky spirituality “anti-guide” for younger women. She took a six-month leave of absence from a very decent, reliable, friendly administrative job so as to focus on the creation of this project.
And while she has no trust fund, she does have the “luxury” of small parental loans to help her through, though it hardly matters: Giving up her respectable gig was insanely stressful and wracked with doubt. Leave a honest job? Give up paid health care? Have no reliable source of income for months on end? Trade calm stability for risk and random chance? No way, most people say. And of course, it was the absolute best choice she could’ve made. Time instantly became more fluid and meaningful. Mental clutter vanished. Possibility grinned.
Case in point No. 3: Not long ago, the CEO of one of the largest and most powerful international real estate firms in the country quit his job. Stepped down. Not, as you might imagine, for retirement and not to play more golf and not to travel the world staying only in Four Seasons suites, but to work on rebuilding his relationship with his estranged wife.
A friend working there, told me that it was one of the most touching, and unexpected, and incredibly rare corporate memos she had ever seen. No one — I mean no one in this culture is supposed to quit a job like that just for, what again? Love? Relationship? It’s simply not done. But of course, it absolutely should be.
We are designed, weaned, trained from Day 1 to be productive members of society. And we are heavily guilted into believing that must involve some sort of droning repetitive pod-like dress-coded work for a larger corporate cause, a consumerist mechanism, a nice happy conglomerate. Is this really how you want your life to turn out? (see video)
But the truth is, God (or whoever it is up above that looks over us…) loves nothing more than to see you unhinge and take risk and invite regular, messy, dangerous upheaval. This is exactly the energy that thwarts the demons of stagnation and conservative rot and violent sanctimonious bloody Mel Gibson-y religion, one that would have all our work be aimed at continuously patching up our incessant potholes of ugly congenital guilt, as opposed to contributing to the ongoing orgiastic evolution of spirit.
It is not for everyone. It implies incredibly difficult choices and arranging your life in certain ways and giving up certain luxuries and many, many people seemed locked down and immovable and all done with exploring new options in life, far too deeply entrenched in debts and family obligations and work to ever see such unique light again. Maybe you know such people. Maybe you are such people.
But then again, maybe not. This is the other huge truism we so easily forget: There is always room. There are always choices we can begin to make, changes we can begin to invite, rules we can work to upset, angles of penetration we can try to explore. And if that’s not worth trying, well, what is?