My SNA VM column 51: “Being thankful despite adversity” (Nov 27, 2023), a think piece on how people survive terrible lives because the basic unit of survival is being part of a pair. And if you’re not in one in Japan, life is especially difficult.


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Subtitle:  We all know life can be tough, especially for people in Japan. But practicing being thankful, particularly if you can find someone to thank, isn’t just a matter of good fortune. Psychologically, the basic unit of survival is being part of a pair.

By Debito Arudou, Shingetsu News Agency Visible Minorities Column 51, Nov 27, 2023

Last week heralded American Thanksgiving, and with it some life lessons.

While I’m wary of transposing an American holiday on SNA’s overseas audience, I think any excuse to be reflective and thankful for what you have — and grateful for avoiding what ill could have befallen you — is a valuable life skill.

As they say, any excuse is a good one for a party, so likewise any excuse is good to be thankful. That means any day can be for thanksgiving. I choose today.

Life is full of big emotions, many of them caused by you, others the product of your being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and some are just the cards you were dealt from birth and environment.

We can put that down to bad luck or some godforsaken ordeal. Or we can rationalize about things that don’t kill you making you stronger, adversity building character, etc.

But I don’t believe in ordeals anymore. I’m 58. My character is pretty much built. Moreover I’ve seen, through elders turned bitter in their old age, that too much adversity just makes you mean.

So as I approach my sixties, one of my life projects is understanding the science and practice of happiness. Interim conclusion: I choose to be happy. To me that means being thankful for the people who carry you through the inevitable tribulations of life while you do the same for them.

The life hack is having another person — at least one — who wishes you well, has your best interests in mind, and is there to see what you see, reminding you that you’re not the only one going through all this.

There is some science here. A book called “Escape from Camp 14” describes a survivor’s account of escaping a North Korean concentration camp. It offered the following life lesson:

The protagonist at first accepted his harsh life in North Korea as his lot in society, even as he ended up interned for reasons beyond his control. But he didn’t seriously contemplate escape until a fellow prisoner said he would do it with him. Somebody else confirmed he wasn’t crazy for wanting out.

As “Escape from Camp 14” notes on page 84, “Their relationship echoed, in many ways, the bonds of trust and mutual protection that kept prisoners alive and sane in Nazi concentration camps. In those camps, researchers found, the ‘basic unit of survival’ was the pair, not the individual. (Emphasis mine.)

“‘It was in the pairs that the prisoners kept alive the semblance of humanity,’ concluded Elmer Luchterhand, a sociologist at Yale who interviewed fifty two concentration camp survivors shortly after liberation. Pairs stole food and clothing, exchanged small gifts and planned for the future. If one member of a pair fainted from hunger in front of an SS officer, the other would prop him up. […] Finally, the death of one member of a pair often doomed the other,” noting that Anne Frank, for example, “lost the will to live after the death of her sister.”

This example is obviously extreme, but it is instructive. It’s hard to imagine a greater sense of isolation than an entire state apparatus designed to destroy you.

Or in Japan’s case, consider a society designed to perpetually alienate you, say your thoughts and feelings are deviant or inapplicable, or remind you don’t belong here no matter what you do. Some accept it as their lot as a foreigner. Others leave for more accepting societies. But for those who stay in a polity predicated on finely tuned embedded racism, people do survive. The key is finding somebody to go through with it as a pair.

(You may of course argue that solitude in a secret world will also do. Plenty of Japanese malcontents and dropouts do exactly this. Known as the hikikomori, I don’t think they are a healthy model.)

That’s why I’m thankful for my life partner now. I had one before while in Japan. But Japanese society has a habit of driving couples apart through divisive role play.

The idealized family is where one person spends his waking moments absent from home making the money (the so-called “salary delivery vehicle”, or kyūryō unpansha), while the other devotes her life to running the home and raising a family (ryōsai kenbo). It doesn’t matter that your personality might not be into kids, into being a corporate drone, or into conspicuous consumption as a lifestyle. Even as Japan modernizes and diversifies, these slow-drip pressures over decades are palpable and unyielding.

I’ve been through a divorce in Japan and understand why it happened. When you realize that cultural and media tropes are steadily morphing your erstwhile partner into a stranger, and all the basic values you thought you shared (such as childrearing values, saving and spending habits, personal space and housekeeping, openness to new experiences, leisure activities and holiday celebrations, even physical intimacy into old age) turned out to be faux or fleeting, that’s very isolating.

At first you accept it as your lot. Until you realize just how unhappy you’ve become.

This can of course happen in any society. But given the high separation and divorce rates amongst my long-term friends in Japan (who, given Japan’s lack of psychological counseling for couples, were generally encouraged to seek solace elsewhere), I can’t but help feel that there’s a culturally based pathology at work.

There definitely is one when you want out. That’s when you get into how Japan’s divorce system deliberately forces contestations into acrimonious negotiations, killing parent-child relationships in the process. Your life partner has suddenly become your worst enemy who can legally steal the kids.

Some never escape this prison, stuck in a “separation under the same roof” (kateinai bekkyo) where they live together but never interact. Others succeed in getting out, but I’ve seen many survivors of Japanese divorces languish for years alone wondering what it was all for. They drift off into the mental illness of never trusting partners again: Once bitten, twice shy.

The ones who fully recover find friends — or better yet a new life partner — who tell them they were not nuts. Forged in the furnace of similar adversities, they create a constructive pair of individuals with fully formed characters. They escape from isolation with someone who actively cultivates the relationship: nurtures instead of blames, consults instead of shuns, understands instead of indulges, actively listens instead of merely dismissing as foreign.

If that means you escape an intolerant society together through relocation, so be it. You must prioritize getting into an environment that makes the two of you happy. Otherwise you just might spend your twilight years resentful, bitter and mean.

Not for me. I choose to exercise happiness, thankful for other people’s help — and for my current life partner in specific. May you find yours.


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