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Escape in Japan

Tokyo Sonata

a film directed by Kurosawa Kiyoshi
Anno Moyoco/Una Knox/Vancouver Art Gallery
The cover illustration of Anno Moyoco’s manga Sakuran, set in a red-light district during the Edo period and published by Kodansha in 2003; from ‘KRAZY! The Delirious World of Anime + Manga + Video Games,’ an exhibition organized by the Vancouver Art Gallery and on view at the Japan Society, New York City, through June 14, 2009


Murders are relatively rare in Japan, but when they occur they tend to be frenzied: a young man—“sick and tired of life”—plowing into a crowd of Tokyo shoppers in a hired two-ton truck, before knifing seven people to death; an eleven-year-old schoolgirl slashing her twelve-year-old friend after a row over a message posted on the Internet.

In November 2008, Koizumi Takeshi, an unemployed man of forty-six, dressed as a parcel delivery man, turned up at the home of Yamaguchi Takehiko, a former Health Ministry vice-minister. The ex-bureaucrat, who was forced to resign his post after the government lost millions of pension records, came to the door wearing his wife’s slippers. Soon both Yamaguchi and his wife lay sprawled in the hall, one on top of the other, after being stabbed multiple times in the chest. Later that same day, the wife of another Health Ministry bureaucrat was wounded by the same man (her husband was not at home).

The case was written about extensively in the Japanese press. The scandal about the lost pension records was cited as the most likely motive for the killings. Clearly they had to be extreme symptoms of popular rage at government incompetence in a time of economic distress.

In fact, the killer turned out to have been enraged by something quite different. Many years ago, when he was still a young boy, Koizumi’s pet dog had been taken to the pound by his father to be euthanized, apparently for disturbing the neighbors with its frequent barking. The sad event was hardly the responsibility of the vice-minister of health and welfare, but Koizumi explained in an e-mail message that his murder “was revenge for the killing by a healthcare center of my family thirty-four years ago.”

That the Japanese press instantly linked the murders to the economic crisis reveals the jumpiness of the public mood in Japan. The statistics are indeed grim: industrial output fell by 9.6 percent last December, unemployment “soared” to 4.4 percent, by January exports fell by 46 percent, and the economy might contract by as much as 5.8 percent this year.

Not that you notice many of the effects of this in the tonier parts of Tokyo. On the first day of a visit, in early January, I was taken to a Parisian-style café in fashionable Omote Sando, where a café au lait costs more than $10. At the next table was a smartly dressed middle-aged man fussing over his pet Pomeranian, whose furry head, adorned with a denim cap, emerged from a Louis Vuitton handbag. Nearby was another customer who had laid out a little carpet lest her perfectly groomed cocker spaniel get cold paws. It did not look as though these people were hurting.

A few miles east of that café, however, not far from the imperial palace, you could see plenty of people who were. In Hibiya Park, opposite the old Daiichi Insurance building where General Mac- Arthur established his headquarters during the occupation years, homeless workers had created a kind of tent village over the New Year holidays. Many of them were former employees on temporary contracts, who had lived in company housing. Now all they had was some blue plastic sheeting to put up over their heads, until they were moved out of the park into hostels set up for the homeless. This being Japan, civil niceties were still observed: shoes fastidiously placed outside the tents, laundry flapping from taut lines, garbage put out in neat little piles.

Japan is famous for its so-called “lifetime employment system,” repaying employees for their corporate loyalty by keeping them on even in bad times. In fact, by no means all Japanese companies ever offered such benefits, and one third of the workforce is now on temporary contracts. Temporary job-hopping became popular after Japan’s economic bubble burst in the early 1990s, but really took off after new labor laws in 1999 and 2004 made it possible for manufacturers, as well as other companies, to take on large numbers of temporary workers. It offered more freedom to young people who had no desire for a lifetime of corporate drudgery, and was a cheap way for companies to recoup some of their losses.

Another common sight these days in public parks, as well as libraries, are men in dark business suits quietly reading the papers, for hours on end. These are the middle-ranking corporate men who cannot face the humiliation of letting family and neighbors know that their companies have no more use for them. So they pretend to go to work, even after being laid off. Economic misery and rising unemployment are hitting older people especially hard. One of the more chilling bits of news to emerge in recent days is that Japanese over sixty are the fastest-growing age group among the roughly 33,000 suicides a year (36.6 percent). A contraction in pension schemes is said to be one of the reasons. Men in their fifties are the second-largest age group (21 percent).

Skid rows in Tokyo and Osaka used to be poor but lively. Large numbers of young men from all over Japan would gather in Tokyo’s Sanya district or Osaka’s Kamagasaki to compete for daily jobs on construction sites or in factories, doled out by labor contractors affiliated with organized crime. No longer. I walked around both districts this winter. The drab streets looked even drabber, but also emptier. Flophouses offering rooms for roughly $10 a night were not doing much business. The average age of the men (and a few women) listlessly hanging around seemed to be well over fifty. They were warming themselves around bonfires in tin drums, drinking cheap saké. Some sang songs or told stories, and some just sat there cursing. Jobs have dried up, even for day laborers.


Art in bad times is often escapist. Japan is no exception. The most popular entertainments are the cartoonlike manga comics, which cater to all manner of specialized tastes: teenage romance, baseball heroics, science fiction, kinky sex, or nationalist fantasies (kamikaze derring-do and the like). Prime Minister Aso Taro is a fan of comic books. He keeps them in the back of his official car. One way of boosting Japanese exports, he recently suggested, is to exploit the international appetite for Japanese popular culture, not just manga, but also animation movies ( anime ) and pop music (J-pop). Now 2 percent of all exports, such “soft power” should grow, in government projections, to 18 percent in ten years, creating half a million jobs.

A Japanese movie, entitled Departures, about a cello-playing undertaker, won this year’s Oscar for best foreign film. But the film that best catches Japan’s current mood is called Tokyo Sonata.1 The hero, if that is the right word, named Sasaki, is one of those salarymen in the middle ranks of a middle-ranking company who gets laid off because there is no need for him anymore. Sasaki (superbly acted by Kagawa Teruyuki) is the kind of drudge who would have been taken care of in better days. When he is asked by a much younger colleague what particular skills he might have that should merit continued employment at the company, he is genuinely perplexed. That was never part of the deal. There was nothing particular about him. That was the point of being a devoted salaryman: you didn’t stick out, either through gross incompetence or by displaying any notable skill.

Like so many of his real-life counterparts, Sasaki prefers to spend his days on a park bench rather than tell his family about his lost job. His loyal wife, Megumi (Koizumi Kyoko), figures it out in the end, but pretends not to know. The sons, estranged from their parents, as well as everyone else, it seems, escape into worlds of their own: one into piano music, for which he has an extraordinary gift, the other into the US Army, to fight in Iraq, just to do something meaningful—a complete fantasy, of course. There are hardly any Japanese in the US Army, but Kurosawa Kiyoshi, the director, is given to flights of fancy; most of his films are supernatural horror pictures.

In the end, the various strands of what started as a beautifully contrived, utterly realistic story veer into pure melodrama: the wife goes off with a crazed robber, driven to crime by failing at everything else; the husband flees from his new job as a cleaner in a shopping mall; and the piano-playing son turns out to be a musical genius. The sudden shift in tone is distinctly strange, but there is a reason for this. Melodramatic fantasy, as depicted in manga comics and animation films, seems to be the only way out of social and economic dead ends.

Kurosawa’s film tells us a great deal about contemporary Japan without being overtly political (except, perhaps, in the fantastical reference to the Iraq war). The alienation of the children, the almost catatonic state of family relations, the retreat into private worlds—these phenomena are all written about in the Japanese press almost daily. The word for young people who resist all communication except with their laptops, or who become monomaniacally obsessed with a (usually electronic) game or some abstruse hobby, is otaku. An entire culture has evolved around otaku, in the visual arts, but also in the most popular form of fiction writing, stories of teenage self-obsession distributed through mobile phones. Text messaging is the favored form of communication among young Japanese. You see groups of friends sitting around coffee shop tables, each thumbing his or her own phone.

Another popular otaku pastime, which has sublimated (and sometimes not so sublimated) erotic overtones, is costume play, or cosplay in Japanese-English. Young girls and boys dress up as characters from their favorite manga and get together to pose for pictures, taken on their mobile phones. As with manga, adults have shown a not always wholesome interest in this too. There are cosplay bars all over town (some of them brothels), cosplay DVDs, cosplay stores, and cosplay magazines.

In the east of Tokyo lies an area called Akihabara, a kind of souk for electronic gear—computers, video games, mobile phones, porno DVDs. “Akiba,” in current slang, is the Mecca of otaku culture. The fact that Kato Tomohiro, the young man who drove into the crowd of shoppers in a two-ton truck before wielding his thirteen-inch survival knife, did so in Akihabara was no coincidence. He was known to be an “Akiba guy,” a typical otaku. One of the few friends he had in life, perhaps the only one, a man who worked with him in a temporary factory job, said that Kato’s apartment was strewn with animation films and game DVDs. But Kato got tired of virtual women. He told his friend that he wanted the real thing, he wanted “girls with cute voices like anime characters…who look good in cosplay costumes.”2 And when that didn’t work out, he went for the kill.

  1. 1

    Released in New York and select cities in March, and in the rest of the country later this year.

  2. 2

    Reported in Shukan Post, a popular weekly magazine, June 16, 2008.

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