“Yosuke Asai” (a pseudonym) discovered at 44 how alone in the world he was. Count this as one more baleful effect of the coronavirus, says Spa! (July 6).
Isolation has long dogged Japan. An OECD survey of member countries dubs Japan the loneliest of nations, some 15 percent of its adults having no social intercourse outside work and family. Mexico (14 percent) comes a close second. The Scandinavian countries, Germany, the Netherlands and the U.S. (all under 5 percent) seem much better socially adjusted and, presumably, happier.
Asai’s story, as Spa! tells it, shows the virus’ role in the phenomenon. He was a salesman for a machine manufacturer – a good talker, as people in his line of work tend to be, constantly socializing with clients and colleagues, until the virus in effect sent him home.
There was his wife, but conversation with her went only so far. He grew restless, quarrelsome, and finally a little panicky. “I’m alone in the world!” he thought. For the first time in his life it hit him: “I have no friends outside work!” His thoughts went into overdrive. “What if my wife dies first?” Visions of dying alone, no one to note his passing or even dispose of his corpse, haunted him, cutting into his sleep.
Typical, says communication researcher Junko Okamoto – especially of retired men. Suddenly stripped of their corporate identities, unused to dealing with people who are neither colleagues nor clients, they find themselves at a loss. The isolation imposed by the virus in effect, Okamoto says, shifts the problem a generation forward, placing people Okamoto’s age in a quasi-retirement environment.
At its very worst, isolation can be deadly. The oft-noted rise in suicides in Japan since the pandemic’s outbreak – especially among women and children – sounds the loudest alarm. Research by the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Gerontology Research shows that socially isolated elderly face a death rate double that of those with firm social ties.
There are so many ways to be isolated. “Akiko Mukai,” 35, is a wife, mother and highly successful career woman – an unlikely candidate, at first sight, for inclusion in this story. The virus has nothing to do with her being in it.
She too was in sales, with all the gregariousness that implies. Her product was financial securities. Back at work after maternity and childcare leave, she found herself assigned – Spa! doesn’t tell us why – to a clerical department. She was a fish out of water. Her new colleagues were young single women. They were at home with documents; she, with people. What was she supposed to talk to them about? In terms of experience, character and age they were badly mismatched. They didn’t understand her, she didn’t understand them. If her child got sick and she had to leave early, they grumbled. What did they know about sick children? Worse – “I’m 10 years older than they are, but in terms of this department I’m junior and they’re senior, and I must address them accordingly.”
Who to talk to about this? Where to seek understanding and sympathy? Her husband? No, she says – he has his life, she has hers, and they don’t seem to see eye to eye on much. She’s alone – and she feels it keenly.
Is this a Japanese problem, or a human problem? one wonders. Both of course – but Japan’s culture of “vertical relationships,” says Spa!, makes communication on equal terms elusive, which no doubt accounts in part for the nation’s high standing in the OECD survey of loneliness.© Japan Today