“Are you happy here, Takabayashi-san?” I asked.
(In very broken and roughly translated Japanese) Takabayashi-san, a traditional Japanese cloth maker, replied, “Why not? My family is here, my friends are here. I have a job that I love, this is my home.”
“But the government is no good, they keep changing, and people are tired,” the 45-year-old added.
And tired were the faces of the salarymen at the Izakaya – an after-work hangout for many Japanese men – I was brought to by a few Japanese friends I got to know when I had previously helped them out at a Japan fair a year ago in Singapore.
I was the only woman in that particular izakaya, hidden in a corner of the financial district of Nihonbashi, with nary a signboard to indicate that it was actually a famous eatery loved by many salarymen, who in their smart suits and leather briefcases, with ties undone, shirts unbuttoned, sit down at the tables, smoking and drinking the day’s worries away.
According to one of my friends, many salarymen go drinking with their bosses at izakayas after work, and it is the only time when they can be truly honest with their higher-ups. It seems that alcohol (doesn’t matter if it’s high-grade sake or mere Asahi beer) breaks down the hierarchy, and allows them to voice out their deeply buried concerns that they are unable to make known back in the structured and rule-following world of the office.
Another friend I had met up with during my trip, a Japanese-speaking Thai lady working for a local travel company, said that it was tough working in a Japanese company. Could one actually meet all the expectations set for a single day? And what happens when people find themselves unable to keep up with the rules that society has created?
My Thai friend, who has been working in Japan for three years, wasn’t too happy about the situation and said to me over a meal of okonomiyaki (a traditional pancake where you can put whatever ingredients you want), “Japan is going down. Everyone here is pessimistic about the future. Where can this country go now?”
As a traveller who has had a taste of Japanese hospitality, generosity, and warm-heartedness, I pray for this country to become positive and rebuild itself again. Into what? Who knows what the future can bring for these people who really take pride in their work?
It is only Japan where I find the elevator lady smiling from the bottom of her heart, telling me to have a safe journey and a nice day. It is only Japan where I can find the postman cycling his hardest in the winter cold to deliver letters in an old neighbourhood, and still find time to smile at a silly gaijin (foreigner) who was foolishly blocking his way because she didn’t know which way to go. (yes, it was me).
I pray for Japan, a society that creates so many rules for itself, to find its feet again amongst the rules. Because despite the pessimism surrounding the country and its people, there is still that drive deep within the Japanese to slowly, but surely, make sure that they find happiness, if not for themselves, then, for their children, and their children’s children.
Write-up and photography by Liyana Low.