- Julian Littler
- BBC Capital
The workday in Tokyo usually starts with a journey through the world’s busiest subway system.
A large part of the metropolitan region’s 37 million population take the trains that cross the capital of Japan every day.
It’s a stressful task. At stations, hurried passengers run in all directions. On the platform, they group together in a block on the sides of each of the doors — to avoid obstructing the passage of those who are about to disembark — and then try to get into the car as quickly as possible, although the crowd slows down the process.
Those who manage to board themselves squeeze to a point that makes any movement difficult. Feet sometimes don’t touch the ground.
Even on these crowded trains, however, resigned silence reigns. Calm and orderly demeanor is a hallmark of crowds in Japan.
Those coming from abroad are often surprised by the patience of people waiting for transport. But that’s not all: the way in which this resilience manifests itself in times of crisis, such as after the devastating Fukushima earthquake and tsunami, is also noteworthy.
All this effort to maintain external order has a name in Japan: it is the “fun“.
Perseverance in difficulty
Put simply, it is the idea that individuals must exercise patience and perseverance when facing unexpected or difficult situations for the good of the collective.
The concept implies a degree of self-control: you rein in your feelings to avoid confrontation. It is an expected duty of Japanese society and seen as a sign of maturity.
David Slater, professor of anthropology and director of the Institute of Comparative Culture at Tokyo Sophia University, describes “fun” as a set of strategies for dealing with events beyond our control.
“Individuals develop within themselves the ability to persevere and tolerate unexpected or bad things that are difficult to overcome,” he says.
At the root of this concept, explains Noriko Odagiri, a professor of clinical psychology at Tokyo International University, is the fact that the Japanese value not talking too much and suppressing negative feelings towards others.
Training starts early. Children learn through their parents’ example and, since elementary school, they also have contact with the concepts of patience and perseverance, which are part of the school curriculum.
“Especially for women, we are educated to practice ‘fun‘ as much as possible,” says Odagiri.
O “fun” can manifest itself in the long term, as the resilience to stay in an unpleasant job or tolerate a boring colleague, or in the short term, as ignoring a noisy passenger or someone who jumps in line.
Yoshie Takabayashi, 33, was a goldsmith in Tokyo before getting married, moving to Kanazawa and having children.
Asked when to use “fun“, she cites her life after motherhood and the fact that she can no longer do some of the things that used to give her pleasure. She also remembers an obnoxious co-worker who had to cajole in order to get important training, avoid problems and keep your job.
“When I look back, I see that my boss didn’t do anything to help. I should have quit. But my parents and colleagues who, like me, had just started a new job, continued to encourage me to pursue success. . I didn’t realize how much ‘fun‘I had put it in it,” he reports.
Beautify the ‘gaman’
O “fun” originates from Buddhist teachings on perseverance. It was refined during the boom Japan’s postwar economic situation, when work came to be seen as a nation-building element—meaning sacrificing family time for long hours at the office.
Some see perseverance in the style “fun” as the defining characteristic of Japan.
“It’s the representative trait of the Japanese people, but it has positive and negative points,” says Nobuo Komiya, a criminologist at Rissho University in Tokyo.
Komiya believes that the mutual vigilance, self-monitoring, and collective expectations associated with “fun” are a contributing factor to the low crime rate in Japan. Where people look out for each other and avoid conflict, the tendency is for most to be more careful with their actions.
But it’s not just about collective dynamics.
“O ‘fun‘, it also has benefits at the individual level,” points out Komiya.
“It means not getting fired or reaping the rewards for maintaining relationships with people around you.”
In parallel, however, it can also be an element of pressure on the individual.
“We embellished the ‘fun‘” points out Odagiri. Many people in Japan expect others to guess how they feel rather than expressing their feelings directly, which can have important negative consequences.
“‘Gaman‘Too much has a negative impact on our mental health,” she says.
“Sometimes when people retain a lot of negativity, the ‘fun‘ can become a psychosomatic illness.”
And seeking help to improve mental health is often seen as a failure, says Odagiri, as society often expects people to solve it for themselves. Not everyone can do this, however, and the result can lead to an outburst of rage that culminates in domestic or workplace violence.
O “fun” can also end up leaving women trapped in unhappy marriages.
“Our society expects women to be quiet, humble. Thus, women often make an effort not to show negative feelings,” explains Odagiri. And when they decide to get divorced, many find they can’t because they’ve given up their professional careers and no longer have financial independence.
For Komiya, there is a connection between the recent increase in reports of sexual and moral harassment and the collapse of social structures caused by the prioritization of the collective over the individual.
“The Japanese say the ‘fun‘ it’s a national virtue, but it’s actually a way of safeguarding the collective,” he says.
These days, however, more and more people feel less likely to be blamed for expressing their feelings.
Society, in fact, has gone through changes. 30 years ago, a job in Japan was for life.
Traditionally, men worked long hours to gain experience in the company they would work for their entire career, while women were usually placed in positions away from leadership positions, so that, in theory, they would leave the job market at some point to create the children.
This system, however, is now being challenged by the very changes in society: people are getting married later, more women are working and the birth rate is at the lowest level in history.
Many young people work on temporary contracts or in part-time jobs, where the “fun” is of little use.
“They’re not looking at you as an intrinsic member of the group. You get hired and fired, you have a contract, you get paid by the hour,” says Slater.
“The whole idea of ’fun ‘ here it is completely out of place. You’ll keep your job if you know how to keep quiet, but all the values of ‘fun‘ that govern lasting social relationships no longer make sense.”
This is what many young people have noticed, thus moving away from the paths taken by previous generations.
Mami Matsunaga, 39, worked in the fashion press before leaving Tokyo for the beach. She now surfs everyday and teaches mindfulness, breathing techniques and yoga at retreats and workshops across Japan.
“In Japanese culture, the expectation of ‘fun‘It puts pressure on everyone to do the same thing and leaves little room for differences,” he says.
Asked if she ever persevered at work, she answers: “No, I didn’t. I always left the job if I felt I needed it.”
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