TOKYO: As pitches for Friday night television drama go, “Unmarried, middle-aged businessman crosses the country for work and talks to himself as he eats alone” does not scream sure-fire hit.
Nevertheless, Kodoku no Gurume (The Lonely Gourmet) – a masterpiece of Japan’s emerging genre of solitude propaganda – is now into its seventh season.
Kodoku no Gurume does not yet have many imitators on TV. But its central theme – the conscious relishing of isolation – is shared by a deluge of recently published books, several of which have spent months atop the bestseller charts in Japan.
It may horrify those who view loneliness as a health hazard on a par with smoking or obesity, but a rich vein of unconventional thinking has been found and exploited. Brilliantly so.
In its exaltation of solitude, this literature has managed to shift the nation’s understanding of the word “loneliness” (kodoku) from a pitiable, frightening state into something self-assured and liberating.
LONELINESS – GOOD OR EVIL?
At the apex of the phenomenon stands Hiroyuki Itsuki and his main work on the subject, Kodoku no Susume (Advice for the Lonely).
“The reason I feel fulfilled,” he declares from the outset, “is because I am not afraid of loneliness.”
Only just behind him, in terms of sales, is Akiko Shimoju’s hugely popular Gokujou no Kodoku (Top-notch Solitude), which mounts an explicit challenge to the “idea these days that loneliness is evil”.
There are many more: some books condemn the constraints of the family unit, others warn against the “exhaustion caused by trying to be liked”. Others still assert that it is only in a state of solitude that the elderly can enjoyably “masticate their memories”.
A trawl through the hundreds of books with the word kodoku in their titles brings up the pro-loneliness classics The Power To Enjoy Loneliness and I Have Come To Think of Solitude as Beautiful.
Set implacably against this in Japanese bookstores is the rather smaller body of writing that not only warns about the multiple dangers of loneliness, but of the perils of making a virtue of it.
Junko Okamoto’s Sekai Ichi Kodoku na Nihon no Ojisan (Japan’s Old Men are the World’s Loneliest) decries Japan’s status as a “loneliness superpower” and condemns pro-loneliness literature as a cynical comfort to the vulnerable.
“Society is not doing enough to address loneliness and people don’t want to admit how unhappy they are, so they use the pro-loneliness books to comfort themselves. They want to feel that what they are doing is right,” she says.
She adds that the likes of Mr Itsuki are deliberately blurring the word kodoku to downplay its sense of desolation and highlight the idea of self-contained independence.
MORE PEOPLE LIVING ALONE
The grim background is that, one way or another, Japan is creating an awful lot of lonely people.
The country is by no means unique in that respect, say social scientists, but the peculiarities of the corporate system and the demographic effects of having a quarter of the population aged over 65, make Japan stand out.
Salarymen whose social networks were entirely structured around the workplace, seem especially prone to isolation when they retire.
The calculus of solitude, which includes the estimate that around 45,000 people in Japan died last year without anyone noticing, makes hard reading. Twice as many Japanese live alone now as did 30 years ago.
Today, single person households are the most common type (at roughly a third of all households) and some 18.4 million adults live alone. By 2030, the ratio of men and women who never marry will rise, respectively, to 30 per cent and 23 per cent (from 23 per cent and 14 per cent in 2015).
Government researchers expect the number of over-65s living alone to rise from about six million now to about nine million in 2040. A cabinet office survey of seniors found that 60 per cent of those who live alone have only one or two conversations per month.
The alarming shortage of practical solutions to all this has intensified the ideological battle on the bookshelves. And for now, at least, the favoured answer is to take fortification from the belief that the lonesome existence can be a rich one.
Ms Okamoto admits that the loneliness lobby has the upper hand: “Judged on book sales,” she says, “they are ahead by a rate of about 10 to 1.”
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