What is happiness? These people seem to have found the answer.
The thorny question of happiness seldom makes one smile. Maybe we approach it badly. Originally a state of mind, happiness has at one point become a quest, a restless and all-consuming quest that seems to leave little time for enjoyment.
Here’s a portrait – courtesy of a magazine called PHP Archives (January) – of a happy man.
Koyuza Sanyutei never sought happiness. He seems to have been born with it.
The year of his birth – 1947 – is significant, an island of calm between the war that has just ended and the hyper-competitiveness to come. His elders were shocked and hungry; his juniors, busy either cramming at home or cramming at the end of school jukus, the next exam still looming, a looming failure forever.
He was born between two fires. Just like many others, of course, not all happy. And Sanyutei’s childhood has a dark, melancholy cast that feels like a strange seedbed of happiness.
When Sanyutei was 10, his father was 60 and his mother was 50 – relics, as the boy saw them, from a vanished age, the Meiji period (1868-1912). Dad, who had become an aging Meiji Patriarch, was severely taciturn. “Shut up and eat,” he said at dinner if the boy started talking about what he had been doing at school that day. Turning to his wife, he grumbled, “It’s your fault the boy is such a nuisance!”
Only the sourest of fathers would find a child so easygoing a nuisance. The boy was calm and non-complaining, obedient and undemanding, a good student not because he was ambitious – decidedly he was not – but because study came easily to him. The little pleasures of the day and the moment satisfied him. He didn’t think about the future. His sisters and brother, ten years and older than him, were weekend companions, alternative parents. When the weekend was over, the house would seem oddly quiet for a while – but that was to be expected, no complaints. “I wasn’t missing anything,” he told PHP, “nothing that makes me miserable.”
A possible moral of the story: happiness and unhappiness are on the inside, not (unless there is extreme good or bad luck) on the outside. Another: a child who can grow up happily in such a home must have a talent for happiness that many do not have.
Young Sanyutei listened rakugo (traditional story) on the radio. He loved it, absorbed it, imitated it, played for friends, won applause – and didn’t think about it again until, years later, a friend of the university asks him, “What will you do after graduation?” What indeed? “Rakugo,” he said without hesitating for a moment, surprising even himself.
And so it was. He is still a distinguished performer today.
Sanyutei’s is one of many miniature pen portraits that the PHP archives collect under the title “How to Live Every Happy Day”. If the stories exude an innocence that hardly seems out of this world, the word “archives” provides the perspective. The stories are old. Sanyutei’s, the most recent, dates from 2018 – our era, chronologically, and yet pre-COVID-19; innocent at least in that sense.
Two events that year suggest the ambiguous nature of happiness these days. Thirteen former members of the Aum Shinrikyo sect were hanged for crimes including the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway. And journalist Junpei Yasuda returned home three years after his capture in Syria by one of the many marauding war bands – the happiness of the closure dimmed by the horror of what was shut down.
Meet my friend, Y-san, says author Yoshizo Nanba, speaking to us since 1988 – as distant from us as the late Meiji was from the child Sanyutei. What was going on in the world? It takes an effort to remember. Perestroika and glasnost – the liberalization of the Soviet Union. The first cracks in the iron curtain. The first detection of an extrasolar planet, today one of nearly 5,000 known. In Japan, opening of the Seikan submarine tunnel, then the longest in the world, connecting Hokkaido and Honshu by rail. Overall, things seemed to be improving. A new century, which was fast approaching, sparkled, perhaps, like a new dawn.
What makes happiness? Drink, says Nanba, “I am not a drinker, I am a heavy drinker” – a heavy drinker. Drinking dissolves social constraints. You can talk loudly, talk loudly, sing, dance. There are happy drinkers and sad drinkers, the happy drinker today sad tomorrow – or maybe not, you never know.
A sad toper is not a good companion for a happy one. Nanba and Y met as a writer and film producer. Y sober, says Nanba, is gentle and quiet; drunk he cheerfully spouts out French and Chinese, whether that’s right or wrong is another matter – who cares? Anyone can learn a language and speak it more or less correctly; it takes flair to speak pidgin beautifully, and that, says Nanba, is Y’s “hidden talent.” He doesn’t say what his own hidden talent is – maybe the ability to be happy, is it. that, or at least above all, under the influence. “People who don’t drink,” he says, “live in a tight world – or maybe, he diplomatically adds, that’s just one of my prejudices.
In fact, all of the people PHP puts into these “archives” live in a tight world – theirs. The wider outside world does not interfere. Happiness is private – as it maybe should be, the world swaying from crisis to crisis. As imminent as Nanba and Y drank all those years ago, there were revolutionary upheavals of the world they were experiencing. They created the world we know. The Soviet Union collapsed, East Germany and West Germany united. Yugoslavia has broken up, the parties soon to be at war. Iraq invaded Kuwait and ground itself against an international coalition led by the United States.
Drunk or sober, happy in nature or sad, you might look at it all and see hope or despair, no humor that does violence to the facts. Today’s perspective must take into account COVID-19, global warming and endangered democracy – sobering perspectives. Drink, Nanba said. Relax, says Sanyutei. It’s not that simple anymore.
Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues debated by national media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History”.
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