AAS Annual Meeting

Japan Session 73

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Session 73: Notions of Happiness in Japan

Organizer: Carola L. Hommerich, German Institute for Japanese Studies, Japan

In recent years in Japan, the increasing precarity of living conditions has become a prominent topic in the media as well as in academic discourse. After some thirty years of economic success and a strong self-perception as “middle class society” (chûkan kaiso shakai), the new “gap society” (kakusa shakai) threatens not only the bottom fringe of society strongly affected by the economic crisis. Fear of financial setbacks and status anxiety can be detected throughout the whole of society, also among those who are materially well off and socially well integrated. Statistics by the Cabinet Office show that the Japanese outlook on the future is rather bleak: 29% assume that their standard of living will worsen in the future (up from 10% in 1992). The share of those who feel worried or insecure in their daily life reached 70% in 2007. “Happiness” in a sense of subjective well-being seems to have become an increasingly rare commodity in contemporary Japan. This panel aims to analyze and connect different topics alluding to well-being and happiness from a sociological and cultural studies point of view. We will concentrate on these two leading research questions: a) What is perceived of as “happiness” in Japan: How is happiness defined and understood in the context of Japanese society? b) Why are the Japanese less happy than they used to be: Which socioeconomic developments and discourse changes might be responsible for the spiritual crisis to be detected in contemporary Japan?

“A Happy Person”
Florian Coulmas, German Institute for Japanese Studies, Japan

In happiness research it is often assumed that the pursuit of happiness is a universal trait of the human species. In the same vein it is taken for granted that the translation problem has been solved. Words such as happiness, bonheur, Glück, fortuna, etc. are taken to be semantically equivalent, or, given that there are certain differences, they are said to be immaterial, because what counts is not what happiness means to different people, but how happy they are. Discussing these assumptions, this paper once again raises the question of semantic equivalence. I argue that with regard to closely related European languages that have coexisted in the same cultural sphere for many centuries translation equivalence presents less of a problem than for culturally distant languages such as Japanese and Chinese. While this is not a new problem, a definite solution is outstanding. At issue is the relationship between word, concept and object. In this paper I report on an empirical study that investigates the concept of “a happy person” by means of the Semantic Differential method. A comparison of Japanese, German and Danish data serves to illustrate certain differences that are linked to other cultural characteristics.

Narrating Suicide, Portraying Unhappiness in Contemporary Japan
Francesca Di Marco, Stanford University, USA

This paper will give a historical overview on how the discourse on suicide in Japan represents the lenses through which reporters narrate the way happiness, social values, cultural and economic crises are perceived. It will focus on the last two decades, when relevant shifts in the discourse on suicide occurred, showing a new perception of unhappiness. Three points will be explored: 1. Since the burst of the Bubble, the media began to see middle-aged male workers as the unhap-piest group in Japan, discarding the long-established supremacy of the youth. What portrayal of unhappiness emerges in the discourse on voluntary death? What alternative accounts are foreclosed? 2. Whereas until the late 1990s the economic factor was considered fundamental in determining people's happiness, media begun to identify 'depression' and 'nervous breakdown' as psychological motivations standing behind voluntary death. What effects did the shift from the perception of unhappiness as the reflection of the failure of a utilitarian society to unhappiness as the symptom of individual pathology have on the discourse on suicide? 3. Finally, a recent discursive production on suicide paved the way to new options: social disappearance and virtual suicide. How-to manuals proposing disappearance as a stratagem against suicide and a way to begin a new life, and suicide websites where people virtually act their death are the reflection of a society in danger, as well as of a society searching for alternatives beyond material success. What subjectivities are constituted by such discourse and how is it integrated within the dominant discourse?