This is a tough one. I think there’s a bit of a cultural difference between the Western and Japanese concept of “happiness.” While covering some of my own experiences I would like to cover some key concepts unique to the Japanese language and culture, and why this answer isn’t as clear-cut as it may seem.
A quick note
Hi. My name is Evan. I’ve been living in Japan since 2015. Since I moved here I have been through Japanese language school, university, job hunting, working, and now working as a translator and marketing consultant in Tokyo. While I will be basing many of my points in recent data, all of my opinions in this article are of course based on my own personal experiences while living in Japan.
Trying to analyze and inevitably dumb-down the complexities of a culture for a single article can be…somewhat cringy. I always try to do my best. My opinions are primarily based on my experiences studying Nihonjinron (日本人論) under Japanese instructors while in Japanese university, as well as by reading studies by Japanese sociologists. My passions lie in developmental linguistics and cultural anthropology, but that doesn’t mean my opinion is concrete. Think of this as a essay on my own perspectives and experiences supplemental by additional knowledge from other minds more qualified than myself.
My experience living in Japan; Can foreigners be happy living in Japan, and is living in Japan worth it?
This is something I have covered a few times before, but put simply, living in Japan comes with a lot of responsibility. Foreigners in Japan still make up only around 2% of the population. Of this foreign community, an even much smaller percentage of foreigners living in Japan are westerners. Simply put, you stand out, everywhere you go, at any time of the day…no matter what. This can manifest itself in a number of really awkward ways on a day to day basis, but it can also be a great opportunity as well. I would say that living in Japan is worth it, but only if you take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves to you on a day to day basis. More than ever before in your home country, life in Japan as a foreigner is absolutely what you make of it. I’ve seen people thrive, and I’ve seen people struggle. If you are worried, your fate is entirely up to you! If they are willing to put in the effort and maintain a positive and proactive attitude, foreigners can definitely live a happy life in Japan. I wrote a little bit more about this dynamic in my article Can you Live in Japan Without Speaking Japanese? My Experience
Are Japanese people happy? Depressed? Let’s look at the relevant data
According to the 2019 World Happiness Report commissioned by the United Nations Japan is ranked the 58th country in the world in terms of happiness. The ranking is measured using six factors: GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and absence of corruption. Japan scored 2nd in “life expectancy”, but scored 92nd in “generosity.” So, why is this ranking for generosity so low, and what does this mean in the context of Japanese society? First, let’s explore how Japanese relationships form, starting with the unique (and notorioulsy difficult to translate) Japanese word: Tanin (他人)
The Japanese concept of tanin （他人), and why this leads to low public generosity and a lack of happiness in Japanese society
I would say that this is a factor that I personally would agree with. I do think that the Japanese social dynamics created by the concept of tanin do lead to less overall happiness in the country, and generally makes it more difficult for people to express themselves to those around them. So, what does tanin mean? I actually covered this topic quite extensively in my graduate thesis, where I focused primarily on the Japanese concept of enryo (遠慮), or “restraint”, and how social classifications create extreme distance between people in Japan depending on their relationship dynamic.
Tanin (他人) is what you would label an “absolute stranger” in the context of Japanese society. Japanese social dynamics tend to start from a commonly agreed-upon standard of distance. A distance that is gradually decreased over time as relationships foster between different people, and depending greatly on the context on which people meet. This can make relationships very complicated, which leads to a propensity for loneliness in Japan, thus resulting in this feeling of a lack of generosity and a decreased level of happiness between people. You can think of these “steps” or “degrees” of closeness people graduate to as their relationship progresses as static barriers to entry. For my graduation thesis, I created this graphic below as to better visualize this phenomenon.
The graph above probably looks very…confusing. What I’m attempting to demonstrate is the concept of how group relationships in Japan can penetrate and become a part of one’s individual identity depending on the relationship classification. The reserved attitude and restraint are used as social tools to show one’s goodwill towards people that have some connection to you. In order, tanin have no connection to an individual outside of being a member of the Japanese society. These are people that you see on the train, on the street, or while waiting in line at the grocery store. Shirai can probably be best translated as “acquaintances”, while nakama would probably be between the English word “friend” and “acquaintance.” In Japanese, the word nakama literally means “ally.” This is a pretty complicated concept, but allow me to attempt to summarize below.
The dynamic of hospitality, or omoiyari in Japan, and how this affects the happiness of people in Japan
While Japanese hospitality towards acquaintances and people bordering on friendship (shirai and nakama) are treated with respect and hospitality (as well as added distance), this level of hospitality and politeness is not applied to the tanin who are completely outside of your social circle. This results in a much more extreme contrast between “stranger” and “friend” within Japanese society. As sad as it is to say, there have been times when I’ve seen an elderly person need to sit down on the subway steps, only to have waves of people walk past them, leaving them all alone. I do think that if this was a western country, a much higher portion of people would stop to offer assistance. This is one of the many contradictions in Japanese society. In a modern sense, the elderly may be respected in Japan, but often only to those who exist within your inner circle, so to speak. I’ll say it again. Community is very important in Japan, but only towards your direct community. At least, this has been my experience living in Osaka, Kobe, and now Tokyo. I think this is one of the reason why many people feel this lack of generosity in Japanese society, and why people often end up unhappy with nowhere to turn in Japanese society. Don’t get me wrong, Japanese people are very willing to help each other, but I think they typically need much more prompting than your average westerner. The emphasis in Japan is typically placed upon harmony, restraint, and perseverance, also known as the ever-present culture of Japanese gaman! (我慢)
So…what is gaman, and why does it affect how happy people are in Japan?
Gaman is a somewhat difficult concept to fully capture for those who have not directly experienced it in Japan. It’s practically become a meme over the years with Japan expats. The answer to everything in Japan is always gaman, topped with more gaman, and the artful skill of properly demonstrating your will to practice consistent and hardy gaman. So, what does gaman mean, and why is it an important factor to consider when asking the question of whether people in Japan are happy?
How the concept of gaman influences the Japanese perspective on individual happiness.
Gaman is most often translation to “perseverance” in English, although to leave the definition at that is to rob it of it’s cultural context and true societal impact. I’ll…attempt to explain. To gaman, or “persevere” in Japan, is to not only challenge oneself to persevere through hardship for a desired outcome. The very act of perseverance itself is a virtue in and of itself. The act of performing proper gaman in Japan is to not only persevere to one’s best ability, but to also demonstrate your good will to your colleagues, friends, and family in order to show them your good intention. This cultural dichotomy would serve as the catalyst from the majority of Japan’s greatest achievements and cultural milestones, while also serving as a factor that can…make it difficult for people in Japan to prioritize their own happiness over the idealistic pursuit of perfection.
After one becomes accustomed to ignoring their own desires, their own feelings, and their own needs for the pursuit of perfectionism, it can become a habit to prioritize not only the needs of the greater good, but the needs of the society as a whole over your own needs. This is maybe what I would say is my interpretation of one of the absolute base components of Japanese collectivism. Self-sacrifice is a cultural motif seen across many aspects of Japanese culture and history, and is one of the reasons why virtues such as harmony group cohesion are often valued more than individual happiness in Japanese society.
The concept of self sacrifice and individual happiness in Japan, as explored through more key concepts.
There are many concepts in Japanese that are additional components of this Japanese ideal of self-sacrifice for the surrounding group. Two concepts that immediately come to mind, both of which I have covered in some manner on this website, are enryo (遠慮) which can be roughly translated to “restraint”, and kuuki (空気) which may be roughly translated to “the air”, meaning the overall indirect social cues and dynamics of a group setting. I had included this in the figure above, whereas group dynamics dictate whether or not, and to what extent people in Japan exercise restraint by dawning a hikaeme (控え目) or “reserved” personality, in which they exercise restraint or gaman (我慢) to those in their immediate social circle, and especially to those with whom they cannot call their friend yet. While one is expected to “read the air” by understanding the indirect and unspoken social cues of any given situation, often times one demonstrates their ability to concern themselves with the conditions of those around them and demonstrate their cares by exercising “restraint”, or enryo in a given social scenario. I had mentioned that this dynamic of graduating to subsequent “social steps” before. Strangers (tanin) become acquaintances (shiriai) and so on, but how does this timing work, and how does this work in Japanese? This is a pretty important step in understanding Japanese social dynamics, which dictate many aspects of people’s lives in this country and their level of happiness.
Being happy…with your relationships? How graduating from polite to casual Japanese works, and how this affects relationships in Japan
Relationships in Japan have many, many different stages as I have covered. In order to have healthy, happy relationships in Japan, one has to master the switch between teineigo (proper Japanese) and tameguchi (casual Japanese.) Mastering this timing is a key part of understanding Japanese social dynamics!
Mastering social dynamics is useful for not only living a happy life in Japan, but also for not coming across as a total creep! Bonus points!
Not being totally awkward would make anyone happy, right? Okay, okay, so…when exactly do you switch from proper Japanese to casual Japanese? Put simply, Japanese speakers try to find a way to just…slip in casual Japanese with somebody they feel that they’re getting close to. In my opinion, this entire process is pretty hilarious when you begin picking it apart. As a country with multiple different ways to say I (you can choose which one you want to use, thus choosing the impression of yourself you give off. I wrote about this more at my other article Should Men Use Boku or Ore? My Experience in Japan) Japanese is chock-full of these kinds of subtle shifts that indicate a change in the greater group dynamic. One’s ability to adjust to these changes and shift themselves by appropriately “reading the air” (I attempted to show this dynamic in the graph above) is an essential component of successfully identifying the murky waters of Japanese relationship dynamics.
I had a conversation with a Japanese friend about this topic on my YouTube channel, so feel free to check out the video below for a bit more context!
This sounds…complicated, right? Well, that’s because it most certainly is! It really is a constant puzzle for even native Japanese who have lived in Japan their entire lives, which can leave a lot of people feeling ostracized socially who struggle to read these subtle social cues, leading to a lower standard of happiness in regards to healthy emotional relations and community.
All of these linguistics factors ON TOP OF Japan’s absolutely insane at times population density can leave people feeling lost in the crowd
Well, not every place in Japan has high population density. In fact, many people might be surprised to find out that one of Japan’s most pressing issues is the rapid depopulation of Japan’s countryside towns. Literally every prefecture in Japan has seen a drop in population in recent years. Can you guess the one exception? You probably got it; It’s Tokyo! I’m currently a Tokyoite (Yes, that’s actually how you say it.) Tokyo is pretty awesome, but if there is one thing that absolutely sucks, it’s attempting to cram yourself into a rush hour Tokyo train car like a sardine…inside a very sweaty can…That doesn’t sound like a recipe for a happy Japanese life now, does it?
It’s not just sweat! It’s Japanese salaryman sweat! Mmm…salty?…(I’m sorry)
The Greater Tokyo Area contains roughly 40 million people! (If you are interested in learning more about the actual population and various definitions of the Tokyo area, you can read more about it here: Is Tokyo a City / State / or Prefecture? Let’s Take a Look! Everywhere you go there is a sea of people. If you’re a foreigner (and some curly-haired Italian-faced foreigner like me especially) you will stand out, even in Tokyo. It’s a strange combination of standing out in this manner and being surrounded in a homogenous society that can make life in Japan lonely for foreigners, and can leave you feeling like you’re lost in the crowd. I can’t speak for Japanese people, obviously, but I imagine it’s somewhat similar, and is one reason why some people are unhappy in Japan.
Life in Japan can get pretty complicated. If you’re interested in learning more about the Japanese language, Japanese culture, or reading about some of my experiences living in Japan, why not check out one of the articles below?