The good life in balance

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Iza Kavedžija. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau5.3.008


The good life in balance

Insights from aging Japan

Iza KAVEDŽIJA, University of Oxford

Happiness in the Japanese context can usefully be understood as deriving from a series of negotiations or “balancing acts” between contrastive values and orientations to the world. Of particular importance for older Japanese is a tension between a narrative orientation or attitude, involving sense-making and social activities such as reminiscing or reflecting; and an immediate attitude, implying a focus of attention on the present moment. Further balances are sought between sociality and the burden of over-closeness, intimacy and a sense of freedom, and dependence and autonomy, among others. Because the poles of these tensions encapsulate important social and moral values that are in some ways incommensurable, they cannot be resolved through a straightforward choice between them. Instead, their negotiation—and thus the pursuit of happiness itself—is a matter of practical moral judgment.

Keywords: Happiness, Japan, aging, values, moral judgment

Seeking respite from the sweltering summer heat, a small crowd of elderly people gathered in the Shimoichi salon, a small, warmly lit space nestled away in a busy, old-fashioned shopping arcade in downtown South Osaka. Oku-san, a wiry man in his late seventies and a gleeful storyteller, ordered a cup of black coffee and launched into a tirade. “I’m used to him leaving the aircon on even when he leaves the house, but this time he left the fridge door open! I wish my grandson would just return home to his mother, he’s such a nuisance. He leaves his things lying about and I have to do so much more shopping and cleaning when he’s around. . . . He even dries up my beer supply!” This last remark elicited some mirthful laughter from the audience, but Oku-san continued: “My daughter thinks it’s easier if he lives closer to his university, and that it’s a help for me to have a young person around. She thought he’d give me a hand with housework, but I have more to do this way. I miss having my own space!” Two ladies in their late eighties nodded in [136]understanding. Kondo-san, a calm, broad-faced lady in her late seventies, agreed vigorously: “I live on my own, and it’s heaven (gokuraku)! I had many hard times in life and now I’m finally free, everything is so easy, I don’t have to look after anybody.” She went on to explain that her son had invited her to live with him and his family in another prefecture but that she didn’t get along with her daughter-in-law, who encouraged her to leave. So she moved in with her daughter, only to realize that to live harmoniously with her daughter’s family, she had to be the one to adapt. In order not to be a burden she had to endure many things, all kinds of small annoyances. She eventually decided to make do on her own and now enjoys living independently, despite her limited means. Some of the other salon-goers voiced their agreement with Kondo-san’s decision, and she cheerfully continued: “I really enjoy singing these days . . . since I’m “single” again my voice has become quite strong! I love choir practice.” On many other occasions, Kondo-san would describe the joys of growing vegetables in rows of pots lined up alongside her house in the narrow street she lives in. She was known in the neighborhood as the “vegetable expert” and she divided her time evenly between her quiet pottering, weeding and watering in her improvised urban garden, and socializing in the Shimoichi salon, exchanging stories and news with others in the cheerful and sometimes raucous atmosphere that Japanese people so often associate with Osaka.

In contrast to the stereotype of the elderly as dependent and frail, many of the older Japanese people I got to know during fieldwork frequently spoke of the sense of freedom they enjoyed in their later years, their enjoyment of hobbies, and the importance of self-cultivation. They were, on the whole, a calm, content, and cheerful crowd.1 That said, they rarely spoke directly of “happiness”; stating such things about oneself could be perceived as bragging, and it is customary in Japan to represent oneself and one’s associates in a modest, self-deprecatory manner. Indeed, if asked directly whether they were happy, or even contented, many would have been reluctant to say that they were. Nevertheless, in their daily conversations among themselves, they often expressed gratitude for what they have, or for what others have done for them, or their joy for certain events, and their deep appreciation of positive, interesting, or beautiful objects or moments. They stated their contentment or dissatisfaction in a variety of ways, and by following their interactions and daily behaviors, and later discussing my observations with them directly, I was able to discern certain a range of issues that were considered to be of some importance in relation to leading a good life, or living well and finding contentment in everyday life. As a group, they especially enjoyed telling stories, both as a social activity and as a way to make sense of events in their lives. At the same time, they valued quiet moments of contemplation in everyday activities, like Kondo-san with [137]her vegetables. While they strived for warm social relationships, they attempted to avoid burdening others with their worries or imposing obligations.

These efforts to maintain a meaningful and contented existence, as I hope to show in this article, led them to strive to hold a number of factors in balance, to negotiate a tension between autonomy and dependence, as well as between isolation and burdensome social relationships. On a broader level, they strove to navigate a tension between two contrastive orientations or modes of being in the world: one involving meaning-making activities connecting the past with the present, and pointing to desirable futures; and another focused on the experience and appreciation of the present moment. In tracing through these balances, this article approaches happiness, in the sense of life satisfaction and a sense of purpose, as it is envisaged and crafted through practice—including narrative practice—among this group of older Japanese. To be clear, I have not sought to approach happiness through direct questioning or self-reporting. While my interlocutors seemed generally quite content with their lives, finding much pleasure and enjoyment in the everyday, the question of “how happy they are” was never a central concern. Of greater interest was how they envisaged what it meant to live well, to be happy, and the efforts they made to lead a life they found both pleasant and satisfying.

Living well in Japan: Balancing acts

In Japan, the literature on happiness is abundant.2 The shelves of bookshops are populated by a range of popular titles, such as The mechanism of happiness (Maeno 2013), by a neuroscientist and robotics expert who argues that happiness can be “controlled” and who proposes four “factors’ of happiness” (“let’s give it a go,” “thank you,” “things will turn out somehow,” “true to yourself ”); Five things you need to know about happiness (Hakunetsu Kyōshitsu 2014), based on a popular program aired on the national television network NHK, entitled Happiness studies; and “Happiness treatise” for businessmen (Egami 2015), to mention but a few—along with a wide range of books by foreign authors. In addition to these more practically oriented, “self-help”-style books, there are also numerous scholarly writings by sociologists, psychologists, and philosophers, some of which are also read widely.3 Some of these have a critical orientation: for example, philosopher Gen Kida (2001) analyzes the reasons for the apparent lack of interest in happiness in historic Japan, as evidenced by the lack of explicit terms. Happiness (kōfuku4), he argues, denotes [138]the state of mind of an individual, and increased interest in it reveals an egotistical tendency in society (see also Coulmas 2008).

Two of the most common terms for expressing happiness in Japan are shiawase, which might be translated as “happiness, good fortune, blessing,” and ureshii, “happy, glad, pleased.” Thus one of my elderly interlocutors explained to me that she joined a sports club after turning fifty, and as a consequence became much more active and outgoing, expanding her social circle. “You know, as I told you, I was already over fifty when I joined the sports club. I made many friends and become more outgoing. Now I’m really happy” (honto ni shiawase). Nevertheless, most of my friends were not inclined to describe themselves or their own lives (or the lives of those close to them) as shiawase; doing so would be considered immodest. The term was perhaps more commonly used in the context of advice, or in the form of an endorsement: for example, a kind, ninety-year-old lady who came to know me well after many months of meetings, concluded her life story with something she really wanted me to know: “In life, if you look after your husband’s parents, you will be most happy (jinsei tte, shujinno oya daiji shitara ne, ichiban shiawase ni ikimasu). Then your children will follow suit and you will live well. Yes, if you live like a good couple and look after his parents, always kindly and with care, then the children will turn out well.” Here as in many other accounts I was given, happiness (shiawase) is closely related to care and to close, warm relationships with others. It is to be found in the hope that one will be cared for, as much as in the very process of caring for others. The term ureshii5 was used rather more frequently, and it often punctuated everyday communications, including emails or text messages: “I was happy to receive your postcard, thank you”; “If you could stay a bit longer we would be glad”; “I was pleased you came to visit.” In fact, when young children visited the salon on several occasions some of the older ladies remarked how glad (ureshii) they were: “How good of you to come, yo’u kite kurehatta ne.” As these examples suggest, ureshii also has a strong social and relational component but was often used to convey a happy feeling arising from something done for you by another, thus expressing a sense of gratitude.

Despite the relative affluence and stability of Japanese society, reported levels of happiness appear to be rather low (see, for example, Diener, Diener, and Diener 1995). How should we interpret this? The Japanese case suggests that one can be relatively healthy and materially well off, with reasonably good social relationships, and yet nevertheless feel something is missing in one’s life. For this reason, as Gordon Mathews (2009: 167–68) suggests, a study of well-being must also focus on sources of meaning in life. Some explanations of this discrepancy of results and predictions focus on terminology and the process of self-reporting, pointing out that Japanese may find it inappropriate to describe themselves as particularly happy, or [139]in any way above average and thus different from the majority. Nevertheless, not all studies have relied on self-reporting (Kan, Karasawa, and Kitayama 2009), and yet they have come up with similar results. Chiemi Kan and colleagues acknowledge that some of this may be a consequence of a constraining social structure, but choose to focus on the cultural conceptualizations of happiness used as a basis for the measurement. They argue that the conceptualizations that had been used may be biased and overly narrow, focusing mainly on personal achievement and positive feelings and assuming that happiness is itself evaluated positively. They show that Japanese people rate much higher in surveys based on a more holistic and culturally appropriate conceptualization of happiness, and argue that happiness in Japan can often be seen as transient, and the social world as fluid (a place where much depends on others and not just on one’s own actions and achievements). Feelings that result from successfully removing oneself for a while from the flow of social life, or associated with a sense of distance or dissociation—such as peacefulness and calm—are therefore an important aspect of wellbeing in Japan, as well as some other Eastern cultures (Kan, Karasawa, and Kitayama 2009).

Similarly, Yukiko Uchida and Shigehiro Kitayama6 (2009) suggest that in contrast to American conceptions of happiness as an enduring positive state frequently associated with excitement (or high arousal) and personal achievement, in Japan attitudes that might be seen as negative in some ways (for instance, avoiding or withdrawing from reality) and low arousal positive states (such as calmness) were deemed to be relevant aspects of happiness (Uchida and Ogihara 2012: 395). In short, their research indicates that Japanese conceptualizations of happiness not only are less focused on independence and personal achievement than some of the Western equivalents but are also less focused on positive attitudes and often include both poles of an emotion. For example, they may include social support as contributing to a sense of well-being, while calm and quiet relaxation without the pressures of the social world remain equally important. While methodologically and conceptually quite distinct from ethnographic research, these findings resonated with some of my own observations in the field. These conceptualizations of happiness specific to Japanese, and perhaps other East Asian contexts described by psychologists as “holistic,” can be seen as incorporating opposite poles of an emotion, or even, I would argue, seemingly opposed values. In this sense they can be described as a series of balances between opposites. In other words, the sense of happiness is derived from a series of balancing acts between extremes and different modes of being.

The tendency of my interlocutors to pay careful attention to achieving this balance is not one that is unique to the elderly, or in any way restricted to the Japanese context. As a way of describing and understanding the good life, it bears a certain [140]resemblance to Aristotelian ethics, in which happiness is defined in terms of virtuous activity, and every virtue is a middle state between conditions of deficiency and excess (Kraut 2012). A similar tension, and its relevance for well-being, is described by Michael Jackson: “well-being is . . . dependent on an adjustment or balance between our sense of what we owe others and what we owe ourselves” (Jackson 2011: 195). While the Kuranko of Sierra Leone with whom Jackson worked place their demands on others loudly and explicitly, in contrast to the more formalized interactions and internalized expectations experienced by the inhabitants of Shimoichi, they share the concern with finding a difficult yet valuable balance. I would like to suggest that formulating the elements of the good life in the form of tensions or priorities that need to be kept in balance allows for a certain degree of abstraction, which in turn facilitates comparison with other cultural contexts,7 as well as other life stages.

Among my older interlocutors these balancing acts included attempts at harmonizing rich social ties and avoiding over-closeness, including the burden that such close relationships can bring with them in the form of social obligations and complex gift exchanges. Similarly, a related balancing act regarding family ties—in which autonomy and freedom must be balanced against dependence and reliance on others—emerged as central for older people I spoke with.8 In other words, the balances that are required for living well are those that embody the tensions between the values held in high regard by my interlocutors. At the same time, happiness itself is seen as valued positively only to the extent that it encompasses both of these poles, and can otherwise be seen as a fleeting state, or an antisocial one. It can be argued, therefore, that happiness among older Japanese, in practice, is a matter of balancing particular social and moral values. These kinds of values, unlike exchange values, are not simply interchangeable or commensurable, and their conflict cannot be resolved through simple choice, but only through moral judgment (Lambek 2008). In this sense, I argue, happiness is approached as a form of practical moral judgment.

Happiness in older age

The relationship between happiness and age (or life course) has been the focus of much recent research by psychologists and economists. Some of the most widely reported studies in the media9 suggest that older people are on average happier than their younger, middle-aged counterparts. The data collected as a part of a large-scale 2008 Gallup survey, for example, examines how psychological [141]well-being varies with age in the United States (Stone et al. 2010), and suggests that older people generally tend to experience positive emotions (or positive affect) more frequently, and that their overall appraisals of their life tend to be more positive than those of younger people. The trend, as described by psychological researchers, seems to follow a much-discussed, U-shaped curve: a gradual decrease in levels of psychological well-being from early youth onward, followed by a movement upward from around the fifties and into the later years. Negative affect, or the prevalence of negative emotions such as stress, worry, and anger, seems to decrease with age (see, for example, Rossi and Rossi 1990; Mroczek and Kolarz 1998).

Based on my own experiences with older Japanese, one explanation for this tendency would be that older people tend to focus more on the things they consider worthwhile, and avoid situations that cause them discomfort. This is not always perceived as something positive, however, and in Japan one would sometimes hear it said that the elderly are “selfish” (wagamama). For example, Takahashi-san, a quiet, smiling lady in her mid-seventies who moved to Osaka some years before and had few friends in the area, told me how making friends when you are older can be difficult: “It’s easy to have acquaintances, but it’s hard to make close friendships (shitashii). Older people seek comfort and they withdraw when they don’t feel like doing something.” Nevertheless, in many other situations, this attitude had positive consequences, as people tended to focus on those aspects of things that they perceived as good.10

Sociality and over-closeness

Shimoichi community salon,11 where I spent much of my fieldwork,12 is an inviting, warmly lit space in a small, refurbished townhouse located in an old shopping arcade. This arcade was once the vibrant center of Shimoichi, an old merchant neighborhood in downtown South Osaka, but was progressively overshadowed by large supermarkets and convenience stores. With a high proportion of elderly residents, some of whom have lived in the area for several generations, the neighborhood was changing—small, wooden buildings in the inner streets were now surrounded by [142]large high-rise apartment blocks lining the main arteries outlining the boundaries of the neighborhood. The salon was well known to most residents of the neighborhood, as it offered affordable tea and coffee and a space to meet others. It offered a range of activities such as weekly music sessions, weaving workshops, and monthly concerts with an aim of reaching out to the people in the neighborhood. Most of the daily visitors were older people, relatively healthy and independent, mostly living on their own or with their families.

For the most part, the older people who regularly stopped by the salon did not necessarily think of each other as close friends but they expressed concern for each other in various ways, by sharing information and checking up on their neighbors, albeit in a casual manner. For example, one afternoon in late March, Okuma-san came in for the first time in two weeks. Upon greeting everyone she apologized for her long absence and explained that she had been very busy over the cherry blossom viewing season. She had a couple of house guests, and complained how exhausted she was from all the cooking and serving of elaborate, Japanese-style meals, though she’d also had a lot of fun, going to interesting places while showing her guests around. Her explanation was listened to attentively, and her story attracted the attention of most people gathered around the table. They were very happy to hear she was well, having grown a little worried about her, wondering whether she might have fallen ill. Kato-san had even walked to her place but was baffled at what to do, as Okuma-san lived in a massive apartment block (manshon) with hundreds of apartments and a securely locked front door. She realized she couldn’t just knock and check on her, so she left. Okuma-san thanked her for her concern and took out a big box of biscuits from Nara, which she had brought as an omiyage (a present or souvenir) from the trip she’d made with her friends during their stay, and offered them to everyone.

Most of the salon-goers were concerned about the possibility of appearing thoughtless and were very cautious in their dealings with others, paying particular attention not to burden them, for example, with unpleasant or overly intimate details of their lives, or with their worries, or by giving inappropriately large gifts that would then have to be reciprocated. Gift giving in Japan is a formalized affair, involving exchanges of set value on specific occasions, each meticulously accounted for and reciprocated (Rupp 2003). The kinds of gifts brought to the salon were small packages of food, which were shared and consumed together, and not taken back home. Often these were in the form of omiyage (souvenirs) brought back from places people had traveled, or gifts people received from family or neighbors that they wanted to share, such as the small crate of mandarins that one lady received from her granddaughter, too much for her to eat on her own. This act of redistribution allowed for confirming social ties and provided an opportunity to tell a story about her granddaughter to the others in the salon, who praised the latter’s caring gesture.

In an attempt to minimize the burden on the salon-goers, the NPO staff and founders explicitly discouraged formal exchanges, stating firmly that, for example, New Year gifts were unnecessary, and politely declined them, referring to such exchanges as “ki wo tsukau” (literally, “using one’s spirit”). Kuroki-san, one of the NPO staff, explained that this tendency to politely reciprocate probably contributed to the weakening of old-style neighborhood support networks. Now, both when [143]offering and requesting help people are aware of the burden and they started feeling reticent and restrained (enryo). Such statements imply a realization that extending too much help and making formal gift exchanges places a burden of obligation on others, such that people became less inclined to ask for help.

The sentiment of not causing trouble (meiwaku) to others is a very widespread one in Japan (on the train, for instance, reminders are issued to switch off mobile phones lest one cause meiwaku to others). Many of my older interlocutors were worried about becoming a burden on their children and causing them meiwaku if they became frail, so they were grateful for the introduction of the Long Term Care Insurance, on which they could rely to get help and support in their own homes. In the salon, while the visitors would sometimes share their worries, they were careful not to impose an overly heavy tone and often made light of their troubles, in an attempt not to burden others with their problems. In short, in order to create and maintain social ties and networks of support, people were cautious not to impose, balancing a tension between sociality and stifling social relationships, or between supportive friendly relationships and excessive closeness.

Intimacy and independence

Many of my interlocutors mentioned that the “three-generational household”— sharing a house with one’s children and grandchildren—was widely seen as an “ideal” way to live. Nevertheless, when it came to their own life choices, they were clear that this would not suit them in practice for one reason or another. Kondosan and Oku-san were not alone in their preference for living on their own; perhaps around half of the salon-goers lived alone, and most of them spoke of their feeling of freedom and of their comfortable way of life. Such examples require us to rethink the link between coresidence and intimacy as represented in the ideal of the three-generational household. Although intimacy almost everywhere in the world, and perhaps especially in Japan, can be created through embodied practices such as sharing food or bathing together (Clark 2009),13 coresidence is a balancing act between familial involvement and private, individual comfort. According to Inge Daniels (2010: 47), happy homes are those that achieve both the intimacy and shared enjoyment of the family and satisfy the needs of the individual for peace and relaxation, for an escape from the outside world. This dynamic is further complicated by the fact that the well-being of individual family members also to a significant extent depends on the links with people outside the household, something that the ideal of a three-generational household rarely takes into account. Many salon-goers mentioned ties to the area in which they lived as one of the main reasons for not wanting to move to their children’s house. Of course, in situations of tensions within the home or even just restricted space and conflicting daily routines of older and younger generations, this balance may be disturbed and the effort to maintain harmonious relationships can feel overwhelming. As noted earlier, Kondo-san found living with her daughter too difficult because she always [144]had to adjust and keep out of everyone’s way; she eventually decided to move back to Osaka to live on her own, precisely in order to keep the relationship healthy. She enjoyed the company of her neighbors and felt that she could rely on her support networks in the area.

These examples illustrate a tension between intimacy (and dependence on others for various kinds of support, including emotional), and maintaining a degree of autonomy14 and a sense of freedom. These two were sometimes in tension but, as pointed out by my interlocutors, at times it was precisely by maintaining a degree of independence that warm, intimate relationships were thought to be preserved. In addition, older people in Shimoichi were intent on cultivating various sources of support—like Kikuchi-san, who had no children and made an effort to help out her friends whenever she could, in order to have more people she could rely in times of need. In this context, state resources (including the pension and Long-Term Care Insurance [LTCI], which covers care and home-help for everyone above the age of 65) were understood as one among many possible sources of support, alongside family and neighborhood relationships, including those established through the salon. On various occasions people commented on the limited nature of these resources; a couple of ladies who attended a seminar for volunteers interested in giving older people in the neighborhood a hand, told me one cannot expect that one will be able to get all the support covered by the LTCI (especially in times when the increase in number of older people meant an increasing pressure on the limited funds). Similarly, one man who was reluctant to rely on his family as his only source of support, lest he become a burden on them, was looking for accommodation in a serviced apartment with some support funded by LTCI. In short, in order to lead a good life one needs to strike a balance between maintaining intimacy and a degree of independence. Cultivating multiple sources of support, a varied “dependability” (Lebra 2004: 20), permits one to live independently, so to speak.

“Doing things properly” and self-cultivation

While not strictly speaking a balancing act in itself, two tendencies seemed very important for my older friends in Shimoichi: self-cultivation, for instance by practicing an art form or dedicating oneself to a hobby; and “doing things properly,” with dedication and attention to detail. These tendencies are closely related to each other and provide important background for understanding the immediate orientation, which I describe further in the following section. Kondo-san cheerfully described to me her enjoyment in singing and her choir practice and, on another occasion, the sense of achievement she feels when her singing improves. This tendency to take up a new hobby and focus on developing a skill in later life is sometimes termed rokujū no tenarai, or “study in one’s sixties.” Another man in his late sixties told me about his own new hobbies and those of his friends: he started a drawing course and joined a choir, while his wife attended a hula dancing class with [145]her friends, and his neighbor enjoyed photography classes. I eventually spoke to all of them, and they explained how they enjoyed group learning, as it gave them an opportunity to make new acquaintances, beyond their work colleagues and neighbors. They explained that one’s sixties were the ideal time for studying something new, as one was finally free of many obligations, the children having grown up, and being retired one finally had more free time. They also spoke of their fear of becoming too dependent on the routine that their work, care for the family, and housework provided, so learning something new was a way for them to move away from their earlier roles.

Some of my older interlocutors in Shimoichi rarely referred to pastimes as hobbies. Often in their seventies and eighties, they talked about them less in terms of pastimes and more in terms of practice, or the importance of being in the moment, or becoming immersed in the task (muchū ni naru). They emphasized the importance of dedication for doing things properly but also for feeling a sense of achievement, and relaxing by not thinking about anything else. Pastimes and daily activities, whether artistic or mundane, were often guided by the principle of “doing things properly” (chanto suru), the way they should be done, not sloppily. While this principle may seem constraining in its formality—especially in its more mundane forms, such as being mindful of the proper way of serving tea or coffee to customers—knowledge of the rules and mastery of the pleasing form of an action may bring genuine pleasure. Doing things properly need not be restricted to mastering new skills but when it is, it can further be linked to a notion of selfdevelopment, or self-cultivation.

This striving for self-development should nevertheless not be understood as a merely individualistic pursuit, aiming at one’s own pleasure. On the contrary, self-cultivation can be understood as equally important for the advancement of the community, and indeed may even be presented as an obligation to the group. For example, older people in Japan who are involved in various societies and groups in order to pursue their hobbies show the commitment to the group they belong to by being involved in projects of “self-development.” Furthermore, by cultivating themselves they show their commitment to the wider society and their family, in an attempt to maintain vitality and avoiding becoming a burden (Traphagan 2004: 58). The very engagement in hobbies or pastimes indicates an individual’s focus on self-cultivation and discipline, which as such benefits the community, and which in the case of elderly people means showing an effort to maintain mental and physical health in order to avoid burdening the family and community (Traphagan 2004: 74). The well-being of group and individual are, therefore, conceived as closely linked through the idea of the “good person.”

“I don’t need such a thing”

Another important aspect of “study at sixty” is the age itself—while the phrase “study in one’s sixties” (rokujū no tenarai) certainly implies a sentiment that it is never too late to learn, the age of those who took up new hobbies and dedicated their time to self-development was indeed usually the sixties, and less often early seventies. Some people above this age explicitly expressed a lack of interest in [146]learning something new or taking up a hobby, dismissing it as fanciful or frivolous. This need not mean that this generation, many now in their nineties, has no interest in pastimes, but rather that they usually cultivate those they were already involved in, such as origami or growing vegetables. While they happily participated in singing classes organized in the salon, composed of singing traditional or old popular songs, several of the ladies in their nineties or late eighties flatly refused invitations to participate in workshops that involved mastering new skills, such as weaving. When one such lady, Kato-san, was presented with a leaflet advertising “fun classes” designed to improve mental ability, she just giggled and waved her hand saying she has no need of such things (sonna koto iranai ne). This was not simply because she thought of herself as sufficiently mentally agile but also because she felt no need to maintain her abilities for a future far ahead. In another conversation this sentiment was made even clearer. When one of the ladies in her late eighties expressed concern about her memory, noting the need to socialize and talk to other people as a form of mental practice, the reaction was positive and encouraging. Ikeda-san and other ladies in their eighties and nineties confirmed the importance of conversations and keeping active but they also agreed with Kato-san, who suggested that if you get to the age of ninety or thereabouts without becoming senile (boke), there was really no more reason for concern, as one is most likely to stay bright enough until the end of one’s life. In many ways, I think, this positive outlook seemed related to an attitude of appreciation and enjoyment of the moment. While the future is not necessarily foreclosed to older people, as it is nevertheless not available as a place where delayed gratification will occur.15 As such, they are led to focus on the present moment.

Many older salon-goers had clearly cultivated an attitude of quiet enjoyment and contemplation of everyday things, such as preparing meals or growing vegetables. The sense of enjoyment to be derived from focused, immediate experience was reflected in the idea of “doing things properly,” something everyone clearly considered to be especially important. While the insistence that things should be done “the proper way” might be experienced by some as constraining, my hosts showed me how doing things according to a set of rules or customs can lead to sense of control and joy that comes from immersion in the activity. The pleasing feeling that stems from it, even when the activity in question is as mundane as preparing a small origami rubbish box for the coffee tables in the salon, or cutting spring onions for soup, can be a form of aesthetic enjoyment. This aesthetic disposition, which implies a tendency to observe beauty in everyday things and activities, is certainly not a uniquely Japanese trait, and seems similar to what Joanna Overing (2003) describes as a propensity of Amazonian peoples to appreciate beauty within [147]the flow of social life: an “aesthetics of everyday life” (Overing 2003). Besides skillful activities, taking a moment to observe the changes in weather, a flower arrangement, or the color of tea is something that my older companions would tell me they enjoyed, and as they thought less about what they can expect in the future, this gradually became an increasingly important source of enjoyment in their lives. Such moments, less verbal and thus less often discussed within conversations in the salon, were seen as no less important for leading a good life.

The tendency to do the things one enjoys was further related to a certain sense of freedom arising from having fulfilled one’s duty. The stories about their lives that salon-goers gladly shared with each other often detailed the everyday work they did, in employment and for their families. Tokuda-san, a dark-haired bespectacled lady, spoke of her early mornings in the years when her husband worked as a newspaper delivery man, how she would get up at four to prepare his breakfast in time. Ono-san told stories of his work as a graphic designer, the late nights and deadlines and the many drinking parties with workmates that were sometimes a pleasure but also often impossible to decline—a reason, he thought, for his poor health now. Kato-san16 spoke of her many days spent caring for her four children, how she devoted herself to making them healthy and nutritious meals. Such stories allowed these people to represent themselves in a certain light but also to view themselves in relation to dominant life models, thus contributing to a certain kind of self-understanding, to a manner of making sense of the events in their lives (see Kavedžija 2013). Other mundane and everyday stories were no less important. For instance, one afternoon Kato-san and her friend returned for a cup of tea after an outing to an okonomiyaki17 restaurant. She told us of the different kinds they had and this soon led to a heated discussion of regional varieties of this omelette-like specialty. Most people had a story to contribute to the conversation, about food and regional specialties—Kan-san, for example, told us of a time when he visited Hiroshima for the first time. Eventually, this led to a discussion of meals from their youth. “Do you remember hot cakes? After the war my father made them, baked them on the fire. We lived in a shelter. . . . There was no rice, so we ate hot cakes, made from flour. . .” Memories of those pancakes had a trace of melancholy, despite the hardship; many nodded, and soon told their own stories of the Second World War, of shortages, and of the food of their youth.

In the process of retelling stories such as these, especially those pertaining to everyday matters, people reassemble their own lives and the groups of which they are a part. This retelling puts their lives together, reaffirms their groups but also, as implied in the term “reassembling,” changes them gradually and imperceptibly in each act of retelling18 (Frank 2010: 83). Each narrative act then both preserves [148]things (memories, stories, groups, evaluations) and changes them gradually. This sense-making activity is part of the attitude, or mode of attunement, that I call the narrative orientation. To the extent that such activities help to create a sense of meaning or purpose in life, and to evaluate one’s actions in relation to other events in one’s life, to other people’s actions and to their expectations, they are an important element in striving for a good life. Nevertheless, as revealed by the countervailing tendency to focus on the present, on what is immediately in front of one’s senses, on doing things in the right way in a dedicated manner, the narrative orientation is not the only attitude contributing to leading a good life, and under certain circumstances, can even jeopardize it (see also Stafford, this volume). My own interlocutors acknowledged the perils of too much reflection— as one seventy-five-year-old man said, “It is no good to think about [your life] too much. If I stay on my own too long, I think too much (kangaesugi).”

Making sense and being in the moment—Narrative and immediate orientation

Leading a good life seems to involve balancing these two distinct orientations. I present them here as a contrastive pair, a dichotomy, but they are so only in the sense that the more one is engaged in the one, the less one can simultaneously be engaged in the other.19 In this sense, everyday storytelling and other forms of narrative activity can be seen as a part of the narrative orientation, whereas attention to detail and “doing things properly” can be seen as part of the immediate orientation. The former can involve narration but more broadly encompasses sense-making and analytical activities; it is a mode in which one attempts to make sense of a situation, for example, by comparing the existing state of affairs to that desired, and by problem solving. The immediate orientation, by contrast, is oriented toward direct experience. Attention is focused on the present and on one’s immediate sensations and surroundings, without comparing these to what is expected or to some ideal, or relating them to memories, and without trying to order them into a sequence. [149]The distinction between these in everyday life is not rigid or absolute20; they simply refer to different states that can be experienced by anyone at different times, though some people may naturally incline toward one or the other.

What are the implications of these two attitudes or orientations for happiness21 or leading a good life? The stories we know of others and from others teach us about how to lead a good life, sometimes directly or by example, and at other times by making us aware of what we would rather avoid. The capacity of stories and the storytelling process to create a meaningful sequence from apparently disconnected events makes them an important part of the sense-making process (Ochs and Capps 1996). The narrative orientation, then, promotes a good life to the extent that it helps to transform daily events and happenings, including traumatic or difficult ones, into a meaningful sequence, thereby creating a sense of a meaningful existence. By allowing a comparison with other stories we know, this orientation can facilitate the assessment of what we want and where we would like to go, guiding our choices and (moral) actions. Yet to the extent that reflection and comparison with others can make one’s life more miserable and increase a feeling of isolation, the narrative mode can also have negative consequences for leading a good life. Tokuda-san, for example, faced a fear of loneliness as her husband was hospitalized with a serious heart condition. The stories of other ladies in the salon who were living on their own and praised their freedom made her upset and feel even more alienated and lonely. The comparison of her own story with the stories of others kept her in a state of discontent. It is apparent than that while narrative orientation can contribute to a sense of leading a good life, it can also have a detrimental effect. Furthermore, it is important not to overstate the importance of narrativity and reflexivity in the lives of others.

Since the narrative orientation is closely related to meaning-making processes and thus of crucial importance for understanding the relationship of a meaningful life to a good life, I wish briefly to explore some of the problems with which a [150]narrative orientation may be associated. The importance of narrativity for leading a good life has been resolutely criticized by the philosopher Galen Strawson. In his article “Against narrativity” (2004), he formulates two versions of the so-called narrative claim: the psychological narrativity thesis, which states that human beings experience their life as a narrative or story, or collection of stories; and the ethical narrativity thesis, which states that perceiving one’s life as a narrative is good, and that narrative awareness is positive. Strawson argues against both of these claims, asserting that some people do not experience themselves in terms of a continuity between past and present. This gives rise to a distinction between what he terms “Diachronic” and “Episodic” self-experience–Diachronics tend naturally to conceive themselves, their own “self,” as something that extends in the past and future, whereas Episodics do not have this tendency to see themselves as something that was there in the remote past and will continue in the remote future (Strawson 2004: 430). Strawson first describes these as distinct types of experience and then uses them to characterize two distinct types of person. He argues that people who are Episodic are unlikely to perceive their lives in narrative terms. Based on his own experience as an Episodic, he argues against the position that narrativity is necessary for leading a good life, and asserts that “the best lives almost never involve this kind of self-telling” (437). He speculates that narrativity can, in fact, stand in the way of self-understanding, because every time we recall something from our past, our memory of it changes, and every retelling alters the facts: “The implication is plain; the more you recall, retell, narrate yourself, the further you risk moving away from accurate self-understanding, from the truth of your being” (447). In contrast to Strawson’s conception of Episodics and Diachronics as distinct types of person,22 I would maintain that the immediate and narrative orientations are states, or modes of being in the world, that anyone can experience, even if some are slightly predisposed toward one or the other.

While there are several points of Strawson’s argument that I find problematic23 his warnings against narrative self-refection raise some important issues. First of all, it makes a strong point about the fact that not everyone leads their life narratively, construing their experiences in a narrative form. The narrative claim in this strong form, implying that all people live their lives as protagonists in a story, seems implausible to me, and if it presupposes a constant activity, certainly is not supported by my ethnographic evidence, which points to a number of occasions where being in the moment is preferred. In a more general sense, Strawson cautions against judging nonreflexivity to be some sort of morally deficient mode of being in the world. In this light, the resistance to narrativization exhibited by some of my interlocutors should not be seen as problematic, but on the contrary, as a potentially equally fulfilling way of leading one’s life, and in some cases, even, as an [151]achievement: successfully living in the present free from the resentment or distress arising from comparison to what could be. Nevertheless, this does not mean that some forms of narrative activity are not considered important by my interlocutors nor that narrative does not have an important role in constructing a meaningful existence. While most of my hosts probably did not narratively conceive their self on a daily basis, various narratives, including a diverse range of stories they heard and recounted, and encountered in the media, played a major role in their everyday lives. It is also worth pointing out that narrative activity conceived broadly need not imply a “diachronic” disposition, and can be “episodic” in the sense that the story can relate to particular episodes or events, without a claim for an overarching unity of life experience. It is thus important to distinguish Strawson’s strong narrative claim, which hinges on people conceiving their own selves narratively, and the many other forms of narrative activity.

The importance of stories in people’s lives makes it virtually impossible to dismiss the importance of narrative activity for living well. I nevertheless agree with Strawson to the effect that narrativity, to the extent that it involves a self-reflexive construction of self, may present a threat to one’s ability to lead a good life, though not necessarily for the reasons he mentions. To the extent that viewing one’s life in narrative terms likens it to a biographical project in the making, as theorists of late modernity have suggested, one may feel an increased sense of responsibility for one’s life choices and decisions (for example, Giddens 1991). While this means that one is increasingly liberated from traditional social institutions, the process is accompanied by a rise in risks and personal insecurities (Beck 1992). Shaping one’s life, just like a story, is cast as one’s own responsibility, and this may lead to anxiety—ultimately an existential anxiety that links freedom and responsibility (Yalom 1980). The interest in “mindfulness” as a mode of therapy for depression, helping people to find “peace in a frantic world” (Williams and Penman 2012), is indicative of the type of problem created by the late modern condition. Mindfulness in this sense refers to a type of meditation practice that focuses on the flow of one’s own breath. The intention is to focus on immediate experience and to assume an attitude of observing what is transpiring in one’s mind and body, as a way of countering the tendency to compare one’s current state to an ideal and to treat the disjuncture as a problem to be solved, leading to the questioning and restlessness that characterize depressive thinking (Williams and Penman 2012). It remains to be seen whether the recent marked increase in cases of depression in Japan (Kitanaka 2011) can be related to the tendencies associated with late modernity, to take responsibility for one’s own life and life trajectory, and to internalize blame and dissatisfaction. Yet this seems like a question worth serious exploration.

Values in balance

The construction of meaning in life may contribute to a sense of leading one’s life well, but the good life cannot be reduced to a meaningful life. A focus on the meaning of one’s own life can have a negative influence on one’s general sense of wellbeing, and can lead to a focus on one’s own life as an individual, thus exacerbating a sense of personal responsibility and separation from others, which can also be [152]anxiety inducing. This is illustrated by the fact that a range of local psychotherapies in Japan focus on recognition of one’s relationships to others, and feelings of dependence (Doi 1973; Reynolds 1980; Ozawa-de Silva 2006). A good life nevertheless requires a sense of meaning in life, even if the orientation that allows for its creation must be tempered, or kept in check. A good life is also effectively a moral project, involving more than merely a life that is coherent and makes sense (as opposed to a collection of events that follow one after another). In short, the narrative quest for coherence and meaning, and mindful presence in the moment, each have their benefits but also their dangers. The ability to lead a good and fulfilling life would appear to rely on maintaining the right kind of balance between the two.

For my Japanese hosts, happiness was constructed more specifically through a series of balancing acts: between sociality and the burden of over-closeness, or intimacy and a sense of freedom, dependence and autonomy, among others. The poles of these tensions encapsulate important social values: intimacy and sociality and dependability on others on the one hand, freedom and a sense of autonomy on the other. My older Japanese friends often spoke of the importance of either or both of these, and did not believe that one could choose between them and still feel content. Navigation between the opposed poles described above involved a more complex form of moral judgment. In this sense, as noted earlier, such values are unlike exchange values, which are commensurable and between which one can chose. As Michael Lambek (2008) points out, while anthropologists have often seen obligation as the opposite of choice in weighing up nonexchange values, it is more useful to think of judgment as the opposite: “Such evaluation or judgment is grounded in more general, culturally mediated, understandings of the human condition and the ends of human life as well as those internal to the practice at hand” (Lambek 2008: 137). Furthermore, happiness (which can otherwise be seen as fleeting and overly selfish, or self-centered) is only evaluated positively when it involves just such a balance between both poles, both social and moral values. To the extent that its achievement takes place through a balancing of moral values, happiness can be understood as a form of practical moral judgment.


The research that formed the basis for this article was supported by the Japan Foundation, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, the Clarendon Trust, and a Wadsworth International Fellowship from the Wenner-Gren Foundation. For useful discussions and suggestions I am grateful to Harry Walker, Charles Stafford, Susan Long, Scott North, and five anonymous reviewers.


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Mener une vie bonne en équilibre: l’éclairage d’un Japon vieillissant

Résumé : Au Japon, le bonheur est souvent compris comme le fruit d’un ensemble de négociations ou d’actes visant à atteindre un équilibre entre des valeurs en tensions et des orientations vitales contradictoires. Pour les Japonais les plus âgés en particulier, il existe une tension importante entre, d’une part, une attitude ou orientation prône au récit, à la réflexion, qui cherche à donner sens, à mettre en récit des réminiscences, et d’autre part, une orientation vers l’immédiat, qui implique une totale concentration sur le moment présent. D’autres équilibres sont recherchés entre la socialité et le poids d’une trop grande proximité, entre l’intimité et la liberté, entre dépendance et autonomie... Les pôles de ces tensions représentent des valeurs morales et sociales essentielles mais qui semblent incommensurables; elles ne peuvent donc être résolues par un simple choix. Au contraire, la recherche d’un équilibre et donc la poursuite du bonheur lui-même est une question de jugement moral pratique.


Iza KAVEDŽIJA has worked in Japan on meaning in life, motivation, life choices, aging, and the life course. She is currently a Departmental Lecturer at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Oxford. A monograph based her work with older Japanese, exploring their experiences of aging, narrativity, and [156]well-being, entitled Meaning in life: Tales from aging Japan, is forthcoming from University of Pennsylvania Press. She is currently carrying out research examining practices of contemporary art production among a community of young avantgarde artists in the Japanese city of Osaka.


Iza Kavedžija
School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography
University of Oxford
51/53 Banbury Road
Oxford OX2 6PF
United Kingdom


1. Overall, the salon-goers were mostly in their seventies or eighties with some in their early nineties. While far from affluent (many were receiving modest state pensions), most owned their own houses, in which they typically lived alone. I deliberately chose to focus my research on relatively healthy older people who lived in their own homes in an urban context, since most previous studies were about the elderly in institutional settings (Hashimoto 1996; Wu 2004; Thang 2001), disembedded from their communities and many of their previous social relations, or alternatively set in rural Japan (Traphagan 2000, 2004).

2. A comprehensive analysis of this extensive literature is well beyond the scope of the present article, though it would comprise a very valuable study in its own right.

3. While my interlocutors did not read such books, they were not entirely unaffected by these larger discourses, most notably those involving the term ikigai, referring to purpose in life, or “that what makes life worth living” (Mathews 1996). For a detailed discussion of discourses of ikigai, including their role in these peoples’ lives, see Kavedžija (2013).

4. This abstract notion of happiness as kōfuku, used mostly in writing, overlaps with wellbeing and to that extent it is close to the Western concept.

5. These two terms, shiawase and ureshii, have some similarities but they are not interchangeable, as the examples above indicate. Ureshii seems to more often to indicate something immediate, while shiawase(na) can have a more evaluative dimension, as in “shiawase na jinsei”—a happy life. Another term, koufuku, written with characters (lucky) and fuku (fortune, good luck), is more formal and more frequently used in written language and denotes contentedness. For a discussion of other relevant terms and historical changes in meaning see Coulmas (2008: 11).

6. These authors also draw attention to the difference in emphasis on independence in individualistic societies, such as America, and social harmony and dependence in East Asian societies, such as Japan. In the latter, incorporation of the negative experiences into conceptualization of happiness has a social aspect to it, according to this viewpoint: for instance, one may feel happy and grateful for sympathy of others, which resulted from a negative experience that brought one misery and suffering (see Uchida and Kitayama 2009: 442).

7. Such an abstraction maintains a degree of nuance and at the same time may provide useful conceptual tools (if not quite hypotheses to be tested) to crosscultural psychologists, policy makers, and others concerned with happiness research.

8. A number of other balancing acts seemed relevant for the pursuit of the good life, including the navigation of a tension between fate and agency, or life choices and opportunism, though limitations of space preclude a fuller description here.

9. For example, Carstensen (2011); The Economist (2010); Bakalar (2010).

10. Recent psychological research on older adults in the United States indicates that older people’s perception of time changes, and with realization that time is limited people tend to consider their priorities more carefully. They therefore focus more on positive emotions and things they consider to be worthwhile (Carstensen 2006).

11. This kind of community salon, resembling a café but often staffed by volunteers and offering a small selection of affordable hot drinks and sometimes activities or cultural events, can be found in many urban neighborhoods in Japan. Many of the salons are attended mostly by the elderly and are open only on designated days of the week. Shimoichi salon was run by a small not-for-profit organization (NPO) providing various support services for the elderly in the neighborhood, some of which created a small financial surplus used for the maintenance of the salon and its activities, which attracted not only older local residents but also a significant number of young families.

12. The fieldwork on which this article is based was conducted over the course of fourteen months in 2009, with follow-up visits in 2013.

13. Importantly, this kind of embodied intimacy achieved through communal bathing, for instance, is not connected to privacy (Daniels 2010: 47).

14. This tension, or more precisely its specific form, is likely to be a recent phenomenon. A historical analysis is, regrettably, beyond the scope of this article. For a discussion of living with others and independently in the Japanese context see also Suzuki (2013).

15. While the future does not always seem open in older age, as people approach the end of their lives it is not seen as entirely closed off either. The approaching death is not invariably seen as an end, and many older people dedicate some of their attention to cultivating links with the ancestors (see Traphagan 2000; Danely 2014), and even prepare for death by organizing “living funerals” (Kawano 2004). Nevertheless, precisely because delayed gratification does not seem always available, the sense of one’s life as being set on a trajectory relieves one from some of the pressures and responsibilities of youth, as I discuss in more detail elsewhere (Kavedžija 2013).

16. For an elaborate analysis of life stories of Kato-san and many others see Kavedžija 2013.

17. Okonomiyaki (literally, “what you like”) is sometimes described as Japanese-style pancake, mostly made with flour and cabbage, with additions according to taste—pork and shrimps being among the favorites.

18. “Lives and groups require constant reassembling, which is Bruno Latour’s general descriptor, and stories reassemble, both individually and collectively. But reassembling is as much about change as continuity; the act of reassembling does not mean keeping things, including memories, as they are. Reassembly enacts what Norbert Elias called process: what is reassembled is never exactly what was, but always a slightly changed version. Most of the time these changes are imperceptible, and the process proceeds unnoticed. Mundane stories—kitchen table stories—imperceptibly reassemble” (Frank 2010: 83).

19. In the words of Robert Desjarlais and Jason Throop: “From a phenomenological perspective, then, distinctions between subjective and objective aspects of reality, between what is of the mind and of the world, are shaped by the attitude that a social actor takes up toward the world, as well as by the historical and cultural conditions” (2011: 89). The world cannot be grasped in its totality and we always turn our attention to particular aspects of the world and reality that surrounds us and as we do that, other aspects fall out of focus—our changing perspective, our shifting attitude influences our perception, or experience and ultimately, our actions (ibid.: 90).

20. The distinction between these is not clear-cut, so I separate them for heuristic purposes only. They might be best thought of as tendencies, as these states in their pure forms may be impossible. For instance, the example of experienced meditators who manage to achieve a state of focus on the here and now, in which they barely react to distractions in the outside world by trying to understand them, is an extreme case as close as possible to the state of pure immediacy. Most people can rarely expect to experience this kind of state for more than a few seconds (see Williams and Penman 2012). Furthermore, not every form of narrative activity is necessarily part of this reflexive orientation; in fact, some of the sociable storytelling can anchor one in a moment.

21. While beyond the scope of the present article, it would be worth discussing the temporal aspect of happiness with reference to these two modes, and the older age. Happiness is very often seen as oriented toward the future, in a form of some receding temporal horizon, or a promise (Ahmed 2010). In the Aristotelian sense, the assessment of (eudaimonic) happiness has to take into account an entire life, and to this extent it connects the present with the past, somewhat like the narrative orientation. Balancing the narrative orientation as a way of relating past to the present and pointing to possible futures, with an immediate orientation on the present moment, reveals a very different temporal frame for happiness than merely situated in an indeterminate future, a retreating and elusive image of something to come.

22. My understanding is somewhat closer to Maurice Bloch’s (2011) reinterpretation of Strawson, in which he distinguishes the “core,” “minimal,” and “narrative” self, and argues that Strawson’s distinction between types of person is only valid at the phenomenological level. All people have a narrative self, though some—Strawson’s Diachronics—have an “extra,” a deep feeling of having a meaningful biography.

23. For instance, I am not certain that it is useful to think of “the truth of your being” as something separate from the process of understanding.