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Tea Leaves

As pandemic drags on, it's self-help time in Japan

Bookstores abound with advice on how to improve one's life, outlook and skills

The bestseller shelf at a major bookstore in Tokyo in August. (Photo by Edward M. Gómez)

Reader, heal thyself! In many a bookstore in Japan these days, that appears to be the message from publishers to consumers looking for summertime page-turners or browsers in search of popular titles about golf, computers and business-and-finance trends.

Summer arrived late in Japan this year following an unusually long and tedious rainy season, whose overcast days and unshakable dampness added to the sense of ukki (melancholy or gloom) provoked by the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. But Japanese bibliophiles have been emerging after a long, virus-induced stay-at-home period, looking for interesting books for pleasure, study or work-related research.

In these virus-haunted times, visitors to Japanese bookstores will find a summer mix of romantic novels by young writers, treatises predicting future trends by management and financial gurus, and fantasy-fueled travel journals (if one cannot escape, thanks to the pandemic, at least one can take off vicariously for New York, Paris or Rome). This year, biographies of Yuriko Koike, the recently re-elected governor of Tokyo, who is one of Japan's most high-profile politicians, have also appeared.

At the same time, shelves in what some stores label their "raifu", or "life" sections, transliterating the original English word and using it to refer to lifestyle guides and self-improvement books, offer numerous titles that, for a foreign observer, hold a mirror up to current trends in Japanese society.

Given the specter of the ubiquitous and lethal coronavirus, this is probably not the best time for "The Courage to Be Disliked: How to Free Yourself, Change Your Life and Achieve Real Happiness," a self-improvement book with a peculiar theme and a downer of a title that was a big hit just a few years ago. Creating one's home should always involve more pleasure than toil, but in the current climate, even the ever-fastidious Marie Kondo's admonitions about decluttering -- tossing out possessions that do not bring their owners joy -- sound strict and stern.

Self-help and self-improvement books on display in the "Life" section of a bookstore in Tokyo, August 2020 (Photo by Edward M. Gómez)

Instead of tough-love tip sheets, Japanese readers seem to want ideas about the arts of feeling good and creating enjoyable lives -- and more confident, capable selves -- in preparation for their emergence, some fine, sunny day, from the angst-ridden pandemic. With this in mind, the psychologist Nobuyori Ooshima's "Book for Changing, Right Now, the Self That Cannot Be Tidied Up" offers, its cover declares, 25 techniques for getting one's act together, immediately and in a satisfying manner.

Meanwhile, at a time when everybody seems to want answers to life's perennial big questions, not to mention a lot of annoying new ones that keep popping up every week -- could someone please explain Bitcoin; how the heck do you use TikTok; will a vaccine ever be discovered? -- the critic and essayist Eisuke Wakamatsu in "The Age-14 Classroom: How to Read, How to Live?," encourages readers to stop approaching people who cannot provide accurate responses to their questions and instead learn how to do research and find the information they need themselves.

Looking ahead, optimistically, to a day when virus-wary, stay-at-home teleworkers will crawl out of shorts and sweatpants and back into business attire, Yoko Asaka's "Class Act: Appearance Matters for Your Success" describes the standards to keep in mind -- and the pleasures to be enjoyed -- in dressing like "the world's business elite," as its dust jacket proclaims. It might be summer now but it's not too early to start thinking about what Asaka refers to as the "refinement" of one's look; maybe creating fantasy outfits is just the tonic for too much real time spent in leisurewear, while power suits hang unworn in stuffy closets.

And then there is Fumio Sasaki, whose "Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism" became an international hit a few years ago. Seemingly beating Kondo at her own game, Sasaki, the co-founder, with Naoki Numahata, of the blog Minimal&ism (its tag line: "Less is future"), finds clarity, redemption, and peace of mind and spirit in downsizing to the max.

His last book, published in 2018, appears to be resurfacing in some bookstore displays. Its Japanese title, which translates roughly as "We're Made Up of Customs," refers to human social habits and conventions. In this volume, which bears, in English, the subtitle "The Last Self-Help," Sasaki argues for throwing out familiar, expected modes of thinking and behavior and starting from scratch to create all-new approaches to the art of living.

For those readers seeking a little less philosophical heavy lifting on the road to self-improvement, Sasaki's minimalism-inspired illuminations might be better saved for a rainy day -- or for Japan's next long rainy season, which may yet beat the arrival of a vaccine.

Edward M. Gomez is a Tokyo-based art historian, arts journalist, and critic, specializing in Japan.

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