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Friday, July 20, 2001


We're graciously tired but we're still gonna faito

For a nation whose operative spiritual concept is (or is said to be) Zen, there are an awful lot of words out there to describe mental stress (shinro) as well as physical stress (nikutai hiro). In fact, the last person to really get serious about the language of calm was probably haiku master Matsuo Basho. But then, he was on an extended trip with an adoring young boyfriend/disciple, which accounts for his inner poise and peace of mind.

As for the rest of the populace, inner poise eludes us. Take a look at the four characters for the word hirokonpai (utter fatigue) -- "tired," "labor," "worry" and "too much." Turn up the dial a little more and what you get is karo (over-the-brink exhaustion) which frequently drives people to karoshi (death from overwork). There's a thing called karoshi hoken (death from overwork insurance) to cover workaholics and their families. What words. Don't they want to make you start packing and reserving an airplane seat immediately?

Let's face it. We're living in a nation that attaches the reverent prefix o to tsukare (tiredness) and then sticks the polite appendage sama at the end -- o-tsukare-sama -- whose literal translation is: "Oh gracious tiredness." This is used to address anyone who is doing anything except hopping for joy on one leg and eating an ice cream in Disneyland. Actually though, someone would probably find some way of seeing that as a fatigue-related activity (since hopping requires effort), pat the hopper on the shoulder and say, "o-tsukare-sama" with heartfelt sympathy.

Suffice to say, the phrase is so used and abused it's practically become the equivalent of "How's it going?" "Oh gracious tiredness" we say to console people whose work is not going very well. We also say it to congratulate people whose work is going splendidly. It's used at the beginning and end of pep talks, first thing in the morning and last thing at night. To listen to us, you'd think the Japanese had no other mode than graciously tired.

But, of course, we do have another mode. This is combating the tiredness, usually with a sutamina dorinku (stamina drink), sold at drug stores and station kiosks for anywhere between 200 yen and 3,000 yen a bottle. Loaded with sugar, caffeine and caffeine, sutamina dorinku will charge you so full of energy that hanging by a thin rope on a cliff face will become a piece of cake, according to the adverts.

The most familiar of the ads hasn't changed its tune for the past 30 years. Two guys climb mountain passes, paddle canoes in choppy rivers, one of them gets in a fix and the other guy pulls him out of it. The rescuer yells "Faito! (Fight!)," the rescued answers "Ippatsu! (One blow!)" -- cut to a scene of the two grinning and glugging at the bottles. For the record, it must be noted that even the Japanese are hazy as to what this means and why such words must be said. And yet, entire generations have grown up thinking that fatigue will disappear with these two magic words plus a quick glug on the station platform before boarding the train for work.

Another commercial favorite is for a drink called Regain, which has been around for 15 years and had at one time been the metaphor for the go-go bubble economy. Regain ads asked people this question: "24 jikan tatakaemasuka? (Can you do battle 24 hours a day?)" -- implying that if the answer was no, there was something seriously wrong with you, in which case you needed to chug this drink. And if the answer was yes, you needed to marshal all your forces, in which case you still needed to chug this drink.

As the economy turned sour, Regain sales went under but Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living surveys show this dorinku is staging a comeback. Optimists say this could mean that Japanese businessmen are ready to become aggressive again. Doing battle 24 hours a day? There goes our inner poise.

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