How important is work for a fulfilling life? At the age of 53, a recent shock made me think that work may be overrated in defining who we are.
I’m an activist, turned journalist, turned activist again. I worked for labour rights NGOs for a while, then for mainstream media, and now for a human rights organisation. I guess like many activists and journalists (and others?) I’ve never seen work as purely 9-5 but as a source of fulfilment, and of giving my life greater meaning.
Of course, as you get older other things become important. I’m at the stage in life of both helping my kids finish school and find work, and helping parents and parents in-law adjust to old age. The importance of work becomes relative, but work in itself remains a core of our lives.
I’ve also come to realise I’ve had a nostalgic view of how my working life has unfolded, and how it shaped my character over the decades. In reality my career has been a series of distinct jobs, one after another, which happened to appear at the right time and where I was lucky enough to come out on top of the more or less random selection process.
My self-perception was different. I look back and envision a red line running through my working life, linking each post with the next. What I see as my activist spirit - of somehow wanting to make the world a better place – as that red line which, in my nostalgic mindset, I’ve never allowed to fade. This was even the case when I worked for the Financial Times for 11 years, where I learnt lots but felt like an outsider, searching for chances to write about things important to me.
As so often in our busy lives, it was a break in routine and a change of scenery that shook up this romantic view of my own work history.
I recently went on a work trip to Japan. I was there frequently 25 years ago, interviewing trade union activists and joining labour protests. I even wrote a book about the country, or at least one obscure aspect – whether Japan’s trade unions cared about the way workers employed by Japanese multinational companies elsewhere in Asia were being exploited (the answer, after 332 pages: they don’t really care).
The last time I visited was in 1998 when, apparently, I did a 9 day, three-city book tour, on the occasion of the release of the book’s Japanese translation, speaking in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.
I say ‘apparently’ as I’ve almost completely forgotten this tour, just as I’m a near total blank on the earlier research trips. I only really know the tour happened because I found a yellowing piece of paper with the tour itinerary in my attic. I found old photos too, of a much younger me speaking to Japanese people who appear to be paying attention.
How can that be? If there is a red line running through key moments in my working life, it certainly should have wrapped itself around the only book I’ve written. In fact, as I prepared for the trip I felt entirely detached from this phase in my life, as if it happened to someone else. Even rereading my book hardly breaks down this distance. Did I really write all this?
I felt unsettled. What could I do? I decided this was a challenge, to try while in Japan to reconnect with this former life of mine, to reconfirm the value I’ve attached to my work history.
My first re-connection attempt is in Asakusa, the popular temple district in Tokyo that, according to my yellowing notes, I visited on my first trip in 1988. My hotel is here and I walk around, visit the main temple, do the tourist rituals and prey to the gods but I have no recollection at all. Nothing.
I have an appointment with the Rengo trade union confederation, the DGB of Japan. This may be more fruitful as they should be interested in what I did in my former life, not least as Rengo gets a major (if critical) mention in the book. Central Tokyo, large office building, seventh floor, two friendly international affairs officers. I explain why I’m here, talk a bit about the book.
They are polite but puzzled. Intrigued that this foreigner who speaks no Japanese knows something about the depths of Japan’s labour history. I offer the book’s English and Japanese editions for their library. They, slightly reluctantly, take the Japanese one. We search for something else to talk about, and move on. Not much re-connecting happening here either.
This is deflating, but at the same time liberating. I can finally set aside this idea I held that it was somehow important to me, still today, to have been the author of this book. I can recognise this work episode as just another part of an ordinary career.
And yet, there is a small, silver lining. On my last evening I meet up with Yamazaki Seiichi. 25 years ago he was my interpreter and my best Japanese friend. Even if work itself is less important as years pass, can friendships made at work survive the test of time?
We set off across Tokyo to his home on the other side of the city. We share pulling and carrying my large suitcase. Its rush hour. As a subway just pulls away from our platform he tells me he’s now 67, retired from his job in the sanitation department of Tokyo city council. He takes off his cap to show his greying hair. We enter a train. How are your kids? What are they doing now? More and more people squeeze in. Are you still active with trade unions?
We make it to his suburban, wooden-framed home. I’m welcomed by his wife Michika who is beyond retirement age but still employed as a social worker. We settle down for dinner, the conversation wandering amiably, through the hills and valleys of life in middle age and growing older.
Then Yamazaki brings out a huge bottle of sake and a lovely thing happens. We really start to click again. He is excited to recall exactly when we first met (it’s a little earlier than he remembered). The experiences of protest and campaigning we lived through together “was the beginning of a new phase of my life” he says. It was the same for me too, I realise.
I show him old photos I have brought, he digs out a dusty family album with pictures of a hike I did with his family in the early 1990s (which I had forgotten). We recall mutual friends and acquaintances. We turn to my book. I mention I gave away my only Japanese copy to Rengo. He goes to his office and gives me another copy. “I have several” he says. “Why?” I ask. “Well, I translated it!” he says, assuming I remembered this.
To my shame, I don’t.
This could be awkward, but, thankfully, it isn’t. As I look at the thick book and at Yamazaki, I feel, finally, reconnected. The emotions released by being reminded of what Yamazaki did for me in a former life – these emotions bridge some of the gap that has opened between me and my working life, long forgotten.
Hugh Williamson’s book Coping with the Miracle: Japan’s unions explore new international relations (1994) is still available on Amazon (no rush: 8.6m titles are selling better than this one).
This original version was edited slightly as published in German