How Toxic Positivity Is Stifling Japan

The word ‘toxic’ has become overused. Toxic relationships, toxic friends, toxic colleagues, toxic families – though I do feel it is entirely appropriate in the context of the phrase ‘toxic presidency’. But what is toxic to me, might not be toxic to you. You might be ‘toxic’ to me, but I might also be ‘toxic’ to you. Toxicity is subjective, biased, personal : a colleague of mine, one of the very few-non-Japanese teachers I work with, told me directly to my face last year that sometimes, when I walk into a room and am clearly in a bad mood (it is true that I am not very good at concealing my emotions), I am like a ‘poisonous ice fog that infects all who come into contact with me’. I would definitely dispute this – although I think he is entitled to his own opinion of me – seeing that I am sure that many of my Japanese co-workers would say instead that I am really quite friendly and affable (when I am in the mood for talking). I also don’t think he is a bad person – I just shudder in his presence. After two quite unpleasant exchanges this week, one involving politics, the other a simple small talk conversation about the weather, which left me feeling very unsettled and, indeed, slightly poisoned, I have come to the conclusion that we are simply incompatible.

Human relations are rarely uncomplicated. We are all different. When I was doing the first part of my distance learning Perfumery Diploma, we had to do diagrams for each unlabelled essence we were studying; giving each one a rating of how strongly it was citric, ambered, cloved, peppered, woody, vanillic, etc etc, marking a cross along the line from one to ten and then, at the end, joining up the crosses to form a unique, individual shape. I think people are like this as well; we all have differing concentrations of personality facets and ideals, traits, from conservative to liberal, introverted to extroverted, optimistic to pessimistic, active to lazy, realist to dreamer, rational to irrational, thrifty to decadent, libidinous to unsexual – the list goes on and on forever, which is why it is a small miracle when we make a true friend or find a suitable partner; the person doesn’t have to be the same as you, but the characteristics must interlock in some way or be magnetic to each other; attract and be mutually enjoyable.

This person I work with – mercifully only for very short periods of time on two days a week (but I am going to avoid him from now on : my natural instinct is for confrontation and to get things out in the open, but we have already done this once and it made things ultimately worse – I think a clear-eyed acknowledgement that it is never going to work would be better); the good thing being that in Japanese culture, unpleasantness is to be avoided at all costs, and we are both bound by these incontrovertible rules. Simple ‘konnichwas’ will have to suffice.

Speaking of the Japanese work place, I read a very interesting article the other day on ‘toxic positivity’, which truly chimed with me as being an excellent summation of the positives and negatives of the culture of this country. Although, as a Brit, I sometimes do miss the moaning and complaining on a Monday morning, when everyone sighs and drinks tea and commiserates on the fact that the weekend is over and nurses their hangovers, then finally decides to ‘get down to work’ (in Japan you just say hello and get straight down to work without a moment’s hesitation), at the same time it is nice to not have any office politics – at least not on the immediate surface – and to be able to get on with what you have to do without too much worry about people you can’t stand the sight of; you simply keep that to yourself, and try to not let it bleed out into the atmosphere around you.

I also love the fact that you don’t have to worry about being knifed in the street, as you often do in the UK, or being shot – in the US : that you basically feel physically safe, in other words – which is not something to be sniffed at. People are civil, polite – the deepening chaos in America as the Pig (the most toxic person in recent memory, in the last hundred years – whose negativity – everything he has done or said has been so deeply negative, hateful, rageful, petty, nasty ) deliberately stirs it all up for the sake of his hollow satisfactions, is unimaginable here. Instead, there is an acceptance of the status quo that borders on docility: an ossification of the mind that can foster a pale, inwardly looking negativity that eats the soul.

An article in the Japan Times the other day analyzed the fact that the suicide rate here has increased rapidly over the last few months, during the isolation of the coronavirus lockdown – particularly among women, school children, and a number of high profile celebrities – who have been taking their lives at an alarming rate. One of the reasons for this is said to be ‘toxic positivity’ – which seems like an oxymoron (how can something positive be considered negative?) until you think about how shallow and shiny Facebook is, with the majority of people presenting idealized versions of their lives; Instagram even worse – a neverending parade of smiles and desserts and cute children and lunches – or for me, the true horror that is Disney, a place that makes D and I want to practically kill ourselves in a desperate lovers’ suicide pact as the giant masked puppets smile their hysterical, rictus fixtures of permanent, wide eyed delight. A surfeit of unrealistic, relentless positivity and fake happiness is corrosive and dangerous to the human spirit – with sometimes deadly consequences.

I have always resisted this, in the way I also reject extreme negativity. Although I would never present myself as an ‘ideal’ anything, particularly considering how extreme I can be; I am hedonistic, extravagant, excessive, narcissistic – the list goes on……. to me, because I am me I suppose, my own balance of positivity and negativity feels just about right. I cannot stomach really negative people for too long as they are just such a downer (and they bore me to death). But equally, fake positivity makes me sick. I am not really interested in small talk; I can do it, because you have to in order to lubricate the wheels of communication in society with something, but as my friends know (and I am lucky in being able to say that I really do have real friends), I usually just jump in at the deep end; I can handle desperately difficult situations and tragedies more easily than eye-avoiding, pointless banter; if it is real and honest, then even when the topics of conversation are difficult, the admittance of the fact that our lives are not perfect, and that we all have problems, often very serious ones, is, as one friend said to me the other day, a ‘balm to the soul’.

The inherent problem with the colleague I have been having difficulties with is that we are polar opposites in this regard. He hates anything other than pleasantries and conversations that involve something external (he is very intelligent, knowledgeable, analytical if opinionated, as of course am I) and can and loves talking at length with the other Japanese teachers about etymology, geography, history, sport, trivia, all while laughing continually even though it isn’t remotely funny: a Santa for all seasons — I cannot do polite laughter to save my life, I absolutely detest it), whereas in my case, if I can’t have a real conversation, on the whole I would rather say nothing at all. Therein lies the rub, though – everyone is different. But perhaps he is ultimately far more suited to a Japanese company than I am; there is no doubt, as the article on toxic positivity says, that Japan has very particular cultural norms in terms of discussing emotion, and I do believe that this atmosphere is more appropriate for his particular character blend. (I personally find all cultures stifling, restrictive, limiting, incidentally, which is why I have chosen to be outside them as much as possible; you might call it a ‘bubble’, and that I am not living in ‘reality’, but I would definitely dispute that; it is a choice; I reject all false parameters on my being in terms of cultural expectations, gender, age, nationality, everything; at work I have almost complete freedom in what I teach with no interference; the only requisite being that the students enjoy the lessons and benefit from them educationally; I am not part of the internal machine in that regard, more the maverick who flits in and out three and a half days a week ; my liberty is everything to me, a true ippiki ookami – lone wolf.)

But a lone wolf who feels connected. I personally reject the extreme negavitity of the Monster, as I reject the isolationist misery of Brexit. I don’t miss the aggression and overt negativity of much of British society, even if I equally agree with the author of the article that too much concealment of emotion, in the stereotypical Japanese version, is also extremely dangerous for the human soul. Neither system is ideal, by any stretch – some kind of blend of the two would be better, ‘Western’, and ‘Eastern’ : but then would countries then have any individuality – or would they just become a homogenized mush?

This post is not intended to come to any conclusions. There are no conclusions to be had, and I don’t know if I am just contributing to the terrible maelstrom we are living by tossing out ideas about what and who we are as individuals, as societies, as global humans. I just know that for me, light and dark, positivity and negativity, life and death, have a natural equilibrium; we need both. I love happy music and sunshine and emotive and sentimental films and joking around and delighting in the aesthetic beauty of the world as much as I love listening to depressing music in the rain and horror; when I am happy I like to have happy conversations, and when I am not, I don’t shy away from expressing it. The point is balance. And that is something that is dangerously absent right now in this chaotic, and ‘toxic’ air, that all of us – no matter where we live – are currently breathing.


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23 responses to “‘TOXIC POSITIVITY’

  1. I haven’t lived in my native US since 2014. I’m appalled at how normalized Trump’s malignant narcissism has become in my culture. India has a similar issue bordering on religious fascism with Modi & the Hindu nationalists. Perhaps this is a natural human reaction to globalism? As the global pieces of the economic pie get ever smaller you will see more selfish, nasty, behaviors & antisocial sorts clawing their way into leadership posts. Populism requires divisions to thrive. The Buddhists and Sufis say all human behavior is based on love or fear. Fear seems ubquitous in the 21st century.
    Disney really does sum up the fake happiness of American culture. Sanitized, standardized, and homogenized from Walmart to McDonald’s.
    I’ve been rather spoiled running my own gallery here in Nepal for the past 10 years. There’s always a toxic coworker in every workplace or someone you don’t get along with. I don’t miss that misery.

    • Me neither, on the whole. It is also important though I think to consider deeply where we ourselves are ‘toxic’, as I was trying to do here. I know I am ‘toxic’ to some people, and I can understand why they feel that way. I do think there is a danger that if we go too far along on that path, in ‘othering’ people we simply don’t like as ‘toxic’, then we could all become too cosseted in our protected worlds and become intolerant of almost everyone.

  2. Your posts are always spot on. Although I have come across several toxic people in my lifetime, the toxic pig is the most toxic person ever.

    • He is beyond dangerous : a horrific influence on the world – truly diabolic.

      What is your definition of a toxic person? if I am ‘poisonous ice fog’, presumably I am as well – though he really is to me as well.
      It is all subjective. Many of the faithful adore Donaldina – because it has geniously tapped into their basest instincts.

      Outside those crude, racist individuals, though I do think that the vast majority of the world views him the way I do – he is despised in Japan, Europe, Canada – everywhere, toxic in the true sense of having a poisonous and insidious influence on humanity. We need an immediate antidote !

  3. Tara C

    I love this post. Totally spot on for me as well: I hate pointless small talk, but can have deeply serious conversations, even with total strangers. One day walking my dog in the park I ended up having an intensely personal discussion with a man who was just diagnosed with prostate cancer and pondering whether he should leave his younger wife because he feared he would become impotent and felt she deserved better. He clearly wanted a woman’s perspective on it and I imagine there was no one in his entourage he felt able to discuss such a topic.

    Being a realist, excessive fake positivity puts me off. I’m guessing some find me toxically pessimistic/negative. I was quite good at being diplomatic and pleasant towards people I disliked in my career, but since retirement I don’t worry too much about hiding my feelings. Like you I prefer confrontation and clearing the air, but when that’s unlikely to work I avoid contact. Toxic people for me are energy vampires, those who have problems and whinge but won’t do anything to fix them, controlling people, and those who try to manipulate you for their own benefit. The pig is tremendously toxic, bringing out the most base, vile instincts in his gullible followers.

    I have few friends, but real ones, and that’s the way I like it.

    • I feel you have nailed really well here what the general definition of a ‘toxic person’ might be – beyond just a person that others dislike or can’t get along with. ‘Energy vampire’ is a horrible idea (but we have all experienced that) – I really hope I am not one of those, even though I know that I can be exhausting. Deliberate manipulation is vile, as you say – and the pig does ONLY that ( it is unfathomable, utterly unbelievable to me that more people can’t see through this! but maybe they are just delighted to be wallowing in the excrement of the sty) – he is a disgusting human being who deserves nothing but the strongest contempt.


  4. Well expressed and entirely relatable. For women in America it is often worse than fir men in that you get decades of direction to SMILE from childhood to early old age, and they want a big one, showing all your teeth, they want all females to be cheerleaders, no matter what is going on. More women now are rejecting all that torture. It looks like the election is going against Trump in a big way, he is displaying himself as his own worst enemy and undermining all his own Norman Vincent Peale positivity con/salesman upbringing and training. False confidence and denial has got to be the most torturous form of attack on reality possible and finally enough people here are getting sick of it to reject it.

  5. David

    I refuse to splash around in toxic puddles. I have been this way since I was 16 years old and began to earn my own money. I remember family gatherings, especially around the holidays. I told my parents that I’d make an appearance for a couple of hours, then I’m out. I always was the type to volunteer to work on holidays (i waited tables and bar tended and those places were always open on holidays and those were the best times to make tips). When I lived in Japan, after my first year, I refused to attend any of those draining enkai parties. I just rolled my eyes when colleagues said “But this is how we can really get to know each other.” I probably would have been fired at every job I had in Japan if it wasn’t for the quality of my work. I did, however, get some negative performance evaluations regarding “soft skills” because I didn’t show enthusiasm for team bonding. More eye rolling.

    Having my own business helps me stay on this path. Working form home also helps.

    Brazil is definitely a dangerous country (although I have relocated to the countryside and it’s not really dangerous here). There’s also a lot of toxic division due to politics and religion (not to mention class divisions). But I avoid all that. I avoid all toxic conversations ( and I never participate in online battles, where everyone accuses everyone of something: being performative, virtue signalling are the recent gems hurled at everyone)….Avoid. Love from a distance. Be self sufficient. It’s kind of a bubble, but it’s a bubble I blew myself.

    • We are similar. Glad to hear you are doing alright – although I still would like all the commentators’ views here on what actually constitutes ‘toxicity’, the main point – I think – of today’s randomly typed out post. We can’t just say ‘I avoid toxic conversations’ – what ARE they? I really do want some definitions; otherwise anything could be ‘toxic’ depending on your viewpoint

      • David

        I think a conversation is toxic when you just know that the other person is not listening to you, but is instead thinking of/formulating his/her contrarian response when you are speaking.Toxicity is being contrarian for the sake of just being contrarian. People are toxic when they think a modicum of agreement somehow weakens them. It’s toxic when people talk over each other. That presidential debate a few weeks ago was the definition of toxicity.

      • I love what you are saying here – and think that at least from my point of view, it helps with my deeper understanding of this point. YEs: and in this sense, I am not toxic for sure because I don’t think I am trying to force myself or my opinions onto another person – unlike my adversary at work, who seemed furious that I didn’t share his view the other day about ‘President Trump’. I know my own feeling, but was genuinely interested in how he took the whole episode of the Cabbage getting the virus and then parading about like an utter dickhead from hell and how that would play out in his ‘base’; I saw it as obviously, – obviously! = the dotards who go by playground four year old macho rules would see it as strength that the ‘president’ had beaten the virus in three days, whereas he was totally uncomprehending that I could even think that way; for him, OBVIOUSLY it made him look weaker in the eyes of everyone. He seemed to be laughing at me as though i were less intelligent (so not the case! don’t make me fucking LAUGH!) – even if he is no moron himself, by any stretch. The attitude was disgustingly objectionable, however, and suggested that he was right and that I was some kind of lunatic for even thinking what he didn’t think. The possibility of sensible debate was closed down, even if he himself definitely does not think that DT is worth anyone’s time of day.

  6. Here in the US the quest for positivity appears to be cloaked in “wellness” and “mindfulness,” for which there are plenty of ways to monetize helping us become more positive.

    • I feel wormholes; black holes are being opened up here…………………………I know.

      • Tara C

        There was a really good article in Le Monde diplomatique a while ago called « Smile, you are being exploited. » It talked about how companies were overworking and taking advantage of employees’ vulnerability, then offering them « wellness » programs to help them manage their resulting stress, thus making them appear to care. So hypocritical and perverse.

      • God that really is. A convenient vicious cycle. I am the last person in the world that would accept a ‘wellness’ program, although I think being taught ‘mindfulness’ can be useful for some people, who have become trapped in the lie of constant economic ‘bettering’ of themselves and have lost touch with all the important things around them. I was always the opposite in this regard, which is why I suffered so much in my early twenties trying to make sense of the world and my place in it, knowing that I categorically needed certain things (nature, beauty, aesthetic stimulation, honesty and love) while rejecting others (the property ladder; working for the sake of working etc etc). We have to work to make a living; but we also have to create our own worlds.

  7. Renée Stout

    Reading your post and all of the responses, made me know that there are still some sane people in this world amid all of the crazies. It’s as if someone sprayed something in the air to turn the majority of the worlds population into hysterical idiots. I know I sounds harsh, but I’ve been staying away from people as best I can. Personally, I believe that the entire world is going to remain out of balance until women, who are more than half the population on this planet, step up and leverage the power of those numbers, until then, the toxic “masculinity” that’s running rampant, will remain unchecked. That’s just my opinion.

    • I agree with you. Although I think that female energy can also be very negative, depending on the situation. You are right though – it really is as though people have lost their minds. And I honestly think that one particular person is personally responsible for it.

  8. Robin

    I asked Ric (never the kind to overanalyze, unlike yours truly), off the top of his head, his definition of toxic people and situations.

    “Where there’s a bunch of bullshit going on and it’s doing you harm.”

    (I love this man.)

    So, I continue: say for example, what about that nasty Troy at work you dislike so much? Is he a toxic guy?

    “No. He’s just a prick.”

    And there you have it. I do think Ric is bloody brilliant.


    I am in complete agreement with you on the whole negative/positive et al thing. On the need for balance, equilibrium. And I also like the idea of Too Little versus Too Much versus Just Enough as perhaps a way to look at toxicity, one aspect of it, which is related to balance but not quite the same thing. On a small and frivolous (to many) scale, and not strictly toxic if overdone: civet in fragrance. Life or death, potentially: salt; alcohol and recreational drugs for the so-inclined.

    Superb piece, Neil. Yep. There’s more than perfume talk going on here, and we appreciate it. Even just discussing all this feels good. It’s that sense of connectedness, whether or not we agree about things. Actually, for me, I like the feeling of being somewhere like The Black Narcissus, where we might disagree here and there, even strongly, without feeling judged, or worrying about being put down, ridiculed. Our sanctuary. It’s rare. Sadly.

    I can’t help but think that social media can be a corrosive influence, right up there with toxic positivity. It can be a really rotten place to hang out, dangerous and destructive. The mob mentality: I’ve witnessed it, seen good people broken. With people staying home and being isolated, spending more time on their phones and scrolling through Twitter and Reddit and other places I don’t know about — I don’t even like happyhappy faceBook and generally ignore it, even though people I know like staying in touch that way — with a good percentage of them being young like those tragic celebrities, it’s got to count for something.

    • I love your (and Ric’s) analysis here. And I am genuinely fulfilled that I can just type out whatever comes into my head and that it becomes a kind of sanctuary not only for me, but for other people too.

  9. Such a spot on post, and very of the moment.
    I am not a toxic person by any stretch of the imagination, much to the chagrin of people who have tried to bog me down with their toxic behaviors in the past. I am also not a Poppins with a golden, pleasant demeanor continuously. I also do not go around with the typical american smile plastered on all the time either. I feel their is a perfect balance to it all and unfortunately these days, the toxic is becoming more prevalent here in the states; the pig in charge has given carte-blanche to all those toxic individuals with all their hatred and muck. The sense of hopelessness makes it hard to remain positive all the day through.
    I also am very aware of how in Asia, there is this belief of ‘never expressing anger, or negativity, because it affects the mental health of those around you.” Which I was unfortunately witness to in Hong Kong, while dining out and complained our table was too small for all the plates they were bringing out. It seemed by becoming slightly agitated I was ruining the vibe in the restaurant; for which I felt very sorry afterwards. I am not very good at hiding my emotions, at all.
    I guess there has to be a way to avoid toxic negativity and toxic positivity, but seeing how different we all are, I don’t know if that is possible.

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