Kashiwa Hang (real name: Iwao Mano) is a 38-year old handpan musician based in Tokyo. In 2016 he experienced what many of us in North America call “burnout,” except it’s arguably more difficult in Japan, where many companies expect their workers to work over 16-hour days. This is one major contributor to what’s known as ‘karoshi’ ((過労死) or ‘death due to overwork.’ Often on the Japanese subway/train I would notice men and women in suits, often late at night, sleeping on the train, clearly only just heading home after work. In my hotel I once saw someone in a suit, with a briefcase, sleeping in the lounge, possibly too tired to even check in after a late night at the office. A Japanese friend explained to me that it’s common for some workers to find a capsule hotel (inexpensive hostel-like accommodation) to sleep after a late night, and go back into the office the next day, and the sad thing is that very few talk about the burden of this ‘overwork culture’ openly, despite efforts by the Japanese government to institute workplace policies to combat it. Recently the Atlantic covered why it remains so challenging for young people in particular to speak out about depression in the workplace.
While in Japan as an Asia Pacific Media Fellow reporting on artificial intelligence and healthcare, I happened upon Kashiwa Hang performing on the sidewalk. I snapped a quick photo of his CD and promptly downloaded his album. A quick web search later on, in an effort to find more of his soothing music, led me to learn that his story was a truly remarkable one. We were able to find time to speak at a café in Tokyo, about what led him to leave a demanding but lucrative architecture position to become a musician full time. It turns out it was a decision he made for his well-being, and is hopeful that other young people in Japan may have the courage to place their health first as well.
1.Thank you so much for finding the time to share your journey. Why don’t we start at the beginning. What led you to your initial job in architecture?
Growing up I was always interested in computers, math and design. Architecture seemed like a natural fit, and I enjoyed my classes in architecture. I ended up working for a few different architecture firms – from large ones to smaller boutique firms. I enjoyed the variety.
2.While you were working at one firm in 2016, you experienced something challenging but transformative. Can you share this with our readers?
I had been working at a medium-sized architecture firm in Tokyo and, as one of the youngest architects there, was given a larger proportion of the tasks. The mentality here in Japan is “if you’re young and healthy, you can handle more work.” And I did handle it for a period of time, all in all about 10 years. But I was getting into the office by 7 or 8 am and staying well past midnight with not much time for breaks. I skipped lunch often. I was on my feet a lot, and always looking at a computer screen. It was cognitively demanding work as well, so over time my body and mind just became exhausted. I began feeling anxious, and would notice heart palpitations often. One day, while at a standing desk, working through a design, I just collapsed. I don’t remember all the details, but I was taken to a local hospital and the doctor told me I needed more rest. I didn’t have a diagnosis per se, but when I explained it to my boss, he didn’t understand. I had no choice but to go back to work the next day, and act as though nothing had happened. And so, not knowing what other options I had, I just did it. A few weeks later I was walking home from the train and saw a man playing the guitar on the street. The sound was so calming, so I stopped to listen for awhile. For the first time in a long time my heart felt happy, and I felt calm. In that moment I thought: why don’t I learn an instrument?
3. Do you think you were on your way to ‘karoshi?’
In a short answer: yes. There’s no doubt that would have happened had I not made a change.
4.Let’s talk about that change. Clearly you took that hospital visit seriously – you ended up picking a different instrument and leaving the industry of architecture all together. That sort of 180-degree shift career-wise, is not common in Japan is it?
That’s right. First I thought back to an instrument I really loved in high school – on a trip to Barcelona I had first heard about the handpan. The sound was beautiful, and I had learned that it was a relatively new instrument, having been invented around the year 2000 in Switzerland. But I couldn’t remember the name of the instrument! I ended up searching things like “UFO music pan” and finally found it, and the name, “handpan.” Then I searched online for classes, but couldn’t find any, and I couldn’t even buy one in Japan! So I found a company in Switzerland and ordered one directly. Then I began to teach myself through YouTube. Overtime, with practice, I travelled to France and learned directly from local artists there. My English improved as well, and I ended up finding a community to tour with. I recently completed a tour in Taiwan, and plan to go to Europe soon. In terms of your second observation, you’re right: freelancing of any kind isn’t common in Japan. There is real fear around financial stability and most people would rather have a steady job, even if they are overworked, compared to the uncertainty. At first my parents were very concerned, but now I perform (and get paid), and teach students, so I’m able to support myself.
5.That took a lot of courage. So what about architecture? Will you go back?
A lot of my friends say I’m brave. I just think I had not choice if I wanted to keep living and if I wanted to have a happy life. I don’t have plans to go back to architecture now. I enjoyed it, but the costs to my health, at least in Japan, were too large. I’m much happier as a musician. I’m more in control of my health, I sleep well, and overall feel calmer and more at peace.
6.What does thriving mean to you?
If you asked me that question in early 2016, I would have described the sense of feeling ‘rich’ financially, working hard, making lots of money, etc. Now I see it as richness of the heart and mind, along with having good friendships.
7.What are you most looking forward to with your music now?
I’m working on another album, and am teaching more. I hope to do another tour soon as well, and there are lots of opportunities to perform around Japan as well. But reminding myself that right now I’m living the dream. Thinking back to a few years ago, right now I’m so grateful to really be thriving.