Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

Changing Our Logic from "Expansion" to "Sustainability and Coexistence"
SAEKI Keishi / Professor at Kyoto University

October 2, 2013
A researcher studying international comparisons in our approach to happiness once told me about the remarkable divergence that exists, for example between Japan and America. Suppose we ask people to tell us the level of happiness they seek on a scale of 1 to 10. Where Americans would respond "10" as a matter of course, the Japanese say they would settle for somewhere around "6."

This is an excellent illustration of the different basic values held by these two countries. For many Americans, the "pursuit of life, liberty and happiness" represents man's fundamental birthright as expressed in their Declaration of Independence. Seeking to expand one’s freedom and to increase one's happiness is the right thing to do, regardless of the circumstances. We should strive to get as close as possible to attaining "10," or better still, to exceed that goal ad infinitum.

However, such thinking is not shared by many Japanese. To begin with, they would feel awkward about seeking happiness for "myself" alone. They would be nagged by a sense of unease unless "everyone" – including acquaintances as well as strangers – is content with their share of happiness.

Moreover, life has its ups and downs. If we pursue the maximum level of "10," or complete happiness, the payback will be equal in its misery. That is how the Japanese mind works. In life we all end up even, so the greater the positive swing, the greater the negative swing that brings it back to zero. In the ultimate equation, zero is the answer to all the additions and subtractions in our lives. Equality is at work here.

Today, the American brand of happiness permeates our world. It comes straight from modernist thinking, which revolves around the central value of infinitely expanding individual "freedom" and "happiness." It was this endless expansion of "freedom" that led to the idea of economic growth, in turn creating a perpetual drive for technological innovation, the endless propagation of human desire, and globalism. And so the global competition for economic growth went into an unrestrained gallop to eventually acquire its own autokinetic motion.

If we continue down this path of global economic competition and pursuit of growth, the consequences are clear to see. It will be nothing short of a catastrophe. In stark contrast to the euphoric image of globalism that was popular in the post-Cold War era of the 1990s, what we see unfolding in our world today is international rivalry over markets and resources, international competition over growth strategies and confusion in the global financial markets. Seeking a way out of the economic slump, countries are printing money and throwing it left and right. Our world of instability is a far cry from the image of pre-established harmony envisaged by "liberalism." It would be more appropriate to call it a new imperialism. The overbearing intensity of this global competition has in effect destroyed "globalism" in the sense of creating a world transcending national borders, and the unfettered pursuit of "freedom" is destroying freedom moderated by reason. Ensnared by this obsession for growth, we have become slaves of market competition rather than being liberated from it.

So what can we do about it?

There is no answer that promises a quick fix. Still, we can at least use our imagination to understand how this autokinetic motion is leading us to catastrophe. And we should start by distancing ourselves from the American "logic of expansion" that encourages an endless expansion of freedom, wealth and happiness. This would mean a shift in values in which the Japanese logic of "sustainability and coexistence" is more effective than American-style modernism. The Japanese way has always taught us to choose harmonious coexistence over competition, to know that "enough is as good as a feast," to respect moderation and order, to recognize that happiness cannot be measured in material terms and that infinite expansion in freedom and happiness cannot be achieved. While I do not intend to make any grandiose claim that Japanese values should thus dominate the world, I do believe that the Japanese value system of finding contentment in attaining a "6" would serve as a better bridge to a post-modernist world than a relentless pursuit for "10 out of 10"

German historian Oswald Spengler was right; civilizations do rise and fall. Western modernism that begot global capitalism may have now reached its apex, yet it is trembling with fear from a premonition of decline.

Keishi Saeki is Professor of socioeconomics at Kyoto University. This article was first published on September 9, 2013 in the evening edition of the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

佐伯 啓思 / 京都大学教授

2013年 10月 2日











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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > Changing Our Logic from "Expansion" to "Sustainability and Coexistence"