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Recession a good opportunity to return to Japan's core virtues

38 Comments

Maybe poverty is better. At least, we should learn to think so, given that circumstances are forcing it on so many of us. Since September’s “Lehman shock” sent the global economy into a tailspin, governments the world over have struggled to fix what is broken, to get things back to “normal.” The U.S. under Barack Obama and Japan under Taro Aso are launching massive stimulus programs. Europe has preferred to stress regulation.

Perhaps both approaches miss the point, suggests Sapio (April 8). Perhaps the point they’re missing is … "seihin." It’s a word composed of two characters: “clean” and “poverty.” In spirit, it is close to the traditional Japanese virtue of “wabi,” which, far from shunning poverty as an evil, cultivates it as a good, a condition to be preferred, because in it lies freedom. There is no one on Earth so free as the poor person genuinely reconciled to poverty. That’s the theory, anyway.

“Maybe what we’re going through,” says Sapio, “is not merely an economic problem but an invitation to radically rethink our attitude toward modern materialism and the ‘consumption society’ that America symbolizes.”

In 1992, a scholar named Koji Nakano published a book called “Seihin no Shiso” (The Philosophy of Seihin). It was a bestseller. The bubble economy of the 1980s had just burst, and an uncertain future, if not outright poverty, loomed. Invoking the wisdom of the nation’s artists, poets and sages of times past, Nakano argued that seeing poverty as an opportunity should come naturally to the Japanese. The fact that it doesn’t suggests a tragic alienation from the culture’s roots.

Sapio reprints Nakano’s pre-publication summary of the book, issued in 1991. The asset-inflated bubble wealth, he said then, “was starting to make the Japanese people strange. Fortunately, the so-called bubble burst. It was exactly what all those people who had been so relentlessly pursuing money -- are they really even Japanese? -- deserved.

“As far as today’s Japanese are concerned,” he continued, “the word ‘seihin’ hardly exists. It’s time we recovered it.”

Where is it to be found? Among the many enlightened ones who embodied its spirit, one of the most appealing is the poet-monk Ryokan (1758-1831). Nakano sums up his career: “All his life he had nothing to do with money. His dwelling was a grass hut, he lived by begging, and all he ever needed were ‘three sho of rice [a small daily portion] and a bundle of firewood.’”

He was a poet, and this poem of his offers as good a glimpse as any into the spirit of "seihin:"

“Picking violets by the roadside I’ve forgotten and left my begging bowl -- that begging bowl of mine.”

This is worlds apart from the utilitarianism that is second nature to us. Or perhaps, Nakano hints, it only seems that way: “Why is Ryokan so loved even today? Maybe it’s precisely because of his 'seihin.'”

© Japan Today

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

38 Comments
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Poverty is better? Yeah, right... and how we are going to eat tomorrow if we have no job? Being frugal is fine, but we are facing unemployment, not just lower salaries. Make the CEOs of the big companies read these and cut their salaries for keep some blue collar jobs.

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Someone should tell the Somali pirates about this.

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I'm all for a lifestyle that puts luxury last on the list of priorities, but I don't want to die young from malnutrition when all I can get to eat is three bowls of rice per day.

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I agree there is some freedom in not being a slave to money BUT one is also in a VERY vulnerable, powerless position where ones freedom can easily be stripped from them. For example, if they have no job or home, their kids can be forceably taken from them. That is not joyful freedom. That is the worst cruelty of all. Also who wants to be reduced to begging for a mere bowl of rice? That is humiliating. I prefer death to that. And what parent wants to be in a position where they cant even afford basic school fees and supplies for their children, much less to be in a position where sending their child to high school is a mere dream due to no money or not knowing if they even have enough to feed their child 3 meals/day. Poverty is enslaving. Living modestly is fine, but poverty is not unless one is single and just living with no responsibilities and life is just an adventure. Lots of young adults can live on little and have fun but once they settle down poverty does not look good at all.

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That's right, poverty is enslaving, and potentially a quick road to an early death. The article might have worked with a living frugally in the 50s type analogy, but a guy who lived in a grass hut, that's stretching it to the point of absurdity.

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poverty as an opportunity

Indeed, poverty is an equal opportunity free will condition for those naturally selected to pass along little or no DNA. While begging for rice and writing poems seems romantic enough, someone still had to break their ass planting and harvesting the rice. (Damn all those unromantic hard working bastards!) But unlike poetic beggars of old who flirted with such simplistic rice bowl philosophies,(SRBP) our paper driven corporate damn the worker economy (CDWE) does not discriminate against lazy poets or even the hardest working of shlocks. Drafted against their will by the undertow of the mother of all bubbles, otherwise highly intelligent corporate zombies are barely treading water as the tsunami breaks on the heads of the doggy paddling debt driven masses, sucking them under by their bankrupt asses. The rest is simply academic for the sharks of "povertunity". Ha! If poverty is supposed to be such a spring loaded Japanese opportunity, suicide must be a real gift.

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I thought Japanese core virtues were low paid hakken jobs, sexless marriages, hentai porn and soapland whores!! but I could be mistaken.

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Bring back the rich capitalistic money poets:

Sweat stained money. Winter winds, Blow away.

lol

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If everybody turned to begging, then who would we beg to?

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Sure, that is how all the workers should think right? Don’t worry, be happy, keep working, eventually you too can enjoy your virtuous retirement on the banks of the Tama River while the board plays by the sea and sends their children to private schools. Don’t worry; their children will in turn repeat the cycle on your children. What a sham clown theory!!! What works for a dead single poet with no responsibilities doesn’t necessarily work for a family in contemporary society.

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Why does everyone in Japan have to take pot shots at America because of Japanese problems?

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“is not merely an economic problem but an invitation to radically rethink our attitude toward modern materialism and the ‘consumption society’ that America symbolizes.”

I`m not even American and I take offense at this! I have lived and/or worked in America, the UK, South Africa and Australia and I have never seen as many designer this that and the other per square mile as I have seen in Japan.

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Japanese and poverty? This nation is more materialistic then America, never noticed the murder-suicides after losing jobs/money problems in the news?

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Poverty leads to slavery and exploitation rather than freedom. The way to survive financial downturns is to spend less than what you earn and save some money for bad day. To stay away from false status symbols and peer comparisons and keep your loan, creadit card payments to minimum. It is too late to start, though, if you are worrying about current recession.

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Another academic pontificating about poverty without knowing the difference between being poor yet having opportunities or social mobility (via education for example), and being poor with no hope of ever seeing things improve.

To point out the ludicrous nature of his argument, he uses voluntary destitution as an example of freedom, a situation that very few sane people willingly consider today.

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“Maybe what we’re going through,” says Sapio, “is not merely an economic problem but an invitation to radically rethink our attitude toward modern materialism and the ‘consumption society’ that America symbolizes.” blah blah blah.

Times are good? It's America's fault your money doesn't go as far as it would elsewhere.

Times are bad? It's America's fault your teenage daughter needs the latest European brand names.

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From the peom I can assume Ryukan was from a rich family and Ryokan was begging from the wealthy, as in his time the poor in Japan ate maize they never ate rice. His grass hut and 3 bowls of rice a day was also a luxury some never had, I can understand his nicknamed the "Great Fool"

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In a global economy, with an estimated worldwide GDP of $66 Trillion USD roughly at $11,000 USD per world capita, but instead, mostly going to folks from America, the UK, maybe South Africa, Australia, and other developed and presumably contemporary, family oriented countries/regions, there are 20,000 Children, who die EVERYDAY at less than about $1 USD a day. Perhaps Ryokan's message is that he would rather live in a Grass Hut, and beg for 3 Sho of rice (perhaps from YOU and YOUR kids), rather than associate himself with YOUR money. I hope this helps in helping you understand the term Seihin, although I did think it was explained well enough in the article.

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three sho of rice [a small daily portion]

Actually, three sho is 5.4 liters. Ryokan would have died a very fat man had he eaten this much every day. Perhaps the author meant three go, or 540 ml, which would indeed be a meager daily ration.

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and all he ever needed were ‘three sho of rice [a small daily portion] and a bundle of firewood.’”

Well, in my case, it is three cold beers a night and a lay once a week. I guess I have a bit of the old man in me.

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The current crap Japanese economy is entirely the fault of gaikoku.

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More about Ryokan, and a picture of his hut, here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ry%C5%8Dkan

There are a number of monuments and commemorative sites associated with him in the Chuetsu region of Niigata.

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whether we are rich or poor, whether we have a lot of things or few things it's important us to appreciate the things we have (I am not just talking about materialistic things). with this abundant mentality we will always be wealthy whether we have money or not. as a result being very poor is no better than being very rich. it's not what's outside of you, it's what's going on inside of you.

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I wouldn't class begging as a virtue: it is scrounging off of the labour of others. Somebody has to produce the food we eat, and why should they give it away to those who choose to do nothing?

That said, I also find excessive consumption rather distasteful. Why do people borrow money to buy unnecessary tat? The key to happiness is, as Mr Micawber pointed out, to live within your means.

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This is just the kind or natsukashi idiocy I have come to expect from the "things were better in the past crowd." It is easy to look back at the past and apply romantic notions of noble Japan where the poor were virtuous and the rich all bushido wunderkind. But let a little reality in and things don't smell or look so good.

The rich in Japan exploited and repressed the masses here in those good old days. People led these simple lives because they had no other options. They starved, had to cowtow to the rich classes and suffered under bad work conditions and poor health care.

What is more is that the freedom Japanese enjoy now did not exist in these wonderful natsukashi times. And what you did with your life was not about choice but about strict social imposition and ascribed roles.

Now it is fine that we point out the problems associated with greed and a rabid capitalist economy. It has certainly turned a lot of Japan into materialistic nightmares. But swinging back to 18th century poverty is not an answer or a "Japanese" value move. It is nonsense to sell copy to people to watch too many period movies and dramas.

What Japan needs is what most of the planet needs. And it has much more to do with moving forward than some idiotic notions of going back in time. Try these far more realistic solutions on for size.

Japan needs to rekindle local economies and encourage the micro economic benefits of shotengai and locally produced products. This will return small business, which is inherently more socially and locally responsible, to the badly needed role it once played. But it must be done with forward thinking green solutions in mind and local employment models designed at making locally communities more unique and self sufficient.

Japan needs better social values. This means greater social responsibility and interaction in the community. People should be given incentives to be involved locally. Companies should be rewarded for local responsiblity and participation.

Education, social welfare and mental health care. Try these on for Japanese values instead. Educate people, re-educate older workers who are having trouble finding new work. Apply social welfare to encourage companies to hire older workers and to retrain people for new roles in a changing econony. Encourage social programs to help communities cope with how Japan is changing. And this must include improved social and mental health care services.

Shift from material the meritorial social values. Japan should reward and respect people based upon what they contribute to family, society and community and not just on the size of their bank accounts. Materialism is harming Japan, but not because people shop. It is hurting Japan because people respect wealth over other values. We need to re-educate ourselves to value people more for what the contribute to society. Government incentives will help and this will foster greater social responsibility.

Address corruption. Japan needs to do something about corruption, graft and the harm it does to the political and corporate worlds.

Time. Most of all Japanese who want to see values return must first assure that people have time to live up to values. If everyone is working until last train, how can we have moral and value centered societies? How can we expect family and community to matter? Workers rights must be better protected and time off from work assured. I propose a fixed hourly schedule for 90% of workers that is 8hrs long. Anything over is paid OT at 2 x the hourly rate. No exemtions except for senior management, company owners and select professions. If people have more time, they will build better ties to community and family and raise Japan's values.

So quit dreaming about 18xx or 17xx and get with sorting the reality of now. Otherwise future generations will look back at Japan today and see a legacy of nothing but brand bags and the decline of the social fabric. This writer who wants to show the ancient values should spend his time doing something more useful like making sure Japanese people can live decent lives today. Lives that don't require poverty to have values.

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The current crap Japanese economy is entirely the fault of gaikoku.

You are right Sarge this one we can realy pin on the right winged Bushadministration :p

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Japan and CORE VALUES...something funny in that headline.

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The problem is that wealthy countries that start to see a back-slide in economic conditions tend not to revert to the values of a "simpler time" (assuming such values actually were embraced in the past). They tend to have increased crime and people's lives fill with stress and fear about their future.

Scaling back and embracing the value of non-material possessions is great in theory, but in practice the Japanese business culture has given many people very little to value except their jobs and the security that working hard brings them. In order for Japan to make a transition to valuing loved ones, nature, or whatever over prosperity, they have to give people the time outside of the office to realize these things have value and to cultivate relationships with family and friends.

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tkoind2, too true.

I guess this Nakano fellow was happy during the post ww2 days when people were selling their daughters into prostitution just to put food on the table for a week. natsukashii...?????

Maybe Ryokan forgot his begging bowl because he was hallucinating from hunger.

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tkoind2, you are absolutely on the mark.

Why these folks constantly look to the past so fondly ... is positively pathological/very unhealthy.

And this mindset will certainly never change with more than a little 'gaiatsu'.

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Sorry ... withOUT more than a little outside pressure.

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This is total crap..

Who wrote this article JT...?

You should post their email, as is normal for all other forms of editorial.

Moderator: It is not an editorial but a translation of a story from Sapio magazine.

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total rubbish..the writer fails to acknowledge the Duhhh..real world issue..but rather felt complaisant in its "own imaginary" fairy tale world with fetish of the so called ideal value...(sigh)..

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Values/Virtues are fixed, timeless, and don't change. Someone dedicated a statue to Ryokan, he appears in articles years later. He kind of has hero status for living in a hut. Funny that there are still blue and orange huts out there today and funny that there are so many of us that are so against this article. What could we be struggling with? There are still 20,000 kids, mostly in Africa, dying of poverty everyday, while we write comments about how Ryokan's article is rubbish. Keep it up guys. www.world-vision.org

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There is something called contextual translation. Very hard to decipher the point they are trying to make. It is more interesting to read the comment of the poster tkoind2.

Clean up your societies, re-evaluate your standards, stop your fancy crazy spending sprees. You will learn to live like other nations. Don't tell me that J is also going to embrace the attitude of their neighbours 'feel sorry for me'!

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I think another 20,000 died again today. Its kind of sad n'est pas?

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tkoind2, you are spot on. For too long, Japan has been enamored by the romanticized age of samurais and code of bushido without realizing that that particular system involves enslaving the population and curbing freedom of speech and thought. It is precisely that kind of thinking that got them into the war and helped them lose it. This backwards, socialist mindset, where everyone is supposed to be equal, is precisely why Japan is unable to climb out of the depression.

The last 5 good years was merely a short break from the continuing economic depression. The poor and backwards economic/ political fundamentals are unchanged. We can look forward to a very bleak summer with lots of real estate bankruptcies.

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“Maybe what we’re going through,” says Sapio, “is not merely an economic problem but an invitation to radically rethink our attitude toward modern materialism and the ‘consumption society’ that America symbolizes.”

Blame America.

How original.

So do away with baseball, volleyball, jazz, blues, rock, rap, blue jeans, the transistor, air conditioning, disposable contact lenses, cell phone technology, internet, GPS technology, viagra, MRI scans and sudoku - to name but a few things America supposedly forced on this nation.

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