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Issue 262
September/October 2010
Embodied Wisdom

Undercurrents

Letter from Japan
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Photograph: www.sxc.hu/profile/Hirekatsu

Photograph: www.sxc.hu/profile/Hirekatsu

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Letter from Japan

Japanese consumers are reportedly staying away from buying goods and are choosing spiritual richness over material abundance. Junko Edahiro explains why.

Whenever I have a chance to speak with high school or university students, I ask them about wanting to own a car. Few answer that they do, while an increasing number are saying that owning a car is “not cool”. And I find quite a few young people saying, “All I need is my mobile phone.” These responses echo new data showing that it’s true – a decreasing number of consumers now want to own an automobile, once a must-have social status symbol.

If people are sitting on their wallets simply because the economy is slow, then the problems will be solved after the economy recovers. However, there are many writers who think that some changes are happening at much deeper structural and psychological levels. In fact, numerous books focusing on this point have been published in Japan recently.

Among them are Rebellion of the Simple Lifestyle Clan, No Brand Japan: The End of Twentieth-Century Consumer Society, The Young Generation That Doesn’t Want Much, and The Lifestyle and Consumption Behaviour of the Young Generation: Are Young People Really Not Spending Money? On the cover of a book with the title Study of the Anti-Consumption Generation: The Young Generation That Doesn’t Want Much Shakes the Economy, a sentence in big, bold letters, “Aren’t you being stupid to want to buy a car?” jumped off the page at me. (All English titles are my translations.)

I believe that behind these trends is a conscious and/or unconscious awareness of the absolute ceiling for resources, energy and ecological carrying capacity including carbon dioxide absorption. As it becomes more apparent that the world is going beyond the limits of the Earth, people’s sense of values is changing, especially in their deep psyche.

It is certain that the parameters of consumerism are decreasing as Japanese society experiences a declining birth rate and ageing population ahead of the rest of the world. In addition, as public opinion surveys on people’s lifestyle conducted by the Cabinet Office of the Government show, a growing number of Japanese now value spiritual richness more than material abundance (and this applies particularly to people in urban areas, and more to women than to men). It is this fact, I think, that lies behind the major structural change. Would people who regard spiritual richness as more important than material abundance be willing to buy new products launched every few months?

The younger generation is particularly seen as having little desire for material ownership. They simply say, “When I have to go from point A to point B, I will drive a car if that’s the only option, but the car does not have to be mine. I can rent a car or use a car-sharing service, since that’s now available, or maybe I can catch a ride with somebody. Or I will go by bicycle if possible.”

In my opinion, people’s value systems can change rather easily. Let me give an example. In 2000, when car-sharing services started to become popular in Europe and the United States, I introduced the movement to Japanese people in my email magazine covering environmental topics. At the time, the majority of Japanese subscribers reacted adversely, saying: “We like things clean and tend not to want to use things when we don’t know who used them before us. So a car-sharing service will never be popular in Japan.”

But things have changed. People can now find a car-sharing service near any station along the Yamanote Line, a main railway loop in Tokyo. And similar car-sharing services in other areas of Japan become available almost every day.

“Japanese people like cleanliness.” “A car is a necessary item for any young adult.” “To be considered an adult, you must have your own house.” These are examples of conventional assumptions, or a mental model that dictates that things “should be this way”. The ability to identify and loosen up these types of mental model would, I believe, be indispensable for the future success of society and businesses.

I see three new trends that are changing people’s conventional assumptions. The first one is ‘de-ownership’, as described above. Another example: young people buy new books, but after reading them they usually sell them to Bookoff, a nationwide used-bookstore chain, or to other secondhand bookshops. They most often purchase a book based on the premise that they will sell it after reading it. In that sense, secondhand bookstores are the modern version of the book-lending shops that were very popular in the old days in Japan. As for music, the industry is going through a tough time, since far fewer people now buy CDs. More people are downloading music, or borrowing CDs from rental shops. House-share has become very popular, especially among young people, and even has its own real-estate market, and fashion-swap events known as ‘xChange’ are held in many places in Japan.

The second major trend is ‘de-materialism’ of happiness. Conventionally, buying and owning material goods is considered the best way to be happy. But now an increasing number of people define happiness as coming from personal relationships and from engagement with Nature. More and more Japanese say they are interested in agriculture, enjoy candle-lit events with their friends and families, and participate in Neighbours’ Day, an annual event that started in Europe to enhance relationships among neighbours. The xChange events are designed to exchange not only fashion items but also information and sentiments from the owners of the clothes, using what is called an ‘episode tag’. Participants put a tag on each of the items they bring and write on it their name and a brief note such as “I loved this item but it doesn’t fit me any more. I hope someone who loves red can wear it.” Participants love reading the episode tags because they make people aware of the human connection – something that can’t be measured in monetary terms – and also promote the exchange of feelings and communication by exchanging goods.

The third major trend is ‘de-monetisation’. In Japan, it used to be common for people to plan their lives around the amount of money they earned by devoting much of their time to their businesses. But now an increasing number of people are choosing a new lifestyle, such as being “half-farmer, half-X”. The idea is that people spend half their time growing food for their own family, and the other half on something else. I know a “half-farmer, half-writer” and a “half-farmer, half-NGO member”. The basic thinking behind this lifestyle is that it may not be necessary to spend all your time earning money.

Continued growth of these three trends could turn the tables on companies that persist in an over-reliance on business models of seeking profit simply by selling increasing numbers of products. This is because a growing number of people are feeling less need for material goods and are refraining from buying them.

In the light of this, I personally have high expectations and am paying attention to the three trends of de-ownership, de-monetisation and de-materialism, which are quietly progressing at the grassroots level deep in people’s minds and changing their sense of values, although articles about such trends rarely hit the headlines in economic newspapers.

For further information visit www.japanfs.org/en/

Junko Edahiro is an environmental activist based in Tokyo.

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