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Enough already: Can Japan settle for less?

by Michael Hoffman

In a cartoon that ran in the Asahi Shimbun in June, diners sit at a lunch counter, chopsticks in one hand, smartphone in the other, their attention as they eat focused more on their screens than on their meals. This annoys the sole customer in the place without a phone, who at last bursts out, “What bad manners people have nowadays!”

No, he is told, it’s not a question of manners but of poverty. People can afford only the blandest and least appetizing fare. To make up for it, they call up gourmet meals to their screens and pretend that’s what they’re eating. Cyber-indulgence trumps real privation — mind over matter in modern dress.

Astonishing that, in the 21st century, in the midst of a technological revolution that is perhaps mankind’s greatest stride forward since the agricultural revolution 12,000-odd years ago, in the world’s third-largest economy with its educated and industrious workforce, we’re still talking about poverty — not as a lingering but fading remnant of a formerly intractable problem, but as a condition that’s spreading and deepening.

Of course, there’s poverty and poverty. There’s the World Bank definition of extreme poverty: living on the equivalent of $1.25 or less a day, as roughly a billion people worldwide do. Then there’s the unofficial and purely informal Japanese “poverty line” of ¥3 million in annual income, which works out to about $80 a day. It’s all in the mind. You’re as poor as you feel. And Japan is feeling way too sorry for itself, the monthly Sapio contends.

Its November issue discusses a newly popular buzzword — pua-jū. Maybe it deserves to be called a philosophy. “Pua” is the English “poor”; “jū” suggests sufficiency. In short: Poverty as Japan understands it is not real poverty and does not rule out happiness. It may even be conducive to it.

The coiner of the phrase is theologian Hiromi Shimada, whose article opens Sapio’s package. A modest income, Shimada argues, is not only sufficient, it’s therapeutic. It cures us of the worst of the modern neuroses — insatiability.

Corporate insatiability is one thing, human insatiability another. A corporation exists to generate profits. More profits for itself, higher dividends for its shareholders. Ethical questions aside, that’s its nature.

People are different. But a corporate employee tends to absorb the limitless growth motif and apply it personally, craving more income this year than last, a sleeker car, a bigger house, more dinners at posher restaurants, and so on and so on, endlessly.

That’s willful and unthinking sacrifice of a natural human right, to Shimada (though he doesn’t put it quite this way) — the right to establish personal limits and live contentedly within them.

Flee the rat race, he urges. The best sort of company to work for, he says, is not a major corporation but a small, old, slightly down-at-heel concern that is stable but not feverishly competitive, somewhat restricted in terms of what it can pay you but, to make up for it, friendly and not infinitely demanding of your time. Time not spent on the job is time available for personal interests and family — speaking of which:

A common complaint is that it’s impossible to marry and raise a family on ¥3 million a year. The demographic consequences are plain to see — fewer marriages, fewer children, more and more elderly being supported and cared for by fewer and fewer working-age adults.

It’s nonsense, says Shimada, if some questionable assumptions are challenged — to wit, that home and car ownership is indispensable, and that children who don’t attend expensive private schools are doomed to academic mediocrity and second-rate employment. (Once you’ve opted out of the rat race, what need is there anyway for academic distinction, as defined by distinguished schools, to list on your CV?)

Backing him up, in a separate article, is financial planner Yoko Hanawa. She cites a 2010 survey showing 70 percent of single women holding out for a prospective husband earning ¥6 million a year. The absolute minimum for 63 percent of respondents would be ¥4 million. The trouble with that is that there are 4 million single women aged 25-34 — as against only 1.6 million single men earning ¥4 million a year or more. Something has to give.

You’d think something would have, long ago. The drudgery, anxiety, stress and long, long hours the system imposes on wage-earners seem tailor-made for a backlash. But the frantic growth ethos of the postwar period extended far beyond the necessity of rebuilding a shattered country.

During the bubble years of the 1980s and early ’90s, the nation had its fling with conspicuous consumption but soon grew tired of it. Pua-jū had its precursor 20 years ago. It was called seihin, roughly translatable as “contented poverty.”

A 1992 best-seller of that title told a work-weary and luxury-sated population what it wanted to hear: It’s not necessary; take a break; there are better ways to a better life. The bubble burst around then, so the break, such as it was, was inflicted rather than taken, and few people enjoyed it.

Naturally, you might say — but look at Spain, for instance. There’s something about the Latin temperament, Sapio finds — a live-for-today optimism that triumphs over adversity with good humor and devil-may-care enjoyment of the pleasures the day brings: house parties, long drawn-out meals with family and friends, just enough wine to make you forget (up to a point) the 25 percent unemployment rate (50 percent among young people). It’s a quality the Japanese, much less beset, seem to lack — which may bode ill in the long run for pua-jū.

So much the better, sniffs the eminent management consultant Kenichi Ohmae in the closing article of Sapio’s feature. If Japan goes the pua-jū route, how, he demands, will it compete with the ASEAN countries in manufacturing? With India in IT? With the U.S. in research and development? Pua-jū, he asserts, kills ambition and is a sure recipe for national “Yubari-ization.”

Yubari, a small city in Hokkaido, has two claims to fame. One of them, melons, is irrelevant here. Ohmae means the second: bankruptcy.

  • Mak

    Although I agree with you that we need to have a more equal society in terms of income, I think that you sort of missed the point of the article.

    56.2% of the working population in Japan make more than 4m yen per year (2011 government study). The article is referring to single men and women aged 25~34 when mentioning the 4m yen mark.

    The real subject at hand is the rampant consumerist culture that is apparent in modern Japanese society.

    People need to be more content with their possessions and enjoy the more important things in life. Perhaps people who have less materially are more content in other areas, as they cannot turn to their wealth for fulfillment. I believe this is what the article is trying to convey.

  • Steve Novosel

    I think you need to redo your math here – 1.6m SINGLE men in a certain age bracket make over 4m yen a year. How many single men total in that age bracket? That’s how you get the actual percentage. It’s far greater than 1%, for sure.

    • 思德

      The actual numbers didn’t fit into the Occupy Wall Street 1% narrative, so they were done away with and replaced with an assumption.

  • 思德

    It’s nice to know I’m not just making money at the Japanese perception of the poverty line, but 500k less.

  • Mark

    Funny you mention Spain. As it happens I am one.
    I have been watching ‘double the payback’, it is very entretaining but I look in horror as Hanzawa stays in the office till dusk and beyond.

    Some one forgot to pass the Japanese the work memo:

    We work to live
    We dont live to work

    You have it all wrong