Traditional merchant values resurgent in recessionary Japan


There is an old Japanese saying that keeps cropping up in my conversations with people lately. It is the phrase “sampoh-yoshi.”

In this instance, sampoh would be translated as “in three directions.” Yoshi can be interpreted as “good,” “happy” or “content.” Any one of those would apply.

Thus, sampoh-yoshi is a state in which happiness extends in three directions. A kind of “trinity of bliss,” in fact.

The persona who constitute the happy trinity are sellers, buyers and the general public. That all three should always be satisfied was the motto the merchant classes of the Ohmi district set out for themselves in times of old.

Ohmi is the modern-day equivalent of Shiga Prefecture, which is next-door neighbors with Kyoto and is the proud home of Lake Biwa, the largest lake by surface area in Japan. The merchants of Ohmi were active purveyors of all kinds of goods as early as the 12th century, and were very much at the forefront of trade and commerce right up to the early 20th century.

Those who go by the principle of the blissful trinity abhor the winner-takes-all mentality. They frown at the “survival of the fittest” thinking that governs market fundamentalists. The seller should not allow himself to be content if he has not made the buyer happy and hasn’t given something back to society through his trading activities. Consideration for the welfare of customers and the community should always accompany the quest for gain.

Not for the Ohmi merchant the pursuit of profit at the expense of his immediate clients or the community in which he operates. The economics of greed has no place in the Ohmi spirit.

This whole idea was the subject of keen discussion in class last week at Doshisha University Graduate School of Business, where I teach. It also became a topic of debate at a lecture for visiting European businesspeople the very next day.

Now that I think of it, it was also brought up by a student a couple of weeks ago during group tutorials held to prepare students for their MBA thesis. Yet another student is exploring ideas along the lines of a “club for local small businesses” at which small and medium-size enterprises at both the selling and buying end of transactions would come together to generally watch out for each other and for the good of the local community.

After the deluge brought on by the credit crunch, people are apparently looking for something to replace the feverish quests for immediate gain that had so dominated their behavior at the height of the global asset bubble. For those badly hit by casino economics, it comes as no surprise that the trinity of bliss would have such powerfully healing appeal.

Very intriguingly, there is yet another concept that promotes the same kind of idea in reverse. This one might be named the “trinity of loss.” The Japanese phrase for this is “sampoh-ichi-ryo-son.” Here’s that word sampoh again. “Ichi” is the numeral one, of course. “Ryo” is the currency unit that was commonly used in the Edo Period. “Son” means loss. What the phrase tells us is that as long as everybody involved suffers losses in exactly the same measure, nobody will complain or make a fuss and peace will reign throughout all concerned.

To what extent this renewed quest for cozy chumminess and communal values does to resolve our current economic problems remains to be seen. It is an interesting development nonetheless. We could do with a bit of communal spirit after all that preoccupation with performance standards and achievement goals.

Noriko Hama is an economist and a professor at Doshisha University Graduate School of Business.