Professor Florian Coulmas examines the relationship between Japan's rapid economic development and the pursuit of happiness.
Florian Coulmas is Director of the German Institute for Japanese Studies Tokyo (DIJ). His research interests include the interface of culture and society, and ethnochronology in the Japanese context. DIJ is a cooperation partner of the White Rose East Asia Centre. DIJ recently established a research focus entitled, "Happiness in Japan, continuities and discontinuities".
Yokohama's 150th anniversary celebration of the opening of its port serves as an opportunity to reflect on what has been accomplished since. Recall that the 'opening of Japan' was brought about by force. Prior to the arrival of the American gunboats, the Japanese enjoyed 250 years of peace with their neighbours. In the century that followed they made a lot of progress, becoming the first developing country avant la lettre, getting themselves involved in five horrendous wars, annexing a neighbouring country, establishing a puppet state on the continent and eventually having most of their cities utterly destroyed - all in the name of ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number'. This was the western ideological principle the Meiji reformers decided to emulate.
These intellectuals convinced themselves and their fellow countrymen that Confucian values such as modesty and contentedness meant stagnation, while liberal utilitarian values held the promise of progress. Men such as Nishi Amane and Tsuda Mamichi promoted self-interest and a life that is competition. Nishi declared the desire for gain a holy duty, while Tsuda, in an 1875 article tersely entitled "Lust", informed his readers that the progressive people had more copious desires than barbarians, citing as proof the gusto of enlightened people for music, poetry and cigarettes. The former two had, of course, been appreciated for many centuries by cultivated Confucians, while the latter was important because of ‘the progress of humanity'. Progress, like tobacco, came from the West. When Tsuda wrote his article, the Japanese government issued the first license for selling tobacco (soon to be turned into a state monopoly for financing the Russo-Japanese war). Being unaware, like all of his contemporaries, of the harmfulness of tobacco, his encouragement of cigarette smoking provides us with a fine example of bounded rationality and of what capitalist progress is about: trial and error.
Err the Japanese did, which was brought home to them with the help of two nuclear bombs intended to impress the Soviets. After that cruel lesson they had no choice but to make another attempt at the pursuit of happiness, which the Americans had written into their 1946 constitution. Again they proved to be model students. Quickly realising that “happiness” was to be understood as material wealth they became an industrial powerhouse and then lifted consumerism to unprecedented highs. Has this brought them happiness? The Japanese didn’t need the present crisis to question this. From 1958 to 1991 their Gross National Product grew six-fold, while their life-satisfaction did not budge. Oscillating between overwork and unemployment; steadily increasing the number of clinically depressed patients; refusing to reproduce; and having the highest rate of all Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries of children who say that they are lonely, the Japanese do not look so happy.
150 years ago with the opening of the port of Yokohama, Japan embraced utilitarianism and set out on the capitalist road to become a civilised country. They have come a long way, but they do not seem to enjoy the fruits of their efforts; a good reason to study the pursuit of happiness in Japan – with potential lessons for other market economies.
Please note: The views expressed in here are those of the individual author and do not necessarily reflect those of NIJS, the White Rose East Asia Centre, the University of Sheffield, or the University of Leeds. Following East Asian convention, the family name precedes the given name(s) in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean names unless the particular person uses the other more dominant name order, where the given name followed by family name (such as the Western name order), in his/her publications and/or official or everyday life. This article was originally published in Nijs News, Number 4 (Feb 2009), pp.2 as "Experts' Column: Why Japan Matters".