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Don’t worry, be happy!

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The German Institute for Japanese Studies is studying “The Quest for Happiness in Japan”.  Germany has always had a major interest in Japanese happiness.  After all, in the late 19th century, German beer brewers played a big role in the expansion of beer production and consumption in Japan. 

The Japanese people have every reason to feel happy.  They have the highest life expectancy and the lowest infant mortality in the world.  Their country is prosperous, safe and clean. 

But are the Japanese really happy?  And what does happiness mean in Japan?  Traditionally, Asian cultures have not emphasized individual happiness as much as Western cultures.  And how the word happiness is translated into the Japanese language provides instructive insights.  ‘Happiness’ is usually translated as ‘shiawase’ in Japanese.   But the etymological dictionary “Nihongo Kaidoku Jiten” provides four meanings of shiawase, namely, ‘good fortune’, ‘what you say’, ‘meet again by chance’, and ‘treatment’.  Happiness can also be translated as ‘sachi’ or ‘fuku’.  The Japanese who also love to import words from other languages, have borrowed ‘happī’ thereby suggesting that the concept of happiness is not captured by their own language.

It is also interesting to look at the major intellectual influences on pre‐modern Japan, and their concern with happiness.  For example, Buddhism teaches moderation, and the avoidance of desire.  Neo‐Confucianism focuses on harmony, self-cultivation and the integration of individuals into the social body.  Daoism emphasizes accepting the reality that we cannot control.

After World War 2 and its destruction and deprivations, Japan launched itself on a path of capitalist development.  Many traditional values were sidelined and material happiness seemed to become a major cultural value.  The Confucian disdain for commerce basically disappeared, and Japan became perhaps the world’s leader in terms of consuming luxury products. 

While Japan enjoys the highest levels of prosperity in its history, happy capitalism has taken an ugly turn.  Economic moroseness set in following a financial crisis two decades ago.  The government has not prepared the national budget for the rising health and pension costs of a rapidly ageing society.  Public debt is at world record levels.  Labour market deregulation and globalization has seen widening gaps between rich and poor, and the emergence of a new underclass of working poor.  Educational standards have been on the decline.   

A country which only recently adhered to the cult quest for happiness now finds itself very unhappy.  And citizen happiness is very much a part of the political debate.  Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi once declared: “What is most important is bringing the greatest happiness to the greatest number.”

What are the concrete signs that the Japanese are unhappy?  Survey evidence suggests that very high numbers of Japanese are concerned or anxious about life.  There is a growing incidence of clinical depression.  Extreme social withdrawal (hikikomori) of large numbers of youth is becoming increasingly widespread.  Crime rates have been rising, especially among the elderly!  There are growing reports of kaigo tsukare or ‘care‐giving fatigue’, like the example of the 90 year‐old Osaka man who strangled his bedridden wife.  Japan’s suicide rate is in the higher range of industrialized countries.

Japan’s birth rate is plummeting and the population declining.  One can always argue that there are both individual and collective benefits of a declining population.  But a population that fails to reproduce itself has no future and is hence less future‐oriented.  And in Japan, ancestor worship has always made the continuation of the family desirable.  Each family member is part of the stream of life flowing from the past to the future.  With the number of children per family declining and that of childless couples rising, this cultural tenet has evidently weakened.

Things do look decidedly bleak.  And the initial hopes for the new government of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama are now fading.  Even he seems anxious.  In his message to his fellow citizens on the beginning of the new fiscal year on 1 April, he wrote “I am sure that you have expectations mixed with anxiety as you enter into new and unfamiliar surroundings”. 

This is hardly the stuff of uplifting inspiration.  Not surprising that Mrs Watanabe said to me “we Japanese are very worried about our future”.  



The Quest for Happiness in Japan by Florian Coulmas

German Institute for Japanese Studies, Working Paper 09/1



Hatoyama Cabinet E-mail Magazine No. 25 (April 2, 2010)