A new degrowth narrative in Japan

The cultural trends behind Japan’s economic stagnation and political indirection suggest the ground is fertile for degrowth

The following is the first section of the first chapter of my 2012 undergraduate thesis “Embracing Decline.” Table of Contents here.

“All great historical ideas started as a utopian dream and ended with reality. Whether a particular idea remains as a utopian dream or becomes a reality depends on the number of people who believe in the ideal and their ability to act upon it.”
Count Codenhouve-Kalergi

John Dower’s Embracing Defeat, the definitive English-language history of the Japanese experience of American occupation from 1945-1952, tells the story of how defeat had the unexpected result of reinvigorating a nation thoroughly exhausted by years of war. The Showa Emperor’s surrender broadcast of August 15, 1945 closed a dark chapter of authoritarianism and military conquest that culminated in the near total destruction of Japanese cities in the closing year of the war. Improbably, it was also the beginning of Japan’s remarkable postwar transformation into an affluent democracy and leading nation on the world stage. Similarly, I argue that today Japan has the opportunity to embrace its economic and demographic decline in order to pioneer a 21st century model of convivial degrowth society.

The myriad challenges facing Japan today—demographic aging and worsening public finances, economic stagnation and income inequality, the energy crisis and unprecedented global competition, social isolation and suicide, and the devastation of the recent earthquake and tsunami—are hastening fundamental changes to the country’s stable postwar economic and social order. How society chooses to respond to these challenges will determine what shape Japan’s future will take, writes economist Jun Nishikawa in his 2011 book Beyond Globalization: Japan’s Choices in the Degrowth Era:

One choice before us is to continue to hide underneath the umbrella of superpower hegemony, and survive just as we always have. This means continuing along the track established during the period of economic catch-up of prioritizing growth and consumption and relegating the challenges of human connection and meaning to afterthoughts. However, this choice leads inevitably to environmental collapse, the division of global society, and conflict…

On the other hand, it’s still not too late for Japan to choose to adhere to the spirit of its pacifist constitution, to establish its own cultural individuality, and to achieve a position of honor and respect among the community of nations. However, in order for Japan to take the latter path and lead the way to a world of peace in concert with other likeminded small and medium-sized nations, we must refrain from the meaningless pursuit of lost growth opportunities, and instead work to reorganize national governance in line with the globalized age, strengthen democracy, overcome poverty in our midst, and acquire a different sort of abundance, a new reason for being (1).

In the 21st century, the pursuit of environmental sustainability and social harmony at a local level can only be considered in the context of our present form of global capitalism. Enacting a program of degrowth will require institutional transformation on a scale exceeding the reforms enacted in the post-1989 Communist bloc or the devastated economies of postwar Europe and Japan—transitions that were, after all, from one system of extensive economic growth to another enacted mostly at the level of national institutions. Indeed, the end of growth begets a process of upheaval of political, social, cultural, and ethical norms as significant as the Enlightenment-inspired revolutions and reforms that coincided with the Industrial Revolution. That process of transition from pre-modern rural agrarian society to modern urban industrial society, which got its start in eighteenth-century England, has over the intervening quarter millenium spread in one form or another to encompass nearly the entirety of humanity, with 50% of the global human population living in cities for the first time in 2008. This process stands to continue for some time across the developing world, even as the next evolution of human society is beginning to come into view in Japan and other countries of the global North. But as Nishikawa suggests, such a transformation can only occur if there is cultural acceptance of the pursuit of degrowth.

In this chapter I seek to explore the shifting cultural and intellectual landscape in post-growth Japan, and then present several ways that individuals and groups are prefiguring alternative lifestyles and intentional communities that represent steps toward “local ecological democracy,” the utopian goal advocated by degrowth theorists (2).

The project of degrowth is a political project, in the strongest sense of the term, requiring a radical shift away from growth-above-all-else policies at the local, national, and global levels and a revaluing of the commons, non-monetary relationships and work, and ecological, cultural, social capital. But the necessary changes are so fundamental, critiquing as they do post-Enlightenment notions of progress, reason, and human separability from nature, as well modern instituions including private property, that they will not come suddenly and require nothing short of an intellectual and cultural revolution in order to achieve the political consensus necessary to enact such goals through democratic means. Thus, the political project of degrowth first requires acts of prefiguration through which activists, artists, politicians, intellectuals, and ordinary citizens seed the cultural landscape with new ideas and modes of being, templates of alternative ways of living and thinking that will prepare the way for the broader changes to come. Likewise, if Japan as a whole is successful in realizing a degrowth society, it will in a sense be prefiguring such change at the global level, providing a template for the transformation of human society as a whole.

In addition to providing a model for the form future society may take, acts of prefiguration hasten society’s transformation by undermining the existing social and economic system. As Charles Eisenstein remarks in Sacred Economics:

Before the collapse of the current system, anything we do to protect some natural or social resource from conversion into money will both hasten the collapse and mitigate its severity…anything you render off-limits to the world-devouring Machine will help shorten the Machine’s life span… any form of natural wealth, whether biodiversity, fertile soil, or clean water, and any community or social institution that is not a vehicle for the conversion of life into money, will sustain and enrich life after money. (link)

As I describe later, Japan’s degrowth future may become a self-fulfilling prophecy as de-consumerism deepens economic stagnation, and the return of urban dwellers to the countryside undermines the logic of efficiency and productivity that drives the system of economic growth. These and other actions, including the passive refusal of youth to participate in the postwar social contract, are hastening the collapse of the present system and leading Japan towards the emergence of a degrowth society.


(1) Jun Nishikawa, Gurōbaru ka wo Koete: Datsu Seichōki Nihon no Sentaku [Beyond Globalization: Japan’s Choices in the Degrowth Era] (Tokyo: Nihon Keizai Shimbun, 2011), 27. Quotation translated from the original.

(2) Serge Latouche, “De-growth: an electoral stake?” The International Journal of Inclusive Democracy 3.1(2007).

Chapter one, part two here

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