Turning away from growth

The 2009 election of the DPJ, China’s passing of Japan in GDP in 2010, and the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster could be a cultural turning point towards degrowth in Japan

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

If Japan does in fact lead the way into the degrowth future, the period from 2009 to 2011 may be looked back upon as the time when the national discourse started to shift decisively away from a fixation on restoring economic growth. In particular, two events have provided cause for genuine debate about the future of the country, and offer hope that Japan may turn the page on the long era of political confusion and social listlessness commonly referred to as the lost decades (ushinawareta 20 nen).

In 2010, Japan surrendered it 42-year-old title as the world’s second largest economy to its neighbor and rival China, touching off a round of soul-searching and discussion of the country’s future. Some commentators pointed fingers towards feckless politicians, incompetent corporate leaders, uninspired youth, and devious international rivals (including Chinese theft of intellectual property) in an attempt to explain away Japan’s troubles in a way that would suggest some easy to define, if challenging to implement, solution that might restore growth—clean up government, adopt better management practices, send students abroad, take a hard line with other nations.

At the same time, many accepted the news with a sense of resignation, even relief. “Finally we know where Japan stands—on level ground,” wrote literary scholar Norihiro Kato in an op-ed for the New York Times. “Japan now seems to stand at the vanguard of a new downsizing movement, leading the way for countries bound sooner or later to follow in its wake. Japan […] may well reveal what it is like to outgrow growth.”

This optimistic perspective elicited disdain from The Economist, where a writer penned an opinion story titled “Pity Japan” and declared Kato’s piece “one of the saddest things I’ve read in a long time.” But the idea that Japan’s status as a “mature economy” (seijuku keizai) should be embraced is growing increasingly widespread among Japanese politicians, scholars, and ordinary citizens. Renhō, a well-known Japanese MP and at the time the cabinet minister in charge of government revitalization, sparked discussion in 2010 when she published a book titled Why Do We Have to Be No. 1?” One must only take a fleeting glance at the statements of U.S. presidential candidates to recognize that Japan is in a different political universe when it comes to the question of growth and national power.

Little remains of the enthusiasm for economic liberalization of the early 2000s, when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi advocated privatizing government and fostering a society of jiko sekinin, or self responsibility. While there is broad awareness of the need to reform some suffocating aspects of the Japanese labor market and economic regulation, there is a sense that Japan must pursue a different path forward than the Anglo-American model of unbridled economic liberalization and globalization. This sentiment contributed to the resounding victory of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in the 2009 general election, which ended the nearly continuous rule of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) since 1955. Days after the landslide, newly elected Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama penned an New York Times op-ed laying out a political agenda that appears almost lifted from the pages of degrowth literature:

In the post-Cold War period, Japan has been continually buffeted by the winds of market fundamentalism in a U.S.-led movement that is more usually called globalization. In the fundamentalist pursuit of capitalism people are treated not as an end but as a means. Consequently, human dignity is lost.

How can we put an end to unrestrained market fundamentalism and financial capitalism, that are void of morals or moderation, in order to protect the finances and livelihoods of our citizens? That is the issue we are now facing.

In these times, we must return to the idea of fraternity — as in the French slogan “liberté, égalité, fraternité” — as a force for moderating the danger inherent within freedom.

During three years in power, the DPJ enormously disappointed expectations, and was eventually ousted by the LDP in a landslide of their own in December 2012. However, opinion polls suggest that voters did not restore the LDP because of faith in their platform, but rather because of the DPJ’s mismanagement and inability to fulfill its promises. The newfound vulnerability of the LDP, a party inextricably tied to the postwar development state that was all but invincible during the period of economic growth, could be read as just the beginning of a period of political realignment and change. The fact that voters responded so positively to a political party whose platform was rooted in degrowth ideas, and subsequently lost faith in that party when it compromised on its promises, is a sign that Japan is ready to embrace alternatives to neoliberal globalization.

The second profound event to transform the contemporary political and cultural landscape of Japan was the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown of March 11, 2011. The 9.0 earthquake and tsunami along a 500-kilometer long stretch of the Tohoku coast caused damage in excess of $235 billion, making it the most costly natural disaster in history according to the World Bank. Simultaneously, while the long-term effects of the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station are not yet known, the cost of cleanup and compensation is expected to reach as high as $257 billion. The disaster is significant not only for the enormous human and physical damage or the additional strain that recovery efforts will place on national finances, but for the way it has reverberated in a society long confident in its technological prowess. Not only were humans helpless at the hands of nature, but our best efforts to harness nature’s power for the sake of economic growth backfired with horrendous and terrifying consequences. The trauma of the Fukushima disaster is already pushing the Japanese in the direction of degrowth.

In the aftermath of the disaster, famed novelist Haruki Murakami reflected on the potential for the event to be a turning point for Japanese society:

After 1945, we have been working so hard and getting rich. But that kind of thing doesn’t continue anymore. We have to change our values. We have to think about how we can get happy. It’s not about money. It’s not about efficiency. It’s about discipline and purpose. What I wanted to say is what I’ve been saying since 1968: we have to change the system. I think this is a time when we have to be idealistic again…

I don’t think people think of America as a model anymore. We don’t have any model at this moment. We have to establish the new model.

What Murakami suggests, and the stagnation of Japanese society makes clear, is that Japan is in need of a new narrative. From Fukuzawa Yukichi’s late nineteenth century call for “civilization and enlightenment” (bunmei kaika), through the Imperial government’s rallying cry of “rich country, strong military” (fukoku kyōhei), to Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda’s “income doubling plan” of the 1960s and the oft-evoked slogan “oubei oitsuke, oikose!” (Catch the west, pass the west!), the Japanese have many times successfully organized themselves around common national goals. With the burst of the bubble, the organizing narrative of the period of economic catch-up evaporated, leaving a void of purpose that went unfilled during Japan’s lost decades. Today, the project of economic degrowth beckons as Japan’s next calling.

Of course, degrowth for the sake of degrowth is every bit as pointless as growth for the sake of growth. Therefore, it must be a project of degrowth for the purpose of environmental sustainability, individual happiness, and social cohesion and equality. Achieving a convivial degrowth society on a national scale could establish Japan as a truly transformational model to a world hungry for answers to today’s intractable challenges, akin to the way the American and French revolutions established the Enlightenment ideas of liberty, justice and equality as the basis for legitimate democratic government over the last two centuries. With this goal in mind, I will turn below to ways that degrowth has already begun to inform how ordinary citizens have responded to decades of economic stagnation.


Chapter one, part three here

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