Deconsumerism in Japan

A shift towards non-material lifestyles reinforces economic stagnation and deflation

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

Twenty years after the burst of Japan’s colossal asset-price bubble, today’s college graduates are children of the post-growth era. One of the most significant cultural changes in post-growth Japan has been the decline in materialism, a remarkable reversal from the era of high economic growth, when aspiring families dreamed of owning the “three sacred treasures” of a television, washing machine, and refrigerator, or the height of the bubble, when Japan’s cities were overflowing with conspicuous consumption of luxury goods and entertainment. In his Times op-ed, Norihiro Kato described the new kind of post-growth Japanese youth:

Three years ago, I saw a television program about a new breed of youngster: the non-consumer. Japanese in their late teens and early 20s, it said, did not have cars. They didn’t drink alcohol. They didn’t spend Christmas Eve with their boyfriends or girlfriends at fancy hotels downtown the way earlier generations did. I have taught many students who fit this mold. They work hard at part-time jobs, spend hours at McDonald’s sipping cheap coffee, eat fast food lunches at Yoshinoya. They save their money for the future.

These are the Japanese who came of age after the bubble, never having known Japan as a flourishing economy. They are accustomed to being frugal. Today’s youths, living in a society older than any in the world, are the first since the late 19th century to feel so uneasy about the future.

The stable postwar society of their parents’ generation has given way to a permanent state of economic uncertainty. In such an environment, it is impossible for many to pursue a traditional lifestyle of finding a stable job, buying a house, and starting a family. Junko Edahiro, the founder of the NGO Japan for Sustainability, describes various adaptation strategies as part of a coming “era of De”:

The first “De” is what I call “De-ownership”—the shift from owning things, to sharing things. Car dealers in Japan are desperately trying to sell cars to young people but young people are quite happy with car-sharing, saying “owning a car is not cool.” The second “De” trend is the “De-materialization” of happiness—instead of seeking happiness by buying and owning material goods, people find happiness in person-to-person relationships, contact with nature, and being in harmony with themselves. The third “De” is “De-monetization” of life—creating happiness in our own lives without being ruled by the monetary economy…this lifestyle evolution is spreading quietly in Japan

yoronWhile Japanese youth are often profiled abroad as prolific consumers of fashion, merchandise, and luxury goods and services, a growing section of the population today is expressing indifference to many material goods. Beginning in the 1970s, middle-class professional women used to save up to purchase handbags from top European brands, which became a symbol of economic success and social acceptance. According to surveys, the percentage of consumers describing luxury goods as very important declined from 51% to 32% between 2004 and 2008, reflecting a decline in demand that has forced many outlets to close down. Tokyo department stores are now staking future growth on attracting the flocks of Chinese tourists who now journey to Japan to shop for brand items, a fact of particular irony when one considers that replicas of many items could be purchased in China for a fraction of the price.

Men’s magazines from the bubble era were filled with stories about sports cars and opulent lifestyles in the stylish districts of Roppongi and Ginza. Today, many car magazines have gone out of print, and the typical men’s magazine revolves around far less competitive pursuits (Japanese link). Common themes are inexpensive travel by train to natural and historical sites around Tokyo, or urban adventures to find the city’s best coffee joints or bookstores.

Indeed, the collapse of the domestic car market is one of the most visible and oft-discussed manifestations of Japan’s declining consumerism. Car sales fell 14 percent to 4.25 million in 2011, down from a peak of 7.77 million in 1990, at the height of the bubble. This decline was initially seen as a result of tighter budgets and the economic uncertainty created by the recession, but it appears that the long-term trend is the result of a broader cultural shift away from a materialist mindset in which high-value items such as cars are seen as status symbols and a reflection of individual identity. In fact, in a 2007 survey, only 37% of young people indicated that monetary constraints influenced their decision not to buy a car. 74% said they did not feel a necessity in their lives to own a car (Japanese link). In stark contrast to the previous generation, when a luxury car was a crucial aspect of the middle class lifestyle, car-sharing services are now expanding several hundred percent per year.

A 2009 car industry report acknowledged the role of the cultural environment in causing declining sales, in addition to the effect of demographic change. In a survey of young people, cars were the 17th most-desired product or service, a decline of 10 places in comparison to 20 years ago. The report concludes, “there is a strong tendency for young people who grew up in the post-bubble low-growth era to hold a pessimistic view of their future lifestyle.” The report also cites educational reform as contributing to a decline in competitive spirit: “With the implementation of less stringent education, the number of classes have declined, and the introduction of objective evaluation in place of relative rankings has reduced the opportunities to experience competition with others.”

Young urbanites now frequently regard cars as an exorbitant waste of money. One 21 year-old university student said on the matter (Japanese link), “there is a car aficionado in my class, who worked part-time jobs to save up $12,000 and bought a car, and he’s treated as a strange person. At parties it is not uncommon for a girl to ask what type of cellphone I have, but I’ve never heard someone ask about cars.”

Deconsumerism is a phenomenon being observed in many forms in every rich society today. It is driven in part by the rise of digital communications technology and the internet, which make it easier to live a satisfying life without copious material possessions and has enabled up-and-coming companies such as Zipcar and AirBnB and ad-hoc services such as couchsurfing to create services that make it easy for users to participate in the sharing economy. Today freedom is found through access to networks and services, rather than through individual autonomy achieved through capital accumulation and ownership. These principles are now informing alternative lifestyles emerging in Japan.


Chapter one, part four 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