Designing for degrowth

Does a shrinking population inform an entirely different perspective on sustainable urbanism? Can this perspective offer clues not only for post-growth societies, but the fast-growing global South as well?

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

In 2005, researchers in an urban planning laboratory at the University of Tokyo released Fiber City 2050, a vision of how the world’s largest metropolis might shrink gracefully over the next half century as the population rapidly declines. For several centuries, cities have primarily grappled with how to accomodate growing urban populations, usually through expansion into the surrounding periphery, the provision of new infrastructure and the rationalization and redevelopment of existing urban spaces into higher and better uses.

As society enters the post-growth era, the authors of Fiber City suggest that this approach is in need of reform. “In contrast to the geometric and machine-like elaborateness of Tokyo Plan 1960,” a high-growth era proposal for monolithic renovations to the capital, “Fiber City is soft like fabric, rich in texture, and if you look closely, utilizes repeating structures in a natural fractal pattern.” Indeed, the goal is not to overpower and control nature, but to allow it to seep into the urban fabric, like a rising tide reclaiming lost ground as the human population gradually recedes in coming decades.

The plan outlines four strategies for renovating Tokyo’s urban fabric, including retreating from suburban areas not within walking distance of train stations, turning the city’s underutilized elevated highway network into a system of linear urban parks similar to New York’s High Line, and strategically weaving greenspace into streetscapes presently dominated by concrete and cars. These strategies seek to blur the urban-nature dichotomy and create a sustainable, permeable landscape that some have termed “urban satoyama” for its resemblance to traditional rural settlements where humans and nature have existed in harmony for centuries.

As urban civilization’s system of production and consumption has grown to encompass nearly the entire planet and as the global biosphere shows ever more signs of collapse, human society no longer has the luxury of imagining itself above and apart from nature. Post-growth cities will not have the freedom to reinvent themselves from whole cloth, but will need to learn to adapt to demographic, economic and natural forces out of planners’ control. While radically re-imagining both urban and suburban landscapes, the Fiber City vision acknowledges that shrinking cities will lack extensive fiscal or material resources and “that existing structures must not be destroyed recklessly but instead a way needs to be found to re-use them in practical ways. Contrary to conventional idealism, which is defined by an a priori denial of reality, idealism in the environmental age begins by accepting the existing conditions.”

When you pull back the aesthetically pleasing surface to reveal externalities hidden by geographic and class divides, sustainability discourse rooted in idealism and an unbridled faith in the forces of progress is dishearteningly elitist, exclusive, and inadequate for the task of building a broadly equitable and sustainable global society. In contrast, a truly sustainable society would have nothing to hide: it would not rely upon exploitation of labor locally or globally, would derive its resources from local, distributed sources, and would maintain its economic well-being without further depleting ecological and social capital. But achieving such a vision will require far more introspective action than the capital-intensive engineering solutions that are the penchant of modern political and economic leaders.

Japan’s post-growth future is informing an approach to architecture and urban planning grounded in an acceptance of existing conditions and the primacy of nature that draws upon a rich repository of traditional knowledge and modern technology. Strategies of intensive investment in urban redevelopment and an embrace of more modest living may enable Japanese cities to channel their degrowth in ways that will make communities more livable, environmentally sustainable and less burdensome on public finances. If Japan can learn to do more with less and develop a new way of life that emphasizes economic stability and environmental sustainability, the solutions it pioneers will have significance not only for other shrinking post-industrial societies, but also for fast-growing cities in a world of shrinking resources.

In recent years, some in Japan and abroad have commented that the end of economic growth has brought about a “galapagos syndrome” in which the nation has turned inward, no longer concerning itself with the outside world. Content to simply live peacefully within their local environment, young people no longer study abroad as frequently, Japanese companies no longer aspire to leave their mark on global markets, and Japan quietly withdraws from the world diplomatic stage. Bold solutions to the challenges of the 21st century, it is said, will not be conceived in a country where people are nowadays only concerned with the reality right in front of them.

But perhaps introspective questioning of the purpose of human action at a time when our civilization is destroying the planet should be the role of rich societies in the 21st century. Desperately seeking growth abroad and dismantling the achievements of postwar social democracy in a rush to stay abreast of the wave of neoliberal globalization constitutes a denial of the more pressing challenges, all of which are internal to our way of life. In my discussion of urban planning in Toyama and trends in urban architecture in this chapter, I show how in another sense, “turning inward” and critically reexamining modern life and the environments in which we live is perhaps just what is needed at a time when our social fabric and natural environment have become stressed to their limits by endless economic growth. Real solutions to the challenges that ail us will remain elusive so long as we fail to recognize existing conditions as the starting point for locally-specific sustainability. Today, however, “sustainability” is often rather elegantly co-opted to dress up the same deleterious form of transnational capitalism that has given rise to our present crisis of ecological collapse, economic inequality and social disintegration.

The false promise of green utopias

As the pace and scale of urbanization in the blossoming megacities and urban regions of the global South has accelerated, financial centers in Singapore, Shanghai, Dubai, and elsewhere have proved enormously adept at mustering capital at an unprecedented scale in order to alter our physical environment in ever larger and more impressive ways. Every few years the record for the world’s biggest airport, the tallest skyscraper, the largest mall or logistics center is renewed, our capacity to dominate and control nature increases, and progress marches forward. Each of these developments seeks to outdo the last not only in size, luxury, and prestige, but also sustainability. As counterintuitive as it may seem, new cities springing anew from the fields, deserts, and oceans of fast-growing economies proclaim to be models for a new form of green urban living. This is the technological utopian’s dream of the future, a world where solutions to intractable challenges can be derived from whole cloth, and endless growth and sustainability are not incompatible.

New Songdo and Masar City

One such vision is currently rising out of the desert near Abu Dhabi’s international airport in a place called Masdar City, touted as the “world’s first zero-carbon city.” Eventually expected to support 45,000 residents and 45,000 more commuters, the $20 billion city is supported by a 54-acre solar array and built atop a 22-foot platform. Underneath, a fleet of automated cars shuttle workers and residents through a network of tunnels, enabling the surface city to be entirely automobile-free. While receiving much positive attention in a media establishment hungry for techno-solutions to our intractable environmental challenges, Masdar has been sharply critiqued by those who see it as a extravagant example of traditional resource- and capital-intensive development dressed up as sustainability. Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote in the New York Times in 2010:

What Masdar really represents, in fact, is the crystallization of another global phenomenon: the growing division of the world into refined, high-end enclaves and vast formless ghettos where issues like sustainability have little immediate relevance….[since the 1970s] both the megarich and the educated middle classes have increasingly found solace by walling themselves off inside a variety of mini-utopias. This has involved not only the proliferation of suburban gated communities, but also the transformation of city centers in places like Paris and New York into playgrounds for tourists and the rich. Masdar is the culmination of this trend: a self-sufficient society, lifted on a pedestal and outside the reach of most of the world’s citizens.⁠3

The inequality implicit in utopian visions like Masdar is also on display in the $40 billion New Songdo City, South Korea billed as an eco-friendly “aerotropolis” built from the ground up for a globalized world. The most expensive private development in history, Songdo is a showcase city not only for environmental sustainability, but also integrated network systems and neoliberal globalization: the development is a fully integrated “smart city” and comprises a free economic zone with a direct bridge link to Incheon International Airport. Rapturously described in the media as the “new city that aims to banish the problems of the world,” New Songdo nonetheless presents a future only attainable for the small global elite who participates in the upper echelons of the global economy and can afford the average apartment price of $500,000 and the $25,000 tuition at the international school.

While they look like enticing models on the surface, developments like Songdo and Masdar  lose their claim to sustainability when they are considered not in isolation, but as the newest pinnacles of wealth and power in the system of global capitalism. For every shining new model city, there is an underside of ecological destruction, oppression, and social disintegration beyond its boundaries. These model cities offer neither scalable solutions to the intractable problems associated with urban growth in the South, nor models for how cities of the North can adapt to the challenges of environmental degradation and economic globalization. They simply accumulate capital from the less fortunate corners of the global hinterland, perpetuating the systems of economic and environmental exploitation inherent in global capitalism in a more elegant and conceited manner.

Instead, proposals like the Fiber City that emerge from post-growth economies necessarily focus on local reinvestment in existing communities, and suggest holistic and equitable solutions to future challenges that could be applied in the context post-growth economies or still growing cities in the North and the South. Japan’s post-growth design revolution entails reconnection between natural and urban environments, reconnection of communities through compact development and emphasis on public space and shared amenities, reconnection between interior living spaces and the outdoor environment, and at the smallest level, reconnection between individuals who have grown isolated and alienated from other human beings. While many of the ideas contained in the Fiber City are decades away from implementation in still-growing Tokyo, today hundreds of smaller regional cities across Japan are confronting the challenges of the post-growth era, and few have engaged in new solutions more enthusiastically than Toyama City.


Chapter two, part two to be posted soon.

Grass-eating boys, freeters, and postmodern ennui: the unlikely foundation of the degrowth economy

Commonly maligned social and cultural trends suggest that Japanese are seeking less competitive lifestyles

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

Even if the population declines and the size of the economy shrinks, if citizens can live comfortably there’s no problem whatsoever.
Wouldn’t it be great just to live modestly, and find a niche market with no external enemies?
What we should strive for is the life of the panda. Neither the hunter nor the hunted, living in the bamboo grove. Yes, the “bamboo-eating people,” wouldn’t that be wonderful?
—columnist Takashi Odajima (Japanese link)

In the 1960s and 70s, the postwar period of economic expansion in Japan ushered in a mass urban middle-class of nuclear families, rooted in a clear gender division of labor between the male domain of bureaucracies and businesses and the female domain of the domestic sphere (1). This arrangement was highly in a sense the culmination of postwar aspirations for Western-style modernity and wealth. While the full time housewife took charge of domestic life, the hardworking salaryman remained largely absent from participation in the household and family, working extremely long hours in devotion to his company or organization. However, by the 1980s this model of men and women reduced to single-faceted professional or domestic roles began to lose appeal to children raised in the suburban communities of the new affluent Japan, write Akiko Hashimoto and John Traphagan write in Imagined Families, Lived Families:

In many respects, the ideal new families had been made possible by the consumerism that accompanied economic expansion; but when the economic bubble burst and the recession exposed the illusion of permanent and stable employment for the diligent work force, the children found that attaining a better living than their parents through hard work and better education was no longer guaranteed (1).

Hashimoto and Traphagan believe that “the economic downturn and the restructuring of the “postwar” social system [at the beginning of the 21st century] has created a context in which people have been forced to confront and reconsider past categories and assumptions about life, family, school, and workplace” (2). But with the social contract to which they subscribed coming under increasing stress, many older people regard the narrow ambitions and inward nature of today’s youth as a cause, not a result, of Japan’s economic decline. Young people are said to lack their ancestors’ spirit of perseverance (ganbaru seishin), which has been replaced by a pervasive and paralyzing aversion to risk (risuku kaihi no seishin). One common explanation is that the relaxation of educational standards during the 1990s, and the implementation of what came to be known as the “slacker education” (yutori kyōiku) has dulled kids’ tolerance for competition and hardship. The result is introverted, unambitious, non-aggressive personalities. “Japanese kids no longer have the hungry spirit we once had,” one English educator who had studied in the United States in the 1960s told me forlornly in 2011, “and as a result Chinese and Korean companies are leaving us behind in the global market.”

Do youth really deserve blame for Japan’s economic decline? In a 2010 essay collection titled Escaping Elders, Youth without Desire, novelist and social commentator Ryū Murakami argues that today’s middle-aged generation is “solely concerned with escaping from the coming collapse.” Because this generation currently dominates the media and national politics, the mainstream conversation about Japan’s post-growth predicament has often focused on restoring the old system to vitality, while marginalizing the voice of youth, who have a clearer understanding of the need for fundamental institutional reform. Thus, government job policy continues to be to support major companies to maintain existing employment levels, even as growing numbers of youth are denied entry to the security of corporate Japan. The government has also been slow to reform the social system to accomodate growth in non-traditional families, including single mothers. As a result, many young people have become alienated from a political process that ignores their interests.

Changing gender roles

As the generation that grew up in the post-bubble era enters adulthood, gender roles are beginning to break down. In recent years, the term “grass-eating boys” (sōshokukei danshi) has come into use to describe the growing numbers of men who lack the ambition or aggressive tendencies of their “meat-eating” peers, choosing cultural pursuits or personal enrichment instead of participating in the race for promotion and status (See this Japanese guide written by a self-described grass-eater). They prefer cooking dinner to the salaryman’s late-night drinking, value avoiding conflict more than asserting their will over others, and spend their money on cheap fashion items from Uniqlo instead of fast cars.

Equally non-aggressive in romance as in careers, the increase in grass-eaters is a factor contributing to the higher average age of marriage and the declining birthrate. The corresponding term “meat-eating girls” describes women who have the traditionally masculine traits of being more assertive in their careers and personal lives. Murakami argues that “grass-eating boys” is simply the latest in a string of popular words coined by the mass media to mask deeper inconvenient truths about social, political, and economic conditions. The term, in his estimation, precludes discussion of the true implications of “the decline in ambition, both of individuals and society as a whole,” just as the phrase “winners and losers” (kachigumi and makegumi) in the early 2000s was a simple way to shrug off the widening gap in prosperity caused by the Koizumi reforms and globalization.

Society has moved slowly to adapt the modern institutions and norms of family, work, and school, which were so conducive to economic growth and social stability in the postwar era, to accomodate the breakdown of gender roles. The growing number of non-conforming individuals is a sign that rigid familial and professional arrangements need to change in order to fully welcome women into the workplace, as well as to create space for less competitive men to pursue alternative careers and share in domestic labor. As the postmodern family and identity gradually arrives in Japan, society will evolve in a pluralist direction that will enable individuals to pursue more diverse lifestyles. But there are other paths to pluralism besides adopting a competitive form of individualization that is the social counterpart to American-style neoliberalism. Reflecting the decline in personal and national ambition that Murakami alludes to, degrowth would instead point towards a new pluralistic social structure rooted in a paradigm of flexible cooperation—an economy that allows everyone to be their natural selves, but embedded within mutually supportive familial and societal arrangements. The ability to construct such a social structure may be one of the benefits of being a relatively homogenous nation.

Changing career goals

Not only gender roles, but perspectives on the institution of work are changing as well. The symbol of today’s labor force may no longer be the salaryman but rather the lowly freeter (furita), a term used to describe underemployed or freelance youth, whose numbers have risen from 0.5 million in 1982 to over 1.8 million today (Japanese link). While some young people forego the long hours and lack of freedom associated with regular employment by choice, others who are unsuccessful at finding a job in the increasingly tight job market are left with no choice but to pursue part-time work.

The typical “voluntary” freeter subsists on little money, spends her free time on individual pursuits, and may not care very much about pursuing a career or attaining a higher level of material comfort. The rise in part-time workers is undoubtedly a result of the weak labor market, but it also stems from a mood of ennui that comes along with living in a highly developed postmodern society where basic necessities can be gained without much struggle. A subset of this group are the so-called “parasite singles,” living off their parents’ savings at home, while other disaffected youth are classified as “NEET,” or not in education, employment, or training. At the worst extreme, millions of young people have shut themselves in their rooms in a tragic phenomenon known as hikikomori, incapable of even facing their own parents, much less finding a job and participating actively in society.

I do not wish to be misunderstood as saying that the myriad social and economic challenges facing young people in Japan should not be treated as serious problems. It is clear that the structure of Japanese society today and the effects of economic stagnation are driving many young people towards underachievement, social isolation, economic insecurity, and unhappiness, and these trends must be discussed and debated. But what is too often lost in arguments over how to deal with the social challenges facing today’s youth is that these are not mere aberrations, but rather symptomatic of a deeper, irreversible shift towards a post-growth, post-consumer society. Japan’s future will not be saved by jamming the round peg of post-growth youth through the square hole of a growth-oriented society. Each challenge must be situated within the broader vision of achieving a degrowth society, and only when the community can offer a compelling and achievable new paradigm of happiness will underperforming youth once again find a place to grow and contribute more fully to society.

Until that point, passive resistance to the status quo in the form of freeters, grass-eaters, and “dropping out of society” will serve to undermine and hasten the demise of the present system. In the next section, I profile one way in which young people are actively prefiguring the degrowth society they wish to see in the future.


(1) Akiko Hashimoto and John Traphagan, ed. Lived Families, Imagined Families, (New York: State University of New York Press, 2008), 9.

(2) Ibid, 9.

(3) Ibid, 1.

Part five here

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

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