October 31, 2005


The End of Growth: Efforts in Japanese Society and Business to Slow Down

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.38 (October 2005)

In Japan, the concept of a "lifestyle of health and sustainability" (LOHAS) has been gaining popularity, along with a "slow life" movement that has been booming for several years. These movements are evident in books, magazine feature articles, websites, and newspapers ads. Some big bookstores have a section dedicated to slow life and slow food. You can even hear "slow music" on Japanese airlines. What kind of potential do these movements have in Japanese society?

The desire for slower lifestyles might work as a leverage point to depart from our present growth-oriented society. Not only individuals but also companies are now making efforts for this kind of social change. Perhaps the country is entering into an exciting era.

Before getting into the main topic, first let's look at the background. If people who were originally slow start to slow down, it may not make much difference, but if tense and fast-paced people become relaxed and slow down, it may indicate something major.

In general, the Japanese people are very punctual, and their society may be regarded as a fast society in many aspects. According to data from electric power companies, for example, the average length of accidental blackouts per customer per year is only two minutes in Japan. In contrast, it is 80 minutes in the United States, 70 minutes in the United Kingdom, and 45 minutes in France.

Data on delays in train arrival times, collected by Central Japan Railway Company, indicated that the average delay for its high-speed bullet trains was 0.7 minutes per train last year, and 0.1 minutes two years ago. In Japan, if a train arrives at a station more than 1.5 minutes behind the schedule, it is counted as delay. The equivalent delay is five minutes in the city of New York, and three minutes in Berlin.

A typical businessperson in Tokyo spends only five minutes to eat lunch. And many do so while reading a document or newspaper. Generally speaking, the Japanese are fast-paced people.

It seems, however, that the structure or mindset of the Japanese society has been changing slowly but steadily. As presented in Japan for Sustainability Newsletter #14 (October 2003), various movements are developing throughout the country, with such names as the "Take-It-Easy Declaration" in Iwate Prefecture, "Jimoto-gaku" (community studies) in Minamata City, Kumamoto Prefecture, and the "Slow Life Declaration" in Kakegawa City, Shizuoka Prefecture.

Here is an interesting example. During the planning stage for the construction of a new condominium, the prospective residents had a heated debate on whether or not an elevator should be installed. Some were opposed because once installed it would consume energy, which would mean carbon dioxide emissions. Others were in favor, insisting that elderly people living on the top floors would need it.

How did they solve the problem? A "slow elevator" was their solution. They agreed to install an elevator that moves slowly. Young people don't want to wait for the elevator, while elderly people can use it if they want to, since they are usually not in a rush. As expected, once installed, the slow elevator is now used only by the elderly, and it consumes much less energy than a conventional elevator.

Today it seems that a large part of Japanese society is starting to welcome these shifts toward a slow society. Faced with various problems in the environment, society, education and family, many people now feel the need to slow down to solve these problems.

What are behind these shifts? One of them is that people are gradually finding out that high economic growth has not brought them happiness or sense of fulfillment. In modern-day Japan, since the 1960s, people believed that working hard day and night at their jobs would make them happier.

But what have we really got as a result? Our society is suffering from dysfunctional families because of absent fathers, juvenile delinquency and the spread of depression. There has been a rash of shocking murders. Elementary school kids have been killed by their friends. Parents have been killed by their children, and vice versa. In some incidents, for no other reason then a sense of frustration, some people have taken the lives of strangers. Forests, birds, and fish are disappearing from nature. Environmental pollution is getting worse.

An increasing number of people have noticed that something is wrong. Although they have worked really hard, they have not become happy. They feel unconsciously or subconsciously that they might have lost something precious in the process, which makes them stop and say "Wait a minute." Such a feeling seems to underlay the emergence of a slow movement in Japan.

Japanese society has long been relying on a seniority-based lifetime employment system, but labor market mobility is now increasing. Many young people today value a sense of fulfillment above money or privilege, and join non-governmental organizations or become entrepreneurs to start their own businesses in order to make a social contribution. An increasing number of young people "Not in Education, Employment or Training" (yes, another popular acronym, NEET) in Japan may mean that they are showing their silent resistance against the conventional system, which has failed to provide them with happiness, a vision or satisfaction.

Comparable changes in mindset, though less extensive or visible, are steadily taking place in the corporate world as well. Many business people and small- and medium-sized business owners now ask: How can we incorporate slow-life elements into current business activities, which tend to assume that we must always have economic growth? Questions like this trigger an awareness that our socioeconomic system must change drastically.

Some businesses have started to adopt a set of values that depart from the prevailing ones. One such example is Mukouyama Painting, a small paint supplies company with about 20 employees.

The company's senior advisor, Mr. Kunifumi Mukouyama, who recently handed over the president's post to his son, was a typical company president until 10 years ago, pushing his people to work hard with slogans like "Boost sales by 20 percent!" His management concern then was how he could find new customers and get a 20-percent increase in sales every year. But many of his employees left the company and recruiting new workers was difficult, making Mr. Mukouyama stop and wonder about the huge gap between his approach and reality.

However, about 10 years ago, he went through a period of depression, asking himself soul-searching questions. "Who am I?" "What is the company for?" "What should I do?" In the process of recovering from his depression, he was influenced by various people, and came to this conclusion: "We live in a capitalist society where people are self-centered, but I really want to live in a world full of love, peace, harmony, cooperation and self-sufficiency." Since then he has carried out various reforms based on this new perspective.

Now the company is well-known as one that is seriously committed to social responsibility and received well in the community. The turnover rate of employees, at one time so high, has dropped to zero. The president is happy, and so are the employees and the community.

Now Mr. Mukouyama measures the success of his company not by the amount of sales or profits, but by what he calls GCH (Gross Company Happiness), namely the total happiness of all employees. He took this idea from Bhutan's GNH (Gross National Happiness).

In each of the past eight years, he set a sales goal that meant negative growth, say, 92% of the previous year's sales, thinking that aiming to serve customers well rather than to increase sales would be good for the happiness of his employees. To express his new attitude, Mr. Mukouyama printed "Always At Your Service" on his business card, instead of "President."

Mr. Mukouyama also advocates being "a self-sufficient company" after witnessing environmental destruction, including soil degradation, in agriculture all over the world. For the past three years, the company has rented a field of about 660 square meters for employees to grow vegetables during their free time, like at lunchtime or before or after work. The company is now proposing a work-sharing scheme in which employees can take three days off per week (instead of the current two) so that they can spend more time working toward food self-sufficiency.

An increasing number of companies have now decided not to try to expand their business, or adopted a no-growth policy, so as to realize the real happiness that these companies were established to offer.

No one can say at this moment whether or not such developments as described in this article will lead to a revolutionary change in Japanese society. But we know that we should keep an eye on them and related corporate activities, as they may well act as a leverage point against the prevailing growth-oriented economics of "faster, bigger and more" that have caused global environmental destruction.

(Junko Edahiro)