Judged only by bestsellers from the largest bookstore in Tokyo’s financial district, the streets of late 2022 Japan are now set to be licked with revolutionary flames.
On a series of shelves are the titles that revere business, deify its pantheon of global leaders and promise readers supremacy with seven keys to success. Where these volumes identify crises – underfunded pensions, demographic collapse, climate implosion – they do so with the fearless faith that capitalism will present a solution.
But from across the aisle comes Karl Marx’s newly remastered growl – insisting from beyond the grave that the brakes must be slammed on the world’s economy propulsion units, this update is beautifully packaged for the mass consumption of modern Japan discouraged and presented as the original visionary of the philosophy of “degrowth”.
The new wave of Japanese books eyeing global malaise through a Marxist prism includes a manga (comic) explainer of Das Capital which depicts working-class exploitation in a charming mountain campsite and aims to broaden the potential audience of employees of downgraded converts.
At the forefront of Marx’s recent mainstreaming in Japan is Kohei Saito, a very engaging philosopher who, from a study coupled with a book at the University of Tokyo, argues that degrowth is the only way to save society from a crisis of inequality and impending environmental catastrophe. Growth has not made us happy. Frustration is on the way. Reusable coffee bottles won’t save us, he says, sipping one.
Whether the Japanese public actually agrees with the thesis or not – and there is no reason to equate a large readership with a generalized belief – a large number of people are certainly curious about Saito’s phrasing of the question. . And that in itself is intriguing in light of one of the least-discussed generational divides in Japan: the separation between people over the age of around 50 and those under 35 – the latter being arguably the first shrinking cohort. of the rich world.
at Saito Capital in the Anthropocene, published in late 2020 and layering Marx’s writings on the natural world with a call to arms on sustainability and climate change, was not a particularly likely hit. But the pandemic, Saito says, created a natural sympathy for the idea of degrowth and shook Japan from the belief that huge overnight alterations to ordinary life were out of the question. To the surprise even of its author, the book and its prescription for systemic upheaval have sold over half a million copies and are due to be published in English and other languages next year. His follow-up, Before the Flood: Marx and Planetary Metabolismwas released last month and, according to Maruzen’s sales staff, is doing a roaring trade.
Although Saito frames his argument in academic tones, elements of his degrowth philosophy overlap with those of the most vocal climate activists outside of Japan. A big part of Saito’s mission is simply to spark a Japanese conversation about the climate emergency where, at the moment, he sees almost none.
He’s brutal on Japan’s historical tendency to pack the economy with “crappy jobs” that consume the country’s increasingly valuable labor force to no useful end. Meat, SUVs and sports cars should be taxed much more heavily to offset the damage they cause, he says. He also thinks that because it works so well to promote endless wasteful consumption, advertising should be heavily restricted – especially the kind of giant LCD screens that tower over Tokyo, draining the energy that Japan can hardly stand on. afford to waste. “We could eliminate advertising from society and no one would suffer except the advertising industry,” he says.
But the most commercially important aspect of Saito’s new Marxist trend, he admits, may well be that he is being articulated by a 35-year-old man. Saito was born in the late 1980s, during the inflation of one of the biggest financial bubbles in history, and entered elementary school as Japan entered its three-decade economic stagnation.
Japan has been in deflation for most of its adult life, wages across the country have not increased, and interest rates have been zero. He may still see Japan as a sprawling consumer landscape of destructive, growth-obsessed capitalism, but he is one of two generations who have reached adulthood without experiencing growth as their predecessors did.
It’s the Japanese, he suspects, who read his books and may be wondering if the kind of sweeping systemic change he proposes isn’t so out of the question. The streets of Japan are of course not on fire. But some may have already quietly adopted the philosophy of degrowth.