Solitude as an Essential for Human Thought: the Possibilities of ‘Shikohin.’ Interview with Philosopher Koichiro Kokubun

Food items such as alcohol, tobacco, tea, and coffee are not consumed for any nutritional value, but for enjoyment. These food items are referred to as “shikohin.” Why did mankind pursue these items that, at first glance, seem to have little purpose in survival?

“Shikohin” is a term that is difficult to translate outside of Japan and unique to the Japanese language. It is said that the first person to use this term was Ogai Mori, who described “shikohin” as something that is “a necessity in life” that is also “a poison” in his short story “Fujidana” published in 1912. Being both a poison and a medicine, “shikohin” is surrounded by ambiguity. In the DIG THE TEA series, we will explore modern day “shikohin” and its role in our society through interviews with leading experts both in and out of Japan.

For the second installment of this series, we visited Koichiro Kokubun, a philosopher whose research is based on Spinoza’s philosophy. His doctoral dissertation was titled  “Spinoza’s Method”, and he recently published a book titled “Spinoza for Beginners”. He has covered topics from political philosophy to publishing books on his inexhaustible contemplations such as “The Ethics of Leisure and Boredom” and “The World of the Mediopassive”. How does Kokubun see “shikohin”? In Part 1 we cover how “shikohin,” a necessity to relieve the stresses of daily life, is disappearing from our modern societies and how “shikohin” plays a role in creating “solitude,” an essential part of human thought. 

Interview&Editing: MASANOBU SUGATSUKE Co-Editor: Masayuki Koike & Takumi Matsui Photos: Mayuko Sato

“Shikohin” is essential for “humans to be humans”

── We would like to ask you about what role shikohin has in our lives and the future of shikohin, but to start off, can you tell us about the book you published in 2011, “The Ethics of Leisure and Boredom” where you talk about cigarettes and cigars? 

Yes. One thing I discussed in that book was the difference between “wastefulness” and “consumption.” Since ancient history, humans have had a tendency towards “wastefulness,” or receiving more than they really need. Rather than eating just enough to be satisfied, we eat until we are overly full. 

However, according to the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard, humans began acting differently from the 20th century. That is when we started “consumption.” Consumption is the act of receiving information rather than material things, and is more of an ideological act. The gourmet food trend is a good example. Going to a popular restaurant just for the sake of telling others about it is simply an act of receiving information, so it is “consumption” and not “wastefulness.”

“Wastefulness” may have negative connotations, but I believe that it is a necessary extravagance for human life. One thing about consumption is that there is no end to it. Information does not lead to satisfaction, and no matter how much you consume, you are never fulfilled. On the other hand, wasteful acts or excessiveness does lead to satisfaction, so at some point, there is an end. That is the biggest difference between “wastefulness” and “consumption.”

Eating until you are 120% full means that 20% is not necessary for survival and you are eating things you don’t need to eat. Even if you do not dress fashionably, you will not die. In that sense, this “waste” is something humans do for the purpose beyond simple survival. When humans are simply surviving and existing, we do not feel the other sensations of being alive, or being human. In order to feel alive and feel human, we need something more than what we need to simply survive. 

In “The Ethics of Leisure and Boredom” I wrote, “Let us not only ask for bread, but also for roses. Life must be adorned with roses.” The rose has always been a symbol of dignity, and we cannot live a dignified life by merely surviving. It is only when we have the luxury of extravagance, such as eating more than enough and dressing up once in a while, that we can live like human beings. Shikohin is a perfect example of this kind of “waste.” It is not necessary for survival, but when you want to add enjoyment to your life, you seek shikohin. 

──Are you saying that shikohin is essential for “humans to be humans”?

Yes. However it has been almost 10 years since I wrote “The Ethics of Leisure and Boredom” and there are some things I want to add to it now. In that book, I criticized how consumer society isn’t allowing us to enjoy life. This was based on a broad hedonism ideology that “if everyone enjoys life, the world will become a better place.” 

However, recently I have come to believe that it is not enough to simply look at cause and effect, but we have to have beliefs in things that must be respected on its own. The increase in  political tensions and hate speech is an extension of how people stop believing in values that must be respected, such as “basic human rights for all.” I have come to realize that in order to create a better world, some things cannot be resolved by simple “enjoyment.” 

The most important aspect of shikohin is that it helps to relieve stress and encourages us to relax in a world where we cannot escape stress. Humans face negative things in their daily lives and it is not possible to live life avoiding negative things. In “The Ethics”, Spinoza also says that humans are prone to hatred and envy and it takes a very high level of skill to live life without receiving negative influences from other people. It is not possible to escape the negative influences from your surroundings, so humans cannot live life unless they learn how to release some of that stress. 

Cigarettes, alcohol, and sweets all have some effect that helps us relax. There was a sommelier’s book that the manager of my favorite bar showed me that stated, “There is nothing good about alcohol as it will surely make you drunk and chill your body. However, there is just one good thing and that is that it provides relaxation like nothing else.” When I think about shikohin, I often remember these words. 

Our increasingly stressful times and declining coping mechanisms

── In our society today, shikohin are mostly considered “bad” and are gradually disappearing, mostly for health reasons. 

That’s true. More people are not drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, or eating sweets. On top of that, they go to crowded gyms and run like rats on a treadmill. Seeing that sight makes me think that it is like an allegory of our consumer society. Living like a monk and being healthy, staying in shape and sweating profusely has become a status symbol. From the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century, most capitalists were overweight and having a bulging stomach was a symbol of wealth. Now, obesity is a symbol of poverty. Most executives go to the gym and maintain a slim body. In this world, shikohin is losing its place in society. 

On the other hand, today’s economic society puts a heavy burden on people, because modern workers are required to be both highly flexible and highly communicative. Our economy is no longer centered around industry like it was in the 20th century, and the market requires us to be ever-changing.

In an industrial society, people repeat the same thing everyday. They stayed at the same job for decades and repeated the same work day after day. Although that may sound boring, in a way, work became habitual and in that sense, life was easier. 

However, in our modern economy, the requirements of a job can change each week or each day and if we do not adjust and make changes, we cannot create profits. That is why we must communicate with a lot of people everyday and stay flexible to change. For example, the market changes the flavor of tea sold in pet bottles every six months, and new models of smartphones are being developed all the time. However, this does not mean the new model will necessarily sell well. In that kind of economic society, the workers are put under extreme stress. 

── Even though modern life is becoming more stressful, the shikohin that used to help relieve that stress is decreasing. Would you say that people are suffering because of that?

I would say so. The restrictions toward cigarettes are only getting more strict, and soon alcohol will become the next target. Of course, there are very serious dangers when it comes to alcohol so there is a need for some restrictions. However, if it becomes banned completely, it will likely create tension in various aspects of society. We are living in a world that is becoming busier and more mentally straining, but restrictions on cigarettes and alcohol will prevent us from using those things to relieve stress. 

When that happens, where will humans find happiness? I think there is a certain savage aspect to being human, but puritan thinking is trying to eliminate that. In order to overcome these current trends, I think it is necessary for shikohin to be understood and accepted again. It is only natural that humans need something to overcome stress. My wish is to bring back a lifestyle that has that kind of openness. 

The difference between solitude and loneliness

── In “The Ethics of Leisure and Boredom” you talked about shikohin from another angle. You introduced  Heidegger’s argument of boredom being divided in three forms. Being bored by something, being bored with something, and profound boredom.

You talked about the second form being the most human-like way of living and you were critical of Heidegger because he had a negative view of it. One example of the second form of boredom was to smoke cigars as a way of refreshment, but do you think this second form of boredom is disappearing in our current society?

I think so. Citing this idea presented by Heidegger, I came up with different conclusions. The first form of boredom is simply like the state of being rushed because of work. The second is the state where you have an empty mind in daily life, where you are just daydreaming or going blank. The third is a state that is close to being mentally ill, where you hear a voice inside you saying you are “just bored.” 

Heidegger said that if you overcome the third form of boredom by choice, you can achieve a state of freedom, but I could not agree with that idea. When you smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol, your mind goes blank and you sense a certain emptiness inside you. I think this state of mind is necessary for humans to live a human-like life. When we feel bad for daydreaming or fear boredom to the extreme, people are unable to enjoy solitude. Time spent in solitude is very important for humans because it gives them time to think. 

Philosopher Hannah Arendt argued that solitude and loneliness are not the same thing. Solitude is the state in which you are in company with yourself. A perfect example is when you are smoking a cigarette and spending time doing something with just yourself. However, there are people in society who cannot bear being alone and they always search for other people to be with. At the same time, humans cannot necessarily bear solitude at all times. When that becomes unbearable, we experience loneliness. That is when we seek to be with other people besides ourselves.  

Being in solitude does not necessarily mean people feel loneliness. Although people cannot always bear solitude and it is not possible to completely rid ourselves of loneliness, being in solitude is very important for humans to think about things. Arendt’s conclusion is that we communicate with ourselves in solitude, and that is what thinking really is.

This time we spend in solitude is what we gain from the second form of boredom. In fact, Heidegger said that the first form of boredom, where we are driven and rushed by our daily work, is “madness,” but the second form of boredom, where we are bumming around smoking cigarettes, is “sanity.” I think that Heidegger himself also recognized the necessity of the second form of boredom.

Consequently, I believe that shikohin is very important because it helps create time for us to just space out. When I feel stuck in my research, I often find that an idea or resolution comes to mind while I take my cigarette break. 

“Extra,” but not extra

──Arendt’s distinction between solitude and loneliness is very clear. Do you think it means that shikohin is also important to have time in solitude to be alone with one’s thoughts?

Actually, I think that Arendt put a little too much importance on solitude. All people feel loneliness and there is importance in connecting with other people. In order to build these connections, shikohin like alcohol often helps and plays an important role. 

My friend who teaches at a university once said something interesting. In the past, universities demanded that the student focus only on studying and there was pressure to not do anything “extra.” For the last 20 to 30 years, universities have been reforming everything from the way they build their campuses to the way they set up their curriculums in a way that regulates extracurricular activities. In fact, if you think about it, the coronavirus pandemic has created an environment that reflects this “ideal.” The students no longer interact with other students nor participate in extracurricular activities. The only thing they can do is study. My friend stated “now we have achieved this ideal that university reform has been pushing for all along.” However, when we face the reality of it, everyone can see the problems that arise. My friend just wanted to say, “I told you so.” 

To some, the extracurricular activities in university may seem “extra” or “unnecessary.” However, what happens when we get rid of all things “extra”? I think the coronavirus pandemic has made everyone understand how this is problematic. Occasionally going out to drink with friends may seem like an unnecessary or extra activity, but there was something inside us that was sustained due to these “extra” activities. 

When I was working at a different university, there was a period where I stopped smoking cigarettes so I stopped going to the smoking lounge. After a while I realized that I was having difficulty keeping up with what was going on in the university. When I thought about the reason why, I realized that I used to have conversations with the university’s office workers in the smoking lounge and they would always give me updates on the different ongoings. It wasn’t until then that I realized how important this information was. 

Under the current pandemic, all meetings are now held online so there are no opportunities for the university faculty to meet in person. I started working at my current university in April 2019. Before, I could casually ask other faculty members questions on the walk home from a meeting, for example. Now, for a new employee like myself, there are no opportunities for these casual conversations so there is so much I don’t really understand. Now, I have to write official emails to someone whenever something is unclear. 

The same can be said for the classes. Before, I would stay and chat with students after class, and other students would listen into these conversations. Now, this kind of communication is all but lost. Although I make time after online classes for students to stick around for casual conversation, naturally, not everyone participates. I think it is important to emphasize the fact that online classes and meetings should be for emergency situations. 

Through these examples, you can see how important the “extra” things in our lives really are. However, “extra” can be interpreted as “unnecessary,” so it is difficult to find a word to better describe these things. Shikohin are also things that are “extra” and “unnecessary” for survival, so I feel that there is a need to find a different term to describe it so it’s value is better understood. Philosophy often only studies fundamental concepts, so it doesn’t really deal with issues that are “extra.” There are very few studies like what I presented in “The Ethics of Leisure and Boredom.” One person wrote a review saying, “This is the first book in Japan that deals with this issue head-on.”

── In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the word “essential” has been used a lot, especially by the American media.

The workers who stock the shelves and work the cash register at a supermarket are usually not paid very well. However, society realized just how essential these workers are. 

At the same time, I do think it is necessary to take this expression with a bit of irony. In other words, if we take this definition too literally and think that there are “essential” and “non-essential jobs,” we may run into a bit of a problem. Even if it doesn’t go as far as say, occupational discrimination, we may end up with an overly simplified way of interpreting and dividing jobs. Again, society and people require “extra” things in life, so I think ultimately it is not a good idea to define things only in terms of whether they are  “essential” or not.

The second half of the article is going to be published on December 24th.

Translation: Sophia Swanson