Restoring Spare Time to Find Joy in Studying. 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 philosopher Koichiro Kokubun. In part 1 he spoke to us about 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. In part 2, we cover how the essential problem of dependency and addiction comes from the lack of outlets that we can depend on in our modern world, the loss of third places (a place that is neither home or work), how people are “racing with time” and the role of “shikohin” in our modern society where ambiguity is not allowed and everything is black or white. 

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

Part 1 of 2 》Solitude as an Essential for Human Thought: the Possibilities of ‘Shikohin.’ Interview with Philosopher Koichiro Kokubun

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

Dependency comes from the severe lack of outlets

── The creator of the world “shikohin,” Ogai Mori, described shikohin” as something that is “a necessity in life” that is also “a poison.” You have spent a long time researching Spinoza’s philosophy. You introduced Spinoza’s teachings on how nothing is “good” or “evil” in itself and “good and evil” is decided by how matters are combined. “Good” is the combination of matters that improve our capabilities. Does this concept apply to shikohin?

I think so. To give an example of the combination of matters, I often talk about the combination of a runny nose and medicine. The medicine stops the flow of water that goes through our eyes and nose to treat the runny nose. So, for people who are suffering from a runny nose, it is good or beneficial, but if someone who does not have a runny nose takes the medicine, it creates a dry throat due to lack of water and becomes “bad” for them. 

I think the same is true for “shikohin.” For example, I enjoy coffee. However, the caffeine in coffee can be harmful for some people. For me, coffee clears my mind and helps me relax so it is “good.” 

── I think the reason why shikohin is considered “bad” is because of the risk of addiction.  

Addiction phrased in another way is dependency. In fact, the problem with dependency is not the behavior itself. This is true because there is no human in existence that is not dependent on something. Everyone is dependent on various things and people. However, because we are dependent on so many different things, we can get by without realizing our dependency on them. 

The people who suffer from severe dependency symptoms are people who have too few things to depend on. For example, there are people who cannot live their daily lives without consuming alcohol. If someone has a lot of outlets that they can depend on, they can speak to other people and ask for help rather than depend on alcohol. When people become unable to depend on a variety of outlets, they become overly dependent on just one or two things. 

To take myself as an example, I also enjoy drinking alcohol, but I also depend on reading books and research so I do not become dependent on only alcohol. However, if one day I was no longer allowed to do any research, I may become addicted to alcohol. It is important to depend on various things and I think it is good that shikohin acts as one of those outlets. 

── However, it is very difficult to get rid of an extreme dependency once you have it. 

That’s true. I find that the more mentally strained I become, I tend to drink the same brand of beer. When I am not so tired, I think about different options, such as whiskey or wine, but when I am tired I find that I just buy the same beer at the convenience store on my way home everyday. When I notice this behavior I realize that I am developing a higher dependency on one thing because of my strained mental state. 

In this state, I find that I don’t even enjoy drinking alcohol. The same is true with cigarettes. When I am mentally healthy, I enjoy them and find pleasure in smoking, but when I am rushed and just smoking one cigarette after another, there is no pleasure in it at all.  

The disappearance of a “third place” and the loss of “spare time” 

── I feel that there are less and less places to enjoy shikohin now. In terms of coffee, Starbucks has established itself as a “third place” around the world, but it doesn’t feel like a “third place” in the true sense of the word. I think cafes and coffee parlors used to act as “third places,” but recently Starbuck feels more like a pseudo workplace. 

Starbucks is more like an office space now. “Third places” initially meant places that were not formal or official. However, now “third places” are becoming more formal. In fact, there are less and less informal environments today. Places that are outside the classroom or office where one can gain information and recharge their energy to perform better in formal or official settings are disappearing. I can’t help but think that this is causing mental strain on everyone. When I witness excessive attacks and criticism toward people who contracted the coronavirus or celebrities that caused a scandal, I really feel that the Japanese society is becoming more cold hearted and people have less emotional leeway. 

── You mean people now are too mentally strained and they have less places to go where they can just get away?

This is something that sociologist Shinji Miyadai has been saying since the 1990s. Another example is the rooftops of schools. If you watch TV shows from the 90s, it was common to see highschool punks fighting on the school rooftops. The rooftops were like a “third place,” where they could get away from the watching eyes of the teachers. Now the rooftops have become inaccessible and students have lost that space. Miyadai is saying that this is the reason why students are now sitting in the streets. 

When speaking of youth, people often say things like “It is not good for this space to become a gathering spot for youngsters.” I, however, wonder why having a gathering space is bad. If they don’t have a place to gather, how will they communicate? Young people are tough, so they will always find a place for themselves to gather, and when adults find out, they take it away. As a result, the youth are finding it harder to connect with each other. Then, adults start preaching about how important it is to “bond with others.” It’s really quite ridiculous.   

── As we lose “third places,” what should we do in order to bring back some peace of mind?

It’s not easy to say exactly what one should do. However, what to aim for is clear and that is to have spare time. Having spare time is essential for mental health. Although it may be a slightly extreme example, I think in order to improve our politics, what we need is more time.  Sometimes people ask me how to make democracy take root in Japan, and I answer that it is necessary for everyone to have more spare time. Because we don’t have spare time, we don’t have time to think, or take part in society, or care about the election polls. 

Japan needs a “right to disconnect”

── We do have less and less spare time nowadays. Although working remotely has become common now, contrary to having more time due to not commuting, we find that we are required to be available 24/7 and we have even less free time than before. 

Japanese people really work long hours. What surprised me when I was working with a publisher in England was that they only work until Thursday. If I sent an email on Friday, I would get the response, “I’ll be back in office on Monday” and I would just give up on getting in touch with them that week. In fact, I think this is better. Even if we cannot get in touch with someone between Friday to Sunday, we can still get most of our work done. 

In France, workers take two hour lunch breaks. In 2017, a law was passed where the worker and employer had to clarify whether or not the worker had to check emails outside of office hours in the worker’s contract. The French obtained a “right to disconnect” because of this law, and I think the same law should be implemented in Japan. 

── I went to Paris to visit the headquarters of the fashion brand Christian Dior and Vogue magazine’s Condé Nast once. I had imagined that these offices would be very busy, but surprisingly they were not, and I was surprised to see how long their lunch hours were.

I asked them why they were able to finish so much work in so little time, and they replied that it was because they “didn’t have meetings.” They report to their bosses by email or printed documents and they get feedback, but the decisions are all made by the boss so they hardly ever have meetings. It made sense. 

It means that the person in charge makes the decisions and takes responsibility for them. When I was studying at a university in France, the letters I received from the office always included the name of the person in charge. In Japan, the information always came from an anonymous source, such as the “Educational Affairs Division.” When I told my French friends about this, they were very surprised.

Basically, the organizational principles are completely different. We have to make decisions in meetings so the individual who is responsible will become ambiguous. That is why it is unclear how decisions are made and it takes a lot of time to make decisions in Japan. The same is true for policies. There are numerous examples of policies that make you think, if someone had to take responsibility for them, they would have been much more cautious in the implementation. Of course, when someone is identified as responsible, they may hold the risk of being fired. Perhaps there isn’t a need to take it that far, but it is important to study other organizational principles. 

On the other hand, something that we must be cautious of in Japan is that things that are not decided in meetings are single-handedly decided by management. The definition of a leader is someone who can lead others. They must oversee and understand the situation of their subordinates, listen to their requests and  make arrangements or decisions accordingly. To lead is not to rule. This is a very important point to remember when thinking about organizational principles. 

In order to enjoy life, one must “learn” how to do so

── One last question about shikohin. Shikohin seems like an unnecessary thing at first glance. As our society becomes less lenient of extra and unnecessary things, do you believe shikohin will continue to disappear from society?

I think that most people believe that there is a need for something extra. However, recently there is a trend toward evidence-based ways of thinking and only accepting topics that can be spoken about in public settings. Society now has a tendency to not acknowledge the fact that there are things that do not fall into the realm of public nature. Because of this, I think that people are feeling the need for something “extra,” but it is becoming more and more difficult for them to share that idea with others. 

Eliminating things that don’t fit into the criteria of public “correctness” without sufficient explanation is equivalent to depriving people of the freedom to think for themselves. Losing sensitivity towards things that can not be defined as black or white is the same thing as closing one’s eyes and mind. When faced with something that is neither black or white, people tend to look away more and more often now. 

── In this kind of situation, how do you think we can maintain some ambiguity in our society?

Something you can do as an individual is to try to maintain some kind of distance from society. I think one reason behind the trend toward unacceptance of ambiguity comes from the development of media. Even a small mistake can cause something to go viral on social media so it is becoming more difficult to speak about ambiguous matters. Although it might sound ridiculous, perhaps it is necessary for us to sometimes go offline, or choose not to use 5G. 

As I wrote in the conclusion of  “The Ethics of Leisure and Boredom,” when we are able to regain some spare time in our lives, it is important for us to “study and learn.”  When I say study, I don’t mean it like studying for a test. In order to enjoy life, you must study and learn how to enjoy yourself. At first, coffee just tastes bitter and nobody really enjoys drinking it, but as you learn to enjoy the flavors, it becomes enjoyable. The same goes for food. If you eat junk food all the time, you cannot enjoy the subtle flavors of eating sashimi. If you cannot read, you cannot enjoy literature and music, and sports are more enjoyable as you develop your skills. So in a broad sense, my conclusion is that “it is important to study and learn.” In order to do this, get off the internet and create some spare time. 

Ultimately, I think that good political policies are vital. For example, the economy will not rest on its own, so laws must be implemented to assign holidays and time off. Social security must be improved so people don’t always have to be worried about their well-being and future. The working style reforms are spinning out of control in Japan. There is no doubt that having spare time is essential to maintaining your mental well being, so I hope policy makers will aim to achieve that for our society. 

(Part 2 Fin)

Translation: Sophia Swanson

Part 1 of 2 》Solitude as an Essential for Human Thought: the Possibilities of ‘Shikohin.’ Interview with Philosopher Koichiro Kokubun