Less “Work,” More “Free Time.” Interview with Semiotician Hidetaka Ishida

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 third installment of this series, we visited a semiotician and media theory researcher, Hidetaka Ishida. Semiotics has been studied since the 19th century and Ishida is working to update the field by incorporating the latest research on brain science.

He looks at advertising in the 20th century from the perspective of media technology and capitalism and studies how AI and digital technology will impact the 21st century. 

In the first half of the article, we talk about “shikohin” from the perspective of semantics, and discuss how it plays a role in bringing back “otium” (a Latin abstract word for leisure) which has been lost in our modern world. We will also look at the influence of “shikohin” on capitalism and biopolitics.

Interview&Editing: Masanobu Sugatsuke Co-Editor: Masayuki Koike & Takumi Matsui Photos: Mayuko Sato

Dissecting the semantics of “shikohin”

── In your book “Knowledge of symbols / Knowledge of Media,” you mention that human beings are “animals that seek meaning” and all aspects of their lives can be considered as “questions of meanings.” I found these words fascinating and I hope to look at “shikohin” from the perspective of this “questions of meanings.” 

First, let me ask you about the word “shikohin” itself. This word is unique to the Japanese language and is considered a word that doesn’t translate accurately into other languages. The term was first used by Ogai Mori in his short novel “Fujidana” and written as follows:

“There are plenty of necessary shikohin in our lives that have the potential of becoming poison.” 

(The Complete Works of Ogai, Vol. 10, Iwanami Shoten, August 22, 1972)

If you look at a common English translation of the word as “luxury goods,” one imagines things such as fancy clothes or jewelry. Another common translation is “articles of taste,” and this has an even stronger implication of something extraordinarily luxurious. However, these do not quite match what I interpret the word “shikohin” to mean.  

First, let’s consider the semantics of the word “shikohin.” If you look up the term’s first printed appearance in the digital collection of the National Diet Library in Japan, it can be found in a manuscript printed in 1900 titled “A vocabulary of chemical terms.” It lists the translation of “shikohin” in English as “stimulant” and “Genußmittel” in German (a combination of the word “Genuß,” meaning“taste” or “enjoyment,” and “Mittel,” meaning “procedure”). However, this manuscript only shows the translation of the Japanese word in English and German, and it does not provide any explanation to what the word “shikohin” means.

I have also read “Fujidana” by Mori, and it seems to me that he uses the word in a similar way to the German word “Genussmittel.” What is even more interesting is that when you look up the equivalent term for “shikohin” in multiple languages on Wikipedia, you will only find the German word “Genussmittel” and there is no Wikipedia page for a term like it in English or French. Furthermore, the German Wikipedia page for “Genussmittel” says that this term is unlike other languages and contains cultural nuances. In contrast, the French translation “stimulant” has a stronger medical nuance. 

Therefore, it is safe to say that the German word “Genussmittel” is used similarly to the Japanese word “shikohin,” which also contains cultural nuances. Although strictly speaking, this manuscript is probably not the first appearance of the word, it makes sense to agree with the theory that Mori came up with the word after his experience of studying abroad in Germany for four years. 

── So the cultural nuances behind the word “shikohin” may be rooted in the German word  “Genussmittel”? Even if that is the case, why do you think this word is so hard to translate into other languages?

I think it is because the word is tied to human “taste (preference).” In other words, it is a question of how people from different social statuses judge certain things in life in terms of taste. It is a question that comes up in French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s “A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste”. Tastes are established through the historical accumulation of various cultural conditions. “Shikohin” is a word that successfully encompasses these complex entanglements. Therefore, when one tries to rephrase it using a slightly different word, the meaning tends to fall apart. It is a word that cannot be replaced by another single word and is built upon complex semantics. 

Another example is when Ogai says that “shikohin can be both poison and a medicine,” the Greek word “pharmakon” comes to mind. “Pharmakon” is the origin for the English word “pharmacy,” and in Greek it means that medicine is also a poison and drug. The meaning of “shikohin” also includes an aspect similar to “pharmakon,” but that does not mean they share the equivalent meaning. There are many other things besides “shikohin” that can be defined as being both poison and medicine. Also, as I mentioned earlier, “shikohin” is a historically formed concept, while “pharmakon” is a  diachronic concept.

Restoring “otium” to the modern world 

── You mentioned that the meaning of the word “shikohin” falls apart when described using another word. I think that this question of semantics is essential. For example, the fashion industry is lately debating whether we should stop using the word “luxury” because of the coronavirus pandemic. However, if you consider the perspective of semantics that you just shared with us, I feel that this argument is just dismantling the real issue and ignoring the historical and complex meaning behind the word.

Recognizing this aporia (i.e. conundrum), how do you think we should approach the reevaluation of the meaning behind “shikohin”?

First, in order to examine the nature of “shikohin” in the modern world, we must consider four questions. 

The first is the question of anthropology. It looks at “shikohin” as something beyond “food” and considers areas such as the relationship between drugs and plants, and even the relationship between the universe and human beings. If you look at it from the perspective of semiotics, which is the field I specialize in, you can argue where “shikohin” stands in the culinary triangle* introduced by French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.

*The culinary triangle is a model used to study the structures of culture through “raw,” “cooked,” and “rotten” foods. It was introduced in the “L’origine des manières de table” (The Origin of Table Manners).


The second is the question of early modern commercial capitalism. When the era of commercial capitalism started, tea, coffee, and tobacco were imported from the New World and Asia and then distributed into the Western market. As a result, the category for “shikohin” was formed. In other words, we can understand “shikohin” as a product that was created by commercial capitalism. Tobacco and chili peppers spread quickly around the world, and “shikohin” suited the logic of commercial capitalism and its ability to spark imagination by bringing exotic things from far away lands. 

The third is the question of the public sphere. I believe “shikohin” also includes factors of democracy and the enlightenment of the public sphere. It is well known that coffee shops helped accelerate the spread of democracy. Ogai Mori is also one of the people who established the public sphere of modern literature in Japan. In other words, he may have invented the word “shikohin” to establish a “republic of literature,” or what we would now call the media sphere. 

The fourth is the question of consumer capitalism. The spread of 20th century consumer capitalism cannot be described without mentioning Coca-Cola, a “shikohin” created from an exquisite combination of ingredients. Edward Bernays, who is said to be the founder of “public relations and marketing,” which is a basic pillar of consumer capitalism, was involved in the British American Tobacco’s campaign to popularize smoking among women. Although it was taboo at the time for women to smoke, it was normalized very quickly. Coca-Cola and British American Tobacco: the two “shikohin” items played an important role in how consumer capitalism was spread through the media. 

──From anthropology to commercial capitalism, and then to the public sphere and consumer capitalism. So after considering these four questions, we arrive at the question: what is “shikohin” in the world today?

That’s right. However, since my area of expertise is in semiotics, which mainly looks at the world after commercial capitalism, let me focus the discussion this time on the post modern period. 

The first question that comes to mind is whether it is accurate to understand “shikohin” as “foods” and “medicines.” I think the answer is no. I think it is necessary to look at “shikohin” as a product related to “time.” 

Cigarettes, coffee, and tea are something we do to take a “break” from work. In the ancient Roman language, there were two terms, “otium” and “negotium.” Otium is often translated as “free time” and “leisure,” and it essentially means “time to be free.” The opposite concept is described with the word “negotium.” “Neg” is the negative prefix in this case, and “negotium” means to negate the “otium.” When you negate “otium,” or “free time,” you get the word “negotiation,” which is essentially time for business. 

For the free-spirited people of Rome, the default time was “otium” (free time) and “negotium” (business) was something they “had to do,” and was considered negative. Unfortunately, we live in a world today where business is the default for how we spend time, but it used to be the other way around. 

For the people who live in the modern world where “negotium” is the default, I think we consume “shikohin” in order to bring back some of the lost “otium” way of spending time. As the world becomes more and more modernized, more and more of our time is taken up by “negotium.” Enjoying “shikohin” has been one of the few ways we spend time rediscovering “otium.” In other words, enjoying “shikohin” is one condition necessary to find freedom. I think this connects to French philosopher Michel Foucault’s “technologies of the self.”

For our modern world, time spent consuming “shikohin” has become characterized as a rare moment in which we rediscover “otium.” By studying how this came to be historically, I think people today can reevaluate what it means to be free. 

Walking the line between consumer capitalism and biopolitics

── The point you made about how all of our time is becoming “negotium” rings true in our world today. I once interviewed a group of tech entrepreneurs in Shenzhen and was surprised to find that most of them supported the Chinese Communist Party. They said that they have no problem because their government has brought wealth and prosperity to their lives. As long as business is good, nobody seemed to question the fact that they lived under a government that ignores human rights. 

As everything becomes centered around business we become embedded in a world of computational “negotium.” We are even becoming addicted to that lifestyle. People are unable to find pleasure outside of growing their business and achieving “success.” It is similar to Freud’s idea of the “death drive.” If we keep on in this way, with our desires dependent on heteronomy, perhaps our sense of self (ego) will fall apart. I believe this is a very serious problem.

── Why do you think that we have reached such a state of “negotium” dominance?

I believe there are various factors, but I think the 20th century was a very paradoxical time and it is important to look at what changes took place during this time. At first glance, it may seem like Coca-Cola and British American Tobacco have created a “otium-like” leisurely time. However, in fact it is consumer capitalism that has occupied our time. 

Around 1900, when industrial capitalism was waning, there was a revolution in analogue media where technologies such as photography, film, telephone, records, and radio began encompassing daily life. These media technologies eventually led to “cultural industries” such as film, radio, television broadcasting, and advertising, which influenced people’s consciousness. As a result, symbolic consumption became widespread and it was the start of 20th century consumer capitalism. 

The leisurely time created by consumer capitalism is in fact “negotium” and is fictional in nature.  In other words, “otium” started being consumed by capitalistic logic. When we ask questions such as “Did ‘shikohin,’ a product that has always been about freedom really make people free?” or “Did drinking Coca-Cola make people free?” I find that I cannot completely agree and say yes. 

Another symbol that is often connected with consumer capitalism is Santa Claus. Santa Claus is one of the most media-driven icons of the 20th century and it was globalized when Coca-Cola began using it in their commercials. I think the fact that the greatest media icon of the 20th century was created by a 20th century “shikohin” product shows the true nature of consumer capitalism.

── So at first glance it seemed like we had regained “otium” in the 20th century, but in fact we are dominated by “negotium” created by consumer capitalism.

The 20th century also saw the emergence of health issues and what Foucault called “biopolitics” (politics in which the state controls the lives of its citizens by not only imposing laws of surveillance and punishment, but also by managing all aspects of their lives, including hygiene, security, health, and welfare). It was the 20th century that connected the “shikohin” that was being developed by consumer capitalism and biopolitical governance.

There are two major forms of biopolitical governance. One is where government authority controls society and the other is where the individual self governs as a result of a neoliberalized society. Cigarettes are a good example. It has been heavily taxed by the government as a way to control the health of its citizens, while individuals have been discouraged from consuming it in order to self-manage their health. In other words, we have become caught in between two biopolitical powers. This is the reason why the tobacco industry is shrinking. 

As consumer capitalism met biopolitics, it is gradually habituating us to see “shikohin” as “poison.” The recent movement to ease the ban on marijuana in Europe and the United States is a good example. It is thought that marijuana is less “toxic” so it will have a better impact on society. Each generation has a different criteria for “shikohin” so it is possible that marijuana will replace the role of tobacco products in our society in the next few decades. 

※The second half of the article is going to be published on January 28th.

Translation: Sophia Swanson