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. In Part 1 we looked at “shikohin” from the perspective of semantics, and discussed how it plays a role in bringing back “otium” (a Latin abstract word for leisure), which we have lost in our modern world. We also looked at the influence of “shikohin” on capitalism and biopolitics. In Part 2 we discuss the possibilities of “shikohin” derived from traditional Japanese arts such as the tea ceremony and Noh. We also look at the connection between Steve Jobs and Kitaro Nishida and how the coronavirus pandemic has created a need for the consumer capitalism model to change. 

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

The ambiguity of “technologies of the self”

── In Part 1 we talked about the process of how “otium” (free time) was lost in the 20th century. However, if all we do is run to “shikohin” for escape, we are in danger of being shrouded in the “negotium” of consumer capitalism. As someone who lives in the 20th century, how do you think we can learn the “technologies of the self” in order to bring back “otium”?

An important point is that, because artificial intelligence will rapidly advance and spread in the 21st century, the importance of “technologies of the self” will only become greater. In order to not be overtaken by artificial intelligence, each individual must discover and maintain their creativity and secure free time to maintain their own level of consciousness. If your mind processes everything under the symbolic space of the Internet, you cannot maintain your sense of self. It is necessary to actively create a different dimension from the Internet. 

However, “technologies of the self” do not necessarily mean liberation. Kevin Kelly, the founding executive director of the technology magazine Wired, proposed the concept of the “Quantified Self” in the 2000s, arguing that individuals could become more autonomous by measuring and managing their own physical data. Now, that “Quantified Self” has become a normal part of everyday life. Anyone can manage their health by using devices such as the Apple Watch to self-manage their health and exercise records. These “California-type” technologies work well with biopolitics. In other words, although it seems as if individuals are acting autonomously, it is connected to neoliberal governance which can lead to hyper-control or high surveillance societies. Even for those in control, having people self-manage is the most efficient way to govern. 

This is also connected to the concept of “human capital” by Gary Becker, an economist of the Chicago School. A company’s capital is created by the capital of each employee. The idea is that if each employee improves his or her education and skills, this raises human capital and ultimately leads to the increase in the company’s capital. In other words, employees need to spend time and energy to invest in improving themselves, not as workers, but as investors in their own capital and labor power. The reason why self-help seminars are so popular is because this is the dominant way of thinking today.

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu made a similar argument with the idea of “cultural capital.” He even considered education and cultural background as “capital,” and pointed out that the quality of such capital differs depending on social class. His theory originally came from his opposition to neoliberalism and the idea that an education system would correct the biased “cultural capital” which depended largely on the family environment. However, in the sense that it “puts value in things that cannot be seen,” it is based on a similar explanatory principle.

In other words, there is plenty of risk that the practice of “otium” (free time) will in fact be consumed by “negotium-like” (business-like) contexts. This is why “technologies of the self” do not necessarily mean liberation and we need to be careful about that ambiguity. 

── Exactly what are the “technologies of the self” in our modern world?

I think this is where “shikohin” plays an important role. The time we spend smoking, drinking coffee, or enjoying tea creates a subjectively longer experience of time than physical time. People who have experienced Zen often say they felt  “time slowed down,” and I believe that “otium” is a similar state in which the senses of time and body are sharpened in the same way.

Personally, I like stone gardens and I think they are also an example of “technologies of the self.” When you sit facing a stone garden, the sounds you hear such as the rustle of leaves and the voices of birds, gradually expand. It turns “negotium” (business-like) time into “tabula rasa” (nothingness) and changes the pace of time and senses. It is in time like these that we become more aware of various things and come up with new ideas. I think that “technologies of the self” is a technique of capturing and reviving the expanse of one’s own psyche, and “shikohin” is a medium for doing so. 

“Japanese snobbism” as “technologies of the self”

── The concept of “wabi-sabi” and the traditions of the Muromachi period (1336-1573) hold hints to “technologies of the self.”

Russian philosopher Alexandre Kojève has a famous text about “Japanese snobbery.” The text itself is controversial, but he points out traditions such as flower arrangement, tea ceremonies, and Noh as “Japanese snobbery,” and I think these are examples of “technologies of the self.” These traditions were invented around the time when Hideyoshi Toyotomi ended the civil war in Japan and unified the country. It was a time when the Japanese feudal lords killed many people and were constantly under the stress of facing death themselves. It may be that the traditions of “Japanese snobbery” such as flower arrangement and tea ceremonies were made to cope with those stresses. 

The core purpose of the “technologies of the self” is to regain stability of your mind.  For example, tea has a similar effect as psychoanalysis. Just like how a patient lies down on a couch to speak to their therapist, in tea ceremonies, one enters a small room and remains silent for a while. While one drinks the bitter tea, which has no nutritional value or sweetness, they reflect inwardly. In a sense, it is therapeutic because it releases the mind from the extremes of stress. The same can be said of Noh. There are many Noh plays in which the storyline is about a person who was killed who comes back to life and gets revenge. In other words, it releases past traumatic memories or current anxieties by changing the flow of time, so it is also therapeutic. Although Kojève doesn’t mention stone gardens, I think stone gardens are shaped like the Rorschach test (a personality test in which the subject is shown an ink blot and asked to describe what he or she sees and their answers are analyzed to understand the subject’s thought process and or disorder).  It’s a semiotic device to free the mind from imprinted memories and let the mind relax into free flows of thought. 

── Personally, I like coffee and I have a lot of friends in and out of Japan who work as baristas or coffee bean roasters. The interesting thing is that very few of them started out in the coffee business. Many of them were involved in some other business, and made a sudden change in their profession. When I ask them why they decided to work in the coffee business, their responses are similar to what you just pointed out. They said that when they are brewing or drinking coffee, they feel “like themselves” or they “feel alive in the moment.” Perhaps this is another example of “technologies of the self.” 

I think so. In the 21st century, I believe that “technologies of the self” will become more and more like Zen. Recently, I have been thinking about analyzing Steve Jobs through hints in Kitaro Nishida’s philosophies. It is well known that Steve Jobs regularly practiced Zen. I think that Nishida’s concept of “pure experience” is basically a philosophy based on Zen. Also, while Nishida’s ontology is the ontology of nothingness, the computer that Jobs created is based on Leibniz’s ontology of existence. In other words, I think that Jobs’s innovative interface design was created through the combination of the existence of computer ontology and the Zen ontology of nothingness. 

Why few are environmentally conscious in Japan

── So there’s a connection between Steve Jobs and Nishida’s philosophy. That’s very interesting! One problem with “shikohin” is that they can be addictive. We need to find a way to regain “otium” while avoiding addiction. I think your concept of “ecology of meaning” which you have been advocating for some time, will be helpful. 

Like I have been talking about thus far, the “ecology of meaning” is the idea that if we follow the logic of capitalism and are pushed to consume based on desires that are dependent on heteronomy, we cannot be creative. It is important to have time for ourselves in order to maintain autonomy. 

I began talking about this idea 15 years ago, and now in 2020, the “ecology of meaning” is now just an issue of “ecology.” This is because of the development of devices that connect to human mental activity and update consumer capitalism in real time. Time is so much more incorporated into subjective systems that we are becoming less capable of having our own desires. As a result, more people are on antidepressants and those who suffer from mental illnesses are increasing rapidly. 

This is the same with environmental issues. The realms of “environment” and “meaning,” which were separated from capitalism in the past, are rapidly becoming part of the global capitalist system. As people shift to digital work, the ecology of the mind will become a matter of life and death for people, just like the ecology of the natural environment.

Traditional economics did not take global warming or extreme weather from climate change into account in the past, but now the measurement of environmental impact has the same economic incentives as SDGs. 

In the same way, in order to make digital capitalism sustainable, we need to think how humans can continue creating worth and what defines the ecology of the mind. This is directly related to the discussion of the Anthropocene.

── This also points to the issue of digital addiction. The Japanese media does not talk about it much, but in Europe and the United States there is a lot of discussion on the issue, especially surrounding addiction among children. 

I think that the Japanese people are not very aware of environmental issues, including that of the Anthropocene. These issues are not discussed at all in political circles and the awareness in the corporate sector is also low. Environmental issues have become a major political issue around the world, even to the point where company stock prices do not go up unless they incorporate proper SDGs. 

I think the reason behind this is that it was the Europeans who created the root of the environmental problem we face today. For example, the issue of the Anthropocene can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution. To the Japanese, who were reluctant to join industrial capitalism in the 19th century, it is hard to understand the logic of the founders of this concept. The same is true for digital addiction. Japanese people are unable to grasp the logic behind computers, which dates back to Leibniz in the 17th century, so we are unable to gain insight into what is happening now. We are at a fundamental disadvantage.

The urgent need for a new model of capitalism

── The words “unnecessary and unurgent” became popular during the coronavirus pandemic to keep people from going out. Because of that, the “shikohin” and fashion industry, which are fundamentally  “unnecessary and unurgent,” have taken a big hit. On the other hand, we find that humans have a strong tendency to be attracted to luxury. In fact, the more developed a country is, the larger the market it has for luxury goods compared to simple necessities. Why do you think people are drawn to luxury?

In Part 1,  I mentioned that “shikohin” played an important role as commodities in early modern commercial capitalism. This is because “shikohin” was not a familiar concept to Europeans and they did not understand the usefulness of such things. In semiotic terms, this is called a “floating signifier,” or something that is only signified by a signifier but has no signified content. It means something that has no definite meaning.

It is this “floating signifier” that has the mana (power) to create desire and new meaning. There would be no desire, no hope, and no triggers to come up with new things without it. We would only have fixed things and nothing interesting will come from it. When “unnecessary and unurgent” things are taken from us and our lives become a world of routine, we become trapped in our current world. The reason why the pandemic has caused so many family problems is because when we are trapped, we are stressed. That is why, even if it is not something “luxurious,” we still need to have things in our life that are “unnecessary” or “make no sense.”   

The word “exotic” is derived from “exo” or “outside” which means the “outside world.” Mysterious things that did not originate here, the “ex-” of our lives is what opens our communities up to the outside world. When we lose things that create disparities, capitalism will no longer function. If we lose things that are unknown, our world will become very closed and sad. 

── However, as environmental issues become more serious, the argument for surplus becomes weak. Especially in crisis situations such as the coronavirus pandemic, the discourse for “now is not the time for luxury” becomes stronger. 

I agree that it is fine that the “surplus” of the industrial capitalist scheme disappears. For example, you don’t have to buy another car if you already have two. In fact, the 20th century style of consumer capitalism is already beginning to collapse. Young people do not hold the belief that “consumption is good” anymore. 

On the other hand, I’m not saying that capitalism itself is evil, and I think there can be other styles of consumption. This includes a consumption behavior that includes “self sufficiency.” For a while, “Fab Labs” were popular and “secondary creation” became a popular style of subculture consumption. I think this kind of participation-based, bottom-up consumption behavior deserves to be re-explored. While restaurants were hit hard by the pandemic, the demand and literacy for cooking at home improved. I think it’s also possible to have a decentralized infrastructure system for electricity. I think society should move toward a more environmentally friendly model of capitalism that is based on consumption that incorporates “self sufficiency.” For example, people used to make their own clothes in the past as well.

── That’s true. Before World War 2, 90 percent of Japanese people made their own clothes. 

So it is certainly possible that under the right circumstances, hand making clothes will become the norm again. Or clothes may be sold in kits that are designed to be customized. If the coronavirus becomes the trigger for such change, that would be something positive.

The same can be said about how we work. Finland is working toward a 3 day workweek and Microsoft is working on a similar initiative. The IT industry is a sector that needs the creativity that comes from “otium” so it is necessary for everyone to design their own way of working, take breaks and create “otium.” 

── So you mean to say that, just as Fab Lab is regaining popularity because of the coronavirus pandemic, we should reconsider changing our consumption behavior to something more “hands-on?”

If you look at it from an even larger perspective, ever since humans began walking upright on two legs, our hands and brains have been heavily linked. However, during the age of industrial capitalism, work and using our hands became disconnected. Fordism (a mass production method used by Henry Ford in his factories in the U.S.) and Taylorism (a scientific labor management method advocated by American management scholar Frederick Taylor) merged to create a more efficient production and labor system where workers repeat their assigned tasks on a conveyor belt. As a result, mechanics who used to work on the whole process of manufacturing were only assigned one part of the process and workers lost the know-how of building cars or houses on their own. Of course, production costs went down because of these systems, but at the same time, the know-how that was in the hands of the workers was lost. 

There is also the issue with the media. As analog media spread, people stopped drawing or writing letters by hand and media machines took the place of writing and creating images. Again, people lost their ability to work with their hands. There have been several moments in the past where it seemed like people would get back their “hands,” and the most recent was the beginning of the digital age. There was hope that computers would become our new hands to create photos, movies, and TV, and people would regain their metalanguage. However, that hope was quickly drowned out by the emergence of algorithms, which are created without the hands of humans. This has led to the current situation of the domination of GAFA and the growth of artificial intelligence. 

Of course, we will never go back to pre-modern times. Nevertheless, it is my belief that we should make better use of technology and regain a little more control of our “hands.” I think it is a suitable suggestion for an age where industrial capitalism of mass produced homogenized products is ending and the demand for customized products that match individual needs are emerging. By working with your hands to create something, even if only partially, you can create something that suits you better. Since you have to think more deeply about the object, you also cultivate your imagination.

When Steve Jobs first started his company, they were building computers by hand. Now, it is rare to find people who even ask the bigger question of “what is a computer?” But with the rise in popularity of hand-made computers such as Raspberry Pi, and more children learning to write code, the use of our hands is making a come-back. I believe that bringing back the use of our own hands is what we need to bring back the conditions of being a human being. 


Translation: Sophia Swanson

  • Author:
    Editor / President of Gutenberg Orchestra Co. Ltd. Born in 1964 and works as an editor and consultant. Editor-in-chief of the English culture magazine ESP Cultural Magazine. Works include "Hajimete no Henshu" (Editing for beginners) and "Butsuyoku naki Sekai" (A world free of material desire). President of the art book publishing company, United Vagabonds. Writes a regular series for Commercial Photo. Chairman of "Henshu Suparuta Jyuku" (Cram school for editors) and "Tokyo Geijyutsu Chugaku" (Tokyo Art School for Teens). Winner of the NYADC Silver Prize and the D&AD Award.
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