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 our fourth installment of this series, we talked to anthropologist Shinichi Nakazawa. From his book “Mozart in Tibet” (published in 1983) to his most recent book, “Lemma Gaku,”  Nakazawa has explored the realms of the human mind through his research of knowledge of both Eastern and Western worlds. He aims to dismantle and reorganize human sciences through the study of the Oriental intelligence known as “Lemma.” 

In Part 1 of this article, we discussed how “shikohin” tends to “stick out” from the cultural system, how “excessiveness” existed as a “necessity” since the beginning of mankind, and how the game of “culture” evokes the desire for transcendence. 

For Part 2, we will discuss the current state of “puritanism” in the United States, its rejection of “symbolism,” and the consequent danger of human extinction that we face today. Lastly, we discuss the need to “lie low” as counter-reformation to the current state of affairs. 

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

Part 1 of 2 》Shikohin, a Human Necessity. Interview with Anthropologist Shinichi Nakawaza

Puritan influence from the US is ostracizing symbolism

── The use of “shikohin” such as tobacco products are largely discouraged today mostly due to health reasons. Does this mean that in exchange for our health, we are losing something that is “necessary” for mankind?

I think so. Food is something we consume to maintain our health, so “shikohin,” which sticks out from that category, is naturally going to be something that is in conflict with our health. In the first half of this interview, I referred to the message in “From Honey to Ashes” by French social anthropologist Lévi-Strauss to explain how honey and tobacco are examples of food that stick out of the cultural systems made by humans. These are also similar in the sense that they have the potential of being poisonous. 

Consuming too much honey can be poisonous. There are some religious ceremonies where people drink tobacco that has been dissolved in water in order to vomit and pass out. 

In traditional medicine, vomiting was thought to bring out the bad things in your body, so tobacco was considered a medicine. However, when taken in excess, it acts like a poison and can cause fainting. As French philosopher Jacques Derrida described using the term “pharmakon,” things that can be medicine and can also be poison.

However, I think it is unhealthy to only look at the toxic side of something and ignore the psychological and physiological benefits they have. Our current society ignores the role “shikohin” has played in human history and is turning it into a simple “bad guy.” 

── I feel that behind the condemnation of “shikohin” is the influence of American ideas of health consciousness. It feels that there is immense pressure to stop doing anything that may be harmful to our bodies. Even coffee consumption is sometimes criticized and TV shows no longer show any smoking on screen. 

I think the root of it comes from the puritan ways of thinking in American religion and how it is becoming more radical. More products are becoming caffeine free and you never see people smoking in movies like you used to. 

Behind the puritan way of thinking, which is at the basis of American religion, I think there is a movement to try to prohibit the richness of “symbolism” and “language.” The human language has always put together two different things to give multi-layered meanings and create a third definition. That is what makes languages so fascinating. 

In Native American culture, tobacco symbolized a connection with spirits because of its smoke and stimulating effects. In Europe, exotic things became connected with dandyism. Tobacco, which essentially is a simple medicinal herb, has been given many different meanings because of the use of different languages. This is also true for the fundamental reasons why poetry exists. 

In other words, language has the potential to constantly change in meaning. This means that language itself has a tendency to move “outside” the linguistic constraints of everyday life. This is in itself an attractive aspect of language, but it also has the danger of being a pharmakon that can destroy the world which we are comfortable in. This is why languages cannot express the world in a logical way, without contradictions. 

The fundamental skills that allowed humans to evolve into homosapiens lie in language. Although creative human activities such as arts and religion may seem meaningless at first glance, the root of these abilities comes from the homosapien’s ability to use symbolic language. 

However, as the world becomes Americanized and puritan culture becomes more dominant, these “symbolic” things are becoming more and more rejected by society. The movement to take the double meaning of “shikohin” and turn it into something bad, such as the idea that “tobacco = harmful to the health,” and how they are trying to embed this meaning “inside” the human mind is connected to the movement that is trying to prohibit the symbolic richness of language to  express the “outside” realm of the human mind. 

The development of “hyper technology” is also at play. French philosopher Bernard Stigler wrote a book called “Symbolic Misery: The Hyper Industrial Epoch” in which he argued that if we follow the logic of industrial hyper technology, the symbolic world will be driven into a state of misery.

“Shikohin” such as tobacco is a prime example of a “symbolic” item that is becoming overwhelmingly unfavored in our modern world. 

Unchecked Logos Intellect will be the end humanity

── What will happen to our society if we continue to eliminate such “symbolic” things?

The end of symbolic things is tied to the end of mankind. The way a human thinks is a mix of computer-like, industrial thinking and non-industrial thinking. Until now we have managed to maintain a balance. As homosapiens, our minds will always have symbolic ways of thinking. If we continue to lose symbolic ways of thinking, it would be the equivalent of erasing our own existence. 

── One time I interviewed tech entrepreneurs in Shenzhen, China and in Silicon Valley, USA, and I remember how that experience instilled a feeling of fear in me. Shenzhen is the world’s largest tech city with a population of 14 million people and is undergoing economic development on a massive scale. Even though it is well known that private information is surveilled by the Chinese government, the entrepreneurs showed now concern about that and most of the young people in China support the Chinese Communist Party. Their reason is that they have found huge economic success under this highly surveilled society. 

Silicon Valley also continues to grow economically and everyone really seems to believe that technological singularity will become a reality. In fact, there are trillions of yen worth of investments going into that field. They told me, “Technological singularity is definitely coming, and AI will only get smarter. What’s the problem with that?” I was unable to give a valid counter argument, but I felt fear.

I think all you can do is keep on saying “technological singularity will not come (laughs).” I do believe that computers will exceed human computing power, but computing power alone will not be able to maintain the balance that is necessary for humans on this earth. If technological singularity really becomes a reality, the demise of mankind will only accelerate. 

The reason why I advocate “Lemma Gaku,” which is different from the western Logos Intellect, is to make the symbolic things visible so we can prevent such an end for mankind. However, this is not an easy task. First of all, today’s hyper industrial society is based on Western metaphysics, which is a Logos Intellect way of thinking. 

On another note, there are structural factors in the central nervous system of the human brain that cause the Logos Intellect way of thinking to occur. If you look at the brain system, pulses come through the neural tissue, passing through neurons and synapses. Because of this, there is always a “front” part and “back” part of the electrical signal. 

This is also true for monkeys, which have a similar brain system. We have the awareness of time because of this difference created by the “front” part and “back” part of the brain’s neural system. Although this brain system is shared with monkeys, humans have another brain function, and that is the ability to think symbolically. The delicate balance created between the struggles of Logos Intellect and other forms of intellects is what creates the essence of the human mind. 

If the world continues down the path of Logos Intellect, we will create a world of ultimate surveillance where all symbolic things will be detected and removed. I study “Lemma Gaku” to find a way of thinning that is not based on Logos intellect in order to prevent such a world. 

── What should we say when people ask “From an economic point of view, will that be profitable?” or “Can we really compete with an AI driven society?” 

There will be no way to win from an economic standpoint. Today’s capitalism is combined with hyper-industrial principals and has been developing with frightening power.

However, Europe is leading the debate of prioritizing environmental issues, and this may provide an opportunity for a breakthrough to change. The environmental challenges we face are no longer just leftist logic. We have entered a more critical stage. Even those who have blind faith in technological singularity are investing their personal funds into resolving environmental issues. Ultimately, this will probably prevent Logos Intellect from spiraling out of control. This is why I have viewed the activism of people like Greta Thunberg very positively. 

Even the coronavirus pandemic will probably act as another trigger. Until now, the study of economics has excluded elements such as contagious diseases that come from nature, as “external elements.” Now, these elements have become an internal economic issue and have brought the world economy to a halt. I hope this provides an opportunity for people to see how crazy the “development” based on economic studies has been. 

The need to “lie low” as counter-reformation to the current state of affairs

── I feel that the increasing rejection of symbolic things among puritan and industrial society is also consistent with the growing dislike of ambiguity, which is common in people like Trump and his supporters. 

I think symbolic things are too cumbersome for them. I think they want someone to provide a simple answer. I think the only way to resist such trends is to act in a counter-reformation way. One must focus on what one can do and just do it. To some extent we need to have some indifference to the rest of the world. As long as we do not possess ambitions for growth, we can go on surviving on this planet. 

One example is the American singer-songwriter Billie Eilish. Her songs are very symbolic. Even as the world goes by at a super fast pace, she is unfazed and laying low in her own world. When you lie low, there are a lot of things that you can see and discover. 

I am hoping that more such people will emerge. In a world that is moving like an automated machine, it is important to lie low and put a stop to it, even in small steps at first. The strikes and protests that were held by the 19th century workers were pioneers to this movement, but in today’s age, we need a different approach. What I am exploring In “Lemma Gaku” is the same thing. I am driving a wedge in a society that is rapidly and violently flowing by. 

── Bringing the discussion back to “shikohin,” I personally love coffee and when I ask baristas and roasters why they started working with coffee, I get a lot of self-referential replies. They say that they have a strong sense of “existing in the moment,” especially when they are brewing or drinking espresso. In a sense, is this also a way to drive a wedge into our everyday life and lie low?

The same can be said about the tea ceremony. It is a technique that allows you to lie low and not get consumed by society. However, as we discussed earlier, the trend to reject tobacco and alcohol will probably continue in the future, mostly due to health reasons. How will we replace such items that have allowed us to expand our consciousness and stick out from society? If we are not careful, people may turn to other stimulant drugs, but there is a common rule that prohibits their use, so we must think of other means. 

Tobacco and alcohol come from natural sources and have special characteristics that make them different from food. What can replace such things? Virtual reality goggles, or more specifically, connecting to the neural tissue of the brain to expand consciousness, could be a way to do this, and I think it is very close to what we have tried to achieve with cigarettes and alcohol. However, simply manipulating the brain without any input from the natural world seems lacking. 

Unnatural products such as electronic cigarettes are just pseudo-experiences and I think it is close to things like LSD. This is why we need to look to the natural world to find other methods of laying low. We need to create new ethics and position them within the modern view of society. 

── Perhaps the 21 century will require us to consider more ethics in our “shikohin.” We are at a stage where consuming limited resources simply for our own pleasure is not excusable anymore. 

When we interviewed primatologist Juichi Yamagiwa, he mentioned that “arousal” is the essence of “shikohin.” However, if you look at the ethical nature of “shikohin,” perhaps we should not take it too far. 

Even when I was immersed in esoteric Buddhism in Tibet, I was told that I cannot use hallucinogenic plants when meditating. If you use drugs to explore the “outside” world, your whole consciousness gets pulled out. Rather, you need to have self control and explore the “outside” realm in a natural state. That’s what I learned as the essence of meditation from the people who lead Asian intellect. 

Humans have language and intellect, or “segregation” in Buddhist terms. This slows down the natural activity of the mind and sometimes obscures things as if they are wrapped in a cloud. If you remove that cloud, you see that the nature of the human mind itself is something that transcends humans. This is why it is important that “shikohin” come from natural sources. 


Translation: Sophia Swanson

Part 1 of 2 》Shikohin, a Human Necessity. Interview with Anthropologist Shinichi Nakawaza

  • 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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