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 seventh installment of this series, we visited philosopher Hiroki Azuma. Since his first book “Ontological and Postal” was released in 1998, he has been one of the most influential literary critics in Japan for the last 20 years. He explores a wide range of themes from information technology, subculture, to politics, and has developed his own philosophy based on the idea of “misdelivery.” He founded his company Genron Co., Ltd in 2010 and has put his philosophical concepts into his work as a business owner. In part one of our conversation, we will discuss the existential meaning of shikohin through looking into the value of “non-essential” things in our lives, and how “mistakes” are a necessary part of human life. 

(This interview was conducted on September 25, 2020)

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

Society is not solely comprised of the essentials

── During the coronavirus pandemic, our society has started restricting things that are not considered “essential.” Shikohin is an epitome of something that would perhaps be considered “nonessential.” 

To use a popular term from about 20 years ago, the mindset of our world today is leaning towards the “philosophy of honest poverty.” This is probably influenced in part by the fact that humanity has some remorse towards getting too carried away after the Cold War. In my opinion, this trend is not a good one. The reason for this is because it is in fact the non-essential things that sustain our society. Society cannot be sustained with essentials alone. 

For example, tourism is “non-essential,” but it actually plays a big role in maintaining world peace. Tourism is the movement of masses of people that cannot be controlled by the government. In other words, it is a grassroots-led civilian exchange. If a government tries to launch negative propaganda toward a particular country, the people who have traveled there will know through their own experience that it is not a “bad” country. These people provide a cushion to prevent extreme ideas from taking over. If tourism is banned throughout the world, it will become easier for extreme governments to control their people and in the long run, it will have a very negative impact on politics. 

── Do you mean to say that there are things that seem “non-essential” in the short term, but in the long term it is in fact “essential”?

That’s right. Most decisions on whether something is necessary or unnecessary is based on short term needs. However, there are many things that may not seem necessary at that moment, but have a big influence in the long run. Our society today tends to interpret self-restraint as a righteous behavior. For example, we may feel pressure not to do impulsive shopping. However, unless you buy something impulsively, you will find that you won’t buy much at all because most things in life are “non-essential.” This way of thinking makes our overall life more and more impoverished. To use myself as an example, lately I have not bought any new clothes. It’s not a problem since I have plenty of clothes to wear for the time being, of course, but in the long run I will start to look more and more poor. 

I used to specialize in the philosophy of Jacques Derrida and postmodernism in general, and in these philosophies there is a common understanding that we cannot distinguish what is “essential” and what is “non-essential.” In my ten years of running my Genron business, I have experienced first-hand that this is true. For example, one of the factors behind the success of our “Science Fiction Creation Course” that we offer at the Genron School is not only the quality of the “essentials” that we teach, but also in the seemingly “non-essential” enrichment that comes from the community that is formed through the course. This community that is made up by the senior and junior students and the instructors stimulate the students and have a large impact. As the students join a community of aspiring science fiction creators, they are encouraged to create and compete in awards themselves. In about five years, they will begin to actually win some awards. 

If all of these community activities go online, we will lose a lot of the communication that goes on in social meetings such as drinking parties. The community connections will become weaker and the impact of the course itself is also diminished. The same can be said about giving talks on stage. The part that has value is not only the “essential” part of standing on stage, but the “non-essential” interactions that go on before and after the event between the speaker and the participants and the connections created through the interactions in the group. All of these interactions have great value, as it turns out. 


Online spaces accelerate the removal of non-essentials

── Do you mean that the “non-essentials” are in fact a necessary part in maximizing the value of what we consider “essential”?

Yes. Therefore, if we eliminate the “non-essential” things in our lives in order to avoid “non-essential and non-urgent” outings because of the pandemic, I think eventually we will lose creative thought. To use the Genron School as an example, if creative thought declines, so will the customer base for science fiction, and then sales for those businesses. As a business, the only area we are responsible for are the courses we offer. The social events that correspond with them are merely a free addition and something extra. However, when this “non-essential” aspect is limited, it ultimately results in a fall in the value of our product. There is a strange balance in which an area outside of our business responsibility in fact adds value to our business and services. The essential aspects and non-essential aspects are interdependent. 

In my years of running Genron, I learned the importance of organizing momentum and social noise that comes with running a business that involves people. Simply making a good product and working hard is not enough to get people who do not know about your product to buy it. In order to grab the attention of people who know nothing about your product, you need to have the help of “non-essential” things. 

In order to utilize non-essentials, it is absolutely necessary to have offline spaces and interactions. The people who are able to make money with just the “essentials” of being online are people who already have an existing customer base. For example, if I were to suddenly start distributing music online, no one will come to listen to it. Nobody starts off famous and people have always built their connections and careers through performing on the streets and selling tickets to acquaintances. However, these activities that lead to growth cannot be replicated online. 

── As our society moves more and more online, are we losing opportunities and spaces to offer non-essential things?

It is the same reason why no matter how popular Amazon becomes, there will always be a demand for bookstores. I myself only go to bookstores a few times a year because at 50 years old, I have a good understanding of what I am looking for and Amazon is enough for me. However, I do not think the same is true for my 15 year old daughter. She should not be buying all her books on Amazon from the start. The online world is useful when our purpose is clear because it connects us to what we are looking for instantly. However, it is difficult to encounter things that are unfamiliar or unknown to you. On the other hand, going to a bookstore offers a space where you learn that there are many different kinds of books. This is very important. 

The same is true for Netflix. Looking back, I see how important video rental shops were in creating this space. Netflix only shows the current recommendations, but when you go to a video rental shop you see that there are a much larger variety of movies. This experience of seeing and experiencing the wide variety of choices is difficult to achieve online. 

── In the sense of being offline and being a non-essential, shikohin is a perfect example. 

Shikohin makes it easier for us to “let go” or “escape.” People tend to make an effort and talk about things that they think will please the other person. However, when you are drunk you start talking about other things. Of course, this can be for the better or for the worse. 

The fact that it can act as a medicine or a poison is important. The turbulence we create through non-essential things has the potential to damage communication. However, without the unpredictable things in our life, our communication with each other will become redundant and repetitive and I think that will lead to the death of culture and society.

Life is full of mistakes, and that’s what makes it good

── Do you think we should seek “non-essential” things even at the risk of failure?

I believe that “misdelivery” or “mistakes” are at the root of human nature and that these are the things that create diversity. Humans are constantly making mistakes and my own life is full of mistakes. In fact, the most precious things in life, such as love and faith, are supported by these mistakes. If you look for someone to love in the same way you look for what is “right,” you will never find your ideal partner. In order to love someone, you must learn to accept “mistakes.” European philosophers have used the terms “paradox” and “impossible experiences” to describe this. However, there is no need to mystify this concept in such a way. It is simply saying that “love comes from mistakes.” 

Derrida once said, “Justice is an impossible experience.” Essentially, he was saying that justice is the acceptance of being wrong. Justice is something that exists outside the law, so there are many situations where we are forced to decide what is right and wrong outside the basis of law. Because there is no basis, we may later find that we were wrong. If we can accept such a risk in a positive way, the concept of justice itself will disappear. 

To give a personal example, the Genron Cafe was not profitable at all in the beginning and I thought it would end in failure. However, as we ran out of ideas, we started holding live broadcasts of Niconico Live and this became a big hit. In the ten years that I have run the Genron business, I have learned that this is how management decisions are ultimately made. We have to admit and accept our mistakes in a positive way in order to move forward. 

In fact, if I had only sought out what is “right”, I don’t think I would have studied philosophy  and I don’t think I would have had children. In our world today, if you make the logical economical choice, having children is much too costly and much too high of a risk. However, if we continue to avoid all risks in such a way, eventually we will all be stuck at home for fear of illness or accident. What is the point of that? Life is full of mistakes and that is what makes it rich and good. That is how I look at life. 

── You often use the phrase “game-like” and argue that it is the audience that decides the rules of a game so it is necessary to have external aspects in addition to the players in a game. When you say we must accept our mistakes, do you also mean that it is necessary to accept such external aspects of the game?

You are referring to Wittgenstein’s language game theory. I think that the crux of the language game theory is that our identity is not decided on our own, but by those around us. Everybody’s life has an audience, and when the way our audience sees us changes we change as well. Everything is just a loop of feedback. This is why it is pointless to decide what kind of person you are on your own. As the expectations of the world around us continue to change, we change as well. We have no choice but to act as if there is some kind of consistency. This is what it means to accept our mistakes positively. 

── Do you mean that we “pretend” that there is some consistency from the start? 

Yes. To put it crudely, it is a “fabrication.” I can fabricate a narrative that “Genron always wanted to run a cafe” afterwards. By doing so, I can find new possibilities within myself. I think that ideas are only created in this retrospective way. 

Although this is a bit off topic, I think what is lacking in Japan’s liberals is the construction of identity based on “mistakes.” The conservatives in Japan are very tolerant of their mistakes and have built their identity by repairing and patching together their mistakes like a quilt. However, the liberals have a mindset like an architect and want to design a good country and society in an efficient manner so they don’t tolerate mistakes. A simplified example of this would be the idea that “Japan was completely in the wrong before the war, but was re-born into a new Japan after the war.” It is a self-tormenting way of looking at our history. 

However, we know that it is impossible for people and nations to suddenly change into something new. This is why liberals end up losing arguments to the conservatives. I think it is better to build our identity based on the logic that “We have made many mistakes in the past, but there is some consistency that exists in our history and our liberal values are based on them.” 

Coming to terms with our mistakes

── Ever since your first book in 1998, Ontological and Postal,” you have debated various issues in fields ranging from subculture to information technology and politics. Is there some consistency to the concept of “misdelivery” behind these topics and an affirmation for “mistakes” at the basis of your ideas?

Yes, the theoretical background is based on Derrida’s philosophy. Originally, I studied the concept of “proper name” in philosophy. For example, to define the author “Soseki Natsume” logically, we can state that “Soseki Natsume is X” and “X wrote the novel ‘Bo-chan,’” “X was a teacher at Matsuyama” and “X was a man.” It is a methodology of listing what defines “X” and interpreting “X” as “Soseki Natsume.”

However, this methodology has a big weakness. In everyday conversations we can make an argument that “Soseki Natsume did not write Bo-chan.” However, in the definition we created using the above logic, the statement that “X wrote ‘Bo-chan’” and “X did not write ‘Bo-chan’” cannot co-exist. In other words, the statement “X = Soseki Natsume” will no longer hold any real meaning. Still, in our daily lives we often make statements such as “In fact, X was not xxx.” This is the mystery of the proper name and one of the central topics I discussed in my book “Ontological and Postal.” 

In my book, I made the argument that proper names should be defined by the possibility of correction. There are a lot of statements that are made in association with the name “Soseki Natsume,” but all of those can be revised or corrected. My argument is that the fact that something is correctable is the very essence of the proper name. Even if we say “Soseki Natsume did not write ‘Bo-chan’” or “Soseki Natsume was in fact a woman” or “Soseki Natsume was not even Japanese,” it will still allow “Soseki Natsume” to exist. The essence of the name “Soseki Natsume” lies in the possibility of correction. This idea was at the start of my philosophical ideas and it is the foundation of my current practices. 

The fact that Genron was founded by Hiroki Azuma is a historic fact, but even if one day someone says that Genron was not founded by Hiroki Azuma, the essence of Genron will remain. In fact, I think it is only after this happens very concretely that it can be said that Genron is a brand name that stands on its own. When a word  becomes independent as a proper name, it means that even if it is taken away from a certain set of truths, it can exist on its own. This extraction happens when the proper name has the power to make all the statements attached to it retroactively correctable. In other words, when it becomes safe to say that Genron did not belong to Hiroki Azuma, Genron becomes real. This is not only a matter of theory, but it is also a goal that I am trying to achieve in my running of Genron. 

(Part 2 to be released on May 27)

》Past articles of this series can be found here.

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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