Shikohin paves the path to an altered state of consciousness and builds commonality: Philosopher Tatsuru Uchida

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 eighth and final installment of this series, we visited philosopher Tatsuru Uchida. As a scholar of contemporary French philosophy he studies the works of philosophers such as  Emmanuel Levinas. He is also a martial artist and the director of the Gaifukan Aikido school. Uchida has written extensively on a wide range of fields, from philosophy and martial arts to literature, education, politics, and economics. In the first half of this article we will discuss the role shikohin has in the conversion to “altered states” and the creation of commonality and explore how we can “reclaim the common good” in our modern world.  

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

Shikohin ignites the conversion into “Altered States”  

── books, “Emmanuel Levinas et la phenomenologie de l’amour.” It reads, “Levinas attempts to reflect on the fundamentals of human nature through commonplace events of the here and now.” I think this phrase reflects your philosophies as well. 

Let me ask you about shikohin from this perspective. You are an avowed smoker, but what are your thoughts about the value that shikohin has on our lives? 

I think shikohin is like a punctuation mark in our lives. Shikohin such as cigarettes, alcohol and coffee ignites the conversion into “altered states.” It is the same phenomenon as how your brain is reset after sleeping and dreaming at night. When you enjoy shikohin, there is a sensation that something in your brain changes. The sedative or stimulant effects make you rise or sink for a moment, moving away from your usual way of feeling and seeing things, and it allows you to step away from the realities in everyday life.

I usually try to finish work by 6 p.m. everyday. I take a bath and enjoy a cold glass of wine and a cigarette. The downer and upper effects come into effect at the same time and I can feel my brain actively rewiring itself. I can feel the stress and fatigue in my brain from my day of work begin to release and relax. I don’t drink until I get very drunk or smoke until I cough. It is similar to the sensation of taking a hot bath, stretching my arms and legs, and taking a deep breath. 

── The tradition of Japanese tea ceremonies originated as a way for warlords who were involved in vicious politics and warfare to find peace and tranquility in a small space. Coffee culture also began at the beginning of the Age of Discovery, when rough merchants involved in trade exchanged information in coffeehouses. These are perfect examples of “altered states.” 

Escape the limitations of “self” by exploring microcosms and macrocosms

── On the other hand, in our modern world, I feel that these spaces to enjoy shikohin are being polluted by economics and efficiency. For example, Starbucks has become like a pseudo-workplace because so many people use that space to work. How do you think we can escape from these neo-liberal demands and the stress and emptiness that comes with it?

I think one must escape from the limitations we impose on our “self” or our “ego.” In martial arts we are repeatedly taught to “let go of our ego” or “leave behind our intention.” When our mind is moved by intention, our bodily movement becomes formulaic and code-like. Moreover, when there is desire in our minds, our body shows the opponent our intentions, making it easier for them to read our movements to easily dodge our moves and take control. 

This is why although it is necessary to move appropriately, one needs to devise a way to move without intention. There are roughly two ways to achieve this. One is to move deeper into the realms of “self.” For example if we focus our consciousness to become more aware of our joints, ligaments, organs and cells, there is no room for our “ego” to enter our minds. Let’s say you focus on your heart. It is easy to use a possessive pronoun like “my heart,” to describe it, but when it comes to the valvulars, it is more difficult to define. It is not difficult to imagine and define my biceps, but doing the same for amino acids or mitochondria is not. If you think about it this way, the level of how we really understand and define our body is not very deep. After a certain layer of depth, it is a world where your “ego” or “self” no longer exists.  

The practice of martial arts is about going down into those deeper layers. It is about exploring what movements and lines are the most natural for each detailed part of the body. Even unicellular animals are able to move closer to their prey or food and move away from their predators. There is no way that this is not possible for human beings. The teachings and training of martial arts aims to help you find the best movement of your body in order to survive in your given surroundings. 

Breathing and meditation techniques are used to achieve this. All forms of martial arts teach deep breathing techniques because breathing is the only life-sustaining activity that can be consciously controlled. We cannot consciously control the beating of our heart or the activity of our digestive organs, but we can control our breathing. We would die if we stopped breathing, so we breathe even in our sleep or when we are unconscious. However, we are also able to control the depth of our breathing or hold our breath for some time. Breathing is a circuit that connects our mind with the deeper layers of our bodies. This is why we study breathing techniques and train ourselves to dive into the depths of our bodies. 

The other way to escape the limitations of “self” is to explore the “outside” of our ego. It is to consciously live your life on a larger scale of time than the timeline of your own life. Our Aikido school has a picture of the founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba Sensei, hanging in our entrance. Ueshiba Sensei was the teacher of my Aikido teacher, Hiroshi Tada Sensei. I inherited the teachings that Ueshiba Sensei passed down to Tada Sensei. Now, I am passing it on to the next generation. That is the purpose of our school. When you understand your life as a part of a current that transcends generations, you can release yourself from the limitations of “self” and your ego. 

Ueshiba Sensei’s teachers were Takeda Sokaku of Daito-ryu and Deguchi Onizaburo of Oomoto-kyo and before them there were other teachers. The teachings of martial arts exceed the few decades of the life of an individual and are passed on to thousands and hundreds of thousands of people over a timespan of hundreds of years. When you understand that you are but a single person in the movement of this whole, you see yourself as just one cell of a multicellular organism.

In this way, if you practice the physical training of deciphering the microcosm of your inner body, and the mental training of understanding your place in the macrocosm of teachings beyond your own life, you are able to escape from the limitations of your “self” and ego. 

── I imagine that it is not easy to be aware of the microcosm and macrocosm of ourselves when we are so busy with work and our daily lives. 

This is why we need some cues or tricks to help incorporate these habits into our daily lives. For me, after I wake up every morning I go to the dojo to complete some rituals and tasks. I say a prayer of thanks at the altar, recite a sutra and the mantra of Fudo Myoo, and do a special breathing exercise called “Okinaga.” All this only takes about five minutes, but unless you have a space like my dojo, it is difficult to make these rituals a habit. You cannot do these rituals and tasks in between your tasks at work or while waiting for someone on a street corner. Having five minutes of spare time at random points in your day does not mean you can create these habits. 

Sharing something of value creates communality

── Perhaps one way to create a cue is to enjoy shikohin and switch to the altered state. 

I think so. It is also important to remember that shikohin like smoking and drinking are not something to be enjoyed purely on a personal level, but it is also a communal act. Smoke and liquid are products that are not divisible in nature. However, rituals of sharing these things as a group is an activity that exists all over the world. This is especially true for rituals that involve dialogue between strangers or people of different groups. The act of sharing food and drink is almost invariably performed. Rather than monopolizing pleasures and riches, the act of sharing lifts the digital boundaries between self and others. 

In a tea ceremony, tea is made from the same boiled water and shared in the group. The jars and cups used to serve Japanese sake are designed to be shared more easily. In Chinese, there are various characters for the word for sake cups and all of them include a character suffix which means horns. The horns of beasts were one of the most unstable objects we had access to in the past. This means that the cups made out of horns were too unstable to put down so one either had to drink up all the contents or pass it over to someone else. 

In drinking parties, it is considered rude to keep a bottle of beer on hand and fill your own cup. It is common courtesy to fill your neighbor’s empty cup first and wait for them to fill yours. I think these are manners that have existed since ancient times. You must first give to others what you want to have and wait for them to return the favor. This is the basis of gift giving rituals. 

Gift giving turned into trade and that led to economic activity and communities. If the first humans that existed adopted a way of life in which they monopolized everything they needed to survive and did not share their resources, gift giving and trade would not have started. I think that the human race would never have become civilized if that were the case. 

According to anthropological studies, gift giving is not something that is initiated by benevolence or altruism. Humans are creatures that trade. This is why we find ancient traces of gift giving rituals for shikohin like alcohol and cigarettes. Until the recent past, it was not uncommon to receive cigarettes from strangers. When you went to a bar, you could casually ask the person next to you for a cigarette and they would usually give it to you. They would even light it for you. Even with alcohol, it was common for someone to pour you a drink when your cup was empty. Until around the 1970s, although it was not acceptable to ask someone to give you a piece of their grilled chicken, when it came to cigarettes and alcohol, there was some social obligation to share. 

── The act of giving away something of value and sharing it with others is what creates communality?

I feel that in recent decades these fundamental values of giving and communality have disappeared. People are more inclined to keep things of value to themselves and not share with others. The idea to share valuable things and manage them as a community has become rare. The term “personal space” started being used a lot over the past 40 years. People say that the smell of other people’s body odor, perfume or smell of smoke is unpleasant. It is because we think that the space around us is “our own” that it annoys us when someone else’s scent invades that space. If you believed that the space around you was public property, the idea of wanting someone to leave your space because they stink would not arise. 

In fact, the scent of cigarettes was considered a pleasant smell when I was a child. Until the 1950s the smell of the sewers often came into the houses in Japan so the smell of cigarettes acted to eliminate these odors. Cigarettes were the scent of civilized living. Later, as society became better at eliminating odors, the scent of cigarettes began to be identified as unpleasant. It is the way society reacts to the smell that has changed. 

“Reclaiming the common good” that is connected by neither blood or land

── It seems that in our modern world, shikohin are increasingly enjoyed by individuals rather than by groups as they have become more routine and commoditized. 

However, people cannot survive on their own. I believe that it is still true that living as a group provides more security. Getting married, starting a family and having friends and a community is still a way of creating security. 

In a society that is prospering and safe, it may be possible to live on our own. However, Japan is becoming poorer. With the aging and shrinking population we will continue to lose various industries. With the coronavirus pandemic, we are already seeing massive job losses in a short period of time, including in the airline industry. Noone has any certainty about their livelihoods for the future. It is precisely because of these trying times that we must form strong communities to survive. 

── How do you think we can form these communities?

It is not realistic to suggest that we should share cigarettes or pour each other drinks to create connections again today. We have to find some other middle ground and this is what I refer to when I talk about “reclaiming the common good.” We cannot reclaim communities based on blood connections or common land, so we have to think of another new type of community. I believe that the next generation’s commonality will be through educational communities, religious communities and medical communities. I think that only communities that are based on a shared mission of protecting some shared asset will survive.

The most likely commonality to survive is the educational community. Education in essence is the act of passing down the knowledge, information and wisdom to survive that was received from predecessors on to the next generation. In the long passage of time, groups without some story to pass on something of value to the future generations will not last very long. The cost of maintaining and managing a community is like a one sided contribution if you look at it subjectively from the participant’s perspective. 

When you are part of a community and you have a mindset in which you will only contribute what you think you can gain back, you will begin to think that you are the only one contributing and everyone else is freeloading. This mindset sets in all the time. Everyone who develops this mindset will start looking for freeloaders who are unfairly benefiting from their contribution and they will try to punish them. This mindset of wanting to retrieve what you contributed to a common cause will not sustain a community. On the contrary, one must understand that although there may be no short-term benefits, the existence of the community in the long term will someday prove to be very beneficial for the individual. 

The reason why I operate the Gaifukan Aikido School is to pass on the priceless gift that I received from my teacher, Tada Sensei, to the next generation. I received countless gifts from my teacher and it would be a crime to monopolize those gifts. This is why I “pass it on” to my students. Starting up and operating a martial arts school is not at all profitable or beneficial if you only look at the net profit of the school. However, only because it does not make any money does not mean we should close the school. Our mission is to pass on the traditional teachings and techniques of this martial arts. If we base the value of running something only on whether it is profitable or not, I believe most educational institutions will cease to exist. 

On the other hand, most people today are working for an organization or company that is a corporation based on joint stocks. Because of this, they are operating on the principle that profits and net income are the highest priority. In fact, the average lifespan of a joint stock company is said to be only five years, so there is no point looking further into the future than that. For shareholders, the ultimate goal is to have stock and sell shares when the price reaches the highest point, so they may buy stock today and sell it tomorrow. They are only invested and involved in the company for one day and they have no need to know what kind of goods or services the company provides or the purpose of that company’s existence. These people are what society considers to be “smart investors.” There is no way that these people can create a long term purpose or a story that transcends generations. In order for us to maintain the common good, we need to return to the fundamental question and ask, “what is the purpose and dream that was sought to be passed on when this community or organization was created?” We must constantly ask ourselves this question and reference it when looking into the future. 

(Part 2 to be released on Jun 24)

Translation: Sophia Swanson