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. In Part 1 we discussed the role shikohin has in the conversion to “altered states” and creation of commonality and explored how we can “reclaim the common good” in our modern world. In Part 2 we will discuss how, when it comes to the essence of good health, all people are individuals and that there are no standards to abide by. Upon this understanding we will address the problem of how Japanese people have become too “tense” because of the need to find “usefulness” in products and how this mindset has led to the rejection of shikohin in the name of becoming more economically efficient and cutting costs.

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

Part 1 of 2 》Shikohin paves the path to an altered state of consciousness and builds commonality: Philosopher Tatsuru Uchida

The illusion of a universal standard of “good health”

── As the trend to be more health conscious continues to grow stronger, shikohin tends to get a lot of backlash. What are your thoughts on this current situation?

I believe that the current ideas of what it means to be health conscious is unhealthy. There is an extreme concern over cleanliness and everything has become odorless. The obsession is almost pathological. 

Nariyasu Maeda, a lord of the Kaga domain at the end of the Edo period, wrote a Noh essay on the Noh theory on the abolition of leisure. The interesting thing about this essay is that he did not write a single thing about the artistry of Noh, but wrote extensively about how Noh is good for one’s health. At the time, Nariyasu had suffered from severe thiamine deficiency and was in a very bad state of health, but he recovered through practicing of Noh. This is why he wrote an unusual essay about how practicing Noh is beneficial to one’s health. Reading his essay, I feel that it is something that can only be written by someone who has experienced going back and forth between illness and good health.

Nariyasu’s conclusion is that “Good health means moderation, and what moderation means is different for each person.” For one person, sitting at home all day and doing needlework is good for their health and for another being outdoors and walking around selling goods all day is good for their health. For those who need to eat five bowls of rice a day to sustain themselves, five bowls is appropriate and for those who only need one bowl of rice, one bowl is appropriate. Moderation depends on each individual person’s lifestyle. This is why he claims that the path to good health is to find what is appropriate and the right moderation for yourself. There is no “good health” or “illness” that applies to all people and everyone is balanced somewhere in between the two. Nariyasu wrote that this is as it should be.

I thought that these are the true words of someone who has really experienced illness. There is truth in that when you are unwell, there are times when you cannot do anything at all, and there are times when you can still work or go out. If you find a state which allows you to live your life in a way that is acceptable for yourself, that is in part what finding “moderation” means. 

Albert Camus was also a unique philosopher in Europe who placed a high emphasis on “moderation” and “balance,” which I believe comes from his experience of suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis when he was young. Camus was born with exceptional health, but his family was poor and he suffered from tuberculosis due to malnutrition. However, after a period of rest he was able to recuperate. Although he developed a hole in his lung, he recovered enough to be able to swim in the Mediterranean Sea once again. This gave him great joy. In his early writings Camus often writes about the beauty of the sun and the sea and I think this is a reflection of the joy he felt after he recovered from his illness and was able to find his balance and moderation to continue living his life. I think that compared to people who are born with great health, people who go back and forth from health to illness and go through the struggle to find balance have a greater appreciation for a healthy body. 

In modern society, however, the discourse surrounding the definition of health lacks in the understanding of “moderation” and “balance.” There is an objectively quantified definition of  “health” that has nothing to do with an individual’s constitution or innate physical nature, and any deviation from the standard is considered an illness or abnormality. However, when you define “perfect health” in terms that is often unattainable for most regular people, and see yourself as not matching that definition and struggling because of it, that in itself is unhealthy. Rather, one should find an understanding of what is “moderate” and “appropriate” for their own bodies and have a more wide definition of what allows them to feel good when living their life. 

The same is true for shikohin. Everyone has different tastes and the effects they have on each person’s body is different. In fact, there is nothing in this world that is only good for you and has absolutely no bad side effects. Exercising too much or too little is bad for your body. Eating too much or too little is also bad for your body. Working too hard or too little is bad for your body. If you do not breathe in oxygen, you will die, but reactive oxygen damages cells and causes cancer and heart disease. From the moment we are born we start our path towards death, so “being alive” in itself is essentially bad for our bodies. 

Cutting management costs, fundamentally, excludes diversity

── There is no uniform standard for what one can define as good health. Nonetheless, our society is becoming less tolerant of even moderate shikohin. Why do you think this is?

I think it has to do with the cost of management. If we are allowed as individuals to define and live within the range of what we consider appropriate, there should be no problem. However, in this scenario it would be impossible to “rate” someone on whether they are healthy or not. It is easier to manage the health of the whole by assigning a uniform standard to everyone, assessing them, and rating them within that single standard. If everyone acted according to their own standards, even if the individual feels fine, it is difficult to control as a society. In order to minimize the costs of managing health it is easiest to implement a uniform system that rates and ranks everyone and rewards the top performers and punishes the poor performers. The unacceptance of diversity is really an issue of management costs. 

The belief that the minimization of management costs is the best practice is a relatively new one. In the past the priority was to improve the overall performance of the organization. Japanese society today is different. Rather than thinking of how everyone can lead lively and pleasant lives, we are preoccupied with the unproductive task of rating performances based on objective and numerical criterias and distributing resources accordingly. The reason why Japan’s economic power fell so hard over such a short period of time is because we prioritized cutting management costs over the livelihood of our people. A society in which everyone acts in a uniform manner does not produce anything new. This is why there are no new innovations and breakthroughs that are coming out of Japan. 

The reason why Japan became so obsessed with cutting costs is because we have become poorer. In the age of rapid economic growth and the economic bubble, there was no need to think of such things. Back then, everyone’s mindset was focused on how to make money, so any backward thinking like how to cut costs was not discussed. This is only true when a country’s economy has momentum.

── So the uniform view of what is considered healthy is also affected by economic issues. 

Yes. However, cutting and minimizing costs for an organization ultimately means to reduce the number of workers. It manages people on a uniform scale and cuts off those whose performance is at the bottom. However, this method will never lead to revitalization of the economy or new innovations. What Japan needs today is to bring back a vibrant society. In order to do so, the top priority should be to secure employment for its people and that means that we need to create jobs that will employ as many people as possible. 

With the implementation of AI technology, it is predicted that there will be massive job cuts in the near future. If we discard those people who become unemployed by claiming that it is their own fault for working in a field that can be taken over by AI, the capitalist system itself will collapse. The more unemployment rises, the more the consumer market will shrink. This will decrease tax revenues and increase social unrest and lower the country’s standards of education. This is why it is the government’s job to ultimately guarantee employment for its citizens under all circumstances. 

So where will the jobs be created? I believe that it will be the non-profit sectors such as government, education and healthcare that will create new jobs. In fact, when the manufacturing industry collapsed in areas such as the Rust Belt regions of the United States, the only sectors that guaranteed employment were the government agencies, universities, and hospitals. If there is a large government agency, a large university, and a large hospital, it creates enough jobs to maintain a population which in turn allows for the service and retail industries to develop. This creates enough jobs to sustain a small city. 

These sectors are not for profit in nature, so not being profitable is not a reason to shut down. Besides, these are jobs that are necessary for society to function so the workers also maintain a sense of pride. For example, in American hospitals there are workers such as medical assistants or people who specialize in drawing blood or measuring blood pressure. They modularized the work of hospital nurses so the work can be performed by people with simpler qualifications. Although the pay is not as high, they wear the hospital uniform and work in the hospital to save people’s lives so it is said that the level of job satisfaction is very high. I believe the same is true for government work and education. When people feel that their job is contributing to society, they can work with pride, even if the pay may not be very high. I believe it is important to increase the number of these kinds of jobs. 

90% of our world is non-essential items

── Do you think our current neoliberal society, which is based on the idea that “the winner takes all” and does not allow for any moderation, will change? 

I think it has no other choice but to change. The neoliberal ideology of the United States resulted in their suffering the highest number of coronavirus infections and deaths in the world. In the United States, healthcare is an expensive commodity that is only available to those with money, so those without money don’t have access to it. There are over 30 million people who are uninsured in the United States today, so even if they become sick they do not go to a health care provider. This is why the spread of infections could not be contained. Unless the United States implements a healthcare system that gives all of its people access to healthcare, they will not be able to contain infectious diseases. 

── Under the coronavirus pandemic we often heard the term “essential” being used in the media, especially in western nations. As human and material resources continue to become scarce, the views toward shikohin, which are seemingly non-essential items, seems to be increasingly critical. 

If you talk about non-essential items, don’t you think that most things in our lives today are in fact “non-essential”? The only truly essential things to survive are energy, food, and medical supplies and everything else, like shikohin, is really not “necessary for survival.” Cars, houses, fashion, computers, vacation resorts are all non-essential. If we try to distinguish what is essential and what is not, we will find that 90% of the jobs in the world are non-essential and therefore unnecessary. 

I believe that people who are working in non-essential jobs should also be given some job guarantee and security. Let’s think of ways to create a society in which everyone can live healthy and culturally fulfilling lives with dignity. Arguing that we only need people who are working in essential jobs and treating those with non-essential jobs like it is their own fault if they end up unemployed is the last thing we should be doing right now.

Forget being useful, lets slack off

── I agree. When the coronavirus pandemic started spreading rapidly in the spring of 2020 and people started publicly criticizing shikohin, fashion and entertainment as being “non-essential”, I was honestly disturbed. 

Defining what is necessary in life and what supports us in life is not something that can be easily defined from the outside. When we are pushed to the edge in a life and death situation, we often find that it is literature, music and arts that give us salvation. 

── In the argument of what is useful and what is useless, American critic Richard Klein argues in his book “Cigarettes are Sublime” that the reason why cigarettes are sublime is because they are useless and evil. 

I do not think cigarettes are useless. Of course it is true that it causes various diseases, but there are also various benefits. Tobacco was first introduced to Europe as a medicine. At the very least, we know it has a calming effect. It has the power to calm agitation or excitement. 

The day after the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake in 1995, I rode my motorcycle to the university. Seeing all the rubble and not knowing what action to take next, I was stunned and in shock. About ten other faculty members had arrived and we gathered in a conference room to discuss what to do next and when I looked around I realized that everyone was smoking. I don’t think everyone in the room were regular smokers, but even the non-smokers reached out for cigarettes to calm their nerves in that situation. That is how effective cigarettes are. 

── If we eliminate shikohin based solely on their superficial usefulness, we may lose sight of their more obscure benefits. 

Everyone puts too much emphasis on the pursuit of usefulness and has become too tense. The president of Kyoto Seika University, where I work as a visiting professor, is Dr. Usbi Sacko, who is from Mali in West Africa. He always says that Japanese people are too serious. He says that Japanese people need to ease up and relax more.

When Dr. Sacko talked about a movie in one of his classes, one student who claimed to be a movie buff came up to him after class and preached about how movies should not be treated so carelessly. He said that we should think about what kind of filmmaker is behind the film and what their intention is. He said that we shouldn’t talk about movies unless we know the hidden meaning behind each cut and the music. In another class, Dr. Sacko talked about cosplay and after class a cosplayer came to his office and criticized him for not understanding cosplay at all. He went on about how cosplay is a very serious business in which people who have deep respect for anime characters create patterns from two-dimensional screens and spend a great deal of effort, knowledge, and passion to recreate their outfits. He warned him how he should study a subject more before speaking about it.  

At this point Dr. Sacko snapped. He asked, why should we not simply leisurely enjoy a film or casually play dress-up? It is fine for people who want to take something seriously to do so, but telling other people who want to casually enjoy it that they are not worthy of talking about it is far too oppressive. Why are people so desperate to collect knowledge and judge and rate other people? When do you people relax? 

Movies and cosplay have no direct use in the functions of society. However, even in these fields, people are noisily rating one another based on their knowledge or skills. Dr. Sacko was concerned about how Japanese people are not able to just relax and enjoy something without being judged by other people. I truly agree with him. It should be okay to be more lax. It is okay to be more careless. Japanese people really are too tense. 

(Part 2 FIN)

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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