Japan is in the midst of a happiness boom. Happiness is the subject of an avalanche of books, magazines, blogs and websites. Since the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011 alone, more than 500 Japanese books about happiness have been published. From ordinary guidebooks – “10 ways to make your dog happy” – to academic analyses, the variety of books on happiness is enormous. Among them, some sport “happiness” in their title only to ride the swelling tide without having much to do with the topic itself.
In November 2011, NHK broadcast a three-part series about Alain, pen name of French philosopher Émile-Auguste Chartier (1886–1951), whose 1925 Propos sur le bonheur did much to popularize the notion of happiness in Japan. In the afterword to his own book about happiness (Kōfukuron, 2001), the recently deceased philosopher Takaaki Yoshimoto confessed that, prior to reading Alain’s Propos, he, like many of his generation, could not relate to the concept of happiness. Today, there is a huge “Alain renaissance”. Several new editions of his Propos have recently been published, including a manga version and an e-book. Nikkei Business Online runs a column called “Reading Alain’s On Happiness every day”. Such an upsurge is indicative of something besides popular interest in a dated philosophical book.
Happiness in hard times
The attention Alain currently attracts is a sign of hard times. As long as the Japanese economy and population grew, nobody spent much time thinking about happiness; however, both growth rates came to a grinding halt years ago and still show little sign of recovery. The 3/11 disaster was a catalyst for many to reflect on happiness and misery, but the conditions that stimulate a heightened interest in happiness have built up gradually over the years: insecurity, social cleavage, loss of trust and a general lack of orientation in the direction capitalist society should move. Japan is not alone in this unease.
Quantification of happiness
The past few months have seen the release of the first World Happiness Report commissioned for the United Nations Conference on Happiness (April2012) as well as the OECD’s Better Life Index (May 2012). These publications attract considerable attention in Japan, especially as Japan dropped from 19th to 21st place in the OECD index since the last survey. In a country where people tend to pay close attention to international comparisons, this is cause for much soul-searching among policy makers. Meanwhile, more surveys about life satisfaction and happiness are conducted by scholars and government agencies, and new publications both respond to and feed the public desire to learn more about happiness. We introduce a few of them in the following section. A list of further literature on happiness is given below.
Masaaki MEZAKI (2011): Kōfuku tojōkoku Nippon. Atarashii kuni ni umarekawaru tame no teigen [A developing country in terms of happiness. A proposal for reinventing Japan]. Tokyo: Iwanami, 263 pages, 1,050 yen (ISBN 987-4757219410).
The author, a staunch individualist and globetrotter, offers a sweeping review of current happiness research to launch an equally sweeping critique of contemporary Japanese society. Analysing the often observed apparent inconsistency between the country’s high levels of material comfort and other objective indices of quality of life, on one hand, and the relatively low levels of subjective well-being and life satisfaction, on the other, Mezaki concludes that collectivism and the failure to develop individuality are to blame. He promotes his concept of “social individualism” as a potential remedy, which – if widely embraced – could make Japan a happier country. Candid and easy to read.
Fumio ŌTAKE et al. (2010): Nihon no kōfukudo: Kakusa, rōdō, kazoku [Happiness in Japan: Inequality, work, family]. Tokyo: Nihon Hyōronsha, 284 pages, 3,150 yen (ISBN 978-4535555983).
The renowned happiness economist Fumio Ōtake was lead editor for this compilation of select academic contributions to the field of Japan-related happiness economics. Most of the articles are statistical studies based on happiness data, which show correlations between happiness and fundamental socio-demographic variables such as income, gender and age. Furthermore, this volume also covers specific topics like work and unemployment, inequality, family and marriage, as well as work-life balance. Apart from statistical analyses, this volume also contains a methodological reflection on the meaning and methods of happiness economics. Although all of the articles have already been published elsewhere, this book is the reference for research in the field of Japan-related happiness economics. Basic knowledge of statistics makes the reading more accessible.
Sang-jung KANG (2008): Nayamu chikara [The power of worrying]. Tokyo: Shūeisha Shinsho, 190 pages, 680 yen (ISBN 978-4087204445).
A more indirect approach to happiness is presented in this book. Political scientist Kang, who is also a well-known media personality, connects the present time, marked by socio-demographic upheaval and new risks, with the advent of modernity at the beginning of the 20th century. By referring to the intellectual worlds of Natsume Sōseki and Max Weber, Kang shows that – today just as much as about a hundred years ago – the “power of worrying” can help to cope with new situations and mastering hitherto unknown challenges. However, accepting change does not have to invariably equate to giving up long-held values. With nine million sold copies, the book seems to have hit a nerve. A sequel followed in June 2012.
Hiroyuki ITSUKI (2012): Shin kōfukuron. Aoi tori no satta ato [New discourse on happiness. After the blue bird has fl own away]. Tokyo: Poplarbeech, 240 pages, 1,200 yen (ISBN 978-4591126950).
Itsuki, a seasoned author of many books, takes up the eternal topic of fleeting happiness, combining a report on his trip to Bhutan, the “kingdom of happiness”, with his take on current events, the rereading of literary works, and Buddha’s teachings about the futility of life. Itsuki’s reflections are centred on what other authors have written about happiness, if “centred” is the right word. For Itsuki’s reminiscences and ruminations do not have a clear focus. There are, however, some recurring themes, such as his criticism of social inequality and cutthroat competition, which, as he sees it, greatly contribute to the unhappiness that characterizes contemporary society. Yet he does not offer any countermeasures that are likely to improve the situation. Rather, Itsuki seeks solace in testimonies to the effect that people can experience moments of bliss even under the most inhumane conditions. His notion of happiness, then, is that of an ephemeral and entirely subjective sensation.