POINT OF VIEW / Genichiro Takahashi: Some immediate problems are really eternal

March 23, 2012

Figuratively speaking, I think we have all become too nearsighted for our own good. We need to become more farsighted if we are to see and understand things better.

In January, Takaaki Yoshimoto published a book on Shinran (1173-1263), the monk who founded the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism. Why Shinran now? One obvious reason is that Shinran lived in an era beset by major natural disasters, but a much more important reason lies in his perceived solutions to critical issues of the period.

Yoshimoto says: "Shinran understood that when society is confronted with grave, urgent problems or phenomena in rapid succession, seeing them only as immediate issues won't do. He also realized that it won't do, either, to see them only as timeless issues."

Citing the current anti-smoking movement to illustrate his point, Yoshimoto continues: "To say people should quit smoking because they are raising their risk of cancer is to see smoking as an immediate issue. But if this is the only way you see it, then you fail to recognize the timeless issue, which is that it is human nature to want to do something you know perfectly well to be bad for your health."

According to Yoshimoto, who died on March 16 at the age of 87, Shinran saw timeless issues in what were perceived as immediate issues, and vice versa.

In other words, the "eternal" and the "now" are not mutually exclusive in problem-solving. In fact, they go together, and if we fail to understand that, we lose sight of reality.

We think that a financial meltdown or a debt crisis is an immediate issue. However, I was quite surprised to come across some people who don't think so.

The February issue of Gendai Shiso (Contemporary thought) magazine contains a Japanese translation of an article by Maurizio Lazzarato, an Italian sociologist residing in Paris. To illustrate the abnormality of our world, which has made financing the most profitable of all economic activities, Lazzarato delves into a discussion of what debt is really about. The Japanese title of this article is "Shakkin Ningen Seizo Kojo" (Debtor manufacturing factory), and I think this eloquently sums up the author's thought.

Lazzarato points out that debt-ridden individuals and debtor nations, such as Greece, come to feel constant "guilt" after persistently being urged by their creditors to pay up. The fact, he says, is that once you have borrowed money on credit, you are trapped forever.

He continues: "According to economists, every newborn baby in France is already saddled with a debt of 22,000 euros. In other words, French citizens today are born not with the Original Sin, but with a debt run up by the previous generation."

Does this mean that debt is more of a religious or moral issue than just a financial issue? David Graeber, a U.S. anthropologist and anarchist, believes so, according to "Fusai to Morariti" (Debt and morality), an article contributed by Keiichiro Matsumura to the February issue of Gendai Shiso.

Graeber was conducting an anthropoligical survey in Madagascar, where 10,000 people had died of malaria while the country struggled to pay its staggering debts to advanced nations, when he tried to put the nation's debt problem in the context of several thousand years of human history. In other words, he recognized the timeless nature of the problem.

The origin of the word "salvation" in Hebrew implied "recovery of ownership by paying off one's debt." In the ancient Jewish kingdoms, "freeing family members held hostage for debts" was exactly what the prophets meant by salvation. For this reason, laws were instituted to cancel all debts after seven years. In that sense, the Jews of the Old Testament world possessed the wisdom to deliver their people from "slavery."

"Kachiku wo Meguru Dansho" (Literary fragments concerning livestock) by Fumiki Suzuki, which appeared in the No. 48 issue of Kan quarterly magazine, also addresses questions of an eternal nature.

A livestock farmer who raises chickens, pigs and goats, Suzuki mulls over the fate of "about 2,000 cattle, 30,000 pigs and hundreds of thousands of chickens" that starved to death after being abandoned in the evacuation zones around the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Should their deaths be seen as an economic issue, or should they be seen more as a political or social issue? Given that the media has practically ignored their deaths, is this a subject that can be discussed in intellectual circles in the first place?

Suzuki asks himself the question: How did livestock come into being in human history? He concludes that the answer lies in what one might term the "cruelty of humanism."

He notes, "In modern stockbreeding, there is no raising or slaughtering of animals as such. All that exists is a mass livestock production system. There is no farming, and the animals play no part in the lives of those who breed them. What we have is nothing more than a system of animal abuse, and therein lies unnamable madness. Since when have humans become so immoral?"

Humans have to eat the flesh of animals to survive, but this should not require keeping the animals caged. In any society that keeps animals out of human sight, Mother Nature becomes an aloof stranger, and death loses its significance. This is the chilly society we are struggling in.

Suzuki goes on to muse on the Neolithic Age when humans "encountered animals and plants" in a new and different way from the way they had been accustomed to as hunters and gatherers.

To me, Suzuki appears to be searching for timelessness in what can be seen only as an immediate problem.

The same issue of "Kan" magazine contains a Japanese translation of a work by the Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich (1926-2002), who tried to understand energy by what I felt was a roundabout approach—namely, by examining the process through which the word "energy" came into being.

I saw something common between Illich and Suzuki. And I also felt the same about Shinichi Nakazawa, who, in the No. 11 issue of At Purasu (At Plus) magazine, discusses the seemingly timeless concept of the "optimum distance between what comes from the human heart and what is made by nature" in order to realize a social movement called Green Active.

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Genichiro Takahashi, a novelist and professor at Meiji Gakuin University, was born in 1951. A recently published book titled "'Ano Hi' kara Boku ga Kangaeteiru 'Tadashisa' ni Tsuite" (Concerning the 'justice' I have been thinking about since 'that day') contains his contributions to the Rondan Jihyo opinion section of The Asahi Shimbun.

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Genichiro Takahashi (Photo by Atsushi Takanami)

Genichiro Takahashi (Photo by Atsushi Takanami)

  • Genichiro Takahashi (Photo by Atsushi Takanami)

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