Today’s Japan needs a complete philosophical reset

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Keishi Saeki

As Japan continues to face challenges with the pandemic, foreign affairs and the economy, this is the 10th installment in a series of Yomiuri Shimbun interviews with experts in various fields. The following was excerpted from an interview with Keishi Saeki, professor emeritus at Kyoto University.

Modern malaise

The novel coronavirus has highlighted an inherent weakness of modern civilization. Infections have spread through globalization, in which people freely flow across borders — and the virus carried by those people has halted the global economy. The living conditions of people who were already suffering from widening disparities have become more severe, and the coronavirus exposed the fragility of medical systems that have been weakened by excessive market competition.

Now, a rift is growing between two conflicting views of the future. One calls for further promoting globalization and innovation and achieving more economic growth. Another calls for slowing down the speed of economic growth and becoming a bit inward-looking, in a good sense, in order to rebuild the public sector, the family and its living environment, and local communities.

I think globalization and innovation have worsened various issues. Globalization seeks markets overseas, and advanced nations seek a cheap labor force in emerging economies. In addition, wealth becomes concentrated among people who benefit from innovation, while the wages of ordinary workers decrease. As a result, disparities widen. Some people are losing jobs to artificial intelligence and robots. Under such circumstances, economic growth is difficult to achieve.

New form of capitalism

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has advocated his signature policy of achieving a “new form of capitalism.” While calling for a change of course from neoliberalism, he maintains that innovation, such as through digitization, brings about economic growth. However, a course change from neoliberalism is not compatible with the goal of achieving economic growth through innovation. If neoliberalism is to be reviewed, it will also be necessary to review a way of thinking centered on economic growth through globalization and innovation.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

If efforts are made to review them, then where to redistribute wealth will be naturally decided. It should go to social infrastructure in the domestic public sector. That sector — not considered to create profits under the paradigm of globalization — includes medical and nursing care services, education, disaster prevention, and building local communities.

The largest problem regarding neoliberalism is that neoliberalism tried to universalize an ethos of “measuring all people’s abilities in monetary terms to evaluate profits and efficiency.” It is important to change that to a way of thinking that “puts importance on what cannot be turned into money and what cannot be seen.”

This way of thinking is based on a sense of morality supporting public social infrastructure, a view that people live in harmony with nature, and the recognition that humans have limited lifespans and are destined to die. Specific measures taken to achieve the goals of the new form of capitalism should be based on such a Japanese way of thinking. This is the way of thinking that Japanese conservatism should take.

Conservative camouflage

If you ask whether conservatism has existed in Japan after the end of World War II, it is difficult to answer. Postwar Japan has sought economic growth under its pacifist Constitution and the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. In the sense of “protecting this approach from progressive forces,” the Liberal Democratic Party has merely been labeled a conservative party. In other words, it only looks like conservatism.

What better represents postwar Japan is the policy advocated by the LDP’s Kochikai faction, which was led by former Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda, to transform postwar Japan into a lightly armed nation pursuing economic reconstruction and growth based on the strength of its relations with the United States. Current Prime Minister Kishida follows that school of thought.

After the end of the Cold War, Japan should have taken stock of what represents postwar Japan and make clear how the nation would stand on its own in the future. In the latest House of Representatives election in October last year, political parties once again appealed to the public only with short-sighted positions, such as redressing disparities between rich and poor and increasing a children’s allowance provided by the central government. During the election campaign, there were no debates among parties, politicians and the media over fundamental issues such as “whether further globalization should be promoted” and “Japan’s ideal future position.”

First of all, with today’s globalization falling into confusion, shouldn’t we more seriously consider how to establish a basis for our spiritual values by ourselves?

The public is interested only in immediate benefits — “What will politics do for us now?” When politics does not grant their wishes, they soon become disenchanted with it. In Japan, from the old days, there has been a notion that people should know their places and limitations and restrain their own desires. They know that a life of desperately seeking to satisfy their desires only leaves them feeling empty. I hope, taking this coronavirus pandemic as a good opportunity, we Japanese will realize these notions anew and try to change our way of thinking in the year 2022.

This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer Tsuyoshi Oyabu.


Keishi Saeki was born in Nara Prefecture in 1949. He completed a doctoral course at the University of Tokyo’s graduate school. Serving as a professor at Kyoto University and other institutions, he has been in his current position since 2015. His main field of study is contemporary social theory. His books include “Datsu Sengo no Susume” (Recommendations for breaking away from the postwar era) and “Hoshu no Yukue” (Path of conservatism), both published as Chuko Shinsho La Clef books by Chuokoron-Shinsha Inc.