December 12, 2015


Finding Balance between the Two Extremes of Economic Growth and Happiness

Keywords: Newsletter Steady-State Economy Well-Being 

JFS Newsletter No.159 (November 2015)

Photo: Mr. Tetsufumi Okushi
Copyright Ohkushi Corporation All Rights Reserved.

Tetsufumi Okushi is known as an brilliant entrepreneur in Japan who grew a single hair salon, which he took over from his father, into a chain that has recorded double-digit growth for 12 consecutive years. What does his management philosophy look like? In this issue of the JFS Newsletter, we feature an interview with him, focusing on the question: "What is economic growth?" The interview was conducted by Junko Edahiro, president of the Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy and Society and chief executive of JFS.

Q: What do you think economic growth is?

A: I have been learning a little about Buddhism, so I'm going to first explain some knowledge about it, Buddhism teaches us about what we should not have in our mind. It is OK to have desires, but we must not be too greedy.

Also in Confucianism, in the philosophical teachings of Confucius or Kongzi, there is a story of an imaginary animal that eats everything. Since it even eats the sun, the world is plunged into darkness. But, it still wants more and keeps looking for something to eat. When the animal sees a moving object and eats it, it finds it's eating its own tail. At last, it eats up itself and there is nothing left. So, if you are consumed by greed, you will end up vanishing into nothing. This is the interpretation of desire in the teachings of Confucianism.

Again in Buddhism, there is a story about finding the right spot between the two extremes. The story I heard is as follows: Just before Siddhartha Gautama, known as Buddha, attained enlightenment, he collapsed due to his ascetic practices and was rescued by a bowl of rice pudding offered to him. Later, he saw a father, who was a sailor, teaching his child how to play the lute. The father said, "When the strings of the lute are too tight, they will break. When the strings are loose, they won't make any sound. It is surely important to adjust the string tension at the right level to get the most beautiful sound."

When Siddhartha heard this explanation, he realized that neither self-torment nor self-indulgence would be the way to go. He concluded that it is essential to find the right spot between these extremes. I think those who can understand the well-balanced right spot might be enlightened people in a sense.

Then, going back to the main question of what is economic growth, I think it is something linked with the question of what is happiness. I understand we need material affluence for a living to some extent, but things always have the other end, like the other side of the coin, don't they? When we just pursue economic growth, we always lose something. Without balance between the opposites, material affluence doesn't lead to our happiness, I think.

That means we have to consider carefully what is on the other side. When it comes to the question of what is the opposite end of material affluence, for example, it could be our inner happiness. It depends on the sense of each individual about whether material wealth in today's Japan is enough or not. Assuming that once people get filled and content with materials, it would make them happy in their hearts, I wonder. Without feeling happiness mentally, I believe we will never be satisfied with our life, even if it is a materially abundant one. Eventually, aiming to get a sense of contentment, people will become obsessed with endlessly obtaining material possessions.

I don't know whether the Japanese people of former days were happy or not with their lives, but I am really interested in the Japanese lifestyle in the old days, including the Edo Period. Taking architectural structures, for example, it seems to me that a lot of historical constructions, which could have never been built without spiritually affluence, still remain standing.

I have been learning from many people about the spiritual richness of Japanese culture and the origin of the Japanese spirit of "wa," (harmony). Someone told me that the Japanese people in the old days cultivated such spirit by acquiring their spirituality from Japan's native Shinto religion, teachings from Buddhism, and morality from Confucianism. Since these three were balanced well in the Japanese personality, I believe that the people's state of mind and public morality in the old days were highly sophisticated compared to now.

As the mind grows to a higher level, things are created in response to such a development level. For instance, this glass I'm holding did not take shape until someone wanted to produce this kind of glass. I'm sure people's thoughts create phenomena and then take a concrete shape in our life.

I assume that's why Japan, especially Kyoto, attracts many foreign visitors these days. Visiting its architectural structures may be one of the reasons, but I also believe that they are interested in experiencing Japan's unique culture in which a higher state of spirit and public morality are reflected. Without the spirit being fulfilled, it is unable to construct buildings different from what we see overseas. We may be rich materially in this century, but how could people in the old days ever construct such impressive buildings if their spirit was poor?

I once learned from an elderly person over eighty years old that the Japanese people have long lived their lives according to the criterion of whether it is beautiful or not, rather than whether it is good or not. Even in the case when we talk about economic growth, it is a matter of whether it is beautiful or not. It is not beautiful if one becomes too greedy. We sometimes think it is beautiful when something is stopped halfway and remains untouched or it is kept simple. Both the tea ceremony and flower arrangement represent Japanese art in the name of mastery and pursue the beautiful style and manner. I think this is one of the unique views seen in Japan.

The foundation of Japanese spirit in the old days consisted of the three factors I already mentioned -- morality, teachings, and spirituality -- with the criterion of whether it is beautiful or not. And I believe these factors influenced the designs of architectural structures. I think foreign visitors to Japan are impressed because they feel the high spirit of people who actually created these buildings.

In this modern time, we just cannot pursue economic growth without making an effort to raise the quality of mind; otherwise we become even greedier. Our spirit needs to be developed along with economic growth.

How can we measure development? Whenever people are feeling happy, I think we can see the result in some numerical changes with, for example, population increases when people feel safe and secure. We need to see such indicators in the status change of the economy. We have to find a right point in the data, instead of focusing on just one issue. I personally believe that there is no way that the economy continues to grow forever. It must crash at some point.

Q: You say the economy cannot continue growing forever, but at what point you think it might crash?

A: In Buddhist thought, we are not supposed to eat until we're full, because if one eats a lot, someone else cannot eat. Thinking of the situation globally. The size of the pie does not change, which means that we have only a limited amount of resources on this planet. If resources are available infinitely, then the idea of continued growth is possible, as some experts say. However, I doubt if it is a realistic idea.

We can find a solution to the way of thinking in our behavior of gaining and fulfilling. This reminds me of a story, "The Difference between Heaven and Hell." Both in heaven and hell, people are cooking noodles in a big pot with long chopsticks in their hands. In heaven, people help each other and feed others using the long chopsticks, while in hell, people fight over noodles, sticking and hitting each other with their chopsticks.

Even one glass of water makes a difference, whether it is taken forcibly or given to someone. If you give water to someone and are given from someone as well, exchanging smiles, the act of sharing helps fulfill one's heart and makes the water taste different.

If we can realize economic growth fulfilled by the act of giving and receiving, I think this may be the only and the best way. The act of taking forcibly makes the heart feel lonely and unfilled permanently even though materially fulfilled.

Q: So the balance is important. You are a businessman and responsible for your staff and the family. Many companies seem to enjoy the economic growth being created by Abenomics (economic growth policies of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe). As a corporate manager, what do you think of economic development?

A: As commodity prices increase, I have to raise my employees' salary. In order to do this, I'll have to increase productivity. Increasing productivity is difficult because it is likely to take smiles away from employees at work if I push too hard. As I'm responsible for securing enough comfort for my employees in the workplace so that they can smile, it is difficult to identify how far I can push. It is not a good idea to only focus on productivity improvement. Working with people is not that simple.

What I find interesting is that the rate of regular customers who repeatedly visit our hair salons starts to decrease when we keep focusing on productivity. Actually, there is only one spot that balances increased productivity, employees' happiness and customer satisfaction. There is not more than one spot.

I use some indicators to assess the working environment and business conditions of the stores in my hair salon chain. For a balanced assessment, I am sure to check contrasting indicators that reveal the trade-offs, such as return customer rates, daily customer turnover, and employee turnover. As a business manager, rather than simply boosting productivity, I also want to improve the factors that involve trade-offs.

Q: How can you do that?

A: I try to increase productivity while raising the return customer rate. When I find someone who achieves both while working happily, I take a close look at the staff to identify why it is possible. Once I find out his or her tip for efficiency, I share it with others as good practices. But still, we have limitations.

Q: Have you used such a business philosophy for a long time?

A: Not exactly. When we pursue sales, we lose employees. When we pursue return customers, we lose productivity. I've been struggling with such a dilemma, and finally realized that it is wrong to make a better choice from either one of these elements. We tend to choose just one, but it is often the case in life that two factors in extreme opposition are equally important.

What surprised me was one of the teachings from a high priest in Buddhism. He said, "The true teachings have no correct answer, that is the truth." Everybody wants to have a clear answer, but we often see cases without clear answers in life. Literally, the question of "What is economic growth?" is exactly such a case. This is one of the questions that does not have a clear and correct answer.

Still, if we could smoothly extend something while maintaining good balance between economic growth and its contrasting factor, I think that would be authentic economic growth. When we try to take a balanced point between the opposite ends, it is not favorable to raise that point as high as it can go. There must be a level that fits exactly right. Ideally, we want to find that right fit, but we won't find it without efforts to narrow the gap between others and our own egos. If we are too much into it emotionally, I think we will never find it.

I think it is very difficult to identify the "right spot" because the right spot could be different among people. So it will be further difficult to gain consensus on a national level. However, if we try to find the balance between two extremes, it would be a beautiful discussion. When we look at factors at both ends of the discussion, we would be able to become open to different views and ideas we have never thought of.

Anything in a good balance and harmony is beautiful, isn't it? The so-called golden ratio is something like 1 by 1.6. I don't know why, but Buddhist's statues which we find beautiful, for example, have such a beautiful balance.

So, I assume there is only one exact spot that will bring beauty. When we pursue this kind of beauty, our discussion of "what is economic growth" would fundamentally become very different in nature.

Edited by Junko Edahiro


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