The Essence of Sustainable Business as Taught by Japanese History and Culture: E4G Report
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These days, the term SDGs (sustainable development goals) is often heard in the business world. Many businesses integrate the SDGs into their operations and business developments. But Japan is ranked 15th in the world in terms of its achievement of such goals, and it is generally accepted that Japan is a step behind many European countries in this regard.
However, you might not know that Japan is actually the country with the largest number of sustainable businesses in the world.
Japan is home to more than 33,000 businesses that are over a century old, and 3,000 businesses that are over two centuries old. Furthermore, there are eight businesses that have been operating for over a millennium, which makes up a majority of fourteen such establishments that exist in the world. In addition, the top five longest operating businesses in the world are Japanese businesses.
Thus, Japan in fact leads the world as the country with the most sustainable businesses in operation. To understand the reason behind this, look no further than the temples and shrines that are at the heart of Japan’s culture and history. On the 21st and 22nd of September 2019, an institute known as Sustainable Business Hub (SBH) held an event held at Kosho-ji Temple in Kyoto to reveal the essence of sustainable business from Kyoto’s shrines and temples.
We would like to introduce you to selected portions of the two-day, four-part sessions that particularly left an impression on us.
Part 1: Learning from the history of temples
Our experience took place in Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto City at Kosho-ji Temple, the head temple of the Kosho-ji school of the Rinzai sect. Entering a shrine or temple that is not normally open to the public is a picturesque experience that feels like you’ve stepped into another world. In a still, solemn, and noiseless atmosphere, you can feel throughout your body the sacred air that seems to have been spared the passage of time for over four centuries. Your five senses are sharpened inside the temple, and you can feel the connection between yourself and nature as you think about sustainability. A special experience one cannot have in a big city.
The first lecturer was Nariaki Taneda, the representative director of SBH. The conversations focused on topics such as the history and culture of Kosho-ji Temple as well as the culture and history of temples and sustainable businesses in Japan.
Furyu and Wabi-Sabi
Kosho-ji Temple where the event took place was built by Furuta Oribe, a military commander who served around 1543–1615. Furuta Oribe was one of Sen no Rikyu’s seven principle students, and he helped Sen no Rikyu develop the tea ceremony.
Mr. Taneda touched on the history of the spread of tea culture in Japan. He also spoke about two ways of thinking—furyu, which appeared in the Man’yo-shu, the oldest anthology of Japanese waka poems, and flourished from around the 800s to the mid 1400s; and Sen no Rikyu’s contrasting wabi-sabi, which appeared starting around the late 1400s. He spoke of how we should look to these schools of thought for clues about running sustainable businesses in the modern era.
Furyu refers to an extravagant aesthetic that is elegant, refined, or graceful. On the other hand, wabi-sabi is a way of thinking that seeks satisfaction in something that is flawed or insufficient. It was a new aesthetic sense that emphasizes the beauty in imperfection. Around 1467-1603, daimyo feudal lords and political forces feared that their governments that relied on agriculture would be destroyed by the furyu way of thought that valued splendor and extravagance. This led them to spread the contrasting wabi-sabi school of thought and actively promote the tea ceremony culture.
Taneda pointed out the similarities in the modern way of life in which the environment is being destroyed in pursuit of economic success, and how more and more people now seek a more sustainable lifestyle as a reaction to this trend. In Japanese, there is an expression that means “to recognize when one has enough.” It can be said that in the present day, we are seeking to change our aesthetic sense to one based on wabi-sabi.
The Japanese perception of nature found in words
Taneda further discussed a difference between the East and the West. In the West, the concepts of “distinction,” “rules,” and “the individual” versus nature are emphasized, whereas in the East, concepts concurrent with nature such as “connection,” “change,” and “the group” are emphasized.
As an example, Taneda brought up the Yamato language (the ancient Japanese language without foreign language influence). Yamato language is one of the components that comprise Japanese language. It refers to native Japanese words that were used since before around 710–794, in contrast with Sino-Japanese words and loan words from foreign languages. In the Yamato language, sounds are emphasized, and as indicated by the ancient Japanese belief in the souls of words (the idea that what is said will become reality) the word for “words” and the word for “matters/events” were the same (koto).
As you look into the Yamato language, you can begin to see how the Japanese perceived humanity and nature. While a face has features such as eyes, nose, ears, teeth, and cheeks, in the Yamato language, plants are also described as having eyes (sprouts), a nose (flowers), ears (fruits, nuts or seeds), teeth (leaves), and cheeks (ear). They may appear to be different words in the modern Japanese language, but in ancient (Yamato) Japanese, each pair of words has the same etymology.
In other words, the Japanese did not differentiate people and nature back then. They were thought of as the same thing. There was a strong sense of connection between people and nature, and there was a recognition that something that harms nature also harms people, and that to cherish nature is to cherish people. From this concept, we can find clues on how to implement a sustainable economy.
The “seven gifts without fortune” brings happiness to yourself and those around you
Taneda also introduced the concept of “seven gifts without fortune,” an old Buddhist teaching. The seven gifts refer to specific actions that can bring joy to others and oneself without spending money (possessions) that should be practiced in daily life.
The gift of gentle eyes: Look with a kind gaze.
The gift of a smile: Smile at others.
The gift of words: Use soft, polite expressions in your speech.
The gift of the physical body: Stand to greet others and pay respect. Service of the body.
The gift of the heart: Make offerings sincerely with a heart full of peace and virtue. A soft heart that resonates with others.
The gift of a resting place: Offer others a place to sit.
The gift of shelter: Allow others to come, go, sit, and lie freely in your home.
All of these are simple actions that can be practiced right away, but looking at your own life, you may know of many people who do not. However, even with regards to these seven gifts, if you think of yourself and others as one and the same instead of separate beings, these practices should come to you naturally.
Like fusuma partitions that a sound is heard even when closed and partitioned, and verandas where the inside and outside are joined, many discoveries can be made by revisiting Japan’s unique culture of avoiding separation as a means of designing a harmonious relationship between yourself and others, and between people and nature.
Part 2: Learning from Japanese culture (tea ceremony, sencha tea ceremony)
The next lecturer was Toshikazu Numano, a director at SBH who also works as an associate professor at the Globis University Graduate School of Management and makes the sencha tea ceremony his life’s work. Numano explained the relationship between the sencha tea ceremony and sustainability as his contribution to the topic of “Learning from Japanese culture (tea ceremony/sencha tea ceremony).”
An aesthetic sense of contrast and harmony
The sencha tea ceremony is one of the various schools of tea ceremony. Unlike the matcha tea ceremony, sencha and gyokuro leaves are used in small teapots instead of matcha to make the tea before drinking it. Sencha culture was originally introduced by Lu Yu and Lu Tong during the Chinese Tang Dynasty. It was spread among writers and artists by Baisao (a Japanese Buddhist monk who became famous for selling tea traveling around Kyoto) during around 1601-1867 and is related to the Ogasawara sencha ceremony as is the Ogasawara school established around 1334-1557.
Numano explained that the sencha tea ceremony mixes two aesthetic senses: crudity and purity. If you look at the tools used in the sencha ceremony, on the left there are simple earthenware tools without designs, while on the right there are decorated porcelain tools.
According to Numano, Baisao originally used simple tools when he made sencha. . Around 1734-1809, however, a poet named Ueda Akinari criticized Baisao’s sencha for lack of aesthetic sense, and he brought in new, beautifully ornamented tools. The two styles were then consolidated to become the current, modern style.
Numano spoke of how this concept of “criticism without rejection” that allows two contrasting ideas to be fused together is a unique characteristic of Japanese culture that is embodied by the word wa (harmony). The power to join these concepts is also seen in the Japanese language, which Taneda discussed earlier. In modern Japanese, the native Yamato language is cleverly fused with kanji characters from China, as well as foreign loan words that are written in katakana. The Japanese were able to integrate new foreign elements to create a new culture rather than reject foreign influences.
Numano went on to explain the reason why Japan was able to integrate foreign culture. Because the country is situated on the eastern edge of the world, foreign influences from the continent accumulated in Japan with nowhere else to go. He explained this to be the reason why the Japanese were able to integrate foreign influences rather than cast them away.
Systems that contain contradictions lead to durability
What does the ability to integrate as explained above have to do with sustainability? Numano gave two examples.
The first example is the precept of Rakuke, a family tasked with making teacups as one of the Senke Jisshoku (family businesses of ten crafts closely related to the tea ceremony who supply the San-Senke schools [Omotesenke, Urasenke, and Mushakojisenke, the three major schools of tea ceremony among various schools]). The Rakuke family precept, which has been passed down generation after generation for over four centuries, is “to teach nothing.” The reasoning behind this precept is that teachings that are passed down are followed. They are followed even when a mistaken teaching is passed down, leaving no opportunity to correct the mistake. By teaching nothing, mistakes are prevented from being passed down even if it results in differences in quality from generation to generation.
The second example is the meaning of the Ogasawara sencha ceremony practice. It is conventional practice for children to question why such a laborious process is necessary to perform a sencha tea ceremony. The purpose of the Ogasawara practice is to teach this conventional practice. However, students are not taught the meaning of this practice, and must think about it themselves.
In reality, each action is logical and calculated in order to be complete in the time it takes for the tea to be ready to drink, but this reason is for students to think about themselves. Numano pointed out how this experience of first learning the convention, and then thinking about the meaning by oneself in that order also exists in the concept of experienced value in marketing. He also pointed out how the experience is significant to people and organizations.
What is shared by these two examples is the presence of two intrinsic, contradictory elements. In the Rakuke precept, the concept of “passing down” coexists with the concept of “teaching nothing.” In the sencha tea ceremony, the convention coexists with the need to think of the meaning on your own. In this way, a sustainable system requires two intrinsic and contradictory elements that seem like a trade-off. Numano believes this practice to be the “spirit of wa” that exists at the foundation of Japanese culture.
This concept can also be applied to modern sustainable business practices. SDGs fuse the two contradictory concepts of sustainability and development. It is an effort to practice developing in a sustainable manner. In the world of ESG investment, more and more importance is being placed on integrated thinking that unites financial and non-financial concepts. Going forward, businesses are expected to pursue both social and economic value.
Numano ended the session with a quote from the poet and diplomat Paul Claudel.
“There is one nation that I do not want to ever see collapse. It is Japan. I do not know of any other nation that has such an interesting and ancient history. There is nothing mysterious about Japan’s recent rapid development. The Japanese are impoverished. Yet, they are noble.”
The ability to contain and unite contradictory elements—the essence of the culture of Japan that has existed from time immemorial may be sought now more than ever.
Part 3: Learning from the history of shrines
On the first day, we learned about the culture of temples. On the second day, we began by learning about the essence of sustainable business from the culture of shrines. Taneda opened for the second day’s learnings.
Taneda introduced the “way of the gods” that forms the foundation of Shintoism. The way of the gods refers to divine will, the original path unaltered by the earthly motives of people. It signifies following the pure, straight, and correct path of light that has continued since the age of the gods without any interference.
Unlike Buddhism, Shinto is not a set of teachings. There is no single holy book or prophet. In Shinto, the many gods are thought to dwell in all of nature and natural phenomena, including mountains, trees, earth, rivers, and water. Gods and nature are recognized as one and the same. Shinto emphasizes the importance of accepting nature as truth. The current state, without altering anything including oneself, is thought to be complete.
Shrine reconstruction—a quintessentially sustainable practice that has continued for 1,300 years
As a concrete example of a practice that symbolizes the way of the gods, Taneda brought up the shrine reconstruction that takes place every twenty years at Ise Jingu (Ise Jingu Shrine). Every twenty years at Ise Jingu, the main temples of the inner (Kotai) shrine and outer (Toyo’uke) shrine and fourteen other separate shrines are rebuilt, and their deities are transferred next door to the new shrines at this reoccurring event. Every twenty years, the exact same building is rebuilt from scratch without any modifications to the structure of the shrine, although the builders change with the times.
According to records, the first shrine reconstruction took place in the year 690. With some interruptions and postponements in between, the shrines were rebuilt for the 62nd time in 2013, approximately 1,300 years later. This is certainly the most sustainable event in Shintoism.
Why are the shrines rebuilt every twenty years? According to Taneda, one of the purposes is for the next generation to inherit the skill to construct the shrine instead of just the physical building itself. In order to pass down an ancient skill, something old is destroyed so that it can be rebuilt.
In a word, the Kojiki records are about “harmony”
Taneda also covered Kojiki (records of ancient matters), Japan’s oldest historical document that could be referred to as something of a scripture belonging to Shintoism. The ancient texts Teiki and Kyuji were learned through memorization by Hieda no Are on Emperor Tenmu’s instructions, and then compiled by O no Yasumaro on Empress Genmei’s instructions. The compiled text, which consists of three volumes, is said to have been presented to the Empress in the year 712.
Without going into detail about the text, Taneda interprets the story to be one of harmony between the Tenson people (people who descended from heaven, or people who came from the continent) and the original inhabitants of Japan. Japan’s ability to integrate explained in Mr. Numano’s sencha ceremony example can be seen in Kojiki.
Taneda believes that the Shinto concept of accepting outsiders as they are and living in harmony with them as portrayed in Kojiki can be looked to as a clue about how to run an organization or business sustainably.
Part 4: Learning from Kyoto’s traditional local industry
For the last session, Isao Kitabayashi, the representative director of the executive committee of Design Week Kyoto, who also serves as representative director for COS KYOTO and as a director for SBH, spoke on the topic of “the essence of sustainable business as learned from the traditional local industry in Kyoto.”
“Edonomy”: the circular economy of around 1601-1867. (The term “Edonomy” is derived from the name of the era of the time, “Edo.”)
Kitabayashi works to develop businesses on a foundation of Japanese culture in an effort to create a more self-controlled, circular and sustainable world that reveres nature. He refers to “cultural businesses” as “businesses based on cultural values that are unique in the world” that naturally pursue sustainability due to local resource constraints. Kitabayashi also introduced the concept of a circular economy.
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which strives to promote a global circular economy, the three principles of a circular economy are to “design a world without waste, disposal, or pollution,” to “recycle products and resources,” and to “revive natural systems.” According to Mr. Kitabayashi, however, such principles were already in practice around 1601-1867 in Japan.
According to Kitabayashi, most of resources at that time were plant-based; energy was provided by the sun, hydropower, and human power; and production and consumption assumed recycling, reuse, and return as part of the process and were limited to what the supply of resources could allow. He explained how the economy was complete within the domain (feudal precursor to prefectures) and sustained extremely small but stable growth.
He named this economic system “Edonomy” and cited the Japanese paper, lacquerware, and ceramics industries as examples of industries that supported this system. In Japan, the paper, lacquerware, and ceramics industries are scattered throughout the country, and there is a significantly higher number of ceramics production areas than there are in Europe. This is because the crafts industries extended only within its domain through which the products circulated.
Kitabayashi explained that completing the cycle of production and consumption by adopting the trending Fab City (in-town production) model for an urban circular economy is exactly what was happening around 1601-1867.
Value decided by the gods—Miwa Somen noodles produced in Nara Prefecture
Another example raised by Kitabayashi to rethink the state of the modern economy is Miwa Somen noodles, a business that started in Miwa-taisha Shrine in Sakurai City, Nara Prefecture, one of Japan’s oldest shrines. Along with Ibonoito in Hyogo Prefecture and Shodoshima Somen in Kagawa Prefecture, Miwa Somen is known as one of Japan’s three leading somen brands. It is said that the price of Miwa Somen is decided not by supply and demand but by the gods.
The price of the somen is decided by the oracle at Miwa-taisha Shrine at the Bokujosai festival held every year in February, where the wholesale price is determined to be low, moderate, or high. Kitabayashi explains, “Leaving the price to the state of the economy would lead to dispute, so I believe they entrusted the decision to the gods. It’s another world very different from the one we know, where prices are determined by supply and demand in a capitalist system that we take as a given.”
Miwa Somen has sustained its brand for over 1,200 years using this system. From this example, we learned that sustainable brands are not necessarily those that prosper under the mechanisms of the capitalist economy.
Through this two-day experience, we were able to get a sense of what the past and present have in common in terms of what moves Japan forward. We learned that integration is achieved beautifully when an element of foreign culture is not rejected but accepted as is, like the way Japanese language was born by integrating kanji and foreign loan words into the Yamato language; the way the Tenson people and the original inhabitants of Japan found harmony in Kojiki; and the way contradictory elements coexist in the sencha ceremony tradition.
Importing concepts from abroad such as SDGs and the circular economy in present-day Japan and reviewing our own culture and history from these perspectives lead us to rediscover the value of cultural traditions such as Shintoism and the “Edonomy” that have existed in Japan for a long time. This is very reminiscent of attempts to integrate new concepts within a Japanese historical context. Japan’s strong suit may be found in the culture of wa, where cultures from outside are accepted the way they are and integrated.
There is a Confucian term onkochishin, which refers to gaining new knowledge by looking to the old. As our generation moves towards new frameworks such as SDGs and circular economies, there are numerous discoveries to be made by looking back at Japanese culture. This two-day experience allowed us to understand this idea.
IDEAS FOR GOOD is a web magazine with ideas for improving society. From cutting-edge technology with the potential to change the world, to compelling advertising and design, we bring you great ideas from around the world.