The Growing Closeness of Japan and the Holy See (Part 2)

Interview With Ambassador Kagefumi Ueno

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By Miriam Diez i Bosch

ROME, JUNE 24, 2009 ( Catholicism and Buddhism might have a new area for cooperation: a joint resolve to fix the problems that caused the global recession.

According to the Japanese ambassador to the Holy See, Kagefumi Ueno, dialogue between proponents of so-called Buddhist economics, and those of a Catholic orientation, could give interesting results.

ZENIT talked to the ambassador about this proposal for healing some of what’s gone wrong with the global economy, and how Buddhist economists have been sounding a warning for years.

Part 1 of this interview, focusing on certain elements of the Church in Japan, as well as climate change and African development, was published Tuesday.

ZENIT: Lately, the Pope and the Vatican have issued a number of messages in which they lament the lack of moral considerations on the part of many business leaders. How do these words sound to Buddhism in the Japanese context?

Ueno: In Japan, similar voices were heard for decades, inter alia, among some economists with a Buddhist orientation. In fact, over the last decades some economists had started to amalgamate Buddhist philosophy with economic analysis, thereby founding a new discipline called “Buddhist economics.” I am happy to introduce the basic thoughts that shape this discipline:

Buddhist economists are, by and large, critical of the neo-liberalism that sustained the economic policies of major world economies during the last decades, thus bringing about the aggravation of economic disparity, inequality, absolutizing of profit making, and the deterioration of the global environment.

Whereas there are divergent views among Buddhist economists, I understand that they share basically eight key tenets as smallest common denominators. These are respect for lives; nonviolence; Chisoku (awareness of enough); Kyousei (a sense of living together); simplicity, frugality; altruism; sustainability and diversity.

Each of them is the antithesis of the following notions which, as some argue, characterize contemporary economy: neglect of lives; violence; greed; isolation; division; extravagance; luxury; self-centered interest; un-sustainability and uniformity.

For instance, E. F. Schumacher, a German economist and one of the founding fathers of Buddhist economics, author of the famous “Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered,” gave specific focus to Chisoku and simplicity.

Likewise, Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan environmentalist and the winner of the Nobel Peace Price in 2004, has a philosophy similar to Buddhist economics. She is well known as an advocate of the “Mottainai campaign,” i.e. the international campaign with three Rs: Re-use, Reduce and Recycle.

Some years ago, while she stayed in Japan, she learned the Japanese word “Mottainai,” which basically means, “Never waste even petty things since even the smallest things have intrinsic value.” At that moment, she had an inspiration for the campaign, i.e. she was inspired that the “spirit of Mottainai” that embodies the spirit of the three Rs should be diffused globally. She keeps saying that to ensure the protection and preservation of the global environment, the “spirit of Mottainai” is indispensable. This spirit she advocates is obviously in accord with the basic thought of Buddhist economics.  

ZENIT: How do these values become concrete?

Ueno: They (Buddhist economists) are advocating policies that are conducive to, inter alia, detachment from a growth-conscious approach, detachment from oil-driven production, and the establishment of a new international mechanism to do away with violence.

In Japan, Komazawa University, a renowned Buddhist university in Tokyo, established a Research Institute on Buddhist Economics in 1966. Some other universities such as Keio University (Tokyo) and Ashikaga University (Gunma) from time to time offer special lectures about this.

With the current instability and uncertainty about world economy, which intensified skepticism regarding free market principles, Buddhist economics is gathering more attention.

It may be an interesting idea to arrange a dialogue in this sphere between economists of Buddhist and Catholic orientations.

Last but not least, in this respect, it should not be overlooked that under the framework of the 24th General Conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB), which took place in Tokyo last year, a symposium was held on “The Economics of Happiness.”

[Part 1 of this interview was published Tuesday.]

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