Zen guide to discount shopping: Terry McCarthy explores the fascination in recessionary Japan for a monk's simple life

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The Independent Online
A ZEN BUDDHIST monk who lived as a hermit 200 years ago has emerged as an unlikely role model for those seeking a simpler, less materialistic way of life today, as Japan faces its worst recession in decades.

And although the population at large is not donning sackcloth and begging for alms in Tokyo, signs of a new austerity among consumers are cropping up everywhere - from the plunge in sales at posh department stores and French restaurants, to the newly popular discount supermarkets, cheap coffee shops and used-car markets.

Ryokan, who lived from 1758 to 1831, did not leave much wisdom in his collected poems for those battling with asset deflation, cost- cutting and bankruptcies. And he could hardly have imagined that he would become the subject of books, television programmes and articles in the 1990s. He spent his days writing, meditating and playing with children, and called himself 'The Great Fool'. But his simple, back-to-nature lifestyle has a nostalgic appeal to the Japanese as they try to get over their collective hangover from the credit-crazy years of the 1980s.

As much fuel as I need,

Is supplied by the wind,

These fallen leaves I gather.

Ryokan wrote this after refusing an offer from a local lord who wanted to build the monk a temple - but it could easily be transferred to a Tokyo resident today turning down entreaties from a property speculator trying to offload overpriced land accumulated during the bubble economy years.

A book about Ryokan, Philosophy of Honest Poverty, was published last September, and quickly became a hit. 'The bubble economy was a good lesson for the Japanese and taught the emptiness of pursuing material wealth,' said the book's author, Koji Nakano.

Philosophy of Honest Poverty has sold 120,000 copies, and since its appearance, Ryokan's life story has been featured in magazines, in a television documentary and most recently on the front page of Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Japan's mainstream business newspaper. All have stressed how Ryokan's simple life in a small hut in the mountains near Niigata, north of Tokyo, can serve as a corrective example to the consumer binge that has ended with a vengeance.

Even during the bubble years, some commentators warned that the exclusive preoccupation with money and possessions was creating the 'ugly Japanese'. Now there is little sympathy for those who lost fortunes speculating in stocks or property.

Dignity is in strong demand these days, as even the most stoical bureaucrats are forced to admit that the economy is in trouble. This month the Finance Ministry downgraded its assessment of the economy from 'decelerating' to 'teimei' - floundering or stagnant. Economists say it is the first time in 35 years that the Ministry has used such a term to describe the nation's economic health.

Car sales were down 7.5 per cent last year, electronics are not doing much better, and the sales in department stores sank by 5.7 per cent for 1992 - the first yearly contraction on record. And although unemployment is still barely above 2 per cent, overtime and bonus payments have been slashed to the bone.

Some pessimists are even predicting that the economic crisis will spell the beginning of the end for Japan's legendary system of lifetime employment. This month, Pioneer Electronic Corporation said it wanted 35 of its managers aged over 50 to take early retirement - or face dismissal.

It is too early to say whether other companies will follow suit, even though economists estimate that at least 1 million workers are effectively unemployed at work, able to do little that is productive until the economy improves.

Meanwhile, the trendy coffee shops with painted ceilings and classical music in the background selling cups of Costa Rican coffee for pounds 4 are emptying in favour of the stand-up coffee bars where a caffeine fix goes for a mere pounds 1.50. Second-hand goods are no longer frowned upon by bargain-hunters, and the Bic discount retail chain is corralling customers on the streets with a loudspeaker message promising to match any of their competitors' prices - 'even if we are one yen higher, we'll lower it'.

It is not clear that discount shopping was what Ryokan envisaged by the simple life, but slowly the message is getting across:

For food I pick herbs by the roadside,

In the moonlight I sit meditating all night long,

Looking at the flowers I forget to return home -

This primitive life I have come to adopt . . .