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MAY 12, 2010

“Unequal Society?” – Learning from the Spirit of the Venerable Sontoku Ninomiya

By Yoshito Hori

I feel uncomfortable whenever I hear the word, “unequal society.”, because I believe it is natural for the results to differ when the efforts made are different. We must correct disparities in opportunities if those exist. However, I think it is natural for disparities in results to exist, as efforts devoted are different. I do not see any point in focusing on the disparities and discussing on “Unequal Society?”, any longer. Rather, I think people in Japan should reward those who have made strenenuous effotts and excelled in each individual field.

The professional baseball players proves my point. No one complains when Ichiro earns more than 1 billion yen a year, In the meantime, there are professional baseball players whose annual salary remains in the millions of yen, less than 1/100 of Ichiro. There are even baseballl players who cannot become professionals. I wonder if people would want to try to cut Ichiro’s annual salary, on the grounds that it creates an “unequal society.” I wonder if the baseball franchise offer insurance to players who could not make baseball their profession.

Basically, the market mechanism determines the salaries of the players. Ichiro would move to another baseball team, if his team attempted to cut his annual salary. And it is unthinkable for professional baseball clubs to offer guarantees or assistance to ballplayers when they fail to become professionals.

Equal opportunity produces these kinds of disparities in results. Everyone has a chance in entering this market. Ichiro has worked very hard since his childhood to earn his position. That effort has lead him to the top of the position today. His hard work continues. because he could fall from the top very quickly if he becomes idle.

My fundamental view is that equal opportunity has been guaranteed to a considerable degree in Japan. I believe opportunity has become quite standardized in Japan, thanks to compulsory education in practice with scholarships. If talented students cannot advance from public schools to national universities within the framework of compulsory education, then the problem must lie in the public education or scholarship system. I think a program for making senior high schools tuition-free and a child-care allowance would solve such problems to a considerable extent.

Saito made the following comment to my earlier Opinion entry, titled “Personal independence Strengthens Japan.”

“People talk about disparities, but few Japanese die of hunger today. I believe minimum safety nets are more than what we need. We must also offer our young people chances to learn. But excessive protection impedes their independence.

“I feel that the spirit of envy to others and the spirit of overdependence lie at the bottom of the mentality that views disparities as a problem.

“I believe Japanese people should realize how blessed their lives are in Japan. We should also know that current conditions will not continue for long because of the budget deficit and declining economy. I believe Japanese people should first express appreciation for the privileged conditions we are enjoying now, and then focus on how they can contribute to the future of Japan.”

I find this opinion very interesting. Too many arguments for “helping the weak” have made me feel uncomfortable lately. “Helping the weak” is mediagenic. It is also likely to attract votes, too. Everyone wants to discuss the topic because it makes a speaker looks like a “good person and humanitalian.” Nobody disagree to this argument. However, if financial resources are overused and excessive protection arises as a result, then that would become a problem. I take this view because over protection and over emphasis of weakness is pushing Japan much weaker. That is the essential issue.

Let me make my position clear. I’m not against helping the weak or providing welfare. I believe we should give what is needed without hesitation. But I think we have given too much recently. Japan now has some 1.2 million households receiving welfare benefits. The number keeps growing. I believe support for self-reliance should be the goal, instead of overprotection, now that the public purse is empty.

Sontoku Ninomiya once made the following statement:

“Grants in money, or release from taxes, will in no way help them in their distress. Indeed, one secret of their salvation lies in withdrawing all monetary help from them. Such help only induces avarice and indolence, and is a fruitful source of dissensions among the people. The wilderness must be opened by its own resources, and poverty must be made to rescue itself.” (Excerpted from Representative Men of Japan)

I feel as if the muscles on my back are stretched when I read this book, Representative Men of Japan, written by Kanzo Uchimura. Sontoku lost his parents in his childhood, became separated from his brothers and went to live under the care of his ill-tempered uncle. The uncle said to Sontoku, “What a waste,” when he used lamp oil for reading a book at night. In reaction, Sontoku tilled a wasteland, planted rapeseed there, and obtained rapeseed oil after growing the plant for one year himself. The uncle then said to Sontoku, “The oil belongs to me, because your time belongs to me.” Sontoku ended up reading books on his way to and from work in the fields. This is the origin of the bronze statues of Ninomiya Kinjiro (the childhood name for Sontoku) that shows him reading a book with a bundle of firewood on his back. Sontoku achieved greatness in subsequent years because of this hardship he endured.

The words of Sontoku above are suggestive, because he emerged from poverty through his own efforts. In fact, Sontoku helped many people overcome poverty by cutting off their financial support. He earned their gratitude as a result. Of course, the times and circumstances have changed, and I’m not suggesting measures as strict as those suggested by the venerable Sontoku Ninomiya for contemporary Japan. But I believe we must learn something from his view that “such grants in money induces avarice and indolence, and is a source of dissensions among the people.”

A senior official in Mito was speaking to me last August about welfare benefits, and made the following comments:

“I often hear from a friend in the real estate management business about young people on welfare benefits. These young people willingly take the trouble to move out of their parents’ house and live away from their home to make themselves eligible for the benefits. I even hear married couples go on trips to spend all their savings because people with savings are not eligible for welfare benefits. The friend says people on welfare are safer tenants from a real estate perspective, because they generate fixed income. I cannot help but feel there is something wrong with this.”

Financial support takes away the spirit of independence. Politicians must cut off the assistance provided to these young people with a sense of affection, just like we give our children challenges out of love. Naturally, people deprived of their privileges will lodge complaints and put up desperate resistance. However, unless such action is taken, people in our society will start asking for “more support”. I believe a policy of overprotection will end up preventing the spirit of self-reliance from the hearts of these youngsters.

Everyone will compete to become the weak when the government helps the weak and treats the strong severely. This competition will “induce avarice and indolence, and is a source of dissensions among the people.” It is unlikely that Japan will achieve reconstruction when these conditions prevail..

To repeat my point, people talk about an “unequal society,” but it is only natural for results to differ when the efforts made are different. I believe we should turn our attention to disparities in efforts, rather than to disparities in results.

I don’t think we need to offer a help to weak people who make no effort. I think measures that treat people who make no effort favorably will induce avarice and indolence, and ultimately destroy Japan. I believe we have come to the point where we should reexamine the meaning of Sontoku’s words.

March, 8, 2010
Yoshito Hori