Happiness in Japan

What is the Japanese sense of happiness? How happy or unhappy is Japan as a society? The relevance of such questions has been underlined by an increasing amount of happiness research casting doubt on the simplified equations of societal affluence and happiness or economic development and social well-being. The challenges of low fertility, economic uncertainties and regional disparities, which have been haunting Japan for more than two decades, and the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake add a particular twist to the question of what makes the Japanese happy, and how perceptions of happiness change across subgroups and the life cycle.

The greater share of the burgeoning literature on happiness has been produced in the fields of economics and psychology. This project is designed to alter the discourse by placing society and social actors simultaneously at the center of inquiring. Qualitative research methods are chosen to assess the cultural variability of happiness as a discursive construct, while quantitative methods will generate additional insight into the variation of happiness among social groups and throughout the life course.

The fundamental objective of this project is to generate advanced knowledge about the linkages between socio-structural aspects, individual agency and happiness in contemporary Japan. In particular, the project pursues three objectives:

  • to further insight into what makes life worth-living for different age groups within specific social milieus;
  • to aid in the scholarly understanding of how cultural institutions, social relations, the economy and policymaking impact objective conditions of well-being and the subjective perceptions of their significance;
  • to contribute to the emerging debate on happiness among social scientists globally by using Japan as a prominent case study.

Anthropological and sociological inquiries serve as a starting point for theorizing the interplay of institutions and their subjective appreciation as fundamental cornerstones of social well-being. Studying Japan therefore can further our understanding of how contemporary complex societies can maintain cohesion and coherence even in times of crisis and turmoil.

This project began in 2012 as collaboration between the German Institute for Japanese Studies Tokyo and the Department of East Asian Studies/ Japanese Studies of the University of Vienna. As part of the project, the project leaders initiated two conferences on happiness in 2014. Deciphering the social DNA of happiness in Japan took place in April 2014 at the University of Vienna (link), and the workshop All for the good life - anthropological and sociological perspectives on happiness in Japan, at the Sociology/Anthropology section of the European Association of Japanese Studies Conference in Ljubljana in August 2014.

The results of these debates have been published in the edited volumes Life course, happiness and well-being in Japan and Happiness and the good life in Japan, presenting anthropological and sociological views on happiness in Japan.