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Low Desire? No, It’s Risk Aversion

Ever since Japanese management consultant Kenichi Ohmae coined the term "low desire society," many in China are wondering how the idea applies to their own country

By Huang Shaojie Updated Nov.16

Ever since Japanese management consultant Kenichi Ohmae coined the term in his book How to Ignite the Low Desire Society, many think Ohmae also may have something right about China.

In his book, Ohmae describes the current state of Japan as a “low desire society,” where people are so worried about an uncertain future that they do not want to possess or consume. Even with a decent income, they would rather save than spend.

Is China slipping into a similar state of quiet desperation, too?

After all, people who share Ohmae’s concerns look around and see men and women who feel stuck in life with a slacker-like attitude of apathy and self-mockery. It's a group of people who withdraw socially and maintain a diminishing circle of friends. Too tired to want to do anything and too depressed to care, they instead share internet memes that visualize their defeatism in a competitive society.

So maybe this is it, some say. We are going where the Japanese have gone.

Except it is not, said a Beijing News commentary.

Far from being a low desire society, said the author, Chinese people still have a very big appetite to fill. Consumer spending is contributing an ever larger portion of the country’s economic output while holiday makers buoyed retail, yet again, this past National Day Golden Week.

Even when people seem to not want much, it is not a sign of low desire but an individual’s approach to risk management when facing uncertainties, real or perceived, the author argued. The Japanese cannot afford to want too much now because they have to save for their retirement years. Slackers hole up in their studio apartments because they don’t see a way out or up in a world that seems to make their efforts irrelevant. In other words, human desires are always there but societies determine how these desires are expressed, if at all.

The commentary concluded with a call for courage and wisdom to take on existential challenges such as an aging society. “The low desire phenomenon is a warning to let us know that humankind has reached a critical point,” the author wrote, adding that how we address these challenges will help shape the society we create moving forward as well as the future of humanity.