Book review, Tokyo – What does it mean to be economical? Does it mean living within one’s means? Prudence probably sums that up better. What about only using what we need? That’s being frugal. Maybe being economical is about getting our money’s worth, and economics about efficient distribution of limited resources. Time is money, goes the old adage. So who’s measuring how we use our time for something worthwhile?
Modern life is about being tied, to loans, debt and feeding the ravenous monster that is the world economy. Countries chase numbers to pull in money for growth and indicators, to make sure the huge monster stays happy. Have we taken the time to stop and think about how happy we are as a cog in this unstoppable machinery?
Is it surprising that a picture book with a profound message that is more than 5 years old strikes more than a simple chord with someone in finance? The speaker, a former guerilla fighter, also happened to be the simple, frugal former head of state of a nation once known as the Switzerland of the Southern hemisphere, who featured in a series of Japanese books. Before these two picture books by Chobunsha, how the two languages sounded was the most obvious link between the two countries. The books created a new one, the ideas of former Uruguayan President Jose “Pepe” Mujica.
The first picture book released in 2014 vividly illustrated the then president’s simple, frank Rio+20 speech of his view on the state of human civilization. Lives misled by the demons of desire that end unfulfilled, saddled and ultimately crippled by debt. He proposes a rethink of our goals, our lifestyles at the fundamentals of modern society. He was content with his, tending to his vegetables, chickens, and refusing his official ride but indulging in a simple daily dose of tea. Acknowledging the importance of work to society, he leaves hints to being content and happy. His message that day still rings strong in Japan and recently Taiwan, and on Youtube, in the world’s search for sustainability.
The second book, a follow-up nearly 18 months later, is a longer, deeper look at the story behind the man who made that speech. Compiled from years of speeches and an interview after he was relieved of his stately duties, the book brings readers on a journey through his past as a guerilla fighter, the things, books and people, that changed him, and his thoughts on the future that we can fight to create.
The second book specifically mentioned Asia, hinting at the value of Asian teachings. By doing so, he seems to suggest that, when the time comes, Asia and its values would promise a chance to move the world in a new direction, toward a new type of life.
The illustrations and stories in these books are targeted at children, but the ideas are ones that adults relate more easily to. These books invite reflection and interaction, to discuss and find a way forward. It found success in Japan with a thoughtful population seeking escape in a time of a pro-growth national policy. So why not in other societies or markets that chase the same lofty highs? The language is the first barrier, the unconventional ideas are the next. Hopefully, we will get to see these books in English, preferably sooner rather than later. Otherwise, we’ll all have to depend on the Japanese and Chinese to work on finding happiness together.
“Sekai ichiban mazushii daitouryou no supiichi (A speech by the world’s poorest president)” was later translated into traditional Chinese as “Quan shijie zuiqiong de yeye lai yanjiang” by RuHe publishing. “Sekai ichiban mazushii daitouryou kara kimi he (A message from the world’s poorest president)” was released in October 2015 in Japan.
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The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out
Enchanted Lion Books, 2020
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