A new mechanism for the world: Securing sustainability for society

KOTANI Koji

Specialized field

Environmental economics, resource management and agricultural production


Solving global problems while maintaining a competitive society

One of the fundamental principles of capitalism is societal competitiveness. Humans have acquired great freedom and development through competition. At the same time, however, competition has had some harmful effects on sustainability, such as environmental and resource problems.

Professor Kotani says, "Some negative aspects of capitalism are visibly emerging, particularly regarding environmental, resource and climate change issues. I was deeply inspired by an economics book I happened to read when I was a student. I started to think that in order to solve the world's problems of that time, I would like to seek to develop a new mechanism for society that would successfully incorporate cooperation and mutual aid and reduce the negative aspect of competition. At the moment I read that book, I had an intuition that perhaps this could become my life work."

In his student days, keenly aware that solving global problems might be difficult if one thought only about Japan, Prof. Kotani decided to proceed to graduate school in the United States. After a period of intense study, he entered the graduate school of Cornell University, one of the best, most prestigious universities in the world, and studied environmental economics. Since his return to Japan, he has largely focused on research in experimental economics, which works to solve economic problems by experimentation.

Prof. Kotani continues, "Environmental and resource problems are mostly caused by excessive economic competition among nations and companies. In a society where human behavior is largely related to money, couldn't altering the flow of money lead to the solution of global problems without eliminating competition? This question, which has been on my mind since I was an undergraduate, has led me to my research theme." For Prof. Kotani, this is exactly the life work that he has chosen.

How does human behavior vary as a result of the environment where people are born and raised?

Currently Prof. Kotani focuses on the differences in directionality and behavior between young people who grew up in urban areas, exposed to intense competitive society, and those who grew up in relaxed rural areas. He has been conducting experimental investigations on this topic not only in Japan but also in Asian countries such as Bangladesh and Nepal. In particular, through experiments conducted in Bangladesh, he found significant differences between young people living in cities who have entered top-level universities through competition and young people living in self-sufficient villages where people live cooperatively.

Prof. Kotani explains, "In that experiment, I asked the two groups of research subjects various questions; for example I asked them to select from two societal models, 'A, which has benefits for the current generation but damages the welfare of the next generation' and 'B, which requires struggle and pain by the present generation but causes no damage to the next generation.' We found out a remarkable tendency: urban young people who have been living in a competitive society chose A and young people who have been living in countryside chose B."

Pursuing the implications of those findings, Prof. Kotani and his team worked to clarify the influence of competitive society on the human mind, and to analyze the effect on global problems if more people were brought up in competitive society, and apply that clarification to the development of a solution.

Discussion based decision making leads to real democracy

Prof. Kotani's experiments have continued in various directions. In addition to the experiment involving choosing between societal models A and B, they conducted discussion experiments to examine the extent to which the variation in future orientation in the decision making of people and organizations depends on the degree of mutual understanding within each group. The aim of this experiment was to determine the impact of discussion on people or organizations. It was found that in the case of Japanese subjects, discussion improved in terms of future considerations if both types of people were included in discussion: future-oriented people, who place weight on the welfare of the next generation; and ice breakers, who can consolidate the opinions of different persons.

Prof. Kotani continues, "Everyone knows this kind of thing intuitively, but it has not been proven scientifically that the inclusion of both types of people would generate a variety of opinions and lead to future-oriented discussions. Then, keeping an eye on that aspect, I would like to scientifically analyze the effect of discussion during problem solving so as to realize a system for discussion based decision making."

Prof. Kotani cautions that underlying this thinking he feels some doubt and concern about the current state of democracy.

"Currently people can participate in democracy by simply voting, without much understanding of societal issues. However, I now think that that is not the essence of democracy. Through the development of my research, I would like to raise awareness that real democracy requires that decisions be made through participation in discussion rather than simply voting. For example, the people of Kochi should participate in discussions to determine the future of Kochi and convey their aggregated opinions to the politicians. I would like them to think about democracy in the true sense, and about better decision making."

In research like that done in the past, Prof. Kotani and his team investigated subject choice between societal models A and B and discussed the differences in the subjects' selection. However, this current research includes discussion, focused on examining whether opinions change after discussion. It can be said that this is an advanced perspective, with even world-wide potential.

Prof. Kotani says, "As everyone has a conscience, I think everyone must be thinking that they do not want to make decisions that will impair sustainability. However, since there is no place to discuss such matters, some negative outcomes are emerging, such as environmental problems. Through this research, our overarching goal is to build a new mechanism to realize a society that can secure sustainability."

It is said that the centers of economics are the U.S. and Europe. However, Prof. Kotani left the United States after completing his doctorate course and intentionally chose to study in Japan. He confirmed his identity as a Japanese while studying in a foreign country, and that prompted him significantly to choose this path.

Prof. Kotani says, "In order to contribute to the welfare of the earth, I thought that continuing my research as a Japanese would be the most effective approach. I will continue that stance in the future too. I would like to understand the characteristics of the Japanese and apply that knowledge in my research towards the creation of a mechanism which enhances the social structure of capitalism and democracy and disseminate it from Japan to the world. I think that is the mission that has been given to me. I will continue pursue research that is centered on Asia and Japan, but applies to the world, until I die."

Prof. Kotani is persisting with his focus on viewpoints and thinking which are rooted in the characteristics of the Japanese. Somewhere beyond this moment, there is a sustainable future that people can dream of.