The origin of the Japanese word keizai (経済 ‘economy”)

No, you won’t see this yojijukugo in common use, but it is the one that a the Japanese, Korean, and Chinese word for economy 経済, is thought to derive from.

When Japan opened to the rest of the world in mid-19th century, it had to learn to communicate a lot of new things. Despite the thousands years of both inherited Chinese and indigenous Japanese scholarship, Japanese at the time lacked words to convey many concepts. Names for new objects as well as for abstract ideas had to be invented. In those days, the Japanese did not rely as much on katakanese, so they put their minds to make up new kanji-based words. Most of times,  those would  be very clever renderings of the meanings deciphered from European words and then reassembled  in Japanese. For example, the word for society, shakai, would be made of two characters 社会 meaning “gathering in/around a Shinto shrine”, which rather neatly and with a hint of metonymy gets across how the contemporary Japanese would envision ‘society’. Swap the characters, and we got 会社 kaisha, “company” or “firm” (by the way, both société in French).

Economy in the sense of a discrete domain, (egregiously) thought to exist independently of everything else, such as society, environment, or psychology, is a relatively new way of thinking about the relations between money, commodities and labour. It was novel to the 19th century Japan (and, granted, just barely established in the West too). Understandably, there was no corresponding Japanese word for it. So Meiji intellectuals, well versed in Classical Chinese, digged out a wise maxim 經世濟民 keisei-saimin from The Book of The Master Who Embraces Simplicity, a 4th-century treatise by Ge Hong, a Jin Dynasty official.

The meaning of  the phrase can be interpreted  as “keeping the world in order will help out the people”. This idea shows a strong influence of the Chinese political concept of the Mandate of Heaven with its insistence that “moral government brings peace to the country”). That kind of understanding echoes well with the parallel, much later Western concept of political economy: every political decision will have economic repercussions (i.e., the  prosperity of the population).

Ancient Greeks, to whom we trace the two words, thought of them as separate domains. Politics was the matters of the polis, whereas economy was to do with the oikos, home affairs. The wise man was to keep the twain asunder.

Bizarrely enough, despite centuries of effort in political and social theory, the modern practice is still more in  line with that archaic separation of the domains. The latter-day Neo-Classical theory, the dominant one in policy making worldwide, understands economy as a self-contained entity. Its success is judged by arbitrarily chosen quantifiable attributes, such as growth, controlled inflation and an infinitely expanding slew of other numerical meta-entities. Everything else  – environment, society, psychology, humanity itself  –  is treated as “externalities“, well worth sacrificing to keep the basic economic indicators within the range considered desirable  (a.k.a. #GoodForTheEconomyShitForThePeople). That makes it possible, for example, for the Economist to comment gleefully and sincerely on Pakistan’s economic growth while the country was devastated by floods. The same kind of thinking governs the global development industry, bringing the never-ending misery to the Third World.

It is exactly the opposite of the spirit of the original Chinese expression that gave birth to the word 経済. Will economics ever manage to overcome this pernicious misunderstanding?

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