"Cultures of Debt: Ethics, Laws, Technologies and the Environment of Moneylending from a Global Perspective"

contractTakehiro Watanabe, email: takwatanabe.sophia@gmail.com

Other researchers

Yoshitaka Okada,
email: y-okada@sophia.ac.jp
Tatsuo Murakami,
email: muraka-t@sophia.ac.jp

The research unit is seeking other collaborative partners.

Research Proposal

This research investigates the globalization of moneylending institutions and practices from a global and interdisciplinary perspective. It does so through four overarching themes: ethics and religion, law and institutions, new technology, and the environment. Through these four themes the research elucidates the factors involved in the planning, implementation, and the results of projects that seek to provide the disenfranchised easier access to financial resources. The research also asks whether these practices are lifting people out of poverty or helping them import economic disparity. By considering the legal, technological, and the ecological changes caused by globalization, the research can give a fuller account of the effectiveness of philanthropic moneylending projects as well as the spiritual – sometimes religious – meanings that these life-saving loans have on those who need them the most.

From home loans that give membership to the middle-class in industrial societies to microfinance loans that empower underclass women with business know-how, societies place moral value on the state of being in debt. Similarly, defaulting on loans can also have consequences for one's standing in society, whether it is a person with a crushing credit card debt or a country with an unsettled debt issued by the International Monetary Fund. Moneylending remains the method of distributing aid most favored by international agencies and transnational corporations, as seen by United Nation's commitment to microfinancing and by top-ranking banks that have promoted it as part of their corporate social responsibility agenda. Since the collapse of Japan's bubble economy in the late 1980s, and with the U.S. sub-prime loan crisis that has caused the current global economic downturn, there is a growing public discussion on the meaning of debt, both personal and corporate. It is imperative that this discussion be understood cross-culturally, from a global perspective, and through a multi-disciplinary lens.

Much has been written about microfinancing and international loans, but with less attention paid to the cultural dimensions of these economic arrangements. The ethical dimension of economic life is a key subject of study in the humanities and the social sciences. From Max Weber's thesis on Protestantism and capitalism to Benjamin Nelson's study of Judaic laws on usury, this topic has garnered the attention of generations of scholars. This collaborative research positions itself in this intelle ctual tradition by exploring the links between the human spirit and the forces of globalization.

As such we will focus on religious, legal, technological, and environmental transformations that are currently taking place on a global level to ethnographically depict the changes in the culture of 2 financial transactions taking place at the bottom of the social pyramid.


This research investigates the globalization of moneylending institutions and practices from a global and interdisciplinary perspective. It does so through four overarching themes:

cross on moneyA. Ethics, Religion, and Spirituality:

• How does indebtedness affect one's sense of spiritual well-being and sense of community? How does indebtedness shape people's actions and ways of thinking in daily life? What meaning is given to the loan and the loaning agent?
• How do religious institutions justify moneylending? How are personal stories of debt used for religious pedagogy? How do religious concepts, such as sin and salvation, shape the meaning of debt? For example, how does the spread of religions such as Pentecostalism and ideas such as economic self-sufficiency go hand-in-hand in areas of acute poverty?
• How has the growth of microfinance programs in the global civil society sector (e.g. the United Nations) in the last two decades transformed religion-based charity organizations in their work in developing countries?

legalB. Legal and Institutional Frameworks:

• What institutional frameworks administer loans?
• Who finances and is profit expected? How do institutions justify moneylending as philanthropy? What is the difference between for-profit and non-profit?
• What features of the legal framework, at the local, national, and international levels, hinder transparent microfinance projects and push the poor to turn to usurious and criminal financial schemes? How have criminal elements transformed the administering of philanthropic moneylending practices, especially in regions with high levels of political corruption or a weak legal infrastructure?

techonologyC. New Technologies:

• What sorts of financial technologies are available to the poor? Is the increasing use of mobile technologies and the Internet making it easier to access needed funds, especially in areas where mobile phones are more readily available than bank accounts?
• How has technology devised alternative currencies and methods of storing, protecting, and procuring financial resources? What sorts of technologies are used to keep account of credit?
• How has new telecommunications technology spurned financial and identity-related cybercrimes?

D. The Environment:

• How has the recent shift of focus to environmental sustainability issues in the world of international aid affected microfiancing projects?
• How do issues of environmental sustainability affect microfinance decisions, especially in regions where poverty is directly linked to deterioration in environmental conditions?
• How has recent changes in climate patterns caused by global warming changed the perception of the future in terms of credit and certainty, especially in financial forecasting?
• How has it affected the everyday morality of the poor when it comes to economic issues such as frugality and work ethics?

Ethnographic case studies will include:

1. Microfinance programs in developing countries, administered by Japanese ODA and NGOs.
2. Microfinance programs in developing countries, administered by religion-affiliated organizations
3. Rescue programs for victims of illegal moneylending in Japan


This study will assess the effectiveness of loans, such as microfinancing, in eradicating poverty and combating global economic disparities. By comparing how different cultures codify debt as a measure designed to lift individuals out of poverty, the research will identify the moral 3 dimensions of economic life. It will also investigate the influence of globalization on microfinance practices by focusing on issues of changing legal structures, new technological innovations, and the natural environment. We will also use the colloquia meetings to identify other scholars in Sophia and beyond with whom to collaborate for further research.


A. Fieldwork research on microfinancing programs in developing countries, administered by Japanese ODA and NGOs
1. Interview officers and observe meetings at JICA, PlaNet Finance Japan, and related microfinance organizations
2. Enrollment in microfinance classes to conduct participant observation
3. Field research of government and non-government microfinance programs in Zambia and Bolivia.

B. Fieldwork research on microfinancing programs in developing countries, run by religionaffiliated organizations
1. Interview Japanese officers from Hope International, World Vision, and other Christian microfinance organizations.
2. Field research of religion-affiliated microfinance programs in Zambia and Bolivia.

C. Fieldwork research on rescue programs for victims of illegal moneylending in Japan, including interviews with government-run programs for victims of underground loans and financial crimes, and interviews with victims, lawyers and law enforcement agents.

D. Fieldwork on an online microfinance training session.

Plans for presentation of findings
A. Colloquia & Meetings

March 5, 2010
A workshop on : Cultures of Debt: Ethics, Laws, Technologies and the Environment of Moneylending from a Global Perspective

B. Plans for Publication

The research team plans to publish findings in academic journals.
List of relevant publications by unit members
Okada, Yoshitaka. (2007) "Minkan sekuta tono rekei ni yoru mireniamu kaihatsu mokuhyo (MDGs) tassei ni muketa ODA katsuyo hosaku kento chosa hokokusho (Research report on the use of ODA for contributing to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals by private-public partnership." Report submitted to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. March 2007.
Okada, Yoshitaka. (2005) "企業の社会的責任 (CSR)と人権 I&II (Corporate social responsibility and human rights." 世界経済評論 (World Economic Review) 49 (11):33-40 & 49 (12) : 34-44.

Relationship to ongoing projects

"Cultures of Debt: Global Inequities and the Ethics of Moneylending from a Cross-Cultural Perspective" is a collaborative project headed by Tatsuo Murakami and includes Takehiro Watanabe. Funded by Sophia University Research Institute for the year 2009, with possibility of extension into 2010. The funding covers two overseas field research trips.