By Scott Haas
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- Profoundly improve your relationships, with a greater focus on listening, finding commonalities, and intuiting
- Find calm in ritualizing things such as making coffee, drinking tea, and even having a cocktail
- Embrace the importance of baths and naps
- Show respect for self and others, which has a remarkably calming effect on everyone
- Learn to listen more than you talk
- Tidy up your life by downsizing experiences and relationships that offer more stress than solace
- Cultivate practical ways of dealing with anger, fear, and arguments — the daily tensions that take up so much of our lives
Wait, what? Japan? What does Japan have to teach us about happiness?
A lot, as it turns out, and that’s something that took me years to figure out, and I’m still puzzled and trying to make sense of it all. Key matters led me astray from the way I was brought up to think about happiness.
In Japan, happiness isn’t a private experience. And happiness isn’t really a goal. Acceptance is the goal.
What Japan does at its best, and what we can learn from its culture, is how to ward off the pain of being alone in the world. Accepting reality, past and present, and embracing things that don’t last are fundamental to life in Japan. Spending time in Japan, studying its culture, and trying hard to figure out how people there go about planning, organizing, loving, and seeing themselves and nature have changed how I see and deal with stress.
Not everyone succeeds at being part of the multitude of groups in Japan, and isolation is a famous problem, as it is in the West with the elderly, the marginalized, and those with chronic mental illness.
But there are huge differences. Options exist for inclusion in Japan, from communal bathing to safe public parks to huge shrines and temples throughout the country that are open to all. A lot of mingling goes on (since the Taisho era, 1912–1926, but not before), thanks in part to Westernization that broke down barriers and hegemonies. Groups are central to existence from very early ages with kids all dressing the same and eating the exact same school lunches. Expectations are so obvious and widespread that a lot goes unspoken: you know how you are supposed to behave in Japan at home, in school, in shops, in restaurants, and at work—and these expectations don’t vary much from person to person (although biases about gender and age and homogeneity are embedded and inhibiting).
Most of all, who you are as a human being in Japan, your self-identity, is formed as much by your group affiliations as by your quirks, opinions, and likes and dislikes.
Growing up in the United States, I adhere to our broad cultural opportunities: the “can do” spirit, the message of “Yes, I can,” the extraordinary openness and creativity, the willingness to try new approaches to get things done, the ferocity of individualism.
This is where Japan comes in.
Observation, listening, being silent, taking things in, considering problems as challenges, being far less reactive, and, above all, practicing acceptance: these are at the pinnacle of how you relate to yourself and others. While these behaviors all exist elsewhere, of course, as they are characteristic of our species, in Japan they are the cornerstones of institutional and systemic development.
Knowing that who I am has a lot to do with who am I with is liberating. The road to self-analysis and self-satisfaction is endless, ironically confining, and peculiarly isolating.
Who needs privilege when you can have affiliation?
No place has added greater balance to my life, calm, patience, respect for silence and observation, and acceptance of how community and nature matter more than one’s needs. The individualism we prize in the West is supplemented by an awareness that life’s greatest pleasures come from satisfying others.
When others suffer, and we are empathic, our well-being is diminished. By this I mean: when we exercise our empathy, it implies absorbing the pain of others. As a clinician, when I hear, for example, terrifying narratives of loss, shame, and isolation, my well-being is diminished. This explains, in large part, why those suffering in ways evident to others are often shunned, blamed, or feared. The more we empathize with the pain of others, the more we recognize that their condition is part of our identity.
Think of it in the most pragmatic ways: if your child, spouse, parent, or dear friend is suffering, your well-being, because you feel part of them, and because they are in your heart and consciousness, is diminished. If my son or daughter or wife is suffering, I can’t think about being happy.
Quite capable of creating my own stress, rather skilled at it, in fact, and coming from a family where stress was wholly normalized, I have had a tendency to repeat the same familiar mistakes.
And it’s not just the personal. It never is—how could it be?
When I interview people at my job three mornings a week at the Department of Transitional Assistance in Dudley Square,1 Roxbury, Massachusetts, doing disability evaluations among the homeless or impoverished or abused or recently incarcerated, and then drive back to my tony neighborhood, which is only five miles away, I can see in very stark relief that achievement and safety have far less to do with personal drive than with race, gender, and economics.
I found the help I needed, found what was missing, by integrating experiences in Japan with my life here.
Incorporating habits from Japan, gradually or even piecemeal, has fundamentally changed how I see and experience stress, how I avoid it, and how I accept the world while simultaneously trying hard to change my position in it.
Pushing the World Away is the name of one of jazz saxophonist Kenny Garrett’s albums, and since he knows Japanese and has spent a lot of time in Japan, the title is an indication of how he and others, like me, view its culture.
When I spoke to Garrett, he told me: “Japan has always been my second home.” Inspired by Japanese culture, he said, “My music is pulling you in, pulling you in, pulling you in, pulling you in. The energy that we’re using to push the world away is energy we can use in positive ways.”
That’s Japanese acceptance in a nutshell. Pushing the world away in a fervent approach to creating meaningful experiences that bring us closer to one another and to the sensuality of being alive.
Through integrating uncomplicated and daily activities and practices from Japan, I feel less stress that comes about from my own history as well as in working with the disenfranchised, whose stories are deeply cutting. It’s an ongoing process; some days are better than others. And for sure I have more to work with than ever before, thanks to using observation, silence, and, above all, acceptance in its many facets. I have more ways to understand and decrease the destructive power of stress.
These aren’t secrets to happiness; this isn’t a way out of the challenges we face as human beings who are responsible citizens. It is a different way of seeing things, to paraphrase John Berger, adding to our current outlooks.2 That way offers possibilities.
A while back, the idea of ikigai got really popular and was put forward as a code or secret that once you learned it, you would be well on your way to happiness. But Japan isn’t just about happiness. More so, the Japanese story is fortitude, resilience, and community.3
What Japan offers is truly and fundamentally different ways of getting things done, seeing ourselves as part of nature, creating and being of use to communities, and accepting our very brief time here.
Just to be clear: Japanese have not cornered the market on empathy. Far from it. On a day-to-day basis, life in Japan is often characterized by indifference—people don’t seem to want to react to others around them. What if I say or do the wrong thing? What if I am interfering? What will others think of me?
At the same time, typically (but not always) there is extraordinary public safety and civility established through powerful and overriding cohesion that has been well-established, in many ways, since day one. External structures are there to provide what is needed; the individual doesn’t have to react much. Things are taken care of.
However, when a crisis does occur, one in which the external structures are not enough to solve matters, what is the individual supposed to do? Conditioned to look to the group for meaning, it can be difficult to know how to act and what to do.
My favorite artistic example of this takes place in High and Low, the 1963 Akira Kurosawa movie in which a wealthy Tokyo industrialist is forced to choose between being ruined in business or saving the life of the child of his chauffeur.
Putting aside his selfishness, which the movie suggests he acquired through postwar Americanization of Japan, the character Kingo Gondo (played by Toshiro Mifune) demonstrates that empathy trumps profit.
The movie was made when Japan was going into high gear—accelerating its industries, not just catching up with the West, but on the verge of surpassing it. Kurosawa was making the claim that the core values of Japanese culture were threatened by succumbing to Western concepts of success.
What, he wondered, was being lost?
The movie implies that empathy is the essence of Japanese culture and must not be sacrificed by adopting Western values driven by selfish greed. To help others, to understand and accept that we are part of a community: that’s what Kurosawa is saying it means to be Japanese. In his view, selfishness and greed are temptations imposed by the Americans that must be rejected.
I know—it’s a nationalistic movie!
Yet, in the United States, selflessness and empathy can be found everywhere. Whether through religious ties, community values, supportive and thoughtful families, or just a natural inclination to be caring, Americans think of ways each day to help others.
Jackie Robinson said, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”
The solitude, the separation we have from one another, the separation we have from nature, the selfishness that informs life all too often: these stressful concerns are addressed in Japan from a very early age.
Being part of family, school, company, and community is reinforced in Japan through a ton of everyday activities, behaviors, and ways of relating to one another, from observing to listening to apologizing (a lot!) to accepting.
The han (groups) of elementary schools, public bathing, unspoken relatedness, and public decorum are part of that effort or consensus. When individuals in Japan participate in each of these settings, their individualism is shaped by those around them. In a school, students must conform with uniforms and lunches. In public baths, naked among strangers or people recognizable from the community, privacy is no longer possible. The silence in crowds on sidewalks suggests that everyone is joined together (like it or not). All of these cultural representations and accepted behaviors lead to a shared sense of responsibility evident in healthy behaviors, highly functional communities, a great public infrastructure, and long life.4
No guarantees, but for sure thinking more about others and observing your surroundings leads to awareness: you’re not alone and not that important—which should be a relief. Well-being comes from helping others and fitting in.
The ideal of community remains a mainstay and a function of Japan’s cultural imperatives. Its goals are embedded in the faith that being part of a group is more important than asserting one’s individuality. Asserting oneself—making individual demands that are not expressed by the group—is frowned upon in Japanese culture.
I’ve been fortunate to have Japanese friends whose patience with me, and ability to laugh at my numerous mistakes, has deepened my awareness. Japan is by far the most relationship-driven country I’ve ever been to, a place where whom you are working with exceeds contractual matters.
Japan is also very didactic. Friends constantly correct me and take the time to show me the right way to do things. Whether it’s how to hand someone a business card, what to ask at the outset of a meeting with a new colleague, or how to behave on a train, I’ve been taught how better to fit in.
Countless experiences from my early years visiting Japan for work attest to the guidance provided.
I first went to Niigata, a prefecture northwest of Tokyo, on the Sea of Japan, around 2005. I had told Rocky Aoki, the former Olympic wrestler and the founder of the enormously successful Benihana franchise, that I was headed there and asked him what to expect. He laughingly called it “the Oklahoma of Japan.” Our conversation was taking place in Rocky’s plush digs on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, overlooking St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and as far as he was concerned, Niigata was the provinces.
“Nothing to worry about,” Rocky advised. “Full of hayseeds!”
It was anything but that. Sophisticated, rebuilt top to bottom since the war, and a no-nonsense kind of place, Niigata is like a great industrial city in the United States.
Fortunately, my friend Takeshi Endo, who had invited me to his city, tagged along to make sure I behaved myself properly. I had been hired by the sake brewers’ association of the prefecture, many of whom Takeshi knew through his food company, to help introduce their beverages to the United States. Niigata sake, in case you’re wondering, is regarded as some of the best in Japan because of the purity of the water that comes from the annual, massive snowfall.5
Takeshi literally stood at my elbow and told me how to hand out my meishi (business card), how to accept the card of the person I was meeting, how to look at the card, what to say after receiving the card, and where to put the card after receiving it.
“Tell him that you are grateful to be invited,” he whispered in my ear. “Describe your hotel in favorable terms. Mention that you appreciate his trust in you.”
Some of what he told me was not exactly unique to Japan, but what was different, and essential, was the precision and timing of the paces he was putting me through. And the clear implication that there were no alternatives: there was one right way to do things. I loved the clarity—what a relief! It was like scaffolding.
I had to look at the card and recite the person’s name and occupation on it while looking briefly into his or her eyes. I had to say something along the lines of how impressed I was with the occupation. Then the person did the same with my card. After that, each card had to be pinched at the bottom corners, lined up to the exact measure of the table’s edges, and placed facing the person who received it, name and occupation showing. Takeshi and I had discussed the pauses between my questions and statements earlier that day: where to sit at a business meeting, where to stand in an elevator, whether to bow, how deep to bow, to shake hands or not shake hands.
My friends knew all these things the same way I knew how to tie my shoes; it gave structure and rhythm to the day. In Tokyo, Yuko told me how to order noodles at a shop: where to stand, how to line up, where to put coins in a machine at the entrance that issued tickets for each selection, which I handed to the host or hostess, who brought them to the cooks. Shinji instructed me on what phrases to say when thanking a chef after a meal. Yumi showed me what to do when exiting a restaurant and the staff are on the sidewalk waving goodbye and bowing until they can no longer see us. Jiro indicated where to sit in a car and what compliment to give a farmer who was showing us ducks that ate the bugs that had been destroying his rice.
As Jiro and I exited an Irish tea room, in the middle of nowhere in Ishikawa prefecture, the shop a perfect facsimile created by the deep pockets and fanaticism of the owner, who had brought over furniture and carpenters from Ireland, I was told: “Tell him he has a beautiful suit.”
More about each one of these individuals later in the book.
What the endless catechism in Japan provides is a set of cozy honorifics that add confidence and affiliation. It’s actually like a huge collection of secret handshakes. And once you get into the swing of it, it is reassuring and a great way of letting go of a lot of personal hang-ups.
Mind you, as a foreigner, I’m the entertainment. People are observing. Whether I get it wrong or right, it can be fun for the locals. Like the time in a restaurant when I folded the wrapper of my chopsticks into a tiny accordion on which to place the chopsticks.
“What’s so funny?”
“A Japanese woman taught you that,” he said.
“A Japanese guy would never do that.”
“No problem,” he said, and laughed again. “Just saying.”
Or when I get it right and nail the honorifics, in an email or a speech at an izakaya that I’ve been asked to give rather suddenly to thank the host, a friend will whisper: “You sound so Japanese!”
Um, thanks, I guess.
In-groups, out-groups, ways to tell who’s who. I really love it applied here—when the effort to affiliate comes from me toward another individual. To try hard to find what we have in common and build on that until we both feel safe with one another.
Like talking about the calming effect of watching ducks swim on a pond with a guy I’m evaluating who just got out of state prison after serving a decade for attempted murder. Or talking about favorite stew recipes with a woman in a scattered site shelter6 for victims of domestic violence and how cooking gives her a sense of being at peace.
I’m not ignoring the tragedies or the antisocial behaviors, and I’m not minimizing the upheaval in their wake. I’m trying to build trust and see what we have in common as human beings long before anything else. I’m not into the pathology-driven approach to maladies.
It’s better to start with what we have in common as healthy human beings, which, as it turns out, is far more than what we don’t have in common.
These are starting points—based on affiliation—not the end points, and it’s Japanese awareness of groups and my desire to inculcate them into my life here that has calmed me down a lot, brought me closer to others, and turned life into a set of observations rather than anything I used to react to in ways more personal.
At times, I pretend I’m in a movie:
The Airport. The Supermarket. Stuck in Traffic. On Hold with the Appliance Company.
When I see myself as part of a group that is in each of these situations, rather than going it alone, I’m better able to step back. And feel part of things as well as observe.
The groups are there if we bother to look for them and accept being part of them. We have more in common with that person on the margins than we may care to acknowledge.
And since I see and hear and feel aspects of that person that remind me of my family, past and present, I’m more inclined to do something to be of use to that individual. That is very satisfying.
The daily habits, the very pragmatic matters, make Japan a place where individuals are encouraged (and at times required) to let go of selfish needs and be part of their surroundings. When it works, you realize your insignificance, experience relationships and nature more fully, and focus on the needs of others. All this adds up to a deepening sense of satisfaction and well-being.
I hope to share with you the way of life in Japan that contributes to ukeireru—acceptance.
What does it mean to accept a state of letting go and put others’ needs before yours? Japan is not the only country that prioritizes selflessness, but it is a place that uses this concept to inform how it structures and maintains institutions and systems.
In the West, letting go of self is epitomized in the poet John Keats’s “doctrine of negative capability”: “If a sparrow comes before my window, I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel… [so] that in a little time I am annihilated.”
Now wait. Before you say, “Who in their right mind would want to be annihilated?,” please remember a few facts: Keats died two hundred years ago, in 1821, at age twenty-five of tuberculosis. He was annihilated by mycobacteria, folks, not by a little bird. What he meant, what I mean, and what Japanese excel at is the annihilation of self-exploration, self-doubt, and pure selfishness.
It turns out that we are not our own best friends.
By observing nature and focusing on the immediate and transient, we get out of our heads, which is enormously relaxing.
In Japan, that’s a way of life.
1 The name was changed to Nubian Square on December 19, 2019.
2 Ways of Seeing is a book about perception and art by the critic and novelist John Berger (1926–2017).
3 In his terrific book What Makes Life Worth Living? How Japanese and Americans Make Sense of Their Worlds, Gordon Mathews, an anthropologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, wrote, “The dominant meanings of ikigai are ittaikan and jito jitsugen, ‘commitment to group,’ and, ‘self-realization.’” The idea is that self-realization comes about through positive experiences with others.
The Japan Times, in a review of the book that helped to spark the excitement, Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, by Héctor Garcia and Francesc Miralles, described ikigai as “the idea that having a purpose in your life is key to happiness.” The reviewer writes, “Curious whether ikigai and longevity have a causal connection, software engineer Hector Garcia and writer/translator Francesc Miralles set out to interview the residents of Ogimi, Okinawa, the so-called Village of Longevity. Their resulting book claims that ikigai is ‘The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life.’” “It’s an assertion the book fails to live up to,” the Japan Times reviewer writes. “They don’t connect ikigai with longevity in any convincing way. Instead the book is a patchwork of platitudes about diet and exercise, broken by interviews with centenarians and discussions of trends in psychotherapy. Their conclusion is correlation passed off as causation; the book is self-help painted as pseudo-philosophy.” Numerous other books have shown up in recent years celebrating ikigai and suggesting that this is it—this is the key to well-being. Not exactly.
4 In the book What Makes Life Worth Living? Mathews describes the importance of shudan seikatsu, which he translates as “group living,” in developing empathic qualities through social connections. Thomas Rohlen’s classic and wonderful book, Japan’s High Schools, is essential to what Mathews is writing, and so Mathews provides a generous quote from that work: “If we look closely at the developmental cycle, we find at every stage from nursery school to early employment the same basic routines reiterated and the same social lessons repeated time and again. Shared housekeeping chores, dress codes, group discussions, patterns of group assembly, and movement… are relearned at each new entry point.… Emphasis is always on standardizing the basic practices and understanding their moral implications in the context of shudan seikatsu.”
5 The only sake served at NOBU, the famous restaurant in Manhattan, comes from one brewer located on Sado Island, which is part of Niigata prefecture. I wish this was product placement, but it’s not, so when we celebrated my son Nick’s eighteenth birthday there, it was on our dime, as it should be.
6 A scattered site shelter typically provides safe, temporary housing for homeless individuals with children.
In Japan, numerous words mean “acceptance.” Depending on who you are with and the situation in which you find yourself, finding the right words to express acceptance varies and presents challenges for the speaker and listener.
It’s no different from countless Japanese words and phrases that function as symbols or representations of meanings.1
When deciding to write this book, I contacted friends in Japan to see if they could help me understand acceptance at deeper levels than my own—an outsider to their upbringings, culture, traditions, and history.
What might acceptance mean in Japan?
Yumi Obinata, an interpreter in Tokyo, sent me a highly detailed spreadsheet listing four words that mean acceptance. She then explained in what kind of sentence each word can be used and how to use them.
“Ukeireru is used by a mother with a child to accept something gently.
“Uketomeru is used by a mother to accept ‘the burst of emotions of her child’ when ‘something comes with great force.’
“Toriireru can be used in describing the acceptance by Japan of Protestant missionaries.
“Ukenagasu can mean to receive and ‘let it flow away.’”
Yumi explained further: “It is like if you are standing in a stream, you would rather stand sideways so that the water pressure on your body feels lighter. So here in Japan people accept disasters as part of life and try to ukenagasu so that they may not be affected too much psychologically.
“Kikinagasu can mean to hear and listen and let it flow away, meaning that we pretend to listen to somebody’s nagging but not take it really seriously!
“Juyo-Suro can be used to describe accepting modern Western thoughts and systems.”
Yumi said that “jyō can be six different words, and ukeireru is used often in day-to-day speech.”
I have known Yumi and her family for many years. I’ve enjoyed talking to her son Nozomi about his college thesis on European Jewish post-Holocaust philosophers when he lived with my wife and me for a couple of weeks, having dinner with her and her husband and my wife in an upscale
- "Respect, flexibility, and the inspiration to articulate core values are the key elements to understanding different cultures. With these three approaches, Why Be Happy? describes quite eloquently the values that Japanese people want to hand to the next generation."—Yoji Yamakuse, author of Japaneseness
- "Scott Haas describes dualism of life in Japan perfectly. He allows the reader to view the culture through his experiences as the Japanese simultaneously strive for perfection or imperfection, depending on whether you view it (the culture) from a western or Japanese standpoint. I highly recommend Why Be Happy? to anybody who's interested in learning about Japan. Omedetoo gozaimasu!"—Kenny Garrett, Grammy Award-winning jazz musician
- "Why be Happy? is a fascinating, suggestive contemplation, filtered through experiences in Japan, of the happiness perplex in America. Haas perceives the basic elements of contentment in Japan as acceptance and empathy and asks if these aren't more satisfyingly found in the connections between people than in the isolated (American) individual."—Merry White, PhD, Professor of Anthropology, Boston University
- "Scott Haas has written a valuable book that is enormously helpful for integrating our Western approach with Japanese practices for stress reduction. Both anecdotal and grounded in research, the book is extremely pragmatic. By focusing on Japanese methods to reduce stress, he then suggests that the subsequent calm can enable people to better address the systemic and institutional causes of their stress."—Robert B. Saper, MD, Director of Integrative Medicine, Boston Medical Center
- "Scott Haas understands that Japanese cuisine reflects culture and history; he takes us behind the scenes and shows how the food is a sure way to appreciate Japan."—Shinichiro Takagi, owner and chef at Relais & Chateaux, two Michelin star restaurant Zeniya in Kanazawa, Japan
- "Scott Haas's insightful and engrossing exploration into the Japanese way of acceptance is a road map to a more meaningful life. This wonderful book excites with food for thought that is sumptuous, savory, and nuanced."—Drew Nieporent, Restaurateur: Nobu, Tribeca Grill, Bâtard
- "Scott Haas asks a very philosophical question, and he is really interesting and deep. Every time you open a page, you'll be amazed."—Kenichiro Ooe, former chef at Kozue, Park Hyatt Tokyo, featured in Lost in Translation
- On Sale
- Jul 7, 2020
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Hachette Go