This book offers a path to well-being and satisfaction for the anxious and exhausted, using ukeireru, the Japanese principle of acceptance.
Scott Haas is a writer, clinical psychologist, and the author of four books, including Why Be Happy?: The Japanese Way of Acceptance.
The winner of a James Beard award for his on-air broadcasts on public radio, Scott holds a Ph.D. from the University of Detroit. He did his doctoral internship at Massachusetts Mental Health Center, a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital.
In normal (non-pandemic) years, Scott works in Japan three to four times annually. He is currently based in Cambridge, MA.
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.
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.
This book is about what we can learn from Japan concerning happiness. Coming from a person who's lived and experienced the Japanese culture firsthand, let’s see how Scott defines happiness in Japan and how he incorporates it with acceptance. As Scott mentions: “This book is about the modern habits and activities of Japanese that create a powerful and reassuring sense of ukeireru to add to what we have here.”
What is Japanese acceptance? What makes it unique?
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.
This reminds me of a quote from Dr Iza Kavedzija’s article: “Happiness in the Japanese context can usefully be understood as deriving from a series of negotiations or ‘balancing acts’ between contrastive values and orientations to the world.”
In my interview with Iza, she explains that the elderly people she worked with in Japan, try to form connections that are friendly and warm, but not overly burdensome -- it is important for them to have a good time and avoid conflicts. It just goes to show that the Japanese are considerate of the people around them. As Scott states: “A chief difference between Japan and the United States in terms of self-identity is that here the individual has more authority than the group. In Japan, it’s the reverse: the group establishes your principal identity.”
Scott also mentions that 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 -- in Japan, they are the cornerstones of institutional and systematic development.
You can definitely feel those things when you’re in Japan. They have this harmony and understanding of the things around them; they are very mindful of how they act alongside others; instead of complaining, they try to understand and accept the things that are happening around them.
Uniformity of the aesthetic
When you look at Japanese calligraphy, porcelain, lacquerware, or washi (paper), you can acquire a sense of being part of the object - not only through observing the art but in knowing that others are probably sharing the same or very similar observations. The uniformity of the aesthetic, how it is created to evoke responses by many, is part of creating a group mentality in Japan.
Scott explains that the uniformity of aesthetics is part of creating a group mentality, and I was reminded of an interview I had with Rie Takeda, a professional calligrapher. Rie performs shodo (the art of traditional Japanese calligraphy), and in shodo, Rie shared with me that it’s all about the energy flow: when calligraphers move the brush on the paper, the energy flow becomes visible into the paper. People observing the artwork can sense the energy flow, and I believe that is what Scott’s referring to about the uniformity of aesthetics; people sharing moments, looking at the same thing, and having the same sentiments.
Breathing in harmony
Who we are, and what we can become, is defined by our relationships to one another. In Japan, those relationships begin and develop through a vast array of shared activities in which the individualism of the participants is defined and understood through their participation. The activity of the group becomes the focal point.
Again, in my interview with Iza, she shares that in Japan, the city government would organize an ikigai school, where they offer traditional arts or have a sports group, for the older people to get together and do a little bit of exercise. I think this is one great example of shared activities that they carry out in Japan; they are concerned for the well-being of everyone that they conduct these activities that can be beneficial for each one of them.
The tea ceremony is the epitome, the height of a cultural experience, and what informs it, how it is structured, and how you feel when doing it can all be helpful in navigating far less structured situations and relationships: sit still; pay attention; follow rules; go slowly; enjoy a simple experience.
One example of an activity that Scott gave was the tea ceremony, and I agree that the tea ceremony is the epitome, the height of cultural experience in Japan. In my interview with Randy Channell Soei, a Canadian tea master residing in Japan, he explains that “the way of tea” can be expressed in wa-kei-sei-jyaku, a four kanji compound word that brings together the ideas of harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility; it allows both the host and guest to experience a moment of tranquility.
If you can acquire self-acceptance, and then acceptance of others and your place in the natural scheme of things, you can recognize your responsibility for thinking of others before you act. As a result, you are more likely to take action that benefits the world you live in: Why choose to make things worse when you feel affiliation for those in your community?
I would relate this to a phrase from Gregg Krech’s course: “Seeing the crooked tree as straight.” In my interview with Gregg, he explains that if people could just stop fixing others and just accept them, there would be more space for love for everyone.
I believe it is vital to accept the people around us and understand where they’re coming from because we cannot be truly happy if we keep looking at the faults of others. Moreover, accepting and understanding the needs of others can lead to better decision-making, as Scott states: “When you realize that acceptance of the group's needs comes first, it opens up innovative ways to make decisions with others. And this is crucial for our life. Most of our decisions involve one or more people. If we have this acceptance and realization that there are more people involved, and we can accept the reality of the world or the situation and we can move on to making these positive decisions rather than being stuck in some sort of angst or resentment or mental conflict, when half the people around us won't even know why we're pissed off. We could be pissed off because we had a fight with our spouse.”
Silence in Japan
Silence in Japan is part of the national character, and so essential to the culture that its uses and misuses define in large measure the ways in which people relate to one another both intimately and at work.
Silence is used to communicate far more than words.
Being respectful means being part of your surroundings, not using your voice to differentiate or separate yourself. This has a calming, inclusive effect.
Silence plays an important role in how Japanese communicate; it is a way to be intimate with someone without having to speak or physically touch them. It is more of a shared experience, like how Japanese people express their happiness -- they express joy in a reserved manner, but people around them can definitely feel it; just enjoying the moments of silence shared with your friends and loved ones. You have this silent understanding -- no words needed, but you can feel every emotion; it’s involves being sensitive to others' feelings.
Sumimasen requires the other person to whom you are saying it to acknowledge your existence and by doing so alters what they are doing. It’s a way to say: I’m sorry for inconveniencing you. I’m sorry that you have to deal with me and my needs. I’m sorry for being selfish.
Sumimasen is an effort to avoid or resolve conflict, which is something Japanese are exceedingly good at doing within their culture.
I like how sumimasen or making an apology creates a place to start from and wiggle room to improve a conflict. By apologizing, we accept the responsibility for our disruptive behavior; it’s acknowledging our faults and trying to make amends for them. Accepting and being aware of our shortcomings is a way to improve ourselves.
Happiness isn’t just personal. Being content implies awareness of the lives of others. Isn’t it possible that if your community is vibrant and sustained, a more lasting and comprehensive feeling of well-being will become part of your self-awareness and identity?
Ukeireru is an awareness of others and an acceptance of their vulnerabilities. It alleviates the tension of feeling that the pursuit of happiness is the key to well-being. Ironically, it’s the reverse: when we accept others and feel joined to them, more possibilities for well-being are created.
You should take the calm - not the happiness - that comes from accepting yourself and your place in nature, and think about or even do something about what made you miserable and scared in the first place.
Scott shared with me that happiness depends on the community that you live in. If you’re not doing anything to be of use to others in your community, then happiness is privatized, and you end up doing things only for yourself. Like Scott, I believe that it is important to consider the happiness of others. Happiness is something that we should share with others and not only seek for ourselves.
Japan isn’t just about happiness. More so, the Japanese story is fortitude, resilience, and community.
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.
It’s not about being happy. It's about learning to live with disappointment, making others safe, and developing insight that helps you understand that happiness flees when there is loss. What’s lost must be accepted.
This book offers a better understanding of how we can achieve happiness through the Japanese way of acceptance. It is a very interesting read as it takes you through Japan and what the country has to offer. It teaches us the importance of acceptance in our community and our surroundings. Being happy is not limited to ourselves. It is something that we should share with others.