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Five lessons from Japan

By Anthony Scioli


Recently Japan’s 77 year old Emperor Akihito implored his people “not to abandon hope”.  This may have struck some Westerners as odd since Japan is an Eastern country largely dominated by Buddhism and Shinto, faith traditions that many associate with mindfulness, acceptance and renunciation rather than hope for the future, transformation, or worldly pursuits.  In fact, it is not uncommon to find Westerners who believe that “hope” does not even exist in the East.  For many American intellectuals, particularly psychologists, hope is associated with the pursuit of specific, concrete goals.  Surely the emperor did not have this kind of hope in mind when he made his appeal?

Hope is not an exclusively western, Judeo-Christian virtue.  There are words for hope in Apache (ndahondii) and Swahili (matumaini) as well as Persian (omid), to name just a few examples.  The largest lab within the International Space Station is called “Kibou”, which means “hope” in Japanese.  But what is hope?  Is it one thing or many things?  What can we learn about hope from the Japanese experience?  In turn, what can the Japanese learn from “hope”?   Can these lessons be combined to form a better psycho-social-spiritual disaster kit?

The kanji for hope

What can we learn about hope from the Japanese?

It is true that hope is partly about goals and mastery.  However, while academic psychologists have tended to conceptualize hope in terms of goal expectancies and narrow-focused probability estimates, the hopes of the common man or woman tend to be more transcendent, more global, and value-laden.  A hope is not a wish.  Unlike optimism, hope is not ego-centered but collaborative, rooted in empowerment and focused on a higher plane of success.   Ironically, the well-known “secondary” or “indirect” control processes (sometimes called “soft power” in business circles) favored in the East are more line with the nature of hopeful mastery than academic psychology’s goal-centered view of hope.   In Japan, the story of the “Fukushima Fifty” has provided a good example of collaborative mastery oriented around a higher goal.  These are the fifty employees of the damaged Fukushima nuclear power company that agreed to continue in the effort to stabilize the plant despite the inevitable exposure to toxic levels of radiation.

Hope is about attachment.  In fact, attachments are probably the most important wellspring for the development of hope. However, if you peruse mainstream psychology, you will find little on hope and attachment.  The one exception is Erik Erikson who believed that trust was the root of basic hopefulness.   The philosopher Gabriel Marcel agreed with Erikson but added openness to the attachment portion of the hope equation. Again, it is curious that this dimension of hope is brought into bolder relief through contact with Japan, albeit a collectivist society, but one not typically associated with this presumably “Christian virtue”.

During a crisis, levels of civility, trust, and openness can quickly plummet.  This is unfortunate because these attachment-related aspects of hope can function as literal life-savers during an earthquake, flood, or other major disaster.   In Japan, we have seen the value of a cohesive, tight-knit culture in the way the young and the capable have assisted the old and the vulnerable, the manner in which locals have reached out to assist foreigners, and the willingness to restrict personal use of limited resources to benefit the group as a whole.

Hope is also about survival.  For too long psychology approached human nature as if it was only rooted in the survival instinct.  Now with the advent of “positive psychology”, the field seems to have forgotten that hope for survival remains fundamental.  Paradigms come and go, but humankind is still made of vulnerable flesh and blood as well as large frontal lobes that anticipate danger and foresee death.  To be direct, this means that the current focus on growth, feed-forward loops, happiness, etc. must continue to be balanced with an appreciation of the self-regulatory struggles that dominate the everyday experience of millions who must weather strife and trauma.   Hopeful survival is linked to self-regulation through salvation beliefs and perceived options.   The Japanese are masters of self-restraint and many observers have noted the relatively lack of mass panic, and their continued acceptance and orderliness in the face of food, water, and energy shortages.

Long accustomed to working in “confined spaces” and negotiating life in the face of obstacles, it is not surprising that when fuel was limited and it became difficult to reach elderly survivors, members of the Japanese Red Cross Society resorted to bicycles.  A second example of Japanese flexibility is evidenced in their adoption of multiple faith traditions, predominately Buddhism and Shinto. But for some, there is also a bit of Confucianism added to the mix, and even elements of Christianity.

Hope is indeed spiritual. Again, you will find little spirituality in the academic psychology of hope.  But for most people, today, yesterday, and undoubtedly tomorrow, hope tends to go hand in hand with faith.  This faith often includes a large component of religious belief but can include faith in oneself, others, various institutions, nature, or technology.  However, what makes it effectively “spiritual” is not the source or domain but the depth of belief.  In modern parlance, it must be intrinsic to the self.   The spirituality of the Japanese has been a great help to them during this crisis precisely because their faith traditions (i.e., belief in the group, one’s ancestors, or various deities) are so strongly embedded in their culture, and are not, as is the case for many westerners, composed of layers of experience that are above, and apart from, everyday life.

What can the Japanese learn from hope?

Mastery.  The Japanese Proverb,The nail that sticks out gets hammered down”, reinforces the collectivist, self-sacrificing ethic that can make it difficult to cultivate inspiration through heroic role models. This is not a time to ignore heroes or minimize individual acts of courage, creativity or commitment.  The faceless Fukushima fifty ought to be recognized in a more public fashion. I understand the risks and possible stigma that might come with making public their names, particularly in light of what happened with the “hibakusha” during WWII.  Nevertheless, the benefits will outweigh the costs, in terms of providing both young and old with concrete role models. Fifty heroes with fifty stories will produce a far richer yield of hopeful mastery to inspire the Japanese people than a nameless cohort.

Attachment. While strong in horizontal trust, the Japanese must be careful not to repeat the sins of WWII, when after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, those exposed to radiation became known as the “hibakusha”, the feared, the isolated and the abandoned. Perhaps even more important for Japan, we know that groups and organizations function best when there is a high level of vertical trust that binds leaders and followers.   Historians have contrasted the success of the Roman legions (marvels of planned vertical cohesiveness) with the failures of the Confederacy during American Civil War (weak vertical cohesion).  The longer the Japanese must go before they begin to see improvements, and the more people hear the government issue reports that do not square with their actual experience, the more difficult it will be to sustain that vertical trust.

Survival. Junko Ooigawa, whose husband continued to work at the Fukushima plant, was featured in an MSNBC report. She lamented, “I cannot imagine the future at this moment.”  For the Japanese, grounded in Buddhism and Shinto, being mindful of the present moment should not pose a problem.  But coping in the here and now without recourse to the past for guidance is like venturing into the wilderness without a roadmap or compass. Japan has survived many crises, most notably, the WWII atomic bombings that killed more than 250,000 and ruined the lives of countless others who suffered radiation poisoning.  The old who have lived through these and other disasters can teach the young how to reclaim the vision of a better future, and restore the belief that the sun will again rise in the East.  In this regard, Japan is fortunate, having the largest percentage of elderly in the world, at nearly 23 percent.  Emperor Akihito was a particularly appropriate elder spokesman. He was eleven when the bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the leader of Japan was none other than Hirohito, Akihito’s father.

Spirituality.  The spiritual dimensions of hope can include feelings of empowerment, connection, and liberation as well as the belief in a benign universe and a sense of symbolic immortality. A significant number of Japanese rely on their Shinto beliefs to deal with major life events while utilizing their Buddhist beliefs to process death and the “after-life”.  In the present moment, they might do well to capitalize on both of these traditions.   Buddhism is best for seeking liberation and sustaining faith in a universe that is fair, if not caring.  Shinto is better equipped to address the needs of those seeking empowerment and connection as well as offering a portal to a more eternal continuum.

Anthony Scioli, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Keene State College. He is author of Hope in the Age of Anxiety and The Power of Hope.  His website is www.gainhope.com

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Recent Comments

  1. Kelly clough

    Very interesting! Wish more people could work towards this ideal! The world would be much more unified and peaceful!
    Thanks for sharing this.

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