Craving a Shift in Perspective? Life-Changing Japanese Concepts to Know If You Are
Ancient Japanese concepts that anyone from anywhere can borrow
Plenty would argue that Japan, in many ways, is a case study for an ideal society. That the Japanese seem to “just get it.” As though they know of some secret formula for efficiency or innovation or purpose that the rest of us don’t.
To try and pinpoint a single explanation for this would be difficult, but historian Yuval Noah Harari comes close. In his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, he refers to Japan as the best example for the power and importance of tradition in a time where people are oriented––verging on obsessed––with emulating the West. He explains: “In 1853, an American fleet forced Japan to open itself to the modern world. In response, the Japanese state embarked on a rapid and extremely successful process of modernization. Yet Japan did not copy blindly the Western blueprint. It was fiercely determined to protect its unique identity and to ensure that modern Japanese will be loyal to Japan rather than to science, to modernity, or to some nebulous global community.”
Because of this, Japan has managed, and unironically so, to stay ahead of the curve in the very same modern world the Americans insisted that it adapt to. It’s chosen to turn its own centuries-old concepts into universal, future-forward pillars for a better life. Today, the rest of the world would do well to learn a thing or two (in the case of this roundup, four) from Japan.
Kaizen (改善), a combination of the Japanese characters kai, meaning “change,” and zen, meaning “good,” brings forth a simple, very common end goal for many of us: to change for the better.
A concept linked to Japan’s economic growth in the ‘50s, kaizen was seen as an ideal management style focused on maximizing efficiency and minimizing waste. A new way of measuring quality. Originally practiced on the production lines of Toyota Motor Company, “seven wastes” were identified in the name of kaizen and would then serve as indicators that an existing workflow could be made better. These are:
- Delay or time spent waiting in a queue with no value being added
- Producing more than is needed
- Undertaking activity that does not add value
- Unnecessary movement or motion
- Defective products
This would later serve as the foundation of the Toyota Production System developed by industrial engineer Taiichi Ohno, where the pursuit was to make the flow of things––of work, of collaboration, of production––smooth and undisturbed. To “perfect the process to get the perfect output,” the beauty of which lies in the fact that kaizen can be applied to entire companies, to small working teams, to households, even down to regular individuals investing in personal development.
This was further shaped by Japanese management consultant Masaaki Imai, who introduced kaizen to the West. In his book Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success, he highlighted the importance of being process-oriented, which separates the Japanese from results-oriented Americans. “It is impossible to improve any process until it is standardized,” says Imai. “If the process is shifting from here to there, then any improvement will just be one more variation that is occasionally used and mostly ignored.” Only then can the rest of kaizen take place: to seek continuous improvement––to find ways of being more effective, increasing satisfaction and reducing waste––that “must involve everybody without spending much money.”
Ikigai (生き甲斐), roughly translated, means “a reason for being” (variations include: “the reason you get up in the morning”). It’s a call to follow your bliss and has inspired the West to come up with a spin-off now widely used to determine one’s purpose in life. Sidestepping vague, intangible steps for self-betterment, the brilliance of this spin-off lies in the fact that it can be broken down into something realistic, quantifiable and tangible. Ikigai, according to the likes of Hector Garcia and Albert Liebermann, who wrote Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, can be found in the intersection of four components: something that you love, something that you are good at, something that the world needs and something that you can get paid well for.
The famous four-circle diagram, originally created by Andrés Zuzunaga in 2012, is, in all fairness, a holistic approach to finding one’s purpose. But this has been contested time and again by Japanese authors, sociologists and psychologists alike. They warn that ikigai cannot always be templated in this manner. Instead, and as Blue Zones: Lessons on Living Longer author Dan Buettner suggests, make three lists and focus on them: your values, things you like to do and things you are good at.
Kintsugi (金継ぎ) or “golden joinery” is the ancient Japanese art of literally joining together broken ceramics using gold-tinted lacquer in order to breathe new life into them.
Its true origin is still up for debate, but the most famous and plausible origin story follows that of Japanese shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa. In the late 15th century, he sent his favorite chawan (a traditional tea bowl) back to China for repairs after it had been damaged. Rather than being restored with seamless, camouflaged adhesive, the tea bowl was put back together and enhanced further with golden lacquer, making the tea bowl one-of-a-kind and even more special than before.
By the 17th century, Kintsugi (sometimes referred to as kintsukuroi or “golden repair”) had become a common ceremonial practice in Japan. Given the meticulous steps required to complete this traditional method of restoration (the amount of care and dedication involved, too), a piece always ends up more beautiful than ever before…for having been broken.
In the figurative sense, the art of Kintsugi serves as a reminder for those obsessed with the idea of a clean slate or those programmed to aim for perfection. While it is in the Japanese way of thinking to aim for efficiency and effectiveness as kaizen so clearly focuses on, this does not mean that mistakes or mishaps are looked upon negatively or that one should live in fear of them.
In Kintsugi: Embrace Your Imperfections and Find Happiness—the Japanese Way, author and psychologist Tomás Navarro dissects the most recurring hurdle felt by his patients after dealing with loss, adversity and heartbreak: feeling broken. “Ceramics are fragile, strong and beautiful all at once, just like people,” he told Boudicca Fox-Leonard of The Telegraph. “Ceramics and life can break apart into a thousand pieces, but not for that reason should we stop living intensely.”
To accept and rebuild from damage is to learn emotional strength.
Boro (ぼろ) or “tattered rags” refers to a traditional patchworking technique that arose in 19th century Japan. At the time, members of the lower class living in rural areas, having to make do with what they could afford, sought ways to extend the lifespan of their kimonos, mattresses and other home textiles. Employing sashiko stitching on homespun cotton or indigo hemp, their possessions were tended to with an admirable level of care.
“Boro textiles were the domain of the ordinary man and represented a collective, impoverished past,” shared Stephen Szczepanek, co-curator of the 2014 exhibit Boro—The Fabric of Life. “They were largely forgotten after the mid-twentieth century when Japan’s society shifted towards mass-scale modernization and urbanization.” Throughout history, boro has morphed from an emblem of difficult times in Japanese society into an homage to Japan’s heritage. This born-out-of-the-necessity patchworking represents both an exercise in resourcefulness and a show of respect for resources. A timely concept that the fashion industry is fast becoming attuned to.
In January, trend forecasting agency WGSN even included boro in its 20 Trends for the 2020s report as it ushered in the brand-new decade. “People will increasingly purchase products for the long term,” shared WGSN Director of Lifestyle & Interiors Lisa White. “Aftercare will be seen as a mindful activity, and mending will become a matter of pride and aesthetics, showing that you care about craft and sustainability.”
With this Japanese concept in mind, it can be said that the future of fashion is leaning into the interconnected of ethics and aesthetics. Because the two aren’t mutually exclusive.
On that note, why not consider 2020 the year of self-preservation? Up next, Practical Resolutions for Your Well-Being.
Art Alexandra Lara