The Minimalist Self: The Japanese Experience

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In this continuing series on sense of self, Sarah Luczaj explores a piece of research comparing the well-being of Japanese and North American students, drawing conclusions about the roles of gratitude and peaceful disengagement.

In the third of my cross cultural answers to the question “who do we think we are?” I explore a piece of research entitled ‘Minimalist in Style: Self, Identity, and Well-being in Japan’. It compares studies on the well-being of Japanese and North American students and comes to the conclusion that the Japanese sense of wellbeing is linked to a sense of “gratitude and peaceful disengagement” (Kan, Karasawa and Kitayama 2009, p. 300), and is thereby quite distinct from the North American sense of well-being — although just as robust.

This different sense of well-being seems to spring from a different sense of who we are as human beings and how we relate to the world. The authors were inspired to research the topic by the persistance of findings in psychology research which showed East Asians to be markedly more unhappy than expected, relative to their economic performance (Inglehart and Welzel 2005, pp. 13-39; also see World Values Survey).

Could these findings be produced by a cultural bias — a way of measuring happiness which is irrelevant and even counter to the experiences of people from cultures different from those who are doing the measuring?

The authors used a study in which North American students were asked to explain what well-being meant to them — what made them happy. Uchida and Kitayama (2007) reduced the students’ responses to three general categories, in order of importance and prevalence: hedonism (feeling good, excited, positive), independence (a sense not only of freedom but of having achieved something, and acquired possessions), and lastly interdependence, or positive feelings linked to relationships with others.

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These findings will probably not come as a surprise; the sense of ourselves as pleasure-seeking individuals, concerned with their rights and their possessions, including the right to possess happiness, is pretty much encoded, to various extents and in various ways, in Western cultures.

In the same study, Uchida and Kitayama asked Japanese students the same question and got the same answers — hedonism, independence and interdependence — but they got some more answers, too. These extra answers to the question of what it is to feel happy created two whole new categories: gratitude and peaceful disengagement. Nearly half of the total answers fell into these new categories.

Respondents often referred to the “fluid, incomprehensible and transitory nature of happiness” (Kan, Kurasawa and Kitayama 2009, p. 301), something about appreciating the moments of happiness because they do not last, or “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone”.

There is an obvious lack here of expectation of happiness, of a right to happiness, of happiness as something that can be worked for, accumulated or possessed. It sometimes happens and if it does, that is great. That is gratefulness. Disengagement comes about because constraints, or reasons to be unhappy, are ever-present. The authors hypothesise that social obligations, duties and a collectivist style in the culture might be the immediately experienced base for the sense of constraint (p. 314). Of course, as Buddhist wisdom points out so clearly, we are constrained by our very existence as humans in the world, exposed to sickness, old age and death.

So Kan, Kurasawa and Kitayama characterise the Eastern conception of happiness as “minimalist in style” (p. 303). Basically, just turning up and experiencing moments of happiness as they naturally occur is enough. There are no “things” such as “well-being” to strive for. While Japanese respondents were also made happy by a more “maximising” approach to happiness, by success, achievement, possessions, their happiness was within a wider context — that such things are not really “things” that can be possessed or turned into personal virtues and added to the self, but are mere transient experiences.

The next stage was to create a scale of minimalist well-being and see how Japanese and American students related to it. In generating the scale, six distinct categories emerged, three of them directly expressing the “minimalist” style — “gratitude for life, good feelings at the present moment, and peaceful disengagement” (p. 313). Gratitude for existence and peaceful disengagement proved extremely difficult for the American informants to understand (p. 313), and on the minimalist scale of well-being the Japanese respondents emerged overall as the happier.

We can tentatively conclude that if the scales were tipped the other way, tilted towards specifically East Asian experiences of happiness, the statistics on well-being across cultures might look very different. And from this new definition of happiness comes a new way of looking at the self, not as a generator or accumulator of the right, desired kinds of experience, but as a part of a transitory, ultimately incomprehensible flux, adjusting as they can, feeling a background sense of happiness when not attempting to be fully involved in what they cannot control, or identify with the flux all around, and a simple gratefulness for just being around to see the show.


Inglehart, R. and Welzel, C. (2005) Modernization, cultural change, and democracy: The human development sequence. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kan, C.; Karasawa, M. and Kitayama, S. (2009) ‘Minimalist in Style: Self, Identity, and Well-being in Japan’, Self and Identity 8(2): 300-17.

Uchida, Y.K. and Kitayama, S. (2007) Happiness in East and West: Themes and variations. Unpublished manuscript, Kyoto University, Japan.

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