The Kokoro Files

The Kokoro Files: Scott Haas

People feel connected to Japan in different ways and in the case of Scott Haas it started when he was thirteen years old. From there, his passion grew and he went on to write about his appreciation for Japanese culture for audiences across the world.

Having recently published a new book called Why Be Happy?, Scott has explored psychology and acceptance through the lens of Japanese culture. Learn more about the book, his backstory and what he’s got planned for the future. 

Great to talk Scott and congratulations on the recent publication of Why Be Happy?: The Japanese Art of AcceptanceFor those who’ve yet to read it, how would you describe the book and who is it aimed at?

My interest in Japan started early on, when I was about thirteen years old and saw, “Rashomon,” one summer on T.V.  This Kurosawa classic movie opened up a big door. There was more than one way to observe and document a situation.  

More broadly, nowadays, the book, “Why Be Happy,” is an effort to present ideas rooted in that very early contact with Japanese culture.  Specifically, certain concepts, which have day-to-day, practical value, are illuminated in the book: 

  • Temporality: The idea that nothing lasts forever, love or pain, and how this can help enormously with sadness, worrying, and fear.  
  • To try and puzzle through these two questions: What does nature expect of me?  How can I fit into those expectations? 
  • How a situation may be stressful, but how one need not react to it in a stressful way. 
  •  Individual matters must be seen within the context of the group; if the benefit of an action is primarily for the individual, it may have less value than actions that benefit others.

A lot of the book looks closely at how these concepts play out in Japan; and how they might be woven into broadly Western ideas of identity.  Meaning that individual happiness is really not the goal–the goal is acceptance of situations in order to change them (very different from resignation); observation; temporality; and, recognising that who we are as individuals depends on the groups we belong to. 

So, the book is aimed at restless thinkers, people who are open to new ways of seeing things, curious about Japanese culture, and who love to read.

Why Be Happy? book

The book covers a lot of great topics like the acceptance of silence and being part of a group. Much of that is personified in the Japanese concept of ukeireru and it’d be great to hear your thoughts on how you interpret that term and how it differs from other Japanese terms for acceptance.  

So, in order to try and understand what ukeireru might mean, I asked three friends in Japan to tell me their interpretations.  Two of these individuals work as interpreters; the third is a writer and editor; I’ve known all three people for nearly twenty years. 

Like many words in Japan, ukeireru has different meanings depending on the context in which it is used.  My friends took a very didactic approach, therefore, and went to great lengths to demonstrate the word’s complexity–ukeireru is nearly a synecdoche for a Japanese way of life.  

In the end, I fell I love with this definition of ukeireru: “Used by a mother with a child to accept something gently, fun to imagine inside oneself, accepting reality.” 

From a practical standpoint, I think this means that we can accept challenging situations the way that a mother accepts a challenging child: Not necessarily giving in to the child’s demands but accepting them in order to arrive at a solution.  Then, too, internalising that level of acceptance: Accepting oneself, one’s strengths and limitations.  Accepting reality means not denying that there is a problem or an injustice: The first step to try and resolve a problem is to admit that there is a problem; being realistic means not fooling yourself, not resigning yourself, not denying pain.  

In the book you also cover the comparisons between Western and Japanese versions of acceptance. How do you think they differ and what lessons can be learned from both cultures?

There is a lot to be said for the individualism prized in Western cultures; and a lot to be said for identity based on affiliation with groups prized in Japan.  

Acceptance in the West tends to centre on self-acceptance and self-help, which implies strongly that our focus should begin and end on our private consciousness and private happiness. 

Acceptance in Japan tends to focus on acceptance of one’s place in nature, community, and family; what one can do, or must do, in order to fit in or conform to external controls.  

The zero-sum, confrontation model of the West that typifies a lot of discourse and self-perception gets in the way, to be sure, of empathy.  The conformity in Japan erodes, to be sure, efforts for each person to break free from pressures, standards, and rules of the group.  

But those are extremes with lots of subtle variations in-between the end points.  A goal is to try to synthesize the best of the cultures and come up with something new and post-modern.  Dr. Hayao Kawai, a Japanese psychologist, noted: “In seeking a postmodern consciousness, we can, I think, come to know each other and, to our benefit, find something new.”

Outside of writing, you’re a clinical psychologist who specialises in consultative work and have helped black communities in Boston with issues that range from homelessness to chronic mental distress. How did you become a part of that community and what is it about psychology that captivates you?

I grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey, a city of about 50,000 that had “race riots” and was occupied by the National Guard subsequently for a week to quell unrest.  

My high school was 70% black; I later lived in two majority black cities: Detroit and DC.  The consciousness of black identity and racism were made familiar at an early age, and opportunities to be educated were ample. From real life to reading fanon as a teenager.  

What I find most powerful is resiliency in the black community; not only the narratives of loss and distress, but the profound and versatile strategies employed by ordinary people and leadership.  

In addition to my work with individuals in need, I provide consultative services to the African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.); and I write a monthly jazz column focusing on black musicians for Boston’s weekly black newspaper.  

What kind of Japanese concepts and techniques have you applied to your consultative work and have you found that your understanding of those concepts have changed through applying them in a Western context?

I think a lot about temporality, fitting in to nature’s demands, acceptance of situations, not allowing some things to matter, taking the long view, and recognising that what’s unseen often matters more than what’s seen. 

These are human concepts, heightened, I think, in Japan, at its best, so apply well here in the West.  More specifically, trying to see a stressful situation as temporary helps a lot in tolerating it (I went through this the other day while getting an infected tooth pulled; I knew it was potentially a 90-minute procedure so put on headphones, felt “comfortably numb,” and went through songs, counting down the minutes).  

Fitting in to nature’s demands has helped a lot during the pandemic: Rather than see this as deprivation, accept its constraints and try to make the best use of the period of gestation, loss of schedule, and isolation possible; chances are, you won’t be in this situation again: so how can you use it?  

Then, too, if you are healthy and financially solvent, be grateful; and, help those who are worse off: that’s your task.  Understanding, too, that one’s opinions matter much less than one’s observations goes a long way to feeling better; you are looking outside yourself for meaning and purpose.

From a societal perspective, what challenges do you feel Japan faces and how could they be improved? 

I share the views of Japanese who want girls and women to have equal footing with boys and men: Equity in economic authority.  

Then, too, what are considered to be group norms needs to include the range of gender, age, immigrant background, and social position. 

Psychiatry might develop to include early diagnosis of depression, anxiety, and learning disorders; with subsequent growth in psychotherapy as a normal option, increased availability of medication; an inclusion model for education; etc.  

Medicine in Japan needs to address reproductive rights and reform in obstetrics, which would include greater access to birth control, better pain management during childbirth (including epidurals), access to artificial insemination, reform of adoption policies, divorce laws, custody laws, gay marriage, etc.  

Immigration laws need to be reformed.  Once Japan creates equity in economic authority, and the current generation of older men let go of the reins, these challenges are likely to be addressed vigorously. 

Every nation has enormous challenges: In the US, income disparity, racism, gun control, private equity control of the public sector, monetisation of medicine, drug abuse, and sanctioned political corruption are challenges needing improvement.

You also have an interesting family background of a German heritage and growing up in New York. How did that inform your relationship with food and your interest in Japanese culture?

My dad, when I was growing up, would often say that the food of his childhood in Bavaria tasted better: Bread and cheese.  When we were older: Beer.  

I grew up imagining tastes of things I had not tasted that were supposed to taste better than things I had tasted.  It created a kind of imaginary existence.  He also came to the US in August 1941, on the last Children’s Transport permitted, and was raised then alone in foster homes in NYC so there must have been a lot of imagining he experienced that he conveyed to us as normal. 

More broadly, I was attracted early on to the Japanese approach to conflict because it was unfamiliar to me: A lot of silence, observation, and recognition that one’s place in life is short and small. 

It seemed to me a culture that was more passive than the West, and that diminishment of self was ironically comforting; it means that I can forget about myself for awhile.

Japanese books.

As an avid reader of Japanese literature, I’ve heard you have a large collection of books at home. What Japanese authors would you recommend that people read?

I love these books: “The Makioka Sisters,” and, “Some Prefer Nettles,” by Junichiro Tanizaki; “Snow Country,” by Yasunari Kawabata; ‘Botchan,” by Natsume Soseki, “The Anatomy of Dependence,” by Takeo Doi; “Buddhism and the Art of Psychotherapy,” by Hayao Kawai, “Essays in Idleness,” by Yoshida Kenjo,” “Breasts and Eggs,” by Mieko Kawakami, “Zen and Japanese Culture,” by D.T. Suzuki, and “Six-Four,” by Hideo Yokoyama.  

What other books are you working on in the future?

I recently finished a book called, “You Don’t Belong Here,” which is about a girl who goes missing in Japan and is based on the real disappearance of a boy on Hokkaido a few years ago that made international news.  Seeking a home for said book.  Also wrote a book proposal on women in jazz working today.

What would your best advice be for anyone who is interested in writing about Japan and is looking to get their start as a journalist or author?

Read as much as possible of contemporary and old books and articles about Japan in both fiction and nonfiction.  Read interviews with established Japanese writers, and cull these to see which authors they recommend.  

Watch a ton of Japanese movies, new and old.  (One of my top five movies of all movies is, “High and Low,” by Kurosawa, which takes place in Japan in the early 1960s, and stars the insanely brilliant Toshiro Mifune, whose expressiveness, reserve, and intellect are evident in every frame he appears in.)  

If you have an area of interest, passion, or expertise, like soccer or bird watching or poetry or jazz, see if there is some value to an editor in having you write about what is going on in your areas of knowledge within Japan.  Join or participate in any societies or clubs in Japan with Japanese who share your interests, passions, and expertise. 

Find a way to go to Japan for as long as you can afford to go; stay in one place; and, in advance, have Japanese contacts who can show and teach you about the culture.

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