Emory Report
August 6, 2007
Volume 59, Number 36

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August 6, 2007
Japanese self-analysis digs deep into memories

By carol Clark

The good news about the Japanese practice of self-analysis known as Naikan is it’s fast — a program can be completed in just one week. The bad news: it may be the most intense week of your life. For seven days, from about 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., you sit in a corner on a tatami mat, confined behind a paper screen, where you do nothing but contemplate your key relationships with others, starting with your earliest memories of your mother.

“Sixteen hours a day is a long time to self-reflect,” said Chikako Ozawa-de Silva, an Emory assistant professor of anthropology. “It’s a struggle initially. It’s really uncomfortable, physically and psychologically. You’re sitting there trying to get used to the idea that you’re not going to be calling anybody, you’re not going to be reading or watching TV. You’re just going to get still and remember your past in a relational context.”

Ozawa-de Silva, a native of Japan, drew on her personal experience, and extensive interviews and research involving clients and practitioners of Naikan therapy, to write the book “Psychotherapy and Religion in Japan: The Japanese Introspection Practice of Naikan,” published in 2006 by Routledge.

“The whole point of Naikan is to re-examine one’s past from the perspectives of others, challenging one’s habitual pattern of only remembering one’s life history from a limited, I-centered perspective. This enables a reconstitution of self and identity in a broader way that allows for healing and the discovery of genuine happiness,” said Ozawa-de Silva. Her academic interests include exploring Western and Asian perspectives on religion, medicine and therapy, and the role of meditation in cultural understandings of health and the treatment of mental illness and depression.

Since the opening of the first Naikan center in 1953, the practice has become well-established in Japan. About 20 hospitals offer Naikan — which means “inner-looking” — as part of their psychology programs and dozens of small Naikan centers treat people who may not have any particular mental problems, but simply want to gain insights into themselves, Ozawa-de Silva said.

Shortly after she began her research into the practice in 1997, Ozawa-de Silva underwent a week of Naikan therapy. The Naikan center she visited was in Tochigi prefecture, in the home of a husband and wife who acted as the practitioners — a typical Naikan scenario in Japan. Ozawa-de Silva slept on a futon. She rose before dawn with the two other Naikan clients who were there. After about 20 minutes of sweeping a floor or weeding the garden, she would set up a paper screen and enter a 3-by-3-foot area to begin her meditation.

Naikan clients reflect on their past deeds in relation to the people most important to them from the time they were born. That usually means starting with their mothers, then moving to their fathers, siblings, spouses and friends. Memories of these people are considered in the context of three questions: What did I receive from this person? What did I do in return for this person? What trouble did I cause this person?

“There is no fourth question of what trouble this person caused me. This is because we are already very good at remembering the pain others have caused us, and we can’t let go of it. If we keep thinking only in this way, then we become victims, and we place the responsibility for our happiness in the hands of others.

“This one-sided view results in a lot of mental pain,” Ozawa-de Silva said. “Everybody has a life story that they think is a fixed narrative, but it’s not purely objective. How it appears depends on the lens through which you view it. Naikan is about changing your fixed perceptions that color how you see other people, and how you see yourself.”

Naikan clients only take breaks to use the toilet. A bowl of noodles is brought to the individual screened areas at meal times. Every few hours, the practitioner visits each client’s area and asks for a brief report of what they have learned. The practitioner just listens, without passing judgment, then bows and leaves.

Such intensive meditation on one’s past is so challenging that “for the first two days, it’s like you’re just pretending to do it,” Ozawa-de Silva said. “That’s why it has to last a full seven days.”

One of the best insights Ozawa-de Silva said she gained through Naikan was deeper respect and gratitude for her mother, who worked as a teacher while also cooking great meals for her family and practicing the arts of calligraphy and flower arranging.

“I realized that although I thought I never had any grudge against my mother, at some point I started developing certain traits as a form of rebellion,” she said. “She was so busy working, even when she was at home, that I took that as a kind of rejection, and my coping mechanism was to subtly belittle her in my mind. I devalued anything to do with cooking or flowers, and I developed bad handwriting. It was a kind of a childish reaction. I had never realized how these traits were connected to my feelings about my mother and my need for more attention.”

After completing the therapy, Ozawa-de Silva took the train back to Tokyo and found herself appreciating the scenery of mountains she had seen many times. “Everything seemed more beautiful and valuable. I appreciated everything around me more,” she said.

Many people who undergo Naikan report feeling happier and more patient with others afterwards, she said. “It’s kind of like washing your soul and mind. One regular Naikan client likes to joke that it’s better than a trip to Hawaii.”

Naikan therapy is a lot cheaper than a trip to Hawaii, costing about $600, including lodging and meals, at many centers in Japan, she added.

The initial euphoric feeling, however, can wear off after 10 days. The intensive week is designed to teach people how to do the meditation, but they must practice at home for 15 minutes daily to continue to achieve benefits, Ozawa-de Silva said.

In recent years, the practice has spread beyond Japan. Ozawa-de Silva visited an Austrian Naikan center during her research and was surprised to find how few modifications had been made to the Japanese technique, apart from larger meditation screens to accommodate the larger people.

“The kind of insights gained by Japanese and Westerners through Naikan are remarkably similar,” she said. “Naikan is often thought of as a culturally-specific Japanese therapy. My finding was it’s not just specific to the Japanese mind. There is great potential in the interaction between Western psychology and Eastern traditions, and such cross-cultural exchange, done in a spirit of mutual respect, can enhance our understanding of human emotions and the human mind.”