If you casually flip through Scott Haas’ Ukeireru: Happiness And Acceptance Through Japanese Wisdom (Hachette India), you may be misled into thinking it’s an assembly-line self-help book, culturally appropriating Japan to sell it to the West. But that’s far from the truth. Although Ukeireru is packaged like a typical “mind, body, spirit” book with a feel-good subtitle, it's a mishmash of history, memoir and philosophy. Haas uses his decades-long association with Japan—its rich and ancient value systems—to draw our attention to those traits of the Japanese that may help calm the storm and stress of our 21st-century lives.
To his credit, Haas isn’t smug about his understanding of the nuances—some of which may strike some as eccentricities to others—of Japanese behaviour. His commentary on practices like taking power naps through the day or apologising frequently during polite speech is enriched by his own lived experiences. The Japanese gift for “reading the air” in a room, respect for silence, and belief in the palliative powers of stripping naked and soaking in hot springs together with a bunch of strangers can create comedic clashes with western culture. And finally, there is ukeireru itself, a word laden with multiple meanings that can be evoked in different contexts—referring, especially, to the art of accepting oneself as part of a group and being accepted by the group as one of theirs.
Although in awe of the Japanese state of mind, Haas is also critical of modern Japan’s obsession with productivity, leading to phenomenon like karoshi, or death by overwork. He is equally attentive to the inequalities that continue to haunt the nation, especially the lack of gender parity in the workforce. It is also sobering to read about the symbiotic relationship between Zen monks of yore and powerful landowners, who made it possible for the former to lead a life of contemplation in nature in exchange for the seal of authority, with unlimited power, bestowed on them by the monks.
Like every ancient culture, some of the rituals of Japanese life may have been romanticised out of proportion, but there are always parts of it that still make eminent sense, especially in a broken world that's hurtling towards disaster.
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