"Hansei": Why the Japanese Value Criticism and Why We Need To Be Unafraid Of it

It was my first year attending a Japanese school.

“Alright everyone! Time to gather for our hansei-kai.” my teacher announced.

“We’re going to do that now? Our event was successful-- why?” I questioned out loud.

In Japanese, there is a term hansei, which translates to “reflection” or “introspection”. But the direct translation doesn’t convey the connotary meaning of the word, as it’s used in a critical sense. It means that we fell short of our full potential, and that there’s room for improvement.

Our class had just finished hosting the annual student-led winter festival. Every homeroom in the school works together to create their own booth, and hosts something for other classes. Students get to visit other booths and play games or eat food, and it’s a fun school-wide event. After cleaning up, my teacher motioned us to all gather in the middle. The event was busy, fun, and went so smoothly that I couldn’t possibly see what we needed to talk about. Can’t we just go home and rest?

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We gathered in the center, and waited for the teacher to initiate the discussion. I thought it would be a short conversation, as why should we spoil the happy mood by criticizing what we could’ve done better? It turned out great! But to my surprise, my classmates went at it. Students were raising their hands, saying what we could’ve done better and what we should take note of for next year. The interesting part however, was that nobody seemed to be bothered by the serious tone. And when we wrapped up, the bright mood was back again. The discussion was completely objective, nobody got emotional when they were criticized, and we ended up with great feedback. It was unlike anything I had experienced in an American classroom.

The term hansei implies nobody and nothing is perfect. This belief is present at all levels in Japanese society: at home, in school, at the workplace, sports, and government. Japanese organizations are built around this term, valuing the iterative process of reflecting, analyzing, and improving, and sees criticism as a necessary and valuable part of growth. Hansei is used not only when something fails, but also when something succeeds, as anything can be made better and more efficient. This acceptance of criticism is important to success and self-improvement because it gives the individual greater autonomy. The power lies in the understanding that we are not entitled to perfection, but we can work towards it, thereby giving us the control to achieve our desires.

America is a celebratory country. When Americans win, they cheer. The energy, optimism, and confidence its people hold is something of admiration, as it’s very important to celebrate. But what the Japanese will do is they’ll also reflect when they win, to talk about what could be changed and improved, because hansei implies there’s always room to do better. Failing to address that there’s room for change and over-celebrating every victory can lead to a culture where criticism is a mark of loss, shame, and failure, when in fact it should be seen as a source of greater potential.

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Especially now, because the convenience of technology has allowed people to confirm any of their beliefs and validate any of their thoughts, it’s increasingly difficult to find reasons to reflect on yourself. People are not only feeling increasingly frustrated and jealous, as they are bombarded with images and articles of others with seemingly perfect lives, but people are beginning to feel entitled to these out-of-reach desires as they find “evidence” online that blames institutional systems or circumstance for any shortcomings. This frustration is apparent in our polarized politics, rising tensions between different communities, gun violence, and destructive public policies. When things don’t go our way, somewhere on the Internet someone is explaining that it isn’t our fault. And when our life’s problems become the responsibility of an institution outside of our control, it creates justification for anger and spite, and these heated emotions become strife.

While America’s belief in exceptionalism has made it a world leader, it has also made it incredibly unhappy. By adopting the ability to take criticism, we grant ourselves the power to control our circumstances again, and focus on what can be better, what can be different, and improve upon ourselves. Criticism is not just a tool for self-improvement, but the ability to accept it is an incredibly powerful way to promote success and a healthy, emotional wellbeing.

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Short exercise: Practicing critical evaluation

Want to see how good you are at critical self-evaluation? Answer the question below, writing down your answer on a separate piece of paper.

How do you feel when someone you don’t know very well rejects a very easy and simple favor?

Results:

If your response did not have a “because” in it:

  • The question didn’t prompt for it, so it’s very normal to not have thought about why you may have reacted in a certain way to a rejection. But an important part of self reflection is considering the “why” to certain conditions, as this habit will help you adopt criticism from others much more easily. I would encourage you to take on this habit of adding “because” clauses to the statements you make, as this will help you develop the ability to reflect upon your own assumptions and reasons.

If your response had a “because” in it:

  • Although the question didn’t prompt for it, you have an explanatory phrase in your anwer. This is a good sign that you have a habit of reflecting on your own assumptions and reasoning. Recognizing why you might’ve reacted a certain way is an important part of self reflection, and a habit you should strive to continue when you find yourself in a frustrating situation.

Of course, this exercise isn’t all conclusive, but it is only meant to help you recognize the assumptions you make about the people and circumstances that surround you. The response we have to less than convenient situations are very evident of the kind of reality we shape for ourselves. By recognizing our feelings toward these occurrences, we can see how well adapted we are to turning to self-reflection to explain the disagreements we have, and how we can better solve them, rather than blame forces that are out of our control.

Hansei is an activity that is meant to question our assumptions about the kind of control we have over our lives, and grants us greater power to be better. The ability to reflect and take on criticism isn’t just about being accountable for ourselves, but it will create opportunity for growth, success, and joy, as we take our life into our own hands.

Sakiko Ohashi