May 1, 2019

The ceremony — as Naruhito accedes to the Chrysanthemum Throne.

Today, in Japan:



"I swear that I will reflect deeply on the course followed by his majesty, the emperor emeritus, and bear in mind the path trodden by past emperors, and will devote myself to self-improvement."

I'd like to know more about the devotion to "self-improvement." What is the Japanese word and what is the significance of the concept in Japanese culture? The "self-improvement" of the new leader is not an idea that has any prominence when an American takes a political office. Imagine a candidate for President offering to devote himself to self-improvement. Self-improvement? That sounds like an indulgence, a lack of interest in meeting responsibilities. I won't lamely speculate on the possible lack of actual work for the Japanese emperor. I'm going to assume there's a very interesting and government-related concept here that is puzzlingly represented by the English term "self-improvement."

From the Wikipedia article on the Chrysanthemum Throne:
Japan is the oldest continuing hereditary monarchy in the world. In much the same sense as the British Crown, the Chrysanthemum Throne is an abstract metonymic concept that represents the monarch and the legal authority for the existence of the government....
And an image of the literal throne:



Here's the Wikipedia article on "Self-help or self-improvement." From the "History" subsection:
For some, George Combe's "Constitution" [1828], in the way that it advocated personal responsibility and the possibility of naturally sanctioned self-improvement through education or proper self-control, largely inaugurated the self-help movement." In 1841, an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson, entitled Compensation, was published suggesting "every man in his lifetime needs to thank his faults" and "acquire habits of self-help" as "our strength grows out of our weakness." Samuel Smiles (1812–1904) published the first self-consciously personal-development "self-help" book—entitled Self-Help—in 1859. Its opening sentence: "Heaven helps those who help themselves", provides a variation of "God helps them that help themselves", the oft-quoted maxim that had also appeared previously in Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac (1733–1758). In the 20th century, "Carnegie's remarkable success as a self-help author" further developed the genre with How to Win Friends and Influence People in 1936.... Earlier, in 1902, James Allen published As a Man Thinketh, which proceeds from the conviction that "a man is literally what he thinks, his character being the complete sum of all his thoughts." Noble thoughts, the book maintains, make for a noble person, whilst lowly thoughts make for a miserable person; and Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich (1937) described the use of repeated positive thoughts to attract happiness and wealth by tapping into an "Infinite Intelligence."
That's all terribly American. Again, I have no idea what Naruhito meant by what was translated as "self-improvement" and would really like to improve myself by hearing a good explanation.

By the way, Donald Trump's "The Art of the Deal" has been located in the American tradition of self help literature. From "What Donald Trump’s Books Say About Winning/Thirty years ago with The Art of the Deal, the president broke with a long tradition of American success writing by separating self-improvement from morality" (November 12, 2017) by Steven Watts in The Atlantic:
Trump’s books fall into one of the oldest, most influential genres in American popular culture: the success tract, or literature on how to get ahead in life. In the early republic, Benjamin Franklin advocated “virtue” as the pathway for aspiring individuals unshackled from aristocratic tradition. In the 1800s, Horatio Alger offered hard work and “character” as habits that would produce prosperity in a competitive market society. For a 20th-century society dominated by bureaucracies, Dale Carnegie urged strivers to cultivate human relations and an attractive “personality.”

But Trump’s writing has destroyed many of this tradition’s essential elements. To be sure, he borrows certain tried-and-true elements from Franklin, Alger, and Carnegie—unstinting labor, positive thinking, careful delineation of goals, mental focus. But he also peddles directives that ignore what these writers perceived as their obligation to shape good people and a good society. Instead, Trump’s injunctions look inward to promote a relentless self-aggrandizement, and outward to manipulate a world of facile images. These qualities, and their appeal to a popular audience, have reshaped America’s success tradition. They have jettisoned its moral ethos for one of bristling self-regard.
AND: Let me quote this passage about the Emperor from the book I'm rereading "Kafka on the Shore" by Haruki Murakami:
“Listen — God only exists in people’s minds. Especially in Japan, God’s always been kind of a flexible concept. Look at what happened after the war. Douglas MacArthur ordered the divine emperor to quit being God, and he did, making a speech saying he was just an ordinary person. So after 1946 he wasn’t God anymore. That’s what Japanese gods are like — they can be tweaked and adjusted. Some American chomping on a cheap pipe...



... gives the order and presto change-o — God’s no longer God. A very postmodern kind of thing. If you think God’s there, He is. If you don’t, He isn’t. And if that’s what God’s like, I wouldn’t worry about it.”
The character saying that is — strangely enough — Colonel Sanders.

IN THE COMMENTS: Karen writes:
I lived in Japan for three years during the late 80s, and I’m pretty sure the self-improvement this article is referring to is the Japanese concept of Kaizen, continuous improvement, which was a big factor in production and manufacturing and was later adopted by many US companies.
She links to the Wikipedia article "Kaizen" — excerpt:
The Japanese word kaizen means "change for better", without inherent meaning of either "continuous" or "philosophy" in Japanese dictionaries and in everyday use....

Kaizen is a daily process, the purpose of which goes beyond simple productivity improvement. It is also a process that, when done correctly, humanizes the workplace, eliminates overly hard work (muri), and teaches people how to perform experiments on their work using the scientific method and how to learn to spot and eliminate waste in business processes....

The Toyota Production System is known for kaizen, where all line personnel are expected to stop their moving production line in case of any abnormality and, along with their supervisor, suggest an improvement to resolve the abnormality which may initiate a kaizen.

The cycle of kaizen activity can be defined as: "Plan → Do → Check → Act". This is also known as the Shewhart cycle, Deming cycle, or PDCA [plan–do–check–act or plan–do–check–adjust].

Another technique used in conjunction with PDCA is the 5 Whys, which is a form of root cause analysis in which the user asks a series of five "why" questions about a failure that has occurred, basing each subsequent question on the answer to the previous. There are normally a series of causes stemming from one root cause, and they can be visualized using fishbone diagrams or tables. The Five Whys can be used as a foundational tool in personal improvement, or as a means to create wealth.

MORE: Christopher Smith said...
The word he used is jiko no kensan (事故の研鑽). Kensan literally means devotion to one's studies. But jiko kensan is a common phrase in business settings, meaning something like not letting one's skills fall behind. So, for example, for a programmer jiko kensan is important because they need to keep refreshing their skills to keep up with latest developments. So here it's not so much the American idea of self-improvement as self-actuallization, but rather promising he won't get complacent and will keep working hard to fulfill his role to the best of his abilities.

30 comments:

BADuBois said...

"And while I'm at it, sorry for granddad's Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere plan. What a nut, am I right? Hah-hah-hah."

JRoberts said...

With US politicians, the usual pledge is to "self-enrichment".

rhhardin said...

Thurber's "Let Your Mind Alone!" takes down all the self-help books.

Nonapod said...

The "self-improvement" of the new leader is not an idea that has any prominence when American leaders take office. Imagine a candidate for President offering to devote himself to self-improvement. Self-improvement? That sounds like an indulgence, a lack of interest in meeting responsibilities. I won't lamely speculate on the possible lack of actual work for the Japanese emperor. I'm going to assume there's a very interesting and government-related concept here that is puzzlingly represented by the English term "self-improvement."

I think it's safe to say that the actual responsibilities of a modern Emperor of Japan are not analogous to a US President. From what I understand the responsibilities of the modern Emperor (like the modern Queen of England) are largely ceremonial and about projecting an image. So under those terms, the idea "self-improvment" seems more about working toward projecting a more ideal image or something.

rhhardin said...

I'm sure self-improvement means improvement of myself, not him doing it, in Japanese. It's a humility thing.

Known Unknown said...

Why are more people not into self-hinder books?

narayanan said...

He wants to "Grow in Office" or his "Views may Evolve"

Karen said...

I lived in Japan for three years during the late 80s, and I’m pretty sure the self-improvement this article is referring to is the Japanese concept of Kaizen, continuous improvement, which was a big factor in production and manufacturing and was later adopted by many US companies. Here’s the link to a very interesting analysis of it. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaizen

Ann Althouse said...

Thanks, Karen!!

tcrosse said...

At the big company where I was chained to the oars on the lower decks, there was a guy whose title was Vice President of Continual Improvement. He was a reptile.

Big Mike said...

Karen beat me to it. The spirit of Kaizen is a uniquely Japanese concept that covers continuous process improvement in industry and continuous self-improvement in one's self.

Owen said...

Kaizen? The idea that one must be humble, alert to one’s weaknesses, constantly trying to learn and listen, to sympathize and to enlarge one’s understanding of the people, the country, the history that one has pledged to serve?

Just guessing.

Clyde said...

You know who could use some self-improvement? Democrat Senators on the Judicial Committee. They've been getting their heads handed to them by AG Barr, who is a lot smarter than they are. After lunch, we'll get the Democrat presidential wanna-bes, who will probably be batted around by Barr like a cat with a mouse.

Christopher Smith said...

The word he used is jiko no kensan (事故の研鑽). Kensan literally means devotion to one's studies. But jiko kensan is a common phrase in business settings, meaning something like not letting one's skills fall behind. So, for example, for a programmer jiko kensan is important because they need to keep refreshing their skills to keep up with latest developments. So here it's not so much the American idea of self-improvement as self-actuallization, but rather promising he won't get complacent and will keep working hard to fulfill his role to the best of his abilities.

Susan said...

The Emperor's job is to be an example of the ideal Japanese citizen.

The ideal Japanese citizen is always working to improve himself/herself and her surroundings.

He is promising to do his job.

Kevin said...

Althouse yesterday: I've been following the trend of seizing upon some foreign language word to add mystery and style to things that might otherwise come across as mundane and dull.

Althouse today: I'd like to know more about the devotion to "self-improvement." What is the Japanese word and what is the significance of the concept in Japanese culture?

Paddy O said...

I immediately thought of Eiji Yoshikawa's books Musashi and Taiko, both of which feature an ideal of continual self-improvement and advancement, raising someone from a mundane or even disadvantaged status to becoming powerful and wise in life, overcoming expectations and then overcoming privilege in the path of continued realization.

bagoh20 said...

I consider it a disqualifying statement from a monarch. If you are not already perfect, then let's find someone who is to be king. You didn't see Henry VIII start eating tofu and bean sprouts.

robother said...

Typical Trump critique: "...Trump’s injunctions look inward to promote a relentless self-aggrandizement, and outward to manipulate a world of facile images. These qualities, and their appeal to a popular audience, have reshaped America’s success tradition."

Why no specific quotation from Art of the Deal, Illustrating his promotion of relentless self-aggrandizement?

Rick.T. said...

Hmmm. While a Japanese word, I was always under the impression that kaizen was an American idea adopted by the Japanese.

"The idea, though, didn't originate in Japan — not entirely, anyway. Just after World War II the occupation authorities sponsored American managers to move to Japan and oversee the rebuilding of the economy and to get the country moving again as fast as possible.

"One of those managers was William Edwards Deming. Deming isn't well-known outside management theory circles, but in the 1930s he invented the statistical sampling methods that the U.S. Census first used in 1940 and still uses today. After World War II he had a job under General Douglas MacArthur, consulting with the Japanese government about its own census. It was in 1950 that he started working with local Japanese manufacturers who were all interested in how to improve quality and reduce costs."

https://www.investopedia.com/articles/investing/092414/kaizen-american-idea-gets-japanese-makeover.asp

The award for TQM is the Deming Prize

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deming_Prize

Big Mike said...

@Rick, my take is that the concept of Kaizen is why the post-war Japanese took so readily to Deming’s theories.

ALP said...

Discussing this with my Japanese partner - his first comment about the 'self improvement' was "Well, the last emperor was his dad" so I guess there could be some father-son aspect of the statement. There may be aspects of his personality that his father did not like and he's keen on improving those now that he's in the public eye more. However, he accepted my theory that the phrase 'self-improvement' may be a clumsy English translation of something like "I will strive to be a better emperor each day".

roesch/voltaire said...

Here is the English translation published in Asahi Shimbun"In acceding to the throne, I swear that I will reflect deeply on the course followed by His Majesty the Emperor Emeritus and bear in mind the path trodden by past emperors, and will devote myself to self-improvement." Little to do with Kaizen and more to do with respect for elders saying you will work to honor the tradition and become worthy of the family title.

narayanan said...

As Melania would tell him "Be Best"

Susan said...

Sounds a little like the American concept expressed in the phrase "I stand on the shoulders of giants. "

Maillard Reactionary said...

tcrosse said: "At the big company where I was chained to the oars on the lower decks, there was a guy whose title was Vice President of Continual Improvement. He was a reptile."

Admittedly, the average reptile has a ways to go to achieve enlightenment, but if he did improve, what are you complaining about?

Unless it was a trireme, and you were on the lowest deck. There's weather down there, and from what I've read, it's not refreshing.

Anonymous said...

James Earl Carter's work with Habitat for Humanity will be recognized by those of us who lived through his abysmal presidency as "self improvement" deserving recognition, providing he continues it nonstop for another 500 years, and keeps himself out of North Korea.

Owen said...

Phiddipus: please send me a rag with which to clean my laptop screen. Major coffee spill here.

Owen said...

Phiddipus --> Phidippus

*bows in shame*

Peter said...

As with much of Japanese culture the source goes back to China. In the case of “self improvement” it goes back to Confucianism. The Analects have a lot to say about the “wise man” or “moral man” aalways looking to improve oneself...
Forse in HK