What do we mean by acceptance? Is it the avoidance of conflict? The understanding that some events are simply beyond our control? Is it the resignation that certain things won’t change? These kinds of questions are asked everyday all over the world and every culture has their own take on what acceptance means.
In Japan, ukeireru is a type of acceptance that the Japanese embrace and Scott Haas is interested in peering behind the curtain to see what exactly it means. In Why Be Happy?: The Japanese Way of Acceptance, Haas explores the concept of ukeireru, what it truly means to accept something and how the power of acceptance can help to build a happier and healthier life.
Understanding the Japanese view of acceptance
The book begins with Haas questioning what acceptance means through the view of Japanese culture and there are multiple meanings:
“Yumi Obinata, an interpreter in Tokyo, sent me a highly detailed spreadsheet listing four words that mean acceptance. She then explained in what kind of sentence each word can be used and how to use them.
Ukeireru is used by a mother with a child to accept something gently. Uketomeru is used by a mother to accept ‘the burst of emotions of her child’ when ‘something comes with great force.’ Toriireu can be used in describing the acceptance by Japan of Protestant missionaries. Ukenagasu can mean to receive and ‘let it flow away.’”
Haas focuses on ukeireru because it’s an all-encompassing feeling that connects us to friends, family, work, communities and our realities. It’s about finding the strength to make changes that are personal, while not resigning yourself to a situation.
Comparing Western and Japanese acceptance
Throughout the book, Haas makes comparisons to how westerners view acceptance in relation to Japan and strives to provide a balanced argument. He doesn’t shy away from critiquing certain aspects of Japanese culture, such as the stringent need for conforming with a group and not being an individual.
He also reflects on the improvements that could be made in societies like America, with people choosing to embrace silence and being more accepting of group dynamics. Haas emphasises that cherry-picking the best parts of Western and Japanese culture is the way forward and that both worlds can learn from each other.
The focus on Japanese customs like kuuki wo yomu or ‘reading the air’ is fascinating because it shows insight into how Japanese people develop their acceptance skills. Reading the air refers to having an instinctive knowledge of how another person is feeling. It’s knowing when to be silent and when to offer an opinion that can lead to a more harmonious existence.
Then there’s the chapter about the phrase ‘hai, wakarimashita/yes, I understand.’ Much more than a simple phrase, Haas explains what it means:
“When Japanese say, “Hai, wakarimashita,’” they may or may not be agreeing with you. It means that the person is saying that they understand what you said. This understanding creates a context for any decision that might follow what’s been said.”
There’s a certain level of negotiation in this exchange, which may help to come to a quicker resolution and thus becomes another form of acceptance.
Finding your own version of acceptance
Why Be Happy? is the kind of book that has even more resonance in times where isolation and poor mental health have become more severe through lockdowns and uncertainty.
The concept of ukeireru is as multi-layered as Japanese society itself and while it may not be for everyone, it can encourage you to search for your own form of acceptance. Haas has put together a fascinating book and you’re free to take away the parts that mean the most to you.