How to Practice ‘Hansei,’ the Japanese Art of Self-Criticism
After living in Japan, I realized there may be danger in the American tendency to over-celebrate every victory
“All right, everyone! Time to gather for our hansei-kai,” our teacher announced.
Why? I wondered. Our event had been a success.
It was my first year attending a Japanese school after moving from New York to Tokyo at age 12. In Japanese, the term hansei translates to “reflection” or “introspection,” but this direct translation doesn’t convey the connotation of the word, which is 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 our school’s annual winter festival, an event that was filled with food, games, and good times with our friends. The day went so smoothly that I couldn’t possibly imagine what we needed to talk about. Couldn’t we just go home and rest? Why spoil the happy mood by focusing on our weak points?
But as my classmates made their way to the center of the room, they shared none of my grumblings. Students eagerly raised their hands, pointing out what we could’ve done better and what we should take note of for next year. The discussion was completely objective — nobody got emotional when their work was criticized, and we all ended up with great feedback. It was unlike anything I had experienced in an American classroom.
The term hansei implies that nobody and nothing is perfect and that criticism is a necessary and valuable part of growth. This belief is present at all levels in Japanese society: at home, in the government, in the workplace, and in school. Japanese organizations are built around the philosophy, placing a high value on the iterative process of reflecting, analyzing, and improving. Hansei is used not only when things fail but also when they succeed. Anything can be made better and more efficient.
America is a celebratory country, one that firmly believes in the importance of feeling good about our achievements. When Americans win, they break open the champagne and cheer. Success is marked with energy, optimism, and confidence.