Japan’s First Psychotherapies: Between ‘Religion’ and ‘Therapy’


In this post, Christopher Harding discusses the historical negotiation between Buddhism and Psychotherapeutic frameworks, in Japan. The gives a fascinating insight into a moment in which secular and ‘religious’ frameworks come up against one another. This includes negotiating concepts such as the autonomous individual, or the ‘self’, in relation to a moral or spiritual life. The post will benefit NSRN readers interested in the questions of definitions, and the boundaries between religious and secular models.

[Psycho]analysis of character is in a way a religion since through this process the person becomes free of all worldly worries. In olden days it was only a few well-known Buddhist monks who were able to achieve this state of mind. But today a person can achieve [it] using scientific method and reason. It is possible to attain the condition known in Japanese as gedatsu [liberation from earthly desires and woes] by removing virtually all the complexes which dwell in one’s unconscious by means of the method of psychoanalytic abreaction.[i]

So wrote Yabe Yaekichi, one of the founder members of the Tokyo Psychoanalytical Society. He was broadly representative of a religious modernism in early twentieth century Japan that asked whether some of the ideas and practices associated with Buddhism, Shinto and Confucianism might usefully be updated via the latest scientific approaches to the mind. Some of Japan’s Buddhist sects were particularly keen on this idea, striving to present Buddhism not as the force for common superstition and backwardness that its critics claimed but rather as a trial-and-error tradition that in the era of modern Western science had finally come of age.

These sorts of aspirations were arguably easier to harbour in Japan than in the West, for the simple but crucial reason that both ‘religion’ and ‘psychotherapy’ were fresh and especially malleable concepts in this era.

‘What is religion?’ and ‘What is religion for?’ In asking and answering these questions both of Christianity in the West and of Buddhism at home, a relatively small cadre of Japanese thinkers enjoyed a rare opportunity to influence profoundly what future generations of Japanese would expect from ‘religion’. They were asking their questioning during difficult times: Japanese felt themselves to be playing technological and cultural catch-up with the West, and to be suffering emotionally from the strain of it all. So these questions about religion were highly pragmatic, even instrumental: often, the real question was ‘What does religion do for us, now?’

Crucially, these same questions were being asked about psychology and about psychotherapy, including psychoanalysis (the latter as both a psychology and a form of therapy). It quickly became clear to people like the Buddhist priest-turned-philosopher Inoue Enryō that religion, psychology and psychotherapy had very similar aims: enabling people to see past their own fantasies, get wordless access to transcendent truth beyond those fantasies, and commit to that truth.

‘Faith’ played a big part here, but the concept had to be properly defined, thought Inoue. For too many Japanese members of his Buddhist sect – the True Pure Land sect – it still meant a kind of naïve hope that they would reborn, after death, in a ‘Pure Land’. For him, and for many thinkers influenced by him, ‘faith’ was something else: a double movement in a person’s inner life, whereby first they realized that they could accomplish nothing of true ethical or existential value for themselves, and second they surrendered themselves to the benign power of reality – represented by Amida Buddha. This was the salvific aim of both Buddhism and psychotherapy, for Inoue. ‘Rebirth’ made sense as a metaphor, but it was always in danger either of sliding back into the old heavenly fantasy or of being reduced until it meant nothing more than a mere shift in a person’s outlook

Such ideas rapidly gained ground, representing a partial win for one side in a long battle in Japanese Buddhism: between the claim that one’s salvation is achieved by oneself, through ‘self-power’ (jiriki), versus its achievement via ‘other-power’ (tariki). For Inoue and thinkers like Kiyozawa Manshi who came after him, ‘self-power’ made no sense because this double movement of faith shows us two things: that what we think of as the ‘self’ is weak and limited, and that at its deepest levels there is no ‘I’ but rather the Other: Amida Buddha. The implications of tariki are so profound that ‘I’ don’t even make the final salvific surrender: Amida Buddha does it for me.

The Buddhist poet Kai Wariko expressed it like this:

The voice with which I call to Amida, is the voice with which Amida calls to me.

Such ideas made it possible for new Japanese religious movements and psychotherapies in the early twentieth century to occupy similar space. For Buddhist conservatives, it wasn’t ‘religion’ because it seemed to jettison central doctrinal elements like postmortem rebirth into the Pure Land. For most psychotherapists, it could not be ‘therapy’ because it seemed at best ambivalent about whether there was a self to work with and to play its part in the therapeutic relationship.

But for pioneering Japanese psychotherapists in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, both religious doctrine and ideas of the ‘self’ were only useful in so far as they eventually cancelled themselves out – by helping people to move beyond them.

An example of this was ‘Naikan Therapy’, still practiced today in some Japanese hospitals, prisons and schools. Its founder Yoshimoto Ishin turned an ascetic Buddhist practice of mishirabe – ‘investigating oneself’ in solitude for days on end, without food or water, until enlightenment dawns – into a form of residential psychotherapy. This was still rooted in long periods of solitude but now featured, alongside food and water, a ‘guide’ who visits one’s room periodically to aid the process of reflection upon one’s past relationships with specific questions. What did you receive from your parents? What did you give back? What trouble did you cause? Yoshimoto saw enough that was similar in existential, experiential terms, between the original religious practice and the new therapy that he promoted Naikan as a practice acceptable to and urgently required by modern Japanese people.

Something similar went on in the form of psychoanalysis developed by Kosawa Heisaku, who was a member of the same Buddhist sect as Inoue and Yoshimoto. For him, the ultimate aim of psychoanalysis was a clearing away of mental debris until clients experienced what one described as a sense of ‘being lived through’: as though the source of life, will, and agency is not one’s ‘self’ but rather something (or someone) else – ‘other-power’ coursing through one’s mind and body.

Novelist and Japan’s best-known contemporary Buddhist Setouchi Jakucho seems to have been Kosawa’s final client. She went through just such a turning-point realization herself, though at the time neither she nor Kosawa described it in Buddhist terms.[ii] She remembers those sessions with Kosawa being crucial to her future career as a nun, and says that his therapeutic style is the key influence behind her own approach in Buddhist talks and informal counselling that she offers.

As Setouchi remembers it: ‘I’d always thought that it was me making my way in this world, until I went to Kosawa’s house. I’d become a novelist because I had talent; my books sold because I had talent — plus a bit of luck. That’s not how I see it any more. There’s no one born into this world because they decided they would be. You’re not born, you’re born-forth-by-something.’

This, then, was the contribution of some of Japan’s early psychotherapies: to explore, amidst an atmosphere of conceptual flexibility and the anxieties of modernity, a liminal space between ‘religion’ and ‘psychotherapy’ – a space with increasing relevance in our times, as everyone from psychiatrists to religious leaders start to explore the contributions that religious and therapeutic traditions can make to one another.[iii]


[i] Extract from Yabe Yaekichi’s diary, published in Furoido Seishinbunsekigaku Zenshu [Freud’s Collected Works on Psychoanalysis], Vol. 5 (Tokyo, 1931).

[ii] Christopher Harding, ‘Japanese Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: the Making of a Relationship, History of Psychiatry 25(2) (2014).

[iii] See, for example, the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ ‘Spirituality and Psychiatry Special Interest Group’.

Christopher Harding is Lecturer in Asian History at the University of Edinburgh. He writes and broadcasts on modern Japan and India, and on spirituality and mental health. His website is www.christopher-harding.com and he tweets as @drchrisharding.

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