Hansei – 反省

Hansei (反省) is one of the concepts of Japanese culture that has been the hardest for me to fathom, and I believe that I still have a lot to understand and live within Japanese society to understand the concept like a Japanese person. Han (反) means “change”, “to turn something over”, “to see something from a different perspective”, and Sei (省) means “to review”, “to examine yourself”. The typical translation of the whole word hansei (反省) is usually “introspection” or “reflection”. All human beings practice hansei to a greater or lesser extent; let’s see how hansei is applied throughout Japanese society.

The first time that I was conscious about the existence of this word was when our boss summoned us for a hansei-kai, a meeting “to do hansei”. I looked in the dictionary the word hansei, but with the literal meaning I really didn’t understand what was the meeting about and what you were supposed to do in a meeting of “introspection”.

The meeting started with long faces. The boss scolded us and told us that the mistake we committed two days ago was very serious and that it could not happen again under any circumstances. I was beginning to understand what the “reflection” and “introspection” of the hansei was. The thing is that my “Spanish/European” mentality made me think: “We all know it was an irresponsibility of Tanaka-san what made all the production systems go down, he is the one that has to reflect on what happened, not us”. I simply thought about it but I didn’t say anything, most likely everybody else thought the same and also didn’t say anything.

Tanaka-san was sitting on the corner of the table looking down, also in silence and listening to the boss rant. When he finished, the boss asked each one of us why we thought something had gone wrong and what could we do so it would never happen again. We all answered without mentioning Tanaka-san, talking about the changes we could introduce in the processes to improve the quality control. When Tanaka-san had to speak, he briefly apologized with a simple “sumimasen”, assuming his responsibility and then he explained what he had done wrong and what he would do so it would never happen again. At the end of the meeting, the boss summarized all the lessons learned in a whiteboard and told us that he would send an e-mail with all the conclusions and changes to be introduced in the group work routine. Afterwards, the boss explained what had happened to the president, he assumed all the responsibility about the mistake of our team (without mentioning Tanaka-san at all). Tanaka-san never made the same mistake again and neither any of us, thanks to the hansei-introspection-reflection meeting we made our team better.

I learned something more about the hansei concept. The purpose of the meeting was not for Tanaka-san to apologize, neither to blame Tanaka-san for what he had done, the main purpose of the meeting was to improve the team, to make kaizen. In a similar situation, people with a western mentality would most likely point at Tanaka-san and maybe Tanaka-san would blame something else. Most likely the tension between the members of the group would increase until everybody forgets about what happened, and maybe in the future the same situation will happen again.

In our cultures, influenced by christian tradition, the ideas of guilt and sin have been instilled since childhood in our minds. When we do something wrong, when we commit a mistake, the guilt kills us, sometimes we don’t want to accept it. On the other hand, Japan is a society where the most feared is not guilt, but embarrassment. Tanaka-san felt embarrassment for having failed the team, we as a team also felt embarrassment for having failed the boss, and our boss felt embarrassment for having failed us and having failed the company.

All of us, humans, commit mistakes but depending on our personality and the culture we have been raised in, our first reaction is different. The first reaction of Japanese people is a deep feeling of embarrassment. This initial embarrassment feeling is next channeled through hansei, through reflection, through introspection about what has happened, by being fully aware of what has happened and by sharing the mistake with the group (collectivist society). In our cultures the first that we think of is our guilt and next we try to make everything possible to hide our mistake, so that the least possible amount of people knows about it; we try to “hide our shit”, maybe it’s ours or maybe it’s from our team, or sometimes we even try to blame our shit on somebody else.

At the beginning I still didn’t understand the whole meaning of hansei, I just thought that it consisted only in assuming your responsibility and reflecting about what had happened looking at it from different perspectives. But the truth is that it is much more than reflection, it is closer to an introspection, to the “knowledge of oneself” (self-awareness, a Buddhist concept). To be able to “know oneself better”, after feeling embarrassment, the hansei process could consist of three steps:

  • 1.- Reflection, introspection, and assuming your responsibility
  • 2.- Recognizing that there is a problem. Identifying the origin of the difference between what you tried to achieve and the real outcome.
  • 3.- Compromising yourself to a series of changes in order to improve

These steps can be applied at an individual level as well as a team. When Japanese children do something wrong, they are scolded and are told: hansei shinasai “反省しなさい” (Do hansei!). Just by being told this, the children know in their subconscious that they have to assume the responsibility, recognize and explain the problem, and have to change in the future to not make the same mistake again. It is not a question of scolding the child so that he feels guilty, it is a question of making him see that nobody is perfect and that we can all improve as individuals when we are decided to do it.

Little by little I have started to understand that hansei is always present, even when we haven’t made any mistake. I feel like my boss is not always completely happy, he is always expecting more from us as a team, he is always expecting more from me. When he praises me, the next thing he does is to “criticize me constructively”. He tells me something like this: “Héctor, good job, thanks for your effort over the last weeks. But, could you try to do it better next time?”. He is not angry, he just wants us to improve, to be better individuals, to form a better team, to be a better Japan. Doesn’t it remind you to some samurai movies and manga like Naruto or Dragon Ball where the senpai-sensei-master is always expecting more from his disciples, even when they have surpassed him?

Most likely, at the beginning, when I was still with a 100% western mindset, it annoyed me that nobody was completely happy even when things were going exceptionally well. Now, I think I am already used to it, I know that my bosses are happy but they keep it to themselves, they tell me what they have to tell me just because they want more from me and my colleagues.

Even though we have performed our duties, even though we have surpassed everyone’s expectations, most likely we could have done our work even better. In the working world in Japan I feel like people is never satisfied enough; the behavior of the people is quite similar when things go well and when things go bad. We are in a continuous process of improvement. In an American company when a project has been successfully accomplished maybe it will be celebrated with a bottle of champagne; in a Japanese company it will also be celebrated but in many occasions there will be meeting afterwards to see what could have been done to make it even better. Toyota is one of the most rigorous companies when it comes to applying hansei. They are always doing hansei-kai meetings, when things go smooth, as well as when things go bad. They are continuously reflecting about their processes and trying to analyze how could they make them better; in Toyota they say: “To not have problems is a problem”.

In the western world we like to brag about how well we have done something. In Japan, even though achievements are celebrated, people try not to stand out too much and to be humble. In the west we expect to get a reward when we do a good work; in Japan you expect that somebody will tell you or ask you how can you do it better next time.

Experience is the best teacher, if we don’t learn about our experiences we are advancing in vain. The hansei process helps you to improve, to learn, to get the best out of your experience. I have learned many things about hansei, and I have applied them to my professional life as well as to my personal life. However, I think that I still have a long way to go to understand the whole concept; for example, even though I don’t know if it’s important or not, I still feel more guilt than embarrassment when I am the one who is responsible for our team not meeting expectations.

The final objective of hansei is to improve through a process of introspection, to learn about oneself, to learn to be better individuals and a better society. Right now, after the earthquake of last month, Japan is living a hansei process at a national level: government, construction companies, architects, TEPCO and all the citizens in general. Japan is living the largest hansei since the end of World War II.

I’m not saying that the way Japanese handle hansei is good or bad, it is just different on how we handle it in other cultures.

8 replies on “Hansei – 反省”

This is very interesting! I didn’t know about hanseikai in Japan.

I think you’re right about the (general) cultural differences in the west and in Japan, except I think guilt and embarrassment are received differently.

I think when someone makes a mistake, the natural response is to avoid embarrassment. People will try to hide minor mistakes and wait for the guilt to subside. If their mistake is large and their guilty feeling is stronger, they may admit to it thereby becoming embarrassed, or receiving a punishment to feel less guilty.

Often times in the west people will scold the person who made the mistake, forcing embarrassment or punishment. If the person thinks their mistake is minor or not their fault (they aren’t feeling guilty) they will be defensive towards the people causing them embarrassment and blame something else. If they are feeling guilty, they admit to the mistake and accept the embarrassment. Afterward, if they aren’t given forgiveness and are still being attacked, there might be tension again. It’s a natural response of all cultures to feel defensive if they feel they think they are unjustly attacked.

In your hanseikai, Tanaka-san was probably already feeling guilt (not embarrassment). Maybe in Japan, the desire to avoid embarrassment is even stronger than in the west. Coming out and admitting your mistakes quickly can also be seen as a selfish act, because you are relieving yourself of guilt and asking for forgiveness. In the hanseikai, no one singled Tanaka-san out or caused embarrassment, even though everyone knew who caused the problem. I think this elevated Tanaka-san’s feelings of guilt more than embarrassment could.

This happens in the west too: for example if a drunk driver kills someone in an accident, instead of calling that person a monster (they might get defensive “but it was an accident! The bartender made my drink too strong!”) people concentrate on how the victim had their whole life cut short, they will be missed by family…etc. It helps the drunk realize what he did was really serious.

In the same way Tanaka-san is feeling guilt, everyone else in the meeting is starting to feel sorry for Tanaka-san. He’s not getting punished so he has no way to relieve the guilt. Also since no one is singling him out as a scapegoat, the other employees think about what they might have done wrong for Tanaka-san to ultimately make the mistake. He knows he will have to accept responsibility, but without begging for forgiveness so he says quietly “sumimasen.”
In the end, everyone feels a little bit guilty (some more than others) and without forgiveness the only way to relieve the guilt is to work even harder. So it actually is a pretty effective method, as long as the people responsible feel a healthy amount of guilt, and everyone has the ability to work harder to relieve the guilt.

So I think in Christianity influenced culture, the emphasis is to relieve guilt by admitting wrongdoing and getting forgiveness. People put themselves down and expect others to say, “that’s ok, just don’t do it again.” or “your punishment is ___ and then you will be free.” The problem is for some people they do bad things over and over, knowing each time as long as they just admit to it they can be forgiven.
In Japan there is less emphasis on forgiveness and more on using that guilt to try to improve yourself. A problem would be if someone didn’t feel guilty at all. What if Tanaka-san’s ego was so big he just leaned back in his chair and didn’t admit to anything during the hanseikai? Believe it or not I know some Japanese people like that, and they rarely get confronted. Though in the case of those who feel irrationally guilty and can’t do enough to improve themselves to relieve guilty feelings… I think those are the ones who end up committing suicide.

Very interesting! I’m not saying you have to agree with me, but this is what I came to understand about guilt/embarrassment/forgiveness and how people handle making mistakes in different cultures just now from reading your article. Thanks!

Thank you for the explanation. I am trying to turn the behaviours into a competency for a company that has partial ownership by a major Japanese company and whose employees, all non-Japanese, must apply the principles in the workplace and then be measured on their success in applying the competency. Your article helps to clarify the behaviours needed both at the superior and inferior levels

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