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date: 28 April 2017

American and Japanese Self-Help Literature

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. Please check back later for the full article.

“Self-help literature” was created in America, and its origin can be traced back to Benjamin Franklin. In 18th-century American society, where Puritan ethics held sway, Franklin was a rare sort of person, one who did not believe that personal ambition was a sin. Through his writings, in the form of Poor Richard’s Almanac (1732–1757) and The Way to Wealth (1757), Franklin demonstrated the know-how needed for worldly success, and he used himself as an example of the effectiveness of this know-how. According to Franklin’s philosophy of success, anyone can achieve social success, regardless of their social position, if they only have the will to educate themselves. This was the beginning of the American dream of success, and themes appearing here for the first time became the basic themes of many self-help books that appeared later.

Franklin’s writings were composed in America during the latter half of the 18th century, a period when independence from England increased opportunities for upward social mobility. Similarly, the first self-help book to appear in Japan was published at the time of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, after the end of the Edo period. At this time, the traditional feudal class system was abandoned, and it became possible to succeed in life using one’s own resourcefulness and efforts. This book Gakumon no Susume [An encouragement of learning], (1872–1876) was written by the well-known author and educator Yukichi Fukuzawa (1835–1901). This book holds that to create a modern state it is necessary for its people to first free themselves of apathy and laziness and become independent through practical study. The work was published in seventeen volumes, and 3.4 million copies were sold under this title. Its foundation was the declaration that “All men are created equal.” It is clear that the inspiration for this writing was the American Declaration of Independence. Of all of the Founding Fathers, Franklin’s ideas had the greatest impact on Fukuzawa, and through his self-help book, the Japanese people came into indirect contact with Franklin’s philosophy of success. Additionally, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1771–1790) was widely read throughout the Meiji period. Thus, it is apparent that Franklin’s ideas about self-help had a great impact on Japan around the end of the 19th century.

However, British author Samuel Smiles’s book Self-Help (1859) had an even greater influence on Japan as it underwent modernization. This book, which was also popular in America, sold more than a million copies in the 40-year period after it was translated into Japanese in 1871 by the philosopher of the European enlightenment, Masanao Nakamura (1832–1891). Moreover, this book was used as an ethics textbook in elementary schools from 1872 until 1880, so it played a particularly large role in planting the spirit of self-improvement in the Japanese youth of the time.

The influence of Confucianism was a large part of the context in which these English and American self-help books were accepted in Japan during and after the Meiji period. Confucianism came to Japan from China at the beginning of the 6th century, and by the Edo period, in the 17th century, the religious aspects of Confucianism had faded. It had become a system of education in ethics that emphasized the five virtues of “compassion to others,” “not being caught up in greed,” “being courteous,” “striving to learn,” and “being sincere.” Learning these virtues became a condition for success in life particularly for the warrior class. We notice that these five virtues are very similar to Franklin’s thirteen virtues; hence, it is easy to understand that familiarity with Confucianism made it easier for the Japanese to accept American and English self-help books. In other words, Western European ideas about self-help were not completely novel values to the Japanese; these ideas were compatible with the Confucian ethical values that the Japanese held. Therefore, they were widely accepted very quickly.

Later, after the beginning of the 20th century, Japan would greedily adopt self-help ideas from America. For example, the mind-cure techniques of Christian Science were introduced to Japan during the 1910s. “Reiki,” which is a Japan-specific practice related to mind cure, was developed soon after. Yoga was also introduced to Japan around the same time through the writings of William Walker Atkinson (a.k.a., Yogi Ramacharaka). The Japanese religionist Masaharu Taniguchi (1893–1985) created his own religious group, known as Seicho no Ie (The House of Growth), in the 1930s. This group resonated with the religious movement known as New Thought, which gained popularity in the United States at the end of the 19th century, and Seicho no Ie is currently the world’s largest New Thought group, with more than seventy thousand believers in Japan.

The 1950s through the 1980s saw the popularity of American self-help books fall in Japan, partly because of World War II. At the beginning of the 1990s, the bubble economy in Japan burst; the “life-long employment system” and the “seniority wage system” that had supported Japan up to that point started to collapse. Thus, hiring fell, and an American-style competitive society was introduced in Japan in the form of models such as the “ability-based wage system.” In a similar fashion, there was a demand for knowledge of how to survive in this new competitive society. This led to a sudden resurgence in the popularity of American self-help books. For this reason, it is currently difficult to find books by central American self-help authors, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Prentice Mulford, Orison Swett Marden, Wallace D. Wattles, Charles F. Haanel, Ralph Waldo Trine, Dorothea Brande, Joseph Murphy, Norman Vincent Peale, Neville Goddard, Earl Nightingale, Spencer Johnson, Robert Kiyosaki, and Tony Robbins that have not been translated into Japanese. In particular, Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989) has been very popular in recent years, and there are even primary schools that use this book as class material. Moreover, because comic culture is highly developed in Japan, there are many American self-help books that have been made into comic books. Of course, Stephen Covey’s book has been made into a comic book, but there are several other authors whose books have a comic book version in addition to the translation. Such works include Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People (1936), Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich (1937), and works by the psychologist Alfred Adler and the management consultant Peter Ferdinand Drucker. These works are widely known as self-help books. Self-help literature has taken hold as a literary genre that has maintained a firmly rooted popularity in Japan, much like it has in America. It is frequently read by middle-class, white-collar middle-aged men.

However, there has been a backlash against the incredibly numerous self-help books that have been put on the market: since 2010, in Japan, stronger criticisms of self-help books have begun to be made. According to these criticisms, the harmfulness of these books comes from the fact that all of the failures in a person’s life are attributed to the personal responsibility of the individual. For example, these critics say, these books state that people who belong to lower social classes are stuck in such positions because they have not been positive enough.

However, at present, these critical voices are being drowned out by the huge waves of numerous new self-help books being published in rapid succession. There is no reason to doubt that self-help books will continue to thrive in America and Japan, as long as the tradition of the “American dream of success” is alive in America and the virtues of the “desire for self-improvement” and “hard work” are part of the Japanese national character.