Naikan – the Japanese Art of Self-reflection

‘The words we live with today become part of our lives tomorrow.’

The above quote are the words of Yoshimoto Ishin (1916-1988) – a Japanese businessman, Buddhist monk, and the founder of Naikan therapy.

Naikan is a structured self-reflection technique. Nai means ‘inside’ and kan means ‘looking’; therefore, Naikan translates to ‘inside looking’ or ‘introspection’. The technique could be described as the Japanese art of self-reflection, of seeing oneself with the mind's eye.

Grounded in Pure Land Buddhist tradition, it offers a clear and usable self-relation method to practising gratitude, and can serve as both a spiritual and a psychotherapeutic practice. 

In short, Naikan is used to increase our awareness of the often unnoticed compassion that others have towards us, as well as the innate self-centeredness of our human nature. People doing Naikan ask themselves three questions in relation to a family member or some other person during particular times in their lives.

The Three Naikan Questions

The three Naikan self-reflection questions are:

  • What did this person give to me? 
  • What did I return to this person? 
  • What troubles did I cause this person?

There are two types of Naikan: one-week and daily. The former is done continually for a week or more at a Naikan training centre or at the home of the Naikan practitioner, where clients spend the majority of the day reflecting on their relationships in silence. Daily Naikan can be a self-managed reflective journaling practice incorporated into one’s daily routine. 

Whatever the specific context, Naikan can have a dramatic effect on relationships with others, creating more harmony and life satisfaction. Put succinctly, it reminds us that life is made easier due to the care of others and that we will ultimately suffer if we focus only on ourselves. 

One-week Naikan

As the name implies, one-week Naikan is far more extreme and intensive, with clients asked to recall past events and episodes involving people such as their mother, father, siblings, extended family, and so on. The name for a Naikan practitioner in Japanese is mensetsusha, which translates directly to mean ‘interviewer’; however, there is little dialogue between a practitioner and the client beyond a suggestion for the next focal subject. As Naikan is about self-reflection, what is to be learnt is personal to the client and there is little input from the menetsusha, who typically asks only one question.

Dr Chikako Ozawa-de Silva, an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Emory University, who has studied and researched Naikan for 25 years, describes the interaction between a practitioner/menetsusha and client once they have entered the setting for the practice (usually a small private space sealed off by a shoji, a portable paper screen room divider): 

‘The practitioner [mensetsusha] then typically asks a formulaic question, namely, “What have you examined in relation to whom and at what time of your life?” The client responds by saying, “I have examined myself in relation to so and so between these periods,” and then proceeds to give a summary of what they recalled. Clients are not obliged to report everything and they are free not to share certain things if they feel uncomfortable. This mensetsu [interview] normally lasts 3 to 5 minutes. At the end of each mensetsu, the client states what he or she is going to examine for the next 2 hours, and the practitioner leaves and moves on to the next client.’

The first session usually starts with a focus on the client's mother. For each reflection, the client recalls life events by age periods (usually of 3 years) starting from their memories when they were as young as 4.

Clients report their reflections on the three prompts to their practitioner up to six times a day. Being away from everyday life, family, and work for a week allows participants to achieve a sustained contemplative state in which they remember long-forgotten life episodes and understand inner feelings more easily.  

An example of the benefits of a one-week Naikan is revealed in the quote below, a ‘Naikan confession’ from an interviewee in Ozawa-de Silva’s book, Psychotherapy and Religion in Japan: The Japanese Introspection Practice of Naikan:

‘I always blamed my mother for being the source of my anxiety neurosis . . . After my Naikan, I realized that I always received an infinite amount of love from her. It wasn’t because of her, but rather because I only paid attention to the things she did not do and grew in anger and dissatisfaction, that as a result I built up stress by myself and became sick . . . I really feel sorry for my mother, thinking about how much worry I must have caused her these last three years. I’m filled with the emotion, wanting to apologize to her . . . Thanks to Naikan . . . I gained security, and since I am certain of the affection I’ve received now, I think I can finally live in the present.’

Daily Naikan

Daily Naikan is far less intense; it is done for a few minutes or up to a few hours as part of a person’s everyday routine, often as a reflective journaling practice. It involves sitting in a quiet place, without distraction, and listing answers to the three questions in relation to the day’s events.

Unlike one-week Naikan, daily Naikan is focused on more recent events (within the past 24 hours) and, with a slight rewording of the questions, can explore interactions with more than one person:

  • What did you receive from others today? 
  • What did you give to others today?
  • What troubles and difficulties did you cause others today? 

It is important to include as many deeds as you can remember, and not to omit any because they seem trivial; rather than simply saying that someone helped you, write down all the actions taken by the person who helped you. 

Gregg Krech, author, poet, and one of the leading authorities on Japanese Psychology in North America, describes Daily Naikan as a type of technology: 

‘It's a very structured methodology and what I mean by that is, when I researched material for my book on Naikan, I tried to look at just the general theme of self-reflection and I found that almost every spiritual and religious tradition encourages self-reflection. But I found that in many cases there was an absence of an actual methodology of how to do this. What are the mechanics of doing this? Do you just go out in the woods or into a cabin in the woods, or to the mountains for a week or two weeks and just sit there and kind of think or reflect? Naikan has a structure to it.’

Krech explains how the structure of daily Naikan can be used as a journaling practice where you list responses to each of the three questions:

‘The first question is, “What have I received from others?” Or, if you're doing Naikan on a person, if you were doing Naikan on your wife, Nick, it would be, “What have I received from my wife?” The second question is, “What have I given?” The third question is, “What troubles and difficulties have I caused others?” It's a very simple framework which can be used, and I've worked with children as young as five years old who can easily understand those questions and work with that type of reflective process.’

There are indeed many things I receive from my wife. While I do feel there are many things I give to her, I can certainly recognise the troubles and difficulties I cause her; this would be a very long chapter if I listed them all here.

Naikan is a tool that I can use to reflect on my behaviour, giving me the opportunity to think of how I could have better handled myself or communicated with her. Naikan gives me the opportunity to act with more care, with more omoiyari, in the future.

As this example shows, Naikan is an effective tool to help us recognise what others do for us, to see that we often receive more from others than we give, and to give us the opportunity to better ourselves through recognising and admitting our flaws.

Naikan journaling affords us the opportunity to express our true self privately, which is important for self-actualizing. The three Naikan questions provide a foundation for reflecting on all relationships, including those with parents, friends, teachers, siblings, work associates, children, partners, and even strangers.

A self-actualisation practice

I liken Naikan journaling to a self-actualisation practice. There will be times in our life where we are challenged by the events and people around us. We may sometimes feel that what we have is insufficient or that life is unfair, but Naikan isn't about being grateful for what you have if what you have is not sufficient or serving you well.

Naikan is about widening the lens on your life, so you don't only see the suffering; it expands the view so, even in the midst of suffering, you can be grateful to all those who love and support you.

Taking the time to reflect on the three Naikan questions helps remind us that our relationships are ikigai sources. Our answers to the questions can inspire us to fulfil our roles and encourage us to better handle situations, opening us up to contemplate how we want to contribute to others in the future. From this we can gain a both ikigai-kan and sense of significance from our actions and the way we treat others.