8 Lessons I Learnt From My Japanese In-Laws

Japanese life lessons - temple in Japana


I just returned from a quasi-spontaneous 3-week working holiday in Japan. We went so as my son could meet his grandparents – my Japanese in-laws – for the first time.

Travel has always been one of my greatest teachers. It shifts perspective like nothing else.

It was our first international trip as a family and I knew it would be very different from my life-before-kid travels, that’s for sure (ie NOT snowboard, hot spring, sake, party, repeat). We spent more time in one place, moved slowly and integrated into Japanese family life. This allowed me to understand more aspects of the Japanese culture.

I was happy to discover lots of deeply echoed Chinese Medicine lifestyle advice and health promotion in Japan. Japanese daily life is rich in these guiding principles.

So here are 8 lessons I learnt from my Japanese in-laws during our stay. I hope you find these relevant and helpful.


Japanese Life Lessons


1. Hara Hatchi Bun Me – only eat until you’re 80% full.


Hara hatchi bun me is an old Japanese adage. Satiation comes from experiencing something to the fullest. That doesn’t mean filling your tummy ’til it bursts. Looking, smelling, honouring, respecting, tasting and being present with the food will generate that satisfaction.

This concept is understood in my father-in-law’s kitchen. Leave some space – we live in an abundant place. In my case it was only eat till you’re 80% full because you never know when they will pull out another delicious dish! Oh and it allows your digestive system to process more efficiently.


japan 2


2. Respect the nature of your ingredients.


My Japanese father-in-law is a master chef. It’s not that he cooks complicated shiz, it’s just that his food is so thoughtfully made with super fresh ingredients. He communes with his ingredients – that’s right – he taps into what the ingredients are about. He knows how to prepare them, keeps them simple and treats them right.

Japanese life lessons

This is Takeshi’s dad Hiroshi-San in their kitchen. I was teaching them how to self-Moxibustion.


3. Don’t throw anything away. If you need to declutter, recycle it properly.


There is so much waste in our world! There never used to be. I thought I valued using recycled goods. Hell, give me an op shop or a market and I’ll be trawling that baby pronto for useful things I can give a new life to, but the Japanese take utilitarianism to a new level. The respect and love they give to objects that have helped them on their way is touching.

Travelling is always a good stocktake of how much you are consuming (aka how much you can carry) and what you can really let go of.


4. Stay in the moment, wait for it to unfold and trust in those around you.


Ya, try telling that to an over-scheduled, wilfully independent and generally kinda bossy control freak. Ha!

Not knowing much Japanese language and being thrust into a family home of people who had a lot to catch up on meant I didn’t know what the feck was being planned, spoken about or really what the hell was going on.

This could have easily led to some challenging internal dynamics. Instead, I did my best to emulate the mindfulness that seemed to be the prominent Japanese demeanour. I tried (was forced through circumstance) to just stay in the moment and experience it fully, no matter what was going on and trust that it would pass, stuff would happen, things would occur – all without help from my planning or controlling. Revelation! It helped me immensely. Only a few stampy impatient steam-coming-from-ears moments! Try it – let go, have faith and see.


5. Gan Ba Te! Do your best.


Quite often in Japan, when I proclaimed I was off to do something, people would say “gan ba te!” which translates to “do your best”.

Honestly, the only arenas in which I FULLY do my best are acupuncture treatments and the odd inspiring yoga class. Usually I’m holding back, giving about 80%.

Why? Because I don’t want to have done my best and it be not be good enough. There I said it.

I want my default to be “oh well, if I’d really tried then I’d have nailed it.” Maybe that would be true, or maybe not. It wouldn’t matter. I’d never know because I’d held back.

This is quite a foreign concept to the Japanese people I know. When my partner gets all over-the-top-ish, bending over backwards to help someone he doesn’t know, patiently and calmly assists them or shows a high level of enthusiasm for something he commits to, I feel a bit awkward, squirmy, like, “why are you trying so hard dude?”

What a fool I have been. Letting my feelings of potential inadequacy inhibit my present moment. Encouraged by so many in earnest to “do my best” has started to rub off.


6. Set your intentions for the day.


There is a little Buddhist shrine in the Kondo family home. Every morning and night my mother-in-law will turn the light on in the shrine (back in the day she’d light a candle), light some incense, place some fresh flowers and sprinkle water. This little ritual sets her intentions for the day.

The light is to encourage her wisdom to illuminate her ignorance. The incense fragrance symbolises how good contact creates a ripple of positivity. The fresh flowers will soon wilt, so their beautiful bloom and scent remind her to fully embrace the moment. The offering of water is to set the intention to let go of and cleanse tension and negativity.

Bit different from a coffee, tram squeeze and scroll through Facebook to start your day hey?


7. Stay clean.


Take your shoes off before you enter your house. Then enter the sanctuary of the home. Leave the outside world outside.

Wash your body first – scrub it down so that when you enter the bath you are already physically clean. Now wash away the cares from your heart as you soak. It works. ‘Nuff said. Thank goodness for the Japanese bath house.

Japanese life lessons


8. Sometimes people are just different and that’s OK. Live and let live.


As much as I wanted to deeply understand my hosts as people and them me, you can’t force relationships and understanding. It just happens over time spent together and exposure to each other’s ways. Practicing some radical self-acceptance and accepting differences you don’t immediately understand can help dissolve the awkwardness or mystery one can encounter in these new situations.

Without familiar social cultural references to fall back on, I was left with a heightened awareness of my presence. That was a great vehicle to just let go of my expectations and just show up and trust.

Hope you enjoyed my Japanese life lessons. Why don’t you try one out for the day and see what happens?

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