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American and Japanese Self-Help Literature

Summary and Keywords

“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 knowledge. 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 forty-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 (aka 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 major 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 Seven 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.

Keywords: self-help literature, self-improvement literature, Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, New Thought, Benjamin Franklin, Yukichi Fukuzawa, Samuel Smiles, Stephen Covey, Dale Carnegie

History of Self-Help Literature in the United States

“Self-help literature,” or “self-improvement literature,” is a genre whose unique development can be traced to the dawn of the English presence in America. One of the earliest examples of this literature is “A Model of Christian Charity,” John Winthrop’s self-enlightening sermon that he preached to fellow Puritans as they prepared to build their first settlement in New England in the spring of 1630.1 In the second half of the 17th century, the so-called conduct books became popular, for instance, Lewis Bayly’s The Practice of Piety: Directing a Christian How to Walk, that He May Please God (1611?) and Samuel Hardy’s A Guide to Heaven (1679), and then Cotton Mather’s Bonifacius: An Essay Upon the Good (1710), from the 18th century. These books belong to the self-help category; Mather’s Bonifacius is especially regarded by certain scholars as the first self-help book.2 However, while these early “how-to” books provided several moral instructions for individuals in a Puritan society, they were not necessarily know-how books addressed to individual readers and offering insights regarding the achievement of worldly success or happiness.

It was not until the second half of the 18th century, when social unrest arose due to the United States’ efforts to break free from England, that individual success was emphasized and self-help books in the contemporary sense began to appear. The first author of such a book was Benjamin Franklin. Despite having avidly read Bonifacius and being much influenced by it, Franklin did not perceive personal ambition as a sinful quality. In addition to producing “know-how” books such as Poor Richard’s Almanack (1732–1758) and The Way to Wealth (1758), he also openly promoted the idea of universally obtainable success in The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1771–1790). In it, he listed “thirteen virtues,” including “temperance,” “resolution,” “industry,” and “sincerity,” and claimed that worldly success could be achieved by anyone regardless of their social status if these virtues were observed strictly. His philosophy laid the foundation for the “American dream of success” and prompted a long line of similar “life-coaching”–style self-help books.

By the second half of the 19th century, Americans got their first real glimpse of the American dream as the Gilded Age, spurred by the Industrial Revolution, gave birth to numerous first-generation and immigrant moguls. The increasing prosperity heightened people’s thirst for wealth and success and boosted the demand for how-to-succeed books. In particular, books that spoke of ways to succeed by relating stories of successful people were widely read by the public, for example, Self-Help: With Illustrations of Character and Conduct (1859) by British author Samuel Smiles and Pushing to the Front: or, Success under Difficulties (1894) by Orison Swett Marden, the publisher of the self-help magazine Success (launched in 1897). The number of self-help books written by wealthy entrepreneurs also saw a sharp increase, for instance, P. T. Barnum’s The Art of Money Getting: or, Golden Rules for Making Money (1880) and Andrew Carnegie’s The Empire of Business (1902). At the same time, Horatio Alger Jr.’s series of “rags to riches” youth novels, including Ragged Dick (1867) and Luck and Pluck (1869), found immense popularity as they involved a central theme that resonated closely with the era in terms of the values it reflected. In that sense, Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery: An Autobiography (1901), which was published for the purpose of raising the position of African Americans, may also be considered a life-coaching–style self-help book from that particular period.

Another school of “self-help” thought also made its debut in the second half of the 19th century with a philosophy that was different from that of Franklin’s life-coaching style. Its roots came from Phineas Parkhurst Quimby’s teachings.

Profoundly influenced by Swedish scientist and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, Quimby believed that “God” is the “spiritual matter” that permeates the entire universe or an “omnipresent Wisdom” without personality. He argued that everything in this universe, including human beings, is only the embodiment of that “spiritual matter,” and thus, as God is all encompassing, this world must be filled with “goodness” rather than “evil.” No doubt, based on this theory, a “disease” does not have a true existence. A manifestation of people’s “fear” and “wrongful thinking,” however, may cause such a disease. Thus, Quimby maintained that a disease is a “fallacy” that can be cured by the patient’s own will to recover and that the principle of such “mind cure” lies in “Christ Science,” the truth taught to humans by Jesus, the great teacher. To practically apply his theory, Quimby, starting in 1859, treated more than 12,000 people at a private clinic established by him in Portland, Maine; the majority of his patients were said to have had their health restored by him.3

Following Quimby’s death in 1866, his method of treatment was meticulously theorized by a former patient and student, Warren F. Evans, in several publications, including The Mental Cure (1869). Furthermore, Quimby’s medical practice was carried forward by Mary Baker Eddy, his real successor and the eventual founder of an organization called Christian Science, established in 1879. Quimby’s theory and practice were also carried forward by other groups, including the Church of Divine Science, established by Malinda Cramer and Nona L. Brooks in 1888; Unity Church, established by Charles and Myrtle Fillmore in 1889; and Religious Science, founded by Ernest Holmes in 1927. Therefore, guidebooks advocating mind cure as an alternative treatment continued to be one of the most popular subgenres of self-help literature and were continuously published with or without direct connection to these organizations. There are, in fact, a substantial number of publications, such as Norman Cousins’s Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient (1979) and Bruce Lipton’s The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter and Miracles (2005), that insist on the undeniable efficacy of “mind cure” on the basis of scientific verification of the Placebo effect. It is not difficult to imagine why many people have remained faithful to the idea of a mind cure as diseases continue to be one of the most important worries for humans.

Quimby’s teachings not only paved the way for alternative medicine but also left a surprisingly deep impact on the history of theological philosophy in the United States. At that time, the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination, which asserts that salvation by God is determined from one’s time of birth, was widely accepted by Americans. Hence, people’s behavior, for good or for bad, was also largely governed by the fear of an “angry God.” Quimby championed the idea that the universe itself is the merciful God, and everything existing in this world is a manifestation of that God, and thus human beings and God are directly connected, and all of humankind’s good wishes can be heard and granted by God. These words quite possibly delivered Americans from the fear of predestination as it became known as “New Thought,” which was considered to be a new and beaconing gospel. Much of this new perception of religion, namely, “the denial of a God with personality,” “the omnipresence of God,” “the possibility of a direct dialogue with God,” and “faith in humanity,” can also be found in transcendentalism. This concept, developed by Ralph Waldo Emerson, a leading American thinker in the mid-19th century, was very close to the concept of New Thought and led to an increase in familiarity with New Thought among the general American population of those days. Also, William James, a prominent philosopher, a generation later than Emerson, clearly acknowledged the effectiveness of psychotherapy in his work titled The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902), which helped to increase the credibility of New Thought. With the acquisition of two eminent American intellectuals, Emerson and James, New Thought became a trend in the history of American thought from the late 19th century to the early 20th century.

However, what is still more fascinating is that New Thought gave birth to an entirely new way of thinking about self-help. A strange theory quickly spread among Americans as worldly values began to permeate New Thought. This theory stated that the universe is filled with ether-like entities that can be mobilized to morph into anything that a person wishes by the energy of human “thoughts” and can then be sent to the wish maker.4 This indicates that as long as human beings exercise this innate “mind power,” they can own anything or become anyone they desire. Emerson had once said, “Life consists in what a man is thinking about all day”5; similarly, the ultimate implication of this new line of thinking was that a millionaire is a millionaire because his or her desire to become a millionaire is strong enough. Many Americans, fueled by an atmosphere of ambition in the second half of the 19th century, were quickly charmed by such a strangely optimistic idea.

Thus, between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States witnessed the publication of a large number of New Thought–style self-help books advocating the use of mind power to gain wealth and success as one pleases, for example, Prentice Mulford’s Thoughts Are Things (1889), Ralph Waldo Trine’s In Tune with the Infinite (1897), William Walker Atkinson’s Thought Vibration: or the Law of Attraction in Thought World (1906), Bruce MacLelland’s Prosperity Through Thought Force (1907), and Wallace D. Wattles’ The Science of Getting Rich (1910). Some popular New Thought books were also published by British authors, for instance, James Allen’s As a Man Thinketh (1902) and Thomas Troward’s The Edinburgh Lectures on Mental Science (1904). All these books were widely read in the United States at the time.

Hence, toward the end of the 19th century, the United States was dominated by two different styles of self-help books: life coaching, created by Franklin, and New Thought, inspired by Quimby. Although the two styles appear contradictory, as the former emphasizes success through personal effort and diligence while the latter promotes the idea that all human desires will be realized by just wishing for them in the head, they both convey one common but important message: the world changes when you change. In other words, despite suffering from misfortune, disease, poverty, lack of social status, or unemployment, you will always have yourself. Therefore, as long as you are willing to motivate yourself to succeed through hard work and a strong mind, you can always improve your life and eventually make drastic changes to the environment around you. Needless to say, this call for individualism, self-confidence, a desire for success, and optimism immediately captured the national sentiment at the time, thus allowing both types of self-help books to be equally rooted in American culture. In fact, by taking into consideration the demands of a different era and borrowing ideas from each other, these two types of self-help books remained a commanding presence in the American publishing industry even as it entered the 20th century.

Beginning of a Craze

For instance, when Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis became more prominent in the 1910s and the 1920s, the concept of the subconscious quickly began to attract attention in the world of self-help books.6 Books that described the subconscious as a passage to God and an energy source in the universe were especially popular as their authors expressed the idea that success could be achieved simply by telling your subconscious, “I will succeed.” Charles F. Haanel’s The Master Key System (1912), Robert Collier’s The Secret of Ages (1926), and French psychologist/pharmacist Emile Coué’s Self Mastery Through Conscious Autosuggestion (1922) are all examples of such a genre. Not only between 1910s and 1920s but also later, the subconscious was a prevalent topic in publications. Starting with Maxwell Maltz’s best seller, Psycho-Cybernetics (1960), and Joseph Murphy’s The Power of Your Subconscious Mind (1963), New Thought–style self-help books consistently inherited this topic in later eras.

As the Roaring Twenties came to an end and the 1930s began, American society finally sobered up with the start of the Great Depression. It was during this period that life-coaching–style self-help books, which taught people how they could consolidate their social status through hard work and diligence, began to gain more popularity. Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) and Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich (1937) were the fastest-selling books at the time. The former is more like a success manual for the “organization man,” teaching readers how to impress clients, colleagues, and bosses alike with key phrases such as “don’t criticize, condemn, or complain,” “be a good listener,” and “smile.” The latter is a hybrid of life coaching and New Thought, encouraging a steadfast mentality in setting a clear goal, never giving up, and always working a little more than what your salary demands while also stressing that “faith is the only agency through which the cosmic force of Infinite Intelligence can be harnessed and used by man.”7 Another New Thought–style self-help book worth noting is Emmet Fox’s The Sermon on the Mount: The Key to Success in Life (1934), which played a pivotal role in helping those battling alcoholism in Alcoholics Anonymous, which was formed in 1935.

From the perspective of self-help books, the 1940s and 1950s can be considered to be particularly conservative and religious decades in the United States. Some best sellers were written by pastors or rabbis, for example, Harry Emerson Fosdick’s On Being a Real Person (1943) and Joshua Loth Liebman’s Peace of Mind (1946). Among the top-selling books, The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale, a preacher affiliated with the Reformed Church in the United States, continued to occupy the best-seller list four years after it was first published in 1952 and had sold more than 5 million copies by 1977.8 As suggested by the title, this book promoted the idea that by wishing through your subconscious in a positive manner and by visualizing your desired future, your wish will definitely come true. Furthermore, the book became the prototype for future New Thought books as it incorporated several pragmatic methods for self-improvement, such as the “ten practical rules for getting the esteem of others” and “seven practical steps for changing your mental attitudes from negative to positive.” Peale’s powerful message that “positivity brings improvement” remained a central theme in subsequent self-help books, and his way of thinking was passed on and reinvigorated by televangelists and megachurch preachers such as Robert H. Schuller, who wrote The Be (Happy) Attitudes (1985), and Joel Osteen, the author of Your Best Life Now: Seven Steps to Living at Your Full Potential (2004). Today, the importance of being positive has transcended the realm of self-help philosophy, as shown by Martin E. P. Seligman’s theory on positive psychology and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s academic study on the “flow” phenomenon.9

Completely steering away from the conduct books of the 18th century, in which clerics sought social elevation by teaching morality, Peale’s book was fundamentally devoted to the pursuit of personal happiness in a worldly sense; such “selfism” was particularly evident in self-help books published during and after the 1960s. As one of the most successful self-help books in the first half of the 20th century, the title of Carnegie’s How to Win Friends indicated that personal happiness is determined by how well one gets along with others and how committed one is to society. However, in the latter half of the 20th century, Americans had entered an era in which such “social adjustment” had lost its value.

During this time, “self-satisfaction with one’s life” was seen as a yardstick for determining whether one’s life was a success or failure, in contrast to earlier eras in which wealth and social elevation were the tokens of success. Therefore, “self-actualization” as proposed by Abraham H. Maslow, an advocate of humanistic psychology, became the new objective of self-help books. This new line of thought expressed the idea that even if one has accumulated sufficient wealth and enjoys a respectable social status, one can still be considered a “failure” who needs to be reconstructed if one has not experienced self-actualization. Thus, people must first realize who they really are and what they really want before blindly asking for wealth and success. This perhaps explains why the Esalen Institute, established in Big Sur, California, in 1962, which encouraged the search for self-identity through methods such as meditation, yoga, and LSD, continues to feature prominently in the history of self-improvement. The big boom of Zen Buddhism, advocated by people such as Alan Watts, one of the exponents at the Esalen Institute, was also an example of the “know-thyself” trend of the 1960s. At the same time, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), regarded as one of the finest examples of self-help books of the era, also prompted a second wave of feminism in American society. This book stirred up controversy by lamenting the common tragedy of middle-class educated American women who were denied self-actualization.

By the 1970s, postwar baby boomers were coming of age, and they became the primary readers of self-help books. The people of this generation were considered the poster children for the self-help movement as many baby boomers were reared (and, to some, spoiled) according to the ideas of Dr. Benjamin Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946), a “child-rearing self-help book.” To baby boomers, self-help books were very similar to a familiar oracle. Following the turbulent 1960s, which were marked by the Civil Rights movement and the turmoil of the Vietnam War, many baby boomers were deeply disillusioned by the fact that political action did not effect radical change; therefore, they reached out to self-help books that emphasized self-actualization. The “Me-generation” found comfort in Mildred Newman and Bernard Berkowitz’s How to Be Your Own Best Friend (1971) and Jerry Greenwald’s Be the Person You Were Meant to Be (1973), which stated that one’s full potential can only be reached by loving and cherishing one’s natural self. They also embraced Wayne W. Dyer’s Your Erroneous Zones: Step-by-Step Advice for Escaping the Trap of Negative Thinking and Taking Control of Your Life (1976); Dyer taught people to live their own lives by avoiding being swayed by others’ opinions, to always follow one’s intuition without carrying an emotional burden, and to live in the moment without looking at past traumas or future uncertainties.

In the second half of the 1970s, the number of self-help books on job security and financial survival surged significantly as the United States entered a period of a declining economy and a high unemployment rate in the wake of the oil crisis. An example of such a book is Robert J. Ringer’s Looking Out for #1 (1977). Ringer also authored another best seller, Winning through Intimidation: How to Be the Victor, Not the Victim, in Business and in Life (1973), whose title aptly expresses the self-centric nature of the self-help books in those days.

Perhaps representing a rebound from the previous era’s outlook, self-help books at the end of the 1970s no longer focused on personal success but instead, again, sought to redefine how one could lead a fulfilling life while maintaining harmony with others. One of the best examples of such a book is M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth (1978), a huge best seller with more than 6 million copies sold.10 The book, which opens with a sentence beginning “Life is difficult,” aroused the general public’s sympathy as it encouraged people to transcend that difficulty by persevering for self-growth. Peter F. Drucker also emphasized, through many of his books on management, that one needs to know one’s own “strength” and build performance on it. In doing so, a person can make a contribution to the company to which that person belongs, and he or she, as well as the company, can be happy. This “win-win” relationship between a person and society is the core of Drucker’s self-help philosophy.11

Another best seller of the time was Stephen R. Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1989), which also taught how one could improve one’s life through perseverance and self-discipline. As a researcher of self-help, Covey traced the history of these books back to the birth of the United States and found that books published within the last fifty years were all devoted to the teaching of survival skills in society. Disconcerted by this discovery, Covey decided to write his own self-help book by revisiting the older, more orthodox eras, when success in life was thought to begin with the cultivation of individual character. By echoing Franklin’s teachings that stated that one needed to change oneself before changing the world, Covey’s “inside-out” theory propelled his work to the top of the category of life-coaching–style self-help books; this masterpiece has continued to exert a profound influence even in the 21st century.

Besides Covey, another key term that reflects the trend of self-help books in the 1980s was “kaizen” (constant improvement). During that time, a vast number of Japanese products, including automobiles, had begun showing dominance in the American market. While this situation led to these products being subjected to temporary bashing, the American people eventually came to accept the merits of kaizen as they sought the secret to Japanese manufacturers’ superiority. 12 For instance, the guru of management self-help books Tom Peters wrote in In Search of Excellence (1982) that a prerequisite to surviving in the business world was self-branding (“you have to be your own brand”). Furthermore, self-motivation coach Tony Robbins, who penned Unlimited Power (1986) and Awaken the Giant Within (1990), urged readers and seminar participants to reform themselves through Constant and Never-ending Improvement (CANI).

By the 1980s, the baby-boomer generation had already reached either adulthood or middle age; therefore, these primary readers of self-help books were also looking for ways to improve their “image.” This quest for eternal youth led to the publication of a large number of diet books and fitness guides, which were best represented by Herman Tarnower’s The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet plus Dr. Tarnower’s Lifetime Keep-Slim Program (1978) and Jane Fonda’s Workout Book (1981). Such self-help books enjoy a large readership even today.

Another enduring trend from the 1980s is the increase in “New Age” self-help books. While the definition of New Age in terms of a spiritual movement remains largely elusive, and therefore shall not be discussed here in detail, its fundamental beliefs regarding the immortality of the soul, reincarnation, and even that a strong wish brings realization are not unlike those preached in New Thought. Hence, New Age self-help books are often regarded as an extension of their New Thought predecessors. Some of the best examples of this genre are Shakti Gawain’s Creative Visualization: Use the Power of Your Imagination to Create What You Want in Your Life (1978), Shirley MacLaine’s Out on a Limb (1983), Brian L. Weiss’s Many Lives, Many Masters (1988), Deepak Chopra’s The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success (1994), Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment (1999), and Esther and Jerry Hicks’s Ask and It Is Given: Learning to Manifest Your Desires (2004). These New Age self-help books may appear rather dubious at first glance as most of them claim the existence of UFOs and the afterlife; however, their underlying messages of “be positive” and “be kind” are just as entrenched in common sense and basic morality as any other New Thought publication, so much so that even one of the top television personalities in the United States, Oprah Winfrey, recommended some of these books on her program.13 The impact of her support, needless to say, was enormous for the sales of these books as she herself is also regarded as an influential self-development thinker.

Rhonda Byrne’s 2006 The Secretwas one of the books introduced by Oprah. It went on to become a megaseller with 19 million copies being sold.14 Inspired by Wallace D. Wattles, Byrne’s book can be viewed as a catalogue of New Thought–style self-help books as it contains interviews with contemporary writers and a great mixture of quotes from previous self-help books. Besides being a best seller at the time, the true significance of this book, from a historical perspective, perhaps lies in the fact that it once again highlighted all the New Thought–style self-help masterpieces in the United States during the last century.

Spurred by such recent megasellers, the American self-help book market, including audio products and seminar revenue, is worth around 12 billion dollars today.15 This figure is a genuine testimony to the extent to which self-help literature has permeated modern American society.

History of Self-Help Literature in Japan

In a similar way to the appearance of Franklin’s self-help book, which was a result of the American struggle for independence from England in the second half of the 18th century, the first self-help book in Japan appeared at the beginning of the Meiji era (1868–1912). Around this period, the traditional feudalistic system had just been abolished under the Meiji Restoration (1868), and people were welcoming an age of success obtained through personal endeavor. This book, entitled Gakumon no Susume (An Encouragement of Learning, 1872–1876), was written by Yukichi Fukuzawa, a prominent illuminator/educator of that period. The book was issued in seventeen installments, each of which sold 200,000 copies,16 and it urged citizens to rid themselves of laziness and lethargy and learn to become self-reliant through practical knowledge that would contribute toward building a modern nation. Inspired by the American Declaration of Independence, the book began with the notion that “all men are created equal,” thus giving an indication of how deeply Fukuzawa was influenced by the Founding Fathers of the United States, particularly by Franklin. In that sense, the Japanese people were also indirectly exposed to Franklin’s philosophy of success through Fukuzawa’s self-help book. Furthermore, Franklin’s autobiography had already been widely read by the Japanese in the Meiji era, both in English and in Japanese, and his thoughts on self-help left a crucial mark on late-19th-century Japan.17

However, as Japan became increasingly modernized, Fukuzawa’s influence was eventually overshadowed by British author Samuel Smiles’s book titled Self-Help. Also well received in the United States, Self-Help was translated into Japanese by enlightenment thinker Masanao Nakamura in 1871; over the next forty years, it sold around one million copies and was chosen as the textbook for “moral training” in elementary schools between 1872 and 1880. It thus played a decisive role in cultivating ambition among members of Japan’s younger generation.18

It was Confucianism, incidentally, that introduced American and British self-help books to the Japanese people after the Meiji era. Prior to the advent of the Meiji era, the teachings of Confucianism preexisted as the base of Japanese ethics and morals. Confucianism emphasized five virtues: politeness, being well-learned, kindness, freedom from avarice, and honesty. Meanwhile, as can be seen from Benjamin Franklin’s “Thirteen Virtues,” American and British self-help books featured similar virtues as a secret to success. In other words, for the Japanese in the Meiji era who were rushing to adopt Western thinking to advance modernization or Westernization, the secret of success that the American and British self-enlightenment books preached was familiar and easy to adapt.19 Evidence of such a link between Japanese ethics and self-help teachings can be found in Inazo Nitobe’s Bushido (The Way of the Samurai, 1900), which is an English guide for foreigners regarding the ethos of the samurai class, and Shūyo (Cultivation, 1911), which is a Franklin-style life-coaching self-help book aimed at young Japanese readers.

From the 20th century onward, the Japanese people’s appetite for American self-improvement philosophy grew even more insatiable. As early as the 1910s, Japan had already warmed to the idea of psychotherapy, a method of treatment developed by the Christian Science movement, and had even derived the uniquely Japanese Reiki healing technique based on it.20 Furthermore, around this time, yoga was introduced to the Japanese people through William Walker Atkinson’s writings.21 Then, in 1930, Japanese religious leader Masaharu Taniguchi established his own sect, Seicho-no-Ie (House of Growth), to promote the teachings of New Thought after finding an affinity with this line of thinking. Since then, this sect has become the biggest New Thought group in the world, with more than 1.68 million members.22 Finally, Tempū Nakamura, who traveled to the United States with the intention of learning the philosophy of New Thought directly from Orison Swett Marden, returned to establish Tempūkai, a group dedicated to the teaching of New Thought and yoga. The followers of this group included prominent political, business, and cultural figures.23

The Situation after World War II

During the 1940s, the popularity of self-help books written by American authors plummeted due to World War II, and this downturn lasted until the 1980s. During this time, American self-help books were gradually replaced by those written by Japanese authors. This was especially true at the end of World War II as the Japanese people were faced with a ruined homeland, forcing them to seek some kind of spiritual guidance as a way of recovering from such devastation. The first Japanese self-help best seller to be published after the war was philosopher Kiyoshi Miki’s Jinseiron Noto (An Essay on Life, 1947), which offered philosophical lessons on life and gave a painstaking picture of the Japanese people’s psychological condition at the time. After Jinseiron Noto, the 1950s saw a boom in life-lesson books that were mostly penned by critics and authors, or so-called men of culture.24

It was not until the 1960s that self-help books by men of culture were slowly replaced by those written by entrepreneurs. The Path (1968) by Kōnosuke Matsushita, the founder of Panasonic, one of Japan’s leading electronics manufacturers, is a classic example of such business-oriented books. The Path is still popular among contemporary readers today, having sold around five million copies;25 it advocates ethical behaviors by advising readers to approach work with whole-hearted devotion and modesty, which are conventional traits of a life-coaching–style book. The demand for such self-help books can be explained by the fact that Japan was, at the time, entering a new era of fast economic growth after overcoming its postwar turmoil and that succeeding within a corporation by being a good salaryman had become the biggest concern for most people.

Then, perhaps in rebellion against the conformist 1950s, the Japanese began questioning a lifestyle devoted to work, which led to a self-improvement wave in the 1960s. Furthermore, around this time, Buddhist teachings became more celebrated, with Michi: hontō no kōfuku towa nann de aru ka? (The Way: What Is True Happiness?, 1970), a life-lesson book by monk Kōin Takada, and Hannya Shingyo Nyūmon (An Introduction to the Heart Sutra, 1972), an amateur’s guide to famous Buddhist scriptures by Yasumichi Matsubara, being two of the most widely read books. Hannya Shingyo (Heart Sutra), a 300-word introduction to the essence of Mahayana Buddhism, especially intrigued the Japanese people with its depth of wisdom as it extended beyond its concise discourse. The subject of the book continues to be taken up as a theme in current Buddhist self-help books.

During the 1980s, Japan experienced unprecedented economic growth and prosperity. Ezra Vogel’s Japan as Number One (1979), quickly translated into Japanese (1979), became a huge hit as people affirmed their confidence in the excellence of Japanese-style business management and rejoiced in their newfound wealth. However, a competing view of society’s values that criticized Japanese society’s general frivolousness and sought to reinstate the idea of an honorable poverty was also simultaneously gaining ground. For example, the revival of popular Meiji-era publications, particularly, a newly translated edition of Smiles’s Self-Help in 1981 and a reprint of Inazo Nitobe’s Jikeiroku (A Record of Self-Examination) in 1982, indicated a yearning for diligence. Such development also symbolized a collective pessimism in Japanese society that urged people to prepare for hardships even when times were good. The rise of another 18th-century conduct book, Letter to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman (1774) by Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th earl of Chesterfield, to the top of the Japanese best-seller list, also warned against the lavish lifestyle that characterized the bubble economy. Other best sellers that appeared around this time were Kōji Nakano’s Seihin no Shisou (Thoughts on Honorable Poverty, 1992), which encouraged the restoration of the traditional Japanese lifestyle of minimalism, and Rokusuke Ei’s Daiōjō (A Peaceful Death, 1994), a self-help book on how one could prepare for one’s death. The increasing demand for these books marked the growing prominence of an intrinsically Japanese self-improvement perspective that was entirely different from the American pursuit of materialism.26

Toward the second half of the 1990s, Japan welcomed another new trend—the emergence of self-help books based on neuroscience, starting with Shigeo Haruyama’s Nounai Kakumei (A Great Revolution in the Brain World, 1995). According to Haruyama’s theory, positive thinking can lead to the secretion of β‎-endorphin in the brain, which in turn encourages an individual to engage in more energetic activities; in contrast, negative thinking leads to the secretion of noradrenaline, which can cause accelerated aging and lower immunity to disease. Thus, Haruyama argues, it is crucial for human beings to think positively so that an adequate level of β‎-endorphin may be maintained in the brain. In other words, Haruyama provided scientific evidence to support the philosophy behind New Thought–style self-help books that teach people to always stay positive. The success of this book led to a string of similar self-help publications in Japan, all of which attempted to maximize human capacity by stimulating the brain. Even today, such books have remained in vogue, particularly when considering the popularity of Kenichiro Mogi’s works, which include Seikouno to Sippaino (Successful Brain and Failing Brain, 2015).

Similar to the trend observed in the United States, the 2000s ushered in a spiritual boom in Japan that was marked by the success of Hiroyuki Ehara’s Kouun wo Hikiyoseru Spiritual Book (Spiritual Book That Draws Good Luck, 2001). Another best seller at this time was Masaru Emoto’s Mizu karano Dengonn (1999). At first, however, its claim that human emotions affect water did not gain much recognition in Japan. The popularity of the book only increased a year after it was first published, when an English translation appeared under the title The Message from Water. The book sold 1.1 million copies around the English-speaking world,27 as a singular proof of the New Thought notion that human thoughts can influence matter.

Another noteworthy point is the vast number of American (and British) self-help books that have been translated and published in Japan since the 1990s. This was prompted by the collapse of the bubble economy at the beginning of the 1990s, which saw the disintegration of lifetime employment systems and the seniority-based wage system, which were the two pillars of Japanese society. With a shrinking job market, Japan had to transform itself into a competitive society based on the American model of performance-based wages, and the consequent search for know-how in this new and aggressive environment stimulated the demand for such books.

Some of the authors whose self-help books were translated into Japanese include George S. Clason, Geneviève Behrend, Bruce Fairchild Barton, Claude M. Bristol, Dorothea Brande, Robert N. Anthony, Neville Goddard, John W. Gardner, Earl Nightingale, Helen Gurley Brown, Donald O. Clifton, Og Mandino, Catherine Ponder, Denis Waitley, Bob Proctor, Jack Canfield, Joe Vitale, Mark Fisher, Sara Ban Breathnach, Cheryl Richardson, Pam Grout, Suze Orman, Rick Warren, and Mark Joyner. In fact, in the early 21st century, most major Western self-help books also appeared in Japanese editions. Many of these books even enjoy best-seller status, for example, Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad Poor Dad: What the Rich Teach Their Kids About Money-That the Poor and Middle Class Do Not! (1997), Richard Carlson’s Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff … and It’s All Small Stuff (1997), and Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese? (1998). Stephen R. Covey’s The Seven Habits has also became particularly popular, so much so that some junior high schools have even incorporated its ideas into their teaching material.28

In fact, several self-help books were eventually published as comic books within Japan’s rich manga (comic book) culture. Some of the best examples include Covey’s The Seven Habits, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends, and Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich. In other words, Japan could now reiterate (or meta use) the content of American self-help books and create its own unique genre. A more recent example of this type of “meta self-help book” is Natsumi Iwasaki’s novel, Moshi Kōkō Yakyu no Joshi Manager ga Drucker no “Management” wo Yondara (What If a Female Manager of a High School Baseball Team Read Drucker’s Management; also known as Moshidora, 2009). The plot of this young-adult novel follows the transformation and ultimate success of a Japanese high school baseball team managed by a high school girl who stumbles across Peter F. Drucker’s book Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices (1973) and uses it to run her team as they compete with other high schools. Another popular life-coaching–style novel, Keiya Mizuno’s Yume wo Kanaeru Zō (The Elephant That Makes Dreams Come True, 2007), tells the story of an unmotivated young man who is coached to grow into a positive human being by Ganesa, an elephant with profound knowledge of self-help books of all ages and countries. This book not only became a best seller but also was adapted to the screen as a television drama, animation, and even a computer game. Finally, Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga’s Kirawareru Yuuki (The Courage To Be Disliked, 2013), which depicts a series of Socratic and enlightening conversations between a perplexed young man and an old man who is learned in the theories of American psychologist Alfred Adler, was also popular. Adler’s psychology gained instantaneous recognition in Japan after this book became a best seller.

Furthermore, a new variety of self-help books came to the Japanese market at the beginning of the 2010s. Marie Kondo’s Jinsei ga Tokimeku Katazuke no Mahou (The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, 2010) is one, in which Kondo provides us with tips for tidying up things and cleaning our houses effectively and completely.29 She insists that, by doing so, a person can also put his or her life in perfect order and create a happier home life. This book acted as a trigger for a big boom of “how-to-declutter” books, and this trend is well accepted in both Japan and the United States. Actually, Marie Kondo was selected as one of the hundred most influential people by Time magazine in 2015, with only one other Japanese person, Murakami Haruki, the well-known novelist.

Thus, the present market for self-help books in Japan is enriched by a wide variety of works created by both Japanese and foreign writers who share a vast readership across all kinds of styles, whether life coaching, New Thought, spirituality, neuroscience, psychology, or even cleaning.

Critique and Outlook for Self-Help Books

Despite being an influential genre in both the United States and Japan in terms of the sheer number of books published, self-help books have faced harsh ridicule and criticism. This viewpoint is best illustrated by Dwight Macdonald’s statement that “how-to writers are to other writers as frogs are to mammals: their books are not born, they are spawned,”30 and the evaluation of these books by the critics has been equally negative in both countries.

The quality of self-help books, especially those from the New Thought school, was attacked when they first appeared. Such criticism can be found as far back as 1910. For instance, Frances Maule Bjӧrkman once said, “Most of it is of a character to repel persons of critical taste. Its language is crude. It makes assertions in regard to scientific matters that cannot be proved—or, at least, have not been proved. It is mixed up with spiritism, astrology, mind-reading, vegetarianism, reincarnation, and all sorts of other ‘crank’ doctrines and fads—and with a few actual ‘fakes.’”31 A more recent example is Steve Salerno, who pointed out in his book SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless (2005) that readers seldom find wealth and success by reading self-help books, although the self-help boom made the writers rich and the industry profitable. His strong contempt for such writing is indicated by the word “sham” in the title, which is also an acronym for the Self-Help and Actualization Movement.32 Similar criticism of New Thought self-help books can also be found in Japan. For instance, Mayumi Tanimoto called self-help books “career porn” by likening them to “food porn” in her book Kyaria Poruno wa Jinsei no Muda da (Don’t Waste Your Time and Money on “Career Porn”, 2013) and condemned self-help writers for serving their own selfish interests through poor-quality writing. She also denounced readers who regularly read these New Thought self-help books as if they were addicted to them without even attempting to utilize any of the know-how they learned from them.33 Thus, as indicated by Tanimoto, it is not only the self-help books that have become embroiled in this criticism but also their readers.

However, none of these accusatory remarks are as piercing and noteworthy as the critique according to which it is detrimental that self-help books are allowed to be circulated in society.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America (2009) begins with her battle with breast cancer and how it led to her discovery of the hazards related to the kind of positive culture that self-help books preached about.34 According to Ehrenreich, this positive culture is so prevalent in the United States that there somehow seems to be a tacit agreement among people that even cancer should not be viewed unfavorably. For instance, she found the diary of a cancer survivor filled with phrases such as “Cancer is your passport to the life you were truly meant to live.” She believes that a certain kind of social climate forces such positivity onto people. In fact, when Ehrenreich tried to express her rage and desperation about her own illness online, she was bombarded with comments like “I really dislike saying you have a bad attitude towards all of this, but you do, and it’s not going to help you in the least,” so that, in the end, she felt like she was the evildoer. Ehrenreich was eventually so exhausted by having to portray a positive front to meet others’ expectations that she lamented, “Clearly, the failure to think positively can weigh on a cancer patient like a second disease.” She then likened this “always being positive” attitude of modern American society to a disease that spreads through the pervasiveness of self-help books.

Ehrenreich’s contempt for this type of book is also shared by some critics in Japan. For instance, in his book “Jiko-Keihatsu-Byō” Shakai (“Self-Help Syndrome” in Japanese Society, 2012), Manabu Miyazaki points out that the moment a reader of a self-help book is influenced by the idea of wanting to be more successful and wealthier than others, that individual is already forfeiting his or her basic humanity. Miyazaki then accuses self-help books of pushing readers into a deeper despair and helplessness when they realize that such books arouse a level of ambition that is, more often than not, unattainable in real life.35

Ehrenreich and Miyazaki’s criticism touches, to some extent, the very essence of self-help books. That is, by supporting readers in chasing their ambitions by stating that anyone can be successful by being positive, self-help books have actually created a system that condemns unsuccessful people, labeling them as weak and accusing them of failing due to a lack of positivity, for which they only have themselves to blame. In other words, like coins, most self-help books in the market also have two sides: an outside face, which is what the writers want the readers to see, and a hidden face, which is shrewdly disguised within the contents.

Nonetheless, whether in the United States or Japan, these critical voices are scarcely heard before they are engulfed by the endless waves of new self-help books. In fact, it is almost impossible to conduct academic research on the current status of self-help books due to this phenomenon. As Steven Starker said, “Validation studies take years, and are often inconclusive. When completed, they may already be irrelevant to the existing self-help market.”36

So, given all this criticism, why are so many self-help books still being published and sold? A rather bold answer to that question would be that there is an undeniable charm to these books. Take Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich. In this American self-help masterpiece, a reader encounters passages such as the following:

You have absolute control over but one thing, and that is your thoughts. This is the most significant and inspiring of all facts known to man! It reflects man’s Divine nature. This Divine prerogative is the sole means by which you may control your own destiny. If you fail to control your own mind, you may be sure you will control nothing else.37

It is difficult to imagine anyone who would not be inspired and enlightened by such writing. These captivating messages of hope tell people that even when driven to total desolation, you can always overcome hardship if you are motivated enough. These messages are what draw readers to self-help books despite their hidden negative undertones. Furthermore, these messages can be even more appealing to people living in countries that are already susceptible to such language and thinking.

Hence, as long as the United States continues to promote the notions of individualism, optimism, self-confidence, and the desire for success, and Japan continues to cling to the virtues of diligence, hard work, honesty, and ambition, there is, currently, no reason to doubt that self-help books will continue to flourish.


This work was supported by JPSP KAKENHI Grant Number JP16K02488.

Further Reading

Anderson, C. Alan, and Deborah G. Whitehouse. New Thought: A Practical American Spirituality. Revised edition. Bloomington, IN: 1st Books Library, 2003.Find this resource:

    Anderson, Walter Truett. The Upstart Spring: Esalen and the American Awakening. Lincoln, NE: Addison-Wesley, 1983.Find this resource:

      Byrne, Rhonda. The Secret. London: Simon and Schuster, 2006.Find this resource:

        Carnegie, Dale. How to Win Friends and Influence People. New York: Pocket Books, 2010.Find this resource:

          Covey, Stephen R. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. London: Pocket Books, 2004.Find this resource:

            Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008.Find this resource:

              Douglas, Ann. Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s. London: Papermac, 1997.Find this resource:

                Ehrenreich, Barbara. Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America. New York: Picador, 2009.Find this resource:

                  Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Emerson: Essays and Lectures. New York: Library of America, 1983.Find this resource:

                    Franklin, Benjamin. Benjamin Franklin: Autobiography, Poor Richard, and Later Writings. New York: Library of America, 2005.Find this resource:

                      Fukuzawa, Yukichi. An Encouragement of Learning. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

                        Hill, Napoleon. Think and Grow Rich: including Action Manual. New York: Hawthorn/Dutton, 1972.Find this resource:

                          James, William. William James: Writings 1902–1910. New York: Library of America, 1988.Find this resource:

                            Larson, Martin A. New Thought Religion: A Philosophy for Health, Happiness, and Prosperity. New York: Philosophical Library, 1987.Find this resource:

                              McGee, Micki. Self-Help, Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

                                Meyer, Donald. The Positive Thinkers: Popular Religious Psychology from Mary Baker Eddy to Norman Vincent Pealre and Ronald Reagan. Revised edition. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1988.Find this resource:

                                  Nitobe, Inazo. Bushido: The Soul of Japan. Radford, VA: Wilder Publications, 2008.Find this resource:

                                    Peale, Norman Vincent. The Power of Positive Thinking. New York: Pocket Books, 2013.Find this resource:

                                      Salerno, Steve. SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless. New York: Crown Publishers, 2005.Find this resource:

                                        Smiles, Samuel. Self-Help: with Illustrations of Character and Conduct. London: Forgotten Books, 2015.Find this resource:

                                          Starker, Steven. Oracle at the Super Market: The American Preoccupation With Self-Help Books. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1989.Find this resource:

                                            Weiss, Richard. The American Myth of Success: From Horatio Alger to Norman Vincent Peale. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988.Find this resource:


                                              (1.) Concerning the importance and popularity of sermons in America in the 17th century, refer to Sargent Bush Jr., “Sermons and Theological Writings,” in Columbia Literary History of the United States (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 56–66.

                                              (2.) Richard Weiss, The American Myth of Success: From Horatio Alger to Norman Vincent Peale (University of Illinois Press, 1988), 26; and Micki McGee, Self-Help, Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 66.

                                              (3.) Martin A. Larson, New Thought Religion: A Philosophy for Health, Happiness, and Prosperity (New York: Philosophical Library, 1987), 51. I owe much to this book as it provided a large amount of comprehensive material on New Thought and Quimby.

                                              (4.) Such a unique concept of New Thought is, for example, clearly reflected in the following passage in chapter 4 of the book The Science of Getting Rich written by Wallace D. Wattles, one of the early New Thought writers, “Thought is the only power which can produce tangible riches from the Formless Substance. The stuff from which all things are made is a substance which thinks, and a thought of form in this substance produces the form… . Man can form things in his thought, and, by impressing his thought upon formless substance, can cause the thing he thinks about to be created.”

                                              (5.) Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson with Annotations, eds. Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes, 1845–1848, (Bridgewater, NJ: Replica Books, 1999), 319.

                                              (6.) Steven Starker, Oracle at the Super Market: The American Preoccupation With Self-Help Books (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1989), 43. This book, as well as Micki McGee’s Self-Help, Inc., provided many insights into the different trends in self-help books during each era.

                                              (7.) Napoleon Hill, Think and Grow Rich: Including Action Manual (New York: Hawthorn/Dutton, 1972), 55.

                                              (8.) Starker, Oracle at the Super Market, 105.

                                              (9.) “Flow” is a concept named by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and refers to the self-contained state where people are pouring all their attention and energy to achieve what they are currently doing. It is thought that you can improve the quality of life by experiencing it. For details, refer to Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: Harper Perennial Classics, 2008) by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

                                              (10.) McGee, Self-Help, Inc., 127.

                                              (11.) You can find the self-help aspect of Peter F. Drucker’s philosophy described in books of his such as The Effective Executive (1967), Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices (1973), and Managing Oneself (1999).

                                              (12.) McGee, Self-Help, Inc., 132.

                                              (13.) The authors of the New Age–style self-help books mentioned here, including Rhonda Byrne, have all been guests on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Some footage of their interviews can be accessed through YouTube.

                                              (14.) “The Secret (book),” Wikipedia.

                                              (15.) Laura Vanderkam, “The Paperback Quest for Joy: America’s Unique Love Affair with Self-Help Books,” City Journal (Autumn 2012). Retrieved from

                                              (16.) Yukichi Fukuzawa, Gakumon no Susume (An Encouragement of Learning) (Tokyo: Iwanami Bunko, 1994), 163. Yukichi Fukuzawa himself provided this figure of 3.4 million copies, and this is quite possibly an overestimation of the actual number of copies sold.

                                              (17.) The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin was read in English among Japanese intellectuals who had undergone university education, and was also translated into Japanese by Kiyokazu Mitarai in 1887, so it was read widely by the general Japanese population as well. Besides, the prominence of Franklin became widely known among the Japanese as Empress Dowager Shoken translated Franklin’s famous “thirteen virtues” into twelve Tankas (thirty-one-syllable Japanese Poem) in 1875, and also as Doppo Kunikida, a prominent novelist, wrote a biography of Franklin based on his Autobiography in 1896. On the influence of Benjamin Franklin upon Yukichi Fukuzawa, see Sukehiro Hirakawa, Shimpo ga Mada Kibō de Atta Koro (When “Progress” Means a Better Future) (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1990).

                                              (18.) Sukehiro Hirakawa, “Self-Help: Sangyo-ka no Kokumin-teki Kyoukasho” (“Self-Help: A Textbook for the Industrialization of Japan”), Chūō-Kōron 1271 (June 1991): 294–313.

                                              (19.) Hirakawa, “Self-Help,” 298.

                                              (20.) Reiki is a type of folk medicine that originated in Japan and was invented by Mikao Usui in 1922. It promotes the patient’s natural healing power by irradiating energy called “Reiki” from the palm by lightly holding a hand over the patient. Although there is no scientific basis, it is widespread as a complementary therapy in various countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, India, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and others.

                                              (21.) Naoko Hirano, “Rewriting the Genealogy of the Spiritual: From the Birth of the Healing Technique ‘Reiki’ to Present Self-Improvement Discourses,” Ouyou Shakaigaku Kenkyū (Rikkyo University Bulletin) 58 (2016): 81–92.

                                              (22.) Martin A. Larson, 309–311; SEICHO-NO-IE International Headquarters, “Summary of Seicho-No-Ie”.

                                              (23.) The story of Tempū Nakamura’s journey, including his studying in the United States and his learning of yoga during a stopover in India on the way home, are described in detail in his autobiography Tempū Nakamura no Ikiru Tehon (Tempū Nakamura’s Model of Life) (Tokyo: Mikasa-shobo, 2007).

                                              (24.) Detailed information regarding the trends in self-help books in postwar Japan can be found in Tomokazu Makino’s Jikokeihatsu no Jidai (The Age of Self-Improvement) (Tokyo: Keiso-shobo, 2012), and Nichijo ni Shinnyu suru Jiko Keihatsu (The Prevalence of Self-Improvement in Daily Life) (Tokyo: Keiso-shobo, 2015).

                                              (25.) “Kaisetsu,” PHP Interface. Retrieved from

                                              (26.) The virtue of seihin, or honorable poverty, has been present in Japan since ancient times. Some of the earliest writings based on this ideology are Kamo no Chōmei’s Hōjōki (1212) and Kenko Yoshida’s Tsurezuregusa (1331?).

                                              (27.) Masaru Emoto, Mizu wa Kotae wo Shitte iru (Water Knows the Answers) (Tokyo: Sunmark, 2011), 6.

                                              (28.) Yasushi Koike, “Spirituality no Rinri to Global Shihon-shugi no Seishin?” (“Spirituality Ethics and the Spirit of Global Capitalism?”), Shūkyō Kenkyū (Journal of Religious Studies) 88 (2014): 53–76.

                                              (29.) Marie Kondo, Jinsei ga Tokimeku Katazuke no Mahou (The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up) (Tokyo: Sunmark, 2010).

                                              (30.) Dwight Macdonald, “Howtoism,” cited in Starker, Oracle at the Super Market, 4.

                                              (31.) Frances Maule Bjӧrkman, “The Literature of ‘New Thoughters,’” cited in Weiss, The American Myth of Success, 134. Frances Maule Bjӧrkman (1879–1966) was a notable women’s rights activist.

                                              (32.) Steve Salerno, SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless (New York: Crown Publishers, 2005).

                                              (33.) Mayumi Tanimoto, Kyaria Poruno wa Jinsei no Muda da (Don’t Waste Your Time and Money on “Career Porn”) (Tokyo: Asahi-Shimbun Shuppan, 2013).

                                              (34.) Barbara Ehrenreich, Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America (New York: Picadore, 2009).

                                              (35.) Manabu Miyazaki, “Jiko-Keihatsu-Byō” Shakai (“Self-Help Syndrome” in Japanese Society) (Tokyo: Shodensha, 2012).

                                              (36.) Starker, Oracle at the Super Market, 165.

                                              (37.) Hill, Think and Grow Rich, 287.