The wisdom of time, meaning & paid work in lifestyle balance, WFOT, Japan

The World Federation of Occupational Therapists Congress (WFOT) in Yokohama, Japan was a joy to attend this year (2014). It started more than auspiciously with an opening ceremony boasting the Emperor and Empress of Japan, the Health Minister and Mayor of Yokohama, plus an address from the Prime Minster who could not attend in person. In my wildest dreams I could not see such a prestigious guest list for the opening ceremony of an occupational therapy conference in any other country. Princess Anne as the Patron of the profession of occupational therapy is a definite possibility in the UK, but David Cameron, Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson? Well that would be as likely as pigs on the wing! I’d be surprised if they even know the profession of occupational therapy exists, let alone what we do and be interested in publicly promoting it!

So why was did this conference have such a prominent ensemble? Well much was discussed about the growing elderly population and declining birth rate in Japan causing concern over the care of older people. It seems that in the last five years occupational therapy has shown its worth in this area but the support for the profession did not finish there.

On Saturday, June 21st 2014, the last day of the conference, the winner of the Akutagawa and Noble Prize in Literature, Kenzaburo Oe, gave a keynote speech on his and his family’s personal experience of occupational therapy. It was a very honest and moving portrayal of lives touched by the notion of finding meaning and purpose in life; a sense of self worth and personal growth through occupation and a channel for family communication found through a simple activity that could be shared, creating healing dialogues that otherwise would not have been achieved.

In a touching tribute, Kenzaburo Oe likened the philosophy of occupational therapy to Simone’s Weil’s view that “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity”, and used the same analogy she does fromthe tale of the Fisher King (who, you may recall is an elderly and injured gentleman) in the search for the Holy Grail, to describe what he meant.

In this story, the seeker of the Grail is required to ask the injured King not for its location, but rather, evidence compassion by asking ‘What ails thee?’. By doing this, the seeker illustrates he is worthy of the prize. Using this as a metaphor, Kenzaburo tells us what he sees is the greatest skill of the occupational therapist; empathy, understanding and resolution of the everyday challenges of life, not only for the individual but for their family and society.  

He told the rapt audience that through finding his personally meaningful occupation of music, his son, Hikari (meaning light), has become a renowned and celebrated composer. As a consequence, Oe said his last book would be a celebration of occupational therapy; a means to give something back to a profession that changed his son’s, his own and his family’s lives. I, for one, look forward to reading it.

On another note, the papers at the conference were impressive and speakers boasted occupational therapy’s finest, including Karen-Whalley Hammell, who as one the presenters in my set of four rather eclipsed my impact when she spoke so eloquently of Western and white middle class domination silencing cultural diversity across the globe that she received a standing ovation from the assembled crowd.

Whilst more than a little disconcerting to follow that, I continued the theme with a paper that highlighted the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism on lifestyle balance globally which raised some interesting questions about the symbolic value of paid work from one member of the Japanese audience. Work, she noted, had many different meanings in the Japanese language and paid work was a highly valued activity; consequently, she suggested, my proposal that we should work less and spend more time with family, friends and in our communities, increase our opportunities to do meaningful activities and to spend more time communing with nature was rather an alien concept to a Japanese audience.

On discussion it became clear she felt I was reducing the value of paid work. Of course this had never been my intention, and something, just a little something, had obviously been lost in translation. In fact my point was that paid work is the most valued activity in the majority of cultures subject to global capitalism and that it is, more often than not, the activity of choice for many people ultimately because it is associated with social capital, personal meaning and satisfaction.

Consequently we agreed. BUT, and this is a big but, the hegemony of paid work can have deleterious effects when subject to neoliberal capitalist principles because these drive productivity and growth over worker wellbeing. Indeed, reported protests in Japan at the moment are asking the government to review capitalist drives toward overwork because these are exploiting paid workers to such that levels of suicide have seemingly increased:

Precarious Japan, a book by Anne Allison also illustrates the impact of capitalism on Japanese culture and Kenzaburo Oe has identified that Japan’s drive for prosperity, based on the Western capitalist values is destructive to his country Resonating with another point in my paper, he too, understands meaningful occupation is a tool of wellbeing and the beautiful music composed by son, Hikari Oe, is testament to this fact

It is clear we need to change our fixation on neoliberal capitalism as a tool to promote productivity and growth and move toward a more sustainable and resilient future, based on placing human health and wellbeing before money and valuing participation in personally meaningful activities outside of paid work as well in it as part of achieving that. It is also necessary to appreciate the beauty of our planet and spend time and energy caring for it as that is the very fabric of or life and existence. Pinching a little wisdom from Japanese colleagues (and I hope I’ve got this right?): 花鳥風月 (Kachou Fuugetsu) literally, Flower, Bird, Wind, Moon, meaning experience the beauties of nature, and in doing so learn about yourself.

My paper Knowledge of our forefathers: the lost wisdom of lifestyle balance can be accessed here on this site. It can also through Orca, the Cardiff University repository here: By clicking on my name on that page you can also access all my other publications. My book, Worked out and still wanting: Finding balance in busy lives will be published early 2015. Follow here for updates.

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