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In Depth

An Invitation to Tojisha-Kenkyu

A New Science Focusing on Oneself

A New Science Focusing on Oneself

Shin-ichiro Kumagaya
Associate Professor
Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology

In literature, there exist many works through which one can come face-to-face with themselves. For instance, autobiographical and semi-autobiographical novels have already enjoyed a long history. So, how about in the sciences? Is there any science for focusing on oneself? An answer to this question lies in the research we introduce here, which is what Associate Professor Kumagaya has been working on. This area of study still may not be very well known, but it is strongly recommended that you become acquainted with the “science of self.”

Society is made up of a wide variety of people. Some are unable to walk, like me, while others feel uncomfortable with their gender roles. Some spent their childhoods in stressful environments, and others migrated to different cultural regions at certain periods in their lives. It is not at all an easy task for such a diverse group of people, different in mind, body and background, to respect each other and maintain a functioning society. Very often, society tries to exclude others simply by exaggerating the differences between people, or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, forces them to conform by playing down their differences.

Fig. 1: Comprehensibility and the tendency to ruminate (Kumagaya, 2016)
The more we comprehend the regularity of what is happening to us, the less of a tendency we have to ruminate (an anxiety-inducing tendency to obsess over past events over and over again).

In fact, in terms of tools, institutions, and customs, society is designed according to the physical and mental characteristics of the “average” person. This is why those with disabilities can feel left out. Until the 1970s when expectations for recuperation through medical care were still high, the “medical model” solution, through which the disabled were treated to make them closer to average, was the dominant idea. However, since 1980, when it became clear that the degree to which mental and physical changes could be made was limited, the “social model” to change society itself had become mainstream. For the author, who paid an enormous financial cost when following the “all pain and no gain” rehabilitation methods advocated during the “medical model” boom, the new “social model” was indeed an idea to live for.

Problems still exist, however. Some mental and developmental disabilities and disorders are not as outwardly visible as, say, being confined to a wheelchair. Those disabilities are difficult to recognize, even by the disabled person themselves. As a result, many such disabled people might blame themselves for being unable to perform the same as others without knowing the true reason. Under these circumstances, they cannot begin to imagine what changes could be made to society in order to improve their lives. They do not always know what they actually need.

With these issues in mind, Tojisha-Kenkyu, or self-support research, was created. This unique self-help technique originated at the social welfare facility Bethel House in Urakawa-cho, Hokkaido in 2001, and later was spread throughout Japan. In contrast to Tojisha-Undo (self-activity), which declares that “we know ourselves best,” Tojisha-Kenkyu is based on a platform of accepting that “we do not know much about ourselves.” Those experiencing similar difficulties carefully and compassionately watch over each other as they work to formulate hypotheses about themselves, and then test these hypotheses experientially in their daily lives. Through that process, they develop words to express their difficulties and needs, logic to explain and predict the regularity of their hardships, and countermeasures to cope with them. By working to interpret and resolve their own struggles rather than completely relying on a specialist to do so, they take on the active roles of “researchers” instead of becoming passive “users.” This kind of proactive self-help approach could assist such individuals in leading more comfortable lives (Fig. 1).

Within Tojisha-Kenkyu lies the potential of rearranging the relationship between the tojisha (the person being studied) and the specialist—in other words, between experienced knowledge and specialized knowledge. The concepts and theories generated through Tojisha-Kenkyu will be accepted as new hypotheses and description languages within specialized knowledge, and then be scientifically tested (Fig. 2). Meanwhile, the tojisha will eagerly absorb the specialized knowledge as a resource to help them visualize their own hard-to-see characteristics. The mutual respect from the tojisha and the specialist for each other’s knowledge, along with the collaborative efforts between the two sides, will surely help restore trust to academic knowledge. In my view, as a “user” receiving medical treatment in my childhood who then later became a medical researcher, Tojisha-Kenkyu is something with great potential for connecting both worlds.

Fig. 2: Example in which a hypothesis obtained from Tojisha-Kenkyu has been tested through established science
A psychological experiment was conducted based on the Tojisha-Kenkyu of individuals with autism spectrum disorders who tend to perceive human faces in separate parts rather than in their entirety. From the results of this experiment, it was reported that the characteristic of seeing a face as a jumble of parts could possibly be correlated to the random order in which the participant scanned the face. (The figure shows the result of a scan pattern averaged by the number of participants. As randomness increases, line thickness decreases.)

Question: Is your research useful?

Answer: It is useful, but as we develop self-understanding, our perspectives change. Sometimes, based upon the perspective we had before beginning the research, we may come to the conclusion that the research was not useful.

(We have asked twelve professors who contributed articles to this issue to answer the above question in 60 words or fewer. Professor Kumagaya's response appears here.)

Note: This article was originally printed in Tansei 33 (Japanese language only).

  • A book authored by Associate Professor Kumagaya
    A Night of Rehabilitation
    (Rihabiri no Yoru)
    (Igaku-Shoin, December 2009; 2,000 yen plus tax)