The 15th SCRA Biennial Conference, June 25-28, 2015, University of Massachusetts Lowell, Massachusetts

Idiosyncratic vs. Mutually Shared Experiential Knowledge:
The Rise of the “Tōjisha” (Self-Helper) in Japan
Tomofumi Oka, PhD, Sophia University, Tokyo
Summary
Borkman (1976) identified the “experiential knowledge” of self-help groups as truth learned from personal knowledge” (p. 450). However, recent developments in Japan have seen the privileging of idiosyncratic
experience of a phenomenon, and this concept has long been referred to when discussing the usefulness of experiential knowledge over the mutually shared experiential knowledge that is the product of self-help groups,
shared experience in self-help groups. As Borkman points out, “the usefulness of experiential knowledge derives so much so that the latter is being ignored. I stress the differences between the two types of experiential
from the fact that the self-help-group structure provides for the sharing of a relatively large amount of knowledge and explore what social and cultural factors led to the promoting of one type over the other.

“Tōjisha” (Self-Helper) Book Boom Cultural Emphasis on Experience
Two innovative concepts have been popularized by recent
Traditional Japanese epistemology emphasizes experience in developing
self-help best sellers in Japan: Tȏjisha Kenkyȗ (Research by
knowledge under the influence of Japanese Zen Buddhism: “In Zen, . . .
Self-Helpers) and Tȏjisha Shuken (Self-Helpers’ Sovereignty).
abstract ideas that do not reflect themselves forcibly and efficiently in
The former was coined by Bethel House (a community for
practical living are regarded as of no value. Conviction must be gained
people with mental illness in Hokkaidȏ, Japan) and the latter
through experience and not through abstraction” (Suzuki, 1964, p. 89). This
originated from independent living movements for people with
tradition continues in modern Japanese business practice (see the table
physical disabilities. As a result, tȏjisha has become an
below). From this perspective, tȏjisha are naturally considered as people
important key word among users and providers of medical and
with “experiential knowledge.”
social services, and tȏjisha are increasingly considered as
“people with experiential knowledge” and/or “people with the
Japanese Western
right to decide what is best for them.” (Oka, 2013)
Preferred knowledge type Focus on tacit knowledge Focus on explicit knowledge

Philosophical view on knowledge Emphasis on experience Emphasis on analysis

                       Source: Hentshel & Haghirian (2010)
Developing “Solitude Culture”
The Japanese are increasingly immersing themselves in Solitude Culture:
compared to other societies, they rarely contact their friends or social groups
(see the bar table below). The time they devote to human relationships is
decreasing despite their free time having increased, and this tendency is clearer
among young people (see the line graph below). Various goods and services are
being marketed to capitalize on this trend, including “Solo Wedding” (a wedding
party for single women), “Single Riders” (special deals for solo visitors to
amusement parks), “BBQ Gadget for Solo Eaters”, “Rental Friend” (Customers
pay for companionship, not for sex), “Therapeutic Robots”, and restaurants and
karaoke bars for single customers only.
80
Percentage of respondents who rarely spend time with friends or people in social groups
70
Friends People in social groups
60

50

40

Two Types of Experiential Knowledge 30

20
Experiential knowledge can be differentiated into two types: idiosyncratic and collective (see
the table below). While this theoretical distinction has long been observed, in practice the 10

two types are often confused. Many non-profit health care organizations recruit tōjisha as 0
Japan Korea Canada Mexico United States
“peer supporters” who are believed to be able to help others suffering similar conditions, but
Source: OECD (2005)
these tōjisha are not always members of a self-help group. In other words, they sometimes Minutes per week
only have idiosyncratic experiential knowledge, which severely limits their ability to truly 80
help others.
70 Free time for activities

Idiosyncratic Collective (Mutually shared)
60 Time for human relationships
Based on experiences of Individuals Members of a self-help group (20-24 yrs old)
50
Owner Individuals Self-help groups
40
Methods of distribution One-to-one counselling Group meetings
Time for human relationships
Transferability Limited by idiosyncrasy Enhanced by accumulated experiences 30

20

Conclusion! 10
                        1986 1991 1996 2001 2006 2011

Japanese people would benefit from being Source: MIC (2012)
informed about the power of self-help
groups, and the benefits of mutually shared
knowledge. However, the “tȏjisha boom,”
fuelled by best-selling books, is not leading
to an increase in the numbers of self-help Yes!
groups under the cultural influence
discussed. Unless things change, the
limitations of idiosyncratic experiential
No!
knowledge will be increasingly seen in real
life, and the boom will become a bust.

References:
MIC (Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications) (2012). Shakai seikatsu kihon chȏsa [Basic Survey
Borkman, Thomasina. (1976). “Experiential knowledge: A new concept for the analysis of self-help
on Social Life] http://www.stat.go.jp/data/shakai/2011/index.htm.
groups.” Social Service Review 50(3), 445-56.
OECD (2005). Society at a glance : OECD social indicators. Paris: OECD.
Hentschel, Benjamin, and Prissa Haghirian. (2010). “Nonaka revisited: can Japanese companies sustain
Oka, Tomofumi. (2013). “Self-help groups in Japan: Historical development and current issues.”
their knowledge management processes in the 21st century?” Prissa Haghirian (Ed.) Innovation and change
International Journal of Self-Help and Self Care 7(2), 217-32.
in Japanese management (pp. 199-220). London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro. (1964). An introduction to Zen Buddhism New York: Grove Press.