Schlosser on McVeigh, 'The History of Japanese Psychology: Global Perspectives, 1875-1950'

Brian J. McVeigh
Karoly K. Schlosser

Brian J. McVeigh. The History of Japanese Psychology: Global Perspectives, 1875-1950. SOAS Studies in Modern and Contemporary Japan Series. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017. 336 pp. $114.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4742-8308-3.

Reviewed by Karoly K. Schlosser (Goldsmiths, University of London) Published on H-Japan (October, 2018) Commissioned by Martha Chaiklin

Printable Version:

The History of Japanese Psychology is unique because it contains a large amount of information about the development of Japanese psychology from its very early formation of theological philosophy until 1950, more or less the birth of modern psychology. Brian J. McVeigh discusses the origins, key concepts, and attainments of Japanese psychology, and interprets them in relation to global perspectives by looking at cultural cross-points, counterparts, and dissimilarities in understanding human nature. This comparative perspective is the greatest strength of the book, making it distinctive from most other books about the history of psychology, which merely discuss information in a factual manner. However, it should be noted that global perspectives in this book are predominantly informed, like most books on the history of psychology, by Western milestones. For the Japanese psychology perspective specifically, McVeigh collected data from three sources: Japanese texts, interpretations of these texts, and English scripts. He has compiled a book that is informative and draws conclusions in an elegant, interdisciplinary manner. The book contains unexpected amounts of information, both in text and in descriptive tables. It incorporates impressively detailed appendices, tables, and charts throughout to enable the reader to follow advances in psychological research and application and compare them with global perspectives.

My own expertise is on behavioral science grounded in functional contextualism, Buddhist psychology, and mindfulness. I, therefore, find it particularly important to be able to read about how theological Japanese philosophy evolved into the science of psychology as compared to Western psychology. This unlikely comparison guides the reader through the major stepping stones of this process throughout chapters 2 and 3. The reader can read about how Zen, a unique blend of Buddhism and Shinto, influenced the development of seishin butsurigaku, “psychophysics,” into what we understand as psychological science today.

McVeigh explores three related themes to mark the path on which Japanese psychology has evolved from 1875 to 1950, continuously relating these viewpoints to each other and to Western psychological perspectives. In the first theme, he describes historical changes that influenced how modern social science is regarded in Japan today, seeing the emergence of social science, and more specifically psychology, as the result of socioeconomic processes and the psychological revolution (chapters 3 and 4). Industrialization required greater manpower, leading to schooling, institutionalization, and the development of scientific method. Therefore, traditional values and uses of theological philosophy had to quickly be adapted to applied needs, such as pedagogy, physics, physiology, and social science. Chapters 7 to 9 are devoted to introducing early applications of psychology and research in Japan: social management, education, organizational behavior, aptitude and personality testing, psychotherapy and counseling, military science, colonial policies, and the raising of the “national spirit.” Interest in understanding and indeed influencing subjective capacities in these contexts has increased significantly in Japanese psychology since the early 1920s.

The second and third themes are more strongly intertwined. First, McVeigh explores how premodern understanding of human nature and ethical disciplines of religious philosophy evolved into the secular and modern understanding of Japanese psychology and contributed to the global understanding of social sciences. Second, he discusses how the Japanese perception of society and individual psyche formed as a result of cultural and historical events before the birth of social sciences and were rooted in premodern theological philosophy. The needs of industrialization and institutionalization triggered an irreversible transition in this relationship—from understanding groups as units to the individual and their “interiorized” private events (thoughts, feelings, and body sensations) as basic concepts in understanding human behavior and nature to allowing psychology to set forth on the trail to become an independent branch of science, secularized in nature, and continuously moving away from theological philosophy. McVeigh recognizes the importance of this shift as the forerunner of psychological science. While psychology has some level of disagreement with our ability to relate to our internal experiences, perhaps this exclusively human ability has always been in the forefront in psychology.

Early empirical psychology was born in Wilhem Wundt’s lab (1879), originally to understand perception. Even this early, Wundt used introspection as a technique to observe one’s personal experiences. From 1886, in his private practice, Sigmund Freud began developing his psychoanalytical approach using hypnosis to facilitate introspection to address patients’ anxiety. Nearly twenty years ahead of John B. Watson, from 1902, Ivan Pavlov was studying behavior. Progress in this field led to the mechanistic view of B. F. Skinner’s radical behaviorism and rejected introspection. In response, the humanistic approach focused on the client’s experience and phenomenology in general. Further, in the 1950s, the cognitive revolution led to examination of mental processes accounting for human thinking and rejected Skinner’s verbal behavior. In “traditional” cognitive-behavioral therapy, the client is taught to cognitively reappraise distressing private events. Progress in psychology has yet shown that trying to control one’s private events is less effective than if one is able to change the relationship with the private event, for example, as we have seen in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy or acceptance and commitment therapy.[1] In addition, recent advances in contextual behavioral science suggest that by understanding what private events (thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations) may signal to oneself in the given context, private events can effectively guide the person to take flexible and adaptive actions with resolution and responsibility toward what matters for them.[2] McVeigh discusses this progression under spaciotemporality.

In comparison, a Japanese psychotherapy called Morita therapy (1919) is an approach that uniquely blended mindfulness and elements of cognitive-behavioral therapy long before behaviorism was founded or even before the cognitive revolution began. It is often seen similar to the relatively recently developed acceptance and commitment therapy (from the mid-1990s), and seems to have overlaps with Albert Ellis’s rational-emotive therapy (from early 1950, published in 1994), and Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness-based stress reduction. In some ways it seems, at least based on current global trends, that Shoma Morita in Japan significantly preceded Western thinking on this particular aspect of psychology.

McVeigh’s unlikely comparison between global and Japanese traditions of self-observation lead me on an unexpected and exciting journey of exploration: taking interiorization and introspection, the reader gains opportunity to appreciate the resemblance and dissimilarity between these two somewhat different flavors of self-observation techniques at the time. To the eye of a psychologist, this is intriguing; perhaps cultural differences or the evolving nature of this human phenomenon in experiencing private events can be explained by drawing on Hubert Dreyfus’s understanding of skill acquisition and coping based on Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s existentialist endeavors.[3] Dreyfus describes a phenomenon he names the intentional arc, simply put as “the way our successful coping continually enriches the way things in the world show up.”[4] That is, just as culture, history, and language might shape the way we perceive the outer world, humanity might have different flavors to our ability to observe our internal events.[5] McVeigh leads the reader to observe different perceptions dealing with subjectivity, giving the reader an opportunity to appreciate how our understanding of psychological knowledge as professionals, and as recipient clients, is affected. This leads us to ask: Is our understanding of self-observation developing, or does our ability to understand these private events evolve gradually? Where is that understanding taking us and to what extent is it useful and functional? 

From this perspective, the book also has a limitation; although the title lays out the premise of the book in advance, an additional chapter would be essential, focusing on specific concepts in Japanese psychology, which now are being revisited, have extensively advanced since, or have been applied in contemporary integrative psychology and therapy and influenced global approaches, for example, Morita therapy. It would be particularly interesting to read about how mindfulness was and is now perceived in Japan. While mindfulness originated in Buddhist theological philosophy long before psychology as a science was born, Kabat-Zinn established the “first” mindfulness-based stress reduction clinic in 1979 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The originally Buddhist philosophical concept of “right mindfulness” as a state of mind has become a buzzword over the past ten years, absent of any collectivist, ethical, and moral meaning, and was turned into a popular method for personal stress reduction available through apps and self-claimed professionals in an unregulated field of professional practice. Since then, a number of third-wave cognitive-behavioral therapies (for example, dialectical behavioral therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, and compassion-focused therapy) have incorporated mindfulness and valued action as a fundamental element or technique with different theoretical backgrounds and practical uses (for example, defusion in acceptance and commitment therapy). To an extent, these processes resemble the Noble Eightfold Path in Buddhist philosophy.

By describing interiorization, McVeigh brings the reader a fine-tuned comparison of our ability to self-observe from different windows, and also perhaps unintentionally but probably unavoidably leads the reader back to philosophy and the fundamental mind-body debate. Any reminder, which allows documenting the progress of psychology as a science, is crucial. To this end, McVeigh’s work is an important milestone in describing the, comparably, significant Japanese advances and historical and cultural influences in psychology. While the book brings the reader to several exciting conclusions, the author neglects to draw a final conclusion that compares Japanese advancements with global perspectives. This lack seems to ask for a second book that continues reviewing modern Japanese psychology. The History of Japanese Psychology is a landmark piece that will come in handy for a reader interested in the history of psychology, Japanese psychology, or Buddhist philosophy, or anyone interested in this specific slice of evolution of social science in comparison with Western psychology.


[1]. Ruth A. Baer, “Mindfulness Training as a Clinical Intervention: A Conceptual and Empirical Review,” Clinical Psychology 10, no. 2 (June 2003): 125-143; Steven C. Hayes, Michael E. Levin, Jennifer Plumb-Vilardaga, Jennifer L. Villatte, and Jacqueline Pistorello, “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Contextual Behavioral Science: Examining the Progress of a Distinctive Model of Behavioral and Cognitive Therapy,” Behaviour Therapy 44, no. 2 (June 2013): 180-198; and Todd B. Kashdan, Velma Barrios, John P. Forsyth, and Michael F. Steger, “Experiential Avoidance as a Generalized Psychological Vulnerability: Comparisons with Coping and Emotion Regulation Strategies,” Behaviour Research and Therapy 44, no. 9 (September 2006): 1301-1320.

[2]. Frank W. Bond, Jonathan Dowling, Dermot Barnes-Holmes, Yvonne Barnes-Holmes, and Karoly K. Schlosser, “The Possibility of ALIVE: A Functional Contextual Model for Achieving Meaning, Vitality, and Excellence” (paper presented at the 16th ACBS World Conference, Montreal, Canada, 2018); and Dermot Barnes-Holmes, Yvonne Barnes-Holmes, Carmen Luciano, and Ciara McEnteggart, “From the IRAP and REC model to a Multi-dimensional Multi-level Framework for Analyzing the Dynamics of Arbitrarily Applicable Relational Responding,” Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science 6, no. 4 (October 2017): 434-445.

[3]. Hubert Dreyfus, “Intelligence without Representation – Merleau-Ponty’s Critique of Mental Representation: The Relevance of Phenomenology to Scientific Explanation,” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 1, no. 4 (December 2002): 367–383.

[4]. Hubert Dreyfus, Skillful Coping: Essays on the Phenomenology of Everyday Perception and Action (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 107.

[5]. Lera Boroditsky, “Does Language Shape Thought? Mandarin and English Speakers’ Conceptions of Time,” Cognitive Psychology 43, no. 1 (August 2001): 1-22.

Citation: Karoly K. Schlosser. Review of McVeigh, Brian J., The History of Japanese Psychology: Global Perspectives, 1875-1950. H-Japan, H-Net Reviews. October, 2018. URL:

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