USJC 2022: Leadership and Mental Wellness

The moderator, Dr. Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu (Psychologist & Author, Stanford University), welcomed the participants of the breakout session and introduced the panelists. Dr. Murphy-Shigematsu explained that he enjoys teaching university students because they have energy, vision, and motivation that are unmatched by older generations. Also, his view is that by teaching university students, he is teaching future leaders. The students themselves know that they will be the future leaders that the world wants and needs.

Mr. Hideki Makihara (Member, House of Representatives, Diet of Japan | Former State Minister, Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare) spoke first. He explained that, in Japan, mental wellness initiatives are behind compared to the United States and European countries due to the Japanese grit mentality. However, Japan is enhancing support for mental illness through policies and reforms. In addition, mental wellness has taken root in many companies, such as through a health management certification system. In 2021, a cabinet minister was established to address loneliness and isolation. In 2022, the political party in power pledged to focus on wellbeing as well as economic efficiency. Due to isolation during the pandemic, dementia in the elderly increased. They were then encouraged not to isolate and engage in activities to boost their health. He then addressed the mental wellness of leaders. He explained that the U.S. president can refresh and recuperate at Camp David. In contrast, in Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was heavily criticized whenever he took vacations. Politicians and executives in Japan who take vacations also are criticized. If leaders’ mental health is not good, then they could make poor and wrong decisions that impact a country or a company.

Mr. Daiko Matsuyama (Deputy Head Priest, Taizo-in Zen Buddhist Temple, Kyoto) said that humans are the only species on earth that know they are mortal, and in order to deal with the anxieties of being mortal, humans find comfort through religion. He believes that one of the main reasons for anxiety is new technology. With new technologies, we have high expectations for the quality of our life. However, in reality, there are many global issues, such as war, pandemic, and inflation, which are widening the gap between our ideal life and reality. He then explained work that he has done in Bhutan, and how Bhutanese people are well known for being the happiest people on earth. However, he feels it is more accurate to say that Bhutanese have the least anxiety. Tibetan Buddhism practiced by the Bhutanese allows them to have low anxiety about death. He went on to say that, currently, the world is constantly comparing things, such as universities, restaurants, and hospitals. However, comparing happiness is not appropriate because happiness is a subjective, personal thing. An important thing for happiness is to not compare. One must judge their happiness for themself.

Following, Dr. Tazuko Shibusawa (Executive Officer, Shibusawa Eiichi Memorial Foundation | Former Associate Dean & Director, Master of Social Work Program, New York University Silver School of Social Work) talked about mental health and leadership from the perspective of mindfulness. She discussed the difficulties that she experienced in her leadership role because of her bi-cultural background, which often led her feel that she was “not good enough.” Mindfulness practice helped her develop self-compassion and she currently teaches Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR). When leaders are under stress, they tend to become more controlling and anxious, which affects their interpersonal relationships. In Japan, many people use medication to relieve stress and anxiety, which robs them of the opportunity to explore emotional distress as a time to pause and listen to their bodies and minds. She concluded her talk by recommending the book “Finding the Space to Lead” written by Janice Maturano, an executive, who incorporates mindfulness courses at a Fortune 500 company.

Mr. Koki Ozora (Founder and CEO, Anato no Ibasho (“A Place for You”)) spoke next. He created his company to provide a service to Japanese people needing to talk about suicidal thoughts, isolation, and depression. The service is also extended to Japanese people living abroad. He highlighted positive points of new technologies, such as AI and algorithms. The company received so many contacts that it needs to prioritize the high-risk ones. AI chat bots are utilized to identify high-risk contacts. The most suicidal group in Japan is middle-aged men. This group is also dominating leadership in the country. Female leadership is increasing, and the female suicide rate is also increasing. If leaders do not show weakness, then followers cannot show weakness. One must protect their own mental health before protecting that of others.

Dr. Murphy-Shigematsu said that the young generation has expressed their need to connect to themselves, to feel connections with others, and to connect to something beyond themselves.


A member of the audience asked about responsibility for making changes to the structure of our society to reduce the trauma that people experience. Mr. Ozora echoed that Japan has a loneliness and isolation minister, which was successfully lobbied by him. Also, political policies are important to increase mental health awareness. He emphasized that everyone is responsible for mental health. If leaders of organizations express their compassion about individuals’ mental wellbeing, it spreads awareness to their followers and allows them to care for their mental health.

Another member of the audience asked about policies of telemedicine, because only in the area of mental health, telemedicine is not available. Mr. Makihara answered that, traditionally, all telediagnoses have been opposed by the doctor’s association because it believes direct diagnosis is the key to curing illnesses. However, during the pandemic, some exceptions were made for telemedicine, and it will be available for mental health in the future.

Then another member of the audience said that diagnosis and treatment of mental health is a process. It is not a disease that you heal in the traditional sense. People have to accept that mental health is a human condition. He then asked about where Japan is in the process of accepting that mental health is a condition that everyone has. Dr. Murphy-Shigematsu explained that mental health is on a spectrum, with people at different stages, and thinking of it this way ends the alienation and stigma with mental health.

A member of the audience said that the first step is to admit that you have struggled with mental health. She explained that mental health statistics in Japan are not accurate, and it is important to accurately track them. Moreover, the Japanese government is not doing enough to support mental health. Mr. Makihara replied that the Twitter activity of the Minister of Health, Labour and Welfare on mental health is increasing. However, there is not enough support from the local and national governments.

Following, another member of the audience asked for a mindfulness or meditation technique demonstration. Mr. Matsuyama emphasized that breathing is important because it is connected to the mind. Breathing with the right technique for just five minutes can make the mind feel refreshed.

Then a member of the audience asked about the social pressure of togetherness in Japan; particularly, she asked for advice for bicultural people living in Japan on how to deal with this pressure. A panelist replied that Japanese people tend to imitate one another. One of the best ways to go beyond imitating one another is to travel abroad and experience cultures that do not focus on imitation.

Another member of the audience said that a policy in the United States that had an impact on the social structure was the recognition of same-sex marriage. However, in Japan, the judicial system did the opposite and upheld the ban on same-sex marriage. He then asked about the feeling around acceptance of the LGBT community in Japan. Mr. Makihara replied that, now, same-sex marriage is banned. However, a local court has said that this is not consistent with Article 14, which is about equal rights under the law. Article 24 states that marriage is made between a man and woman, which needs to be changed if the government wants to make same-sex marriage legal. However, changing the constitution is very difficult. He explained that the same-sex marriage issue is also a constitutional issue.

Dr. Murphy-Shigematsu concluded the session by explaining that the global society is sharing a sense of vulnerability which can enable unity and transform the ways society has viewed leadership and mental wellness.