I still remember the commercials: “Clearasil Ultra Face Wash — and in three days, they’re gone!” “They” are the pimples, of course.
Each ad played out the same way: A teenage boy hides from his crush because he has acne. His friend reminds him of the party in three days. “You can’t go with that face!” The boy uses Clearasil, shows up, and gets to kiss the girl.
As someone who suffered three long years of intense acne in high school, those ads hit me right in the feels — first with hope, then with misery. After I tried the product and it didn’t work, Clearasil continued to erode my self-worth in 30-second increments by reaffirming a false belief I held about myself: As long as I have acne, girls won’t be interested in me, so there’s no point in even trying.
Every year, millions of teenagers share this experience, and it reveals a pattern deeply ingrained in Western culture: Find a flaw, worry about it, try a quick fix, and if it doesn’t work, go back to worrying. Repeat this cycle until some magic pill works or you find an even bigger inadequacy. While this may lead to some improvement, in the long run, it inevitably leads to self-loathing.
You wouldn’t think a pimple commercial reveals so much about a nation’s culture, but if you watch a few Japanese skincare ads for reference, you’ll see — because unlike Clearasil, they do clear things up.
The Japanese Perceive Problems Differently
The first thing you’ll notice about Japanese beauty commercials is that they’re not directed at teenagers. There’s no Justin Bieber claiming zits are intolerable, no before-and-after pictures, and no shrill voice prompting you to “get acne out of your life.”
All you’ll see is adults going about their day, feeling good because — and this is the part the commercials focus on — every day, they practice their skincare routine. Pimples aren’t presented as a flaw to be overcome, just a part of everyday life. “If you consistently take care of your skin, acne might still happen, but it won’t have enough power over you to ruin your day.” That seems to be the message.
This is radically different from how we approach obstacles in the West, and it’s no coincidence. The Japanese perceive problems differently. They don’t view them as stumbling blocks to be eliminated. Instead, they see them as stepping stones on a never-ending journey. They empathize with problems.
The Japanese cultivate this worldview at an early age, thanks not just to their commercials but also their teachers.
“He did it!”
Jim Stigler is a psychology professor at UCLA. He once observed a fourth-grade math class in Japan. Surprisingly, the teacher called the worst student, not the best, to the board. The task was to draw a three-dimensional cube.
Every few minutes, the teacher would ask the rest of the class whether the kid had gotten it right, and the class would look up from their work and shake their heads no. At the end of the class, he did make his cube look right! And the teacher said, ‘How does that look, class?’ And they all said, ‘He did it!’ And they broke into applause. The kid smiled a huge smile and sat down, clearly proud of himself.
Imagine this scene in a Western classroom. Based on 13 years of going to school in Germany, I can tell you: It would not have gone this way.
Usually, if a student is called out and doesn’t immediately get it right, they are branded as stupid — if not by the teacher, then at least by the other students. They’ll return to their desk with their head lowered in shame and, instead of discovering the solution, go back to worrying about their pimples.
In Japan, mistakes are seen as valuable. There’s not just something to learn, there’s something to learn for everyone. Instead of being left behind, people who struggle are pulled into the light. Solving the problem becomes a joint effort, and if the student succeeds, everyone wins.
You might say, to the Japanese, mistakes are worth their weight in gold — sometimes literally.
Kintsugi: Don’t Fix — Integrate
Kintsugi is an old Japanese art. It is the craft of repairing broken pottery using seams of gold. Instead of trying to hide the object’s cracks, it accentuates them. The message is simple but meaningful: Our trials and flaws are not scars on our character — they are the very fabric that makes us human. Each obstacle, each mistake becomes a building block of a better tomorrow, thus making us a little more unique and beautiful.
In the West, we tend to throw things away when they break. Each year, millions of perfectly usable products end up in landfills. To some extent, we do the same with people. This is sad but unsurprising, given the perpetual message in our education and media: If you struggle in even the slightest, you’re not good enough. You can buy some Spanx, muscle supplements, or an online course to fix it, but until you have, don’t bother, and definitely don’t bother others with your problem.
But what if our mistakes are just for learning? What if our flaws aren’t flaws at all — just puzzle pieces that make us different and, thus, lovable?
There’s a difference between fixing and integrating: One is done to compensate, the other to move forward. When we obsess over correcting our flaws, we may succeed, but we’ll never feel content. It takes a general appreciation of life’s transience to focus on learning, accept what we can’t change, and even see beauty in our little imperfections.
The Japanese call this appreciation “mono no aware” — an empathy toward things, a sense of impermanence. Mono no aware is at the heart of kintsugi, and it can make the difference between a laid-back, joyful pursuit of growth and a never-ending spiral of self-flagellation — just like a golden thread can make a repaired plate look more beautiful than it was before it broke.
From your skin to your mind to your bank account: A desire to improve your life is a wonderful thing. It’s less wonderful if that desire leaves a constant taste of “I’m not good enough” in your mouth.
Not always but often, Western self-help wants you to feel self-conscious. The industry points out your problems, twists the knife, and then happily sells you a plethora of quick fixes to combat them. Whether they work or not, in the long run, this will damage your self-image.
While it’s good to confront our problems head-on, the Japanese aim to do so without negative connotation. They stress consistency and effort in their marketing, parenting, and education. Mistakes are a valuable source of learning for everyone, and our flaws are not just not so bad, they make us unique and beautiful.
The next time you spot a pimple or give the wrong answer, remember the art of kintsugi: Don’t fix. Integrate. As long as you make them steps to something bigger, not a single one of your obstacles will go to waste.