Postcard from Tokyo: What Zen, haiku and tea have to do with surviving the financial crisis

TOKYO -- Konnichiwa! Greetings from Japan, where I've been for nearly a week leading up to thelaunch of our latest international edition, HuffPost Japan.

Japan is an amazing place -- almost overwhelming in how singular and beautiful it is. And we are fortunate to be launching HuffPost here at a remarkable time. This is a time of big transitions. Japan's spirit is being tested by the same recession and financial crisis afflicting all industrialized nations. But some of the solutions to these new and unprecedented difficulties might well turn out to be found in the most ancient Japanese traditions. Some here are finding that, to go forward, they must go inward. By looking to their oldest customs, the Japanese can find the tools to make it through a very modern crisis.

Every country hit by the global financial crisis is going through it in different ways -- or, to borrow from Tolstoy, every unhappy country is unhappy in its own way. Japan spent much of 2012 in recession before a small uptick of 0.2 percent growth for the fourth quarter. The country has a much lower unemployment rate than we do -- 4.1 percent -- but that obscures other problems like falling wages, deflation and low growth.

Also, according to the World Economic Forum, Japan ranks 101st in the "gender gap index" - women constitute only 12 percent of new hires in career-track jobs.

But numbers don't tell the whole story. There's a widespread sense that Japan's idea of itself as a country on the cutting edge of technology is slowly becoming outdated. Japanese tech giants are having a hard time keeping up in a globally competitive environment. And a report in the Tokyo Times concludes that Japanese tech firms are no longer as desirable a destination as they once were to the top ranks of young talent.

Japan's new Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has vowed to restart growth through increased investment, monetary policy with higher inflation targets and structural reform that reduces obstacles to innovation.

But Japan's identity crisis is falling most heavily on those who must carry that identity forward: the young. The lack of opportunity and mobility available to young people has become so entrenched that they're now referred to as the "Lost Generation." Many of the young people I've spoken to this week blame the long work hours and the uphill battle for advancement for their decision to have no children, or no more than one.

The anxiety, uncertainty and even despair have manifested themselves in the country's suicide rate, which, since 2007, has risen by 250 percent for those around age 20. Of course, this bleakness isn't confined to the young; Japan overall has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, with more than 27,000 suicides in 2012.

Paradoxically, there are answers to be found to all these very modern stresses in the most ancient Japanese traditions. Japan is a place that puts great emphasis on balance and harmony, and the tools to help the Japanese find a new harmony and equilibrium in these very unharmonious times are all around them. There are shrines and temples and gardens everywhere. It is common to see monks meditating and even to join them in meditation (which I did at 8 a.m. on Sunday at the Nanzenji temple in Kyoto). And even an ordinary meal can have an extraordinary power to it, with each place setting positioned in a certain way, each course presented with ceremonial beauty. Life Artistry -- cultivating the ability to allow ourselves to be moved by small things -- is at the heart of Zen.

Most fascinating is how some of these ancient traditions are being tailored to directly confront the new challenges the country is facing. In 2011, a Buddhist temple in Kawachinagano, Osaka Prefecture, began a program using Zen meditation, cold-water ablutions and other traditional ceremonial practices, along with lectures, to help young people looking for jobs. More accurately, it's not just about finding a job, but finding the right job -- and to do that, people have to truly know who they are.

Another group in Tokyo is combining some old traditions like Buddhism and Shintoism with new practices like DJing and creating multimedia art, in an effort to provide relief to young people from the ongoing stress of the tragic earthquake of 2011.

And charms from local shrines are everywhere. Even the editor-in-chief of GQ, the superhip Masafumi Suzuki, arrived for an interview in our offices carrying a bag adorned with many charms with bells. And our Japanese editors gave me as a present a set of IT charms from our neighborhood shrine, to protect my laptop and other gadgets (it's a lot easier than a trip to the Genius Bar!).

The essence of the Japanese aesthetic is Ma -- space, the pure and essential void between "things," the emptiness full of possibilities, promise waiting to be fulfilled.

Like the U.S., Japan is facing huge challenges. But by taking old traditions and adapting them to solve new problems, and taking new innovations and applying a uniquely Japanese twist to them, by going both forward and backward, both outward and inward -- juxtapositions that in Japan don't have to be contradictions -- the people of Japan are poised find a new and vibrant balance for the 21st century. Or, as Takahama Kyoshi wrote:

A paulownia leaf

Is falling down with

Sunshine on it

(Arianna Huffington is president and editor-in-chief of Huffington Post Media Group. Her email address is

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