The Japanese word shukanka means 'forming the habit' in English. It's the process of building positive habits until they become second nature.

As a child, Erin spent her Saturdays learning how to master kakijun – the order of strokes when writing characters: "I found it profoundly unfair that my classmates and school friends got to spend their Saturdays together in the Girl Scouts, presumably toasting marshmallows, going sailing and tying knots, while I sat writing the same character over and over and over again, in the exact same order, for what felt like days."

However, she later realised that this exercise was helping her to learn positive habits: "Repetition, willpower and self-discipline are things that need to be taught; they really don't come naturally to most. Once you form the habit, though, it sticks, and that's where the real benefit comes in.

Shop front in Japan

"Whether it's finding the discipline to exercise, live in a clean, organised home or make the time to accomplish all the tasks you want to get done- putting in the legwork from the beginning makes it so much simpler further down the line. It's all about a larger journey: your work is never done, and the habit is something (annoyingly) you won't be able to tick off of your to-do list. You should always be iterating: constantly improving, shifting your method and challenging yourself.

"Kaizen (improvement), shukanka – these are all things that are taken for granted. But they have the power to transform your life, and simplify aspects of it in the process. It's not about getting things perfect, or setting unrealistic standards for yourself.

"There is a saying, 'Naseba naru', which roughly translates as, 'If you take action, it will happen'. It's about the bigger picture. You tend to regret the things you don't do over the things you've done. And isn't that what living a happy and fulfilled life is all about? At the same time, things don't happen overnight. They take time, cultivation and dedication, as well as sweat and, possibly, some tears in the process."

Tea ceremony

How to put shukanka into practice

Erin was inspired by conversations with her Aunt Taeko about tea in particular. She says: "It really made me think about her constant pursuit of self-improvement and discipline for her art. Having practised tea ceremony for a long time, she has earned the privilege of a chamei, or tea name – something that is bestowed on advanced practitioners of tea ceremony.

"Yet in our discussions, my aunt was really passionate about conveying to me the magnitude of the journey still ahead of her: 'When you are allowed to practise, you don't attain a level, but get permission to learn the next road. There is no end,' she said.

"Initially, I found this unsatisfactory. But on further reflection, it seemed so pure, genuine and true. Because are we ever really finished with anything? Things can always be extended, expanded, worked upon further."

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Erin shares her tips for putting shukanka into practice:

Writing lists

Make lists

"Our brains love lists. It's how we make sense of the world, because we process information spatially. I have lists for everything. If anyone caught sight of the app on my phone, or my book of lists, they would get to know me fairly intimately.

"While I love writing lists by hand (and I have a verging­ on-the-unhealthy supply of the most beautiful stationery to prove it), more recently I've become a fan of digital lists, too. Breaking up tasks into easily digestible chunks makes me feel a whole lot more productive, and keeps me engaged and stimulated without being distracted. There's even a word in Japanese to describe the feeling of elation you get from finishing a task, whether it's something as mundane as filing your taxes or running across the finish line: yatta!"

A woman writing in a journal


"I'm a big forward planner, and every Sunday night I fill up a pinboard with my plans for the week ahead – not just dinner reservations or work meetings, either.

"I also find it really helpful to put reminders in for myself to check in on my mood, re-evaluate personal relationships or conflicts or just trivial events that might have sentimental value."

Woman running in San Francisco

A minute a day

"My cousin was on a mission a few years ago to get fitter. After we'd been chatting about it for a while, I was perplexed when a single push-up was all that was eventually achieved.

"But for them, rather than going full throttle with a new regime, small incremental changes were the key to eventually making it part of a habit: doing one more push-up each day than the day before was the key to making it sustainable for their lifestyle."

Extract from Japonisme by Erin Niimi Longhurst, published by Harper Collins priced £9.99. Photography by Stefan Jakubowski, 五玄土 ORIENTO 王杉, Shoichiro Kono, Ana Tavares, Hannah Olinger and Ivana Cajina on Unsplash.