“there’s a … lineage of experience and wisdom that gets passed down”

Helping people be happier

Herald Square Psychology Japan opens in Tokyo

Text by Gavin Blair  /  Photo by Michael Holmes

“As my therapist was saying to me…” is not a refrain often heard in the restaurants and izakayas of Tokyo. But all that is about to change if Dr Tyson A Furr and his team at Herald Square Psychology have their way.

Having established a successful practice in Herald Square, Manhattan, Dr Furr is bringing to the Japanese capital the open attitude to therapy that New York City is famous for. Herald Square Psychology Japan opened on 1 November, the same day his new practice launched in Long Beach, California, marking the business’ first expansions outside the Big Apple.

While Californians are probably as in love with therapy as New Yorkers are, anything related to psychological issues remains largely taboo in Japan. Furr came to realise the stark difference in attitudes when Japanese clients would fly to New York for therapy and request their appointments be scheduled to avoid the possibility of encountering one of their compatriots at his practice.

“That is going to be one of the biggest challenges — how we communicate that this isn’t a place of mental illness, but that this is a place of guided self-reflection to help you do better in your life and be happier,” says Furr.

“Things like anxiety and sadness — these are very normal things. You cant be human without being sad, angry, anxious and happy,” adds Furr. “These are all different colours on the palette that need to be embraced and accepted  equally.”

His interest was piqued by a week-long series about Tokyo that runs every summer on a local TV network in New York — the two megalopolises are twinned cities — so in 2014, Furr decided to make his first trip to Asia. Pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to navigate Tokyo without local language skills, but somewhat less pleasantly surprised about the dearth of psychotherapy services available in a major global city, Furr began looking into the possibility of opening a practice in Japan. With the support of JETRO — whose help Furr describes as “fantastic” —  the plans for a Tokyo office came together.

Herald Square Psychology Japan is launching with Furr handling English-speaking clients and Dr Junko Tsutsui available for Japanese speakers. They plan to take on more therapists as their case-load grows.

“I’ve learned that Japanese clients will seek directive advice — being told what to do — and not reveal their feelings about the therapy or therapist, especially if it’s a negative comment,” says Furr. In New York, however, these kinds of comments are seen as very useful data to the therapist.

“So I really want to introduce that kind of New York style, sort of like an embassy,” Furr adds. “It’s tricky because you have to respect cultural differences; but, on the other hand, I want to give people permission to be different and be more open, so that clients can have the same experience as they would in New York.”

Furr completed his training and began his career working with military veterans in New York, and has since expanded his private practice to serve large numbers of high-achieving, competitive businesspeople. He believes his methods can work in a culture such as Japan’s where a good deal of emphasis has been traditionally placed on toughing it out and not expressing emotions.

“The way people get stuck — deep down that mechanism is pretty much the same at its core,” he says.   

Psychotherapy has evolved over the years, characterised, in part, by a shift away from Freudian-style psychoanalysis to more empirically based methods such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), though Furr says he sees value in both approaches.

“One of my professors’ psychoanalysts was one of the founders of CBT, and he called it psychoanalysis with the unconscious chopped off,” explains Furr. “It lends itself very well to research and you can operationalise the variables, so there’s lots of research that supports it.  It’s become the dominant paradigm across the US today: places like New York, particularly the Upper West Side and Upper East Side, are still bastions of analytically-informed treatment and interpersonal analysis.”

CBT focuses on learning about automatic thoughts and how they are related to perceptions of the world and core beliefs. “If you undistort beliefs, you change the way you feel,” he adds.

However, the unconscious element of people’s thought-processes is not really addressed, according to Furr, who sees the interpersonal psychoanalytic model as a valuable and complementary method to deal with that aspect.

Another element that has sprung from the psychoanalytical tradition is for therapists to discuss their work and their own feelings with another professional.

“That Sex and the City quote — ‘In Manhattan, even the shrinks have shrinks’ — is true,” says Furr. We all encourage each other to go to therapy because you go to your own therapist to be compassionate and feel what it’s like to be a patient; and to separate what your feelings are and what the client is bringing to the room.”

He adds: “Even though I have a lot of experience, I go to my supervisor and he goes to his supervisor, so there’s a sort of lineage of experience and wisdom that gets passed down.”

And while Furr firmly believes that Japan can learn from the traditions that have been built in New York, he doesn’t see it as strictly a one-way street.

“Interestingly enough, what has become in vogue in a lot of psychotherapy circles was actually proposed in Japan back in the 1920s, by a guy named Shoma Morita, a contemporary of Sigmund Freud,” Furr notes. “It wasn’t until recently that a lot of research has started to support this idea that came from Zen Buddhism, of watching your internal events: thoughts, memories, feelings, urges and emotions.”

Finding a little distance from those events, and not necessarily buying what your mind is telling you, is something Furr hopes to help his patients accomplish.

“In Japanese culture, there are a lot of practises that have this kind of meditative feel to it,” Furr concludes. “Its a shame we didnt pay more attention to it earlier.”