March 2017 Researcher’s Window: Dr. Masami Takahashi

Taking closer look at research and experiences of SSHD members

Researcher’s Window

This month we are getting better acquainted with the research of Masami Takahashi, Professor of Psychology and Gerontology at Northeastern Illinois University.

  1. What drew you to do work in human development?

I wasn’t drawn to human development at all in the beginning. Instead, like many psychology undergrads, I had this vague and grandiose notion of wanting to help people, especially older adults simply because I saw my parents getting old. It was my adviser (Dr. Howard Eisner) at University of Houston-Clear Lake who introduced me to the field. Instead of getting into a very specific field like gerontology or Social Work, he told me to keep my options open by pursuing “mainstream” psychology. Because he taught aging-related courses and he came from Duke/Michigan developmental psychology programs, he suggested that I apply to developmental psychology programs.

  1. Did you have any mentor or a researcher who had substantial influence in your path or work? Is there a significant moment or story that capsulizes the nature of that influence on your scholarship or professional journey?

It was my graduate adviser at Temple University, Dr. Bill Overton, who converted me. Prior to knowing his work, I thought psychology was about finding a bunch of factors, both genetic and environmental, that influenced human behavior. I thought, at one point, it was kind of boring. However, it was Bill who taught me that it is critical that we be creative in theorizing developmental processes of an underlying psychological mechanism on which these factors may operate. When we presented our proposed projects to him in class, he would often ask us, “What’s developmental about this?” He really emphasized the developmental underpinning of the research.

  1. You have a range of important work, select 1-2 findings that you feel are key contributions to human development.

a. Your current project and/or key projects 

I am interested in developmental constructs that relate to aging such as wisdom and spirituality. A cross-cultural or global perspective is particularly important in examining these concepts. For example, when I attended a symposium several years ago about religion and spirituality in a large academic conference, I was astounded to hear everyone talking about spirituality only in the Christian and American context. In recent years, I have been involved with a consortium of Japanese researchers conducting empirical research on religion and spirituality, leading to the publication of a couple of books. These efforts are noteworthy because in the last half a century no books on the subject of psychology and religion have been published in Japan. This is largely due to a unique and ambivalent feeling toward religion/spirituality among Japanese people including scientific researchers. While a large majority of Americans claim some degree of religious belief and affiliation, 70-90% of the Japanese report that they are not religious. However, they are involved in “religious” activities throughout years including Shinto New Year’s celebration, Buddhist summer festivals, and Christmas.  Also, religion plays a significant role during the aftermath of natural disasters such as the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. We are currently trying to translate one of the books into English for distribution to a broader audience.

b. Contributions of your projects/research to the study of human development

Since the field of aging is often described as “data rich but theory poor”, my approach helps to restore the theory/data equilibrium given the emphasis in my work on a developmental understanding of our aging process.

  1. Your one wish for the study of human development. If you had just one wish for the study of human development, what would it be?

Because of my personal interest, I produced a documentary film in 2005 about the former suicide pilots (The last kamikaze: Testimonials from WWII Suicide pilots, Documentary Educational Resources). Because the project focused more on the visual documentation than data collection, I interviewed only a dozen people (they were quite advanced in age at the time, and many passed away soon after). My one wish would be to interview additional pilots providing further empirical data given the extraordinary significance of suicide operations past and present.

  1. A mentoring statement or quote you find most meaningful or life-changing

“You are grown-up. Do whatever you like.”

I need to explain a bit here. Toward the end of my dissertation process, I became frustrated and really needed a break. I thought about taking a vacation to restore my sanity. Coming from a very strict teacher-student relationship tradition in Japan, I thought my dissertation adviser would oppose my plan. One day, I mustered up my courage and popped the question, “Could I take a break from my writing and take a trip to somewhere relaxing, say, the Caribbean?” This was his reply above and also by “To which island are you going?”

About the researcher

Dr. Masami Takahashi is a professor of psychology and gerontology at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, IL. He received a B.A. and M.S. in psychology from University of Houston-Clear Lake and a Ph.D. in developmental psychology from Temple University.

His primary research interests are: (a) definition, operationalization, and evaluation of psychological strengths, such as wisdom and spirituality, in late adulthood; (b) evaluation of psychosocial profile of the former kamikaze pilots with implications in other suicide operations around the world; and (c) exploration of longevity factors in the Blue Zones (e.g., Okinawa).


Edited and launched by Yoko Yamamoto & Deborah J. Johnson

SSHD Publicity Committee