Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Japanese aesthetics 2 日本人の美学 2

I wrote my opinion about the Japanese aesthetic yesterday, and I could not believe the amount of responses that I received from around the world. I am stunned by the fact that our Japanese way could be so foreign to others, because to me it is very natural. So today I was thinking about it in further depth, and I'd like to share some personal episodes that show how the Japanese are in certain situations. Now, please allow me to say that I am not writing this to praise the Japanese. We are not perfect. We have many elements that the foreigners do not like: we are often described as "unambiguous" and "too reserved," and that we say "yes" to everything while we constantly shake our heads back and forth!

Too Honest?
A typical Japanese man who honors honesty and respect for others is my father. One day when I was a teenager my parents and I went to a shopping mall near Westchester, New York. My father was driving, and when he parked the car in the parking lot he lightly hit another car. He dashed out the car to check the damage and found a very tiny scratch. So, what did he do? He waited for the car's owner's return for one and a half hours!

The owner of the car was an elderly lady, and she said to my father, "Did you just wait for me to tell me that you had done this?" My dad said, "Yes." "But, why?" The lady did not get it.
"That's how we are!" my dad answered with a smile.

Another episode took place in Tokyo while I was visiting my parents there. One afternoon my father went to a market to buy some groceries to make some Italian dinner. He came home with bags, and he was checking the receipt. Then suddenly he said, "Oh my goodness. The cashier forgot to ring up the tomatoes. I must go back to pay for them."

"Common, Dad! It's just a few tomatoes, and it's not your fault. Don't even bother!" I yelled.
Did he go back? Oh, yes, he did, immediately. That is how my father is, and that is how many Japanese are. Japanese honor honesty and politeness. They take pride in their behavior and respect.

Lost Wallets are Returned Full
When I was growing up as a child in Tokyo it was absolutely common to leave your purses at the restaurant tables to save the seats, and no one would steal them. Nowadays in the big cities the Japanese don't do it any more, but in small towns and villages strangers still trust each other today.

Lost & Found is very reliable, too. At stations, department stores, police stations... most of the items you lose are returned, even the wallets full with money in them!

So what keeps the Japanese away from behaving "badly" in general? (Of course I'm not saying that there is no crime in Japan.) As I wrote yesterday, the philosophies of "Bushido" (the way of the samurai warriors) and Buddhism, and the 'wish to avoid shame' are deeply rooted in our cultural behavior, but also as for many older Japanese, the honest and polite behavior came from their wish to avoid "God's punishment." My grandmother often said to me, "If you are naughty the punishment will fall from heaven on you." I am not sure if my grandmother seriously believed it, but I think what she meant was creating your "karma."

Karma is not a punishment. Karma means "cause and effect"- what you do simply comes back in some ways. Buddha talked about cause and effect, and he taught how to control your mind. Japanese are extremely disciplined, and they can endure with a great deal of patience.

Patience is considered honorable
Patience. It is taught in early age in Japan. In my kindergarden I had a tea ceremony class every Wednesday, and we all had to sit like this (see the photo below) with good posture for an hour. It was hard for us as little children who would rather run around than sit still. I also had a "prayer class" (equivalent to a meditation class) that you sit with your eyes closed and try to be still. That was not easy either.

So, whether good or bad, these cultural elements of the Japanese have been helpful to put the tragic nation together at the moment. People are staying calm patiently. I am so proud of the Japanese people, and as a Japanese who grew up in New York, I must learn from my people in Japan. It is my time to go back to my deep roots, and learn from my ancestors who were dignified warriors. I am the "daughter" of the last samurais after all.












  1. Rima - I loved both your blogs on Japanese Aesthetics. I share the same sentiments and similar experiences as you.

    While I have lived most of my life outside of Japan, my fundamental beliefs are rooted and shaped from the Buddhist philosophies and my life growing up in Japan. I am reminded through this terrible tradegy the strength and spirit of our great mother country Japan - something that I have been far away from and had not witnessed in so long.

    I remember in 8th grade I went on a 3 day "zazen" trip from our school where we visited and stayed at a buddhist temple. We were made to sit for several hours a day just kneeling with our backs straight up, staring straight ahead and meditating. Still much of a Westerner at the time I recall not understanding a word the monk was saying and fighting the urge to complain and cry from the numbness and pain of sitting in that awkward position. We got up at the crack of dawn to exercise, ate from the land and spent the rest of the day meditating. Although such a long time ago, I have such vivid memories of those 3 days. What I remember most is the feeling that swept over me at the end of that temple experience and which I think changed me forever. A calmness I cannot explain swept over me - something I had never experienced before (as if enlightened)- and I felt so humbled and grateful. The discipline and perseverance I had to endure gave me such strength and it really did help me adjust to life in Japan after that.

    I am reminded again about the Japanese way and how much it has shaped who I am today.

    Thank you Rima for your inspiring writings and art you continue to do.

    Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō


  2. Rumi, thank you for sharing your experience. I assume that you live in Japan right now, and I hope all your loved ones are safe. Let's honor our upbringing, and do our best to rebuild our home!


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