- Mar 20, 2011
Not one but three cruel ironies are being played out in Japan as the country tries to comprehend the apocalypse of the past 10 days.
The Japanese prize nature, beauty and order, yet the tsunami has mocked all three.
It has been distressing to see a people whose culture values cleanliness, refinement, delicacy and graciousness, wandering around in the clothes they fled in and sitting on the street near giant saucepans waiting to be served from soup kitchens.
The love of nature is the very basis of Japanese aesthetics.
They show their joy at the arrival of ‘sakura’ or cherry blossoms with picnics, tea ceremonies, musical concerts and special meals.
The Japanese cherry tree is not cultivated for its fruit — it is not fruit-bearing — but purely for the ephemeral beauty of its blossom.
In Japanese homes, the sliding partitions are invariably painted with scenes from nature.
Traditional wooden homes, often flimsy-looking, are not built as fortresses against the elements but rather intended to blend in with the surroundings because the Japanese approach to nature is different from the western desire to subjugate it to man’s will.
They are taught that there is no dichotomy between man and nature and this temperament finds expression in traditional scrolls or ink drawings where nature dominates.
The artist, instead of treating the natural scenery merely as a backdrop for depicting people, lets nature take pride of place while relegating humans to marginal figures. (Although the ultra-controlled Japanese garden with its clipped and pruned trees and raked stones is the opposite — an attempt to bring some order into
nature’s occasional unruliness).
The passion for beauty and exquisite refinement immediately strikes any new visitor to Japan.
You enter another universe in which the most subtle aesthetic sensibility is woven into the fabric of daily life.
Everywhere you look, you see delicate mannerisms: the ticket inspector on a train who turns to the seated passengers and bows before leaving the compartment; the supermarket sushi parcels covered in persimmon leaves; shop assistants wrapping mundane purchases in beautiful paper with as much care as they would a
sacred offering for a temple.
Anything that offends their aesthetic sensibility is shunned. Worshippers’ shoes outside Hindu temples may be strewn higgledy piggledy but outside Buddhist and Shinto shrines in Japan, the slippers that you put on before entering are tucked into each other and arrayed neatly in a line on the steps.
If a monk at the shrine chances upon a pair that is even slightly askew,he will instantly bend down and straighten it.
Visitors have been known to observe this elegance — particularly among Japanese women whose elegance is simply extraordinary .The television pictures of devastated towns and mile upon mile of debris would be agonizing for any nation but it has to be excruciatingly painful for a nation that has turned love of beauty into something that is as unconscious and reflexive as blinking.
Japanese conduct in public is a perfect manifestation of how this pursuit of refinement, transported into the external domain, creates harmony and order. Very rarely do you hear anyone speaking loudly.
There is no aggression; their manner is gentle.
There is no coarseness; no scratching, yawning or stretching. And they most certainly never push, elbow or jostle. Even now, surrounded as they are by horror and calamity, they are unlikely to abandon their customary decorum.
It is this consideration and respect for others that allows almost 130 million people to live together peacefully, despite one of the highest population densities in the world, and boast of a crime rate that is one of the lowest in the industrialized world.
These qualities of politeness, honesty and gentleness will enable the Japanese to come through this catastrophe with their dignity intact.
They are already on display: no one is looting (unlike New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina or during the Gujarat massacre) or panicking and people are queuing up for water and food.
In the midst of flattened towns and muddy fields where their homes once stood and without water and electricity, people are shown on television channels still bowing and speaking to one another with formal courtesy.
Even in normal times, vending machines stand undamaged by vandals.
Pedestrians bend down to remove a tiny scrap of paper from an immaculate pavement.
Taxi drivers in black suits look at you if you mistakenly hand over far too much money and hand the extra back.
A Tokyo resident who was in a restaurant when the earthquake struck on Friday reported that everyone ran out onto the street. But when the tremors subsided, they walked back in and formed an orderly queue to pay their bills.
An awareness of the transience of things and a melancholy wistfulness at their passing has always been central to Japanese cultural tradition.
The tsunami has sadly bequeathed them with abundant experiences reflecting the truth of this axiom.
It has also brutally demonstrated the truth of another Japanese principle, the aesthetic principle of ‘wabi sabi’ which postulates the beauty of things as “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”.
An apt description of modern civilization, with all its sophisticated gadgets, when faced with nature’s fury?
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