RE: [Meditation Society of America] An attention to sound, to silences
Thanks so much for these two excellent posts, Sandeep!
The enormous earthquake and towering tsunami made Japan seem so pitiable even desperately poor Kandahar offered $50,000 in aid, but the really seismic aftershock of this story is the self possessed stoicism of the Japanese people.
On live television, on radio, in newspaper reportage and anecdotal accounts, their spirit has shone strong and unwavering despite nine days of unremitting uncertainty, hunger and hardship.
The pronounced lack of self pity appears to be at odds with a microchipped 21st century that transmits the merest pain round the world in microseconds. In some ways, it makes the Japanese —traditionally perceived as more foreign than other foreigners in foreign parts —more unknowable than almost any other people, except perhaps the 1398 souls that inhabit the Polynesian island of Niue, north of Australia.
Contrast this Japanese reserve – on display to a wondering world – with America’s righteous angst when the planes hit the Twin Towers and India’s trembling-lip outrage after the Mumbai attacks.
The US and India had, of course, been attacked by malicious human agencies; the Japanese were under siege by nature.
The US and India could consider political and military stratagems to punish, perchance to prevail;
for the Japanese, there was no deal to be struck with a restless earth and its rolling waters.
In Japan, necessity appears to be the mother not of invention, but of a prodigious patience.
Japan’s bestselling author Haruki Murakami once described his countrymen’s patience as “an attention to sound, to silences.”
Might there be more to the Japanese stiff upper lip?
How can a devastated country quietly go about its daily business obediently paying attention to Murakami’s “sound, to silences” over the great roar of the 21st century?
Three days after the quake and tsunami, quiet lines stretched for miles as people queued for the rationed 10 items each was allowed by grocery stores.
Nine days on, evacuation centres remain neat and unfussy, aesthetically aligned to Japanese principles of harmony despite their temporary nature. Most notable of all, the Japanese don’t seem to want to talk about their troubles or go down the modern therapeutic route of the chat show confessional.
This is subtly and substantially different from the famous “blitz spirit” displayed by that other teadrinking, monarchical, island nation, Britain.
During Nazi Germany’s sustained strategic bombing of Britain for eight straight months from September 1940, the British people acted with exemplary resolve and extraordinary resilience. Japan 2011 displays all of that, as well as endless reserve.
Unlike the British, however, they don’t seem to want to talk about their stoicism.
Like the original Stoics, who believed in the philosophy of staunch detachment, the Japanese seem to want neither to evoke pity nor invoke suffering.
Some might say they are almost apathetic to the constant transmission of their contemporary pain.
Apathetic is a good word in this context.
Its Greek original, apatheia, meant clear-eyed judgement rather than lack of concern and is in line with one of Buddhism’s greatest truths - all suffering is rooted in desire and indifference to passion is liberation.
Tadao Ando, one of Japan’s most famous architects, who fjorded the east-west divide to win the architecture Nobel, the Pritzker Prize, describes Japanese detachment as follows: “…the temple is made of wood. The divine spirit inside the building is eternal, so the enclosure doesn't have to be.”
It chimes with the early Stoics’ argument “
wherever I go it will be well with me, for it was well with me here, not on account of the place, but of my judgments which I shall carry away with me.”
Murakami’s 2002 post-Kobe collection of stories, “After the Quake”, is about people suffering from what he calls the “echo of the earthquake”.
Many of these characters might be in the eye of the world’s cameras today.
News footage offers glimpses of their selfcontained universe and reveals that they can tell where awful truth and horrendous metaphor start to mingle.
For instance, Hiroki Azuma, a professor at Waseda University, writes in the New York Times with understated wryness: “I hear that the foreign media has been reporting with amazement the calmness and moral behavior of the Japanese faced with the disaster. But actually this was a surprise to the Japanese themselves. ‘Yeah, we can do it if we put our minds to it. We aren’t so bad as a whole nation after all.’
This is what many Japanese people have been feeling in the last several days, with some embarrassment.”
The embarrassment and surprise appears genuine.
James Fallows, the Atlantic magazine’s insightful correspondent who lived and reported from Japan, says that even in the 21st century it is still a country in which “men bow reflexively as they speak on cell phones; pedestrians make themselves compact as they pass on the crowded sidewalk, rather than sprawling and willfully occupying space like Chinese — or Americans.”
In fact, Everyman in Japan today might well be Mr Katagiri, assistant chief of the lending division of the Tokyo Security Trust Bank in one of Murakami’s stories “Superfrog Saves Tokyo”.
Katagiri is confronted by a giant frog who quotes Dostoevsky, Conrad and Nietzsche and solicits help to wage war against a worm that is threatening to destroy Tokyo with an earthquake.
The learned amphibian explains his choice of Mr Katagiri as saviour:
“…To be quite honest…you are nothing much to look at, and you are far from eloquent, so you tend to be looked down upon by those around you.
I, however, can see what a sensible and courageous man you are.”
Mr Katagiri might be a fitting mascot for Japan’s serenely troubled people today.