Like no other land on Earth Japan is steeped in ritual and tradition going back many centuries. From the practice of bowing to superiors, elders, strangers to whom you are introduced; the depth of the bow being precisely regulated: the extending of courtesy to strangers: the complex codes of gift-giving and receiving where the value of the gift, both in value and in meaning must be calculated by very specific rules, Japan embraces a social order and harmony that is found nowhere else.
More than 90 per cent of Japanese identify themselves as following the religion of Shinto but in fact, Japanese life is governed by a mixture of Shinto, Buddhism and Confucianism. At the very heart of all Japanese custom and ritual is the strange, to western eyes, concept of wabi-sabi. Impossible to translate accurately this means that nothing is perfect and though one might strive for perfection it can never be attained.
So ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging cannot be symmetrical or show flowers in regimented order. Bonsai, the painstaking art of cultivating tiny miniature trees will always include some dead or bare branches; the small cups in which tea is served in the tea ceremony will deliberately be created with visible imperfections; why they almost worship Mount Fuji which is almost (but not quite) a perfectly conical long-dead volcano.
A curious form of this in Japan is Kintsugi or ‘the repairing of cracks.’ This may be practiced with anything but is mostly used in the repair of broken pottery and ceramics. Broken pieces are not repaired so that the cracks are invisible but in gold so that the breaks may be seen. The idea is that, as in life, something which is put back together is more beautiful, more valuable than before it was broken.
The Japanese have so many different paths to happiness, or to tranquility, it is difficult to know where to start and that is why in this, our 12th edition of this series I will write about only one country instead of two.
The quest to be one with nature is of prime importance to the Japanese. What is in the west, simply a walk in the woods becomes almost a spiritual exercise. Find a quiet spot off the beaten track and focus on a particular tree or the view of the sky through its branches. Be silent and recognize that you are a part of nature. The apotheosis of this worship of nature comes in the Spring when the cherry trees burst into life. Then the Japanese flock in their thousands to the temples, the gardens, the lakes and rivers to see the cherry blossom. For them, it signifies the beauty but also the fragility of life.
Another place where the Japanese go to enjoy peace and tranquility is to formal Japanese gardens. These must have stones and gravel or sand, water, either in a lake or a fountain. Should the water contain Koi fish, Japanese carp, so much the better, but it should also be crossed by a stylized bridge and should contain at least one stone lantern. The garden cannot be symmetrical, again incorporating the idea of wabi-sabi, but it also symbolizes again the fragility of existence, the unstoppable advance of time.
The many islands of Japan are part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, an area of intense volcanic activity and this has given rise to the thousands of onsen or Japanese hot springs. These public or private places are to gather and to steep in the hot waters quietly, in contemplation. No one is allowed to enter the water without a thorough scrubbing and soaping, bathing suits are not allowed, neither are tattoos that may symbolize membership of the Yakuza, the Japanese gangs.
The Japanese pleasure in ritual, in ceremony is evident in the noh theatre, the classical art of drama and dance; the geisha girl symbolizing ultimate beauty and style, origami, the art of paper-folding to make exquisite yet ephemeral objects such as crane birds; the creation of exquisite lacquerware, painstaking calligraphy or even in Japan’s national sport, sumo wrestling where the ritual can take up to half an hour, the fight itself be over in a few seconds.
Then there is the tea ceremony, originating in Japan but stylized by the Japanese into the most exquisite and demanding of all rituals. The room itself should be formally designed, the perfect width being that of four and a half tatami mats. On the wall a scroll carrying some well-known Shinto saying; separate entrances for the guests and the host. The equipment is carefully crafted from the finest bamboo, the tea bowls deep or shallow according to the season, some of them four hundred years old. The guests must be properly dressed (no footwear of course) the powdered tea the finest to be found. The ceremony can last for four hours.
The Japanese scholar Okakura Kakuzo wrote in 1906 in The Book of Tea: ‘It (the tea ceremony) insulates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order. It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.’
The work ethic in Japan is exceptionally strong, many Japanese preferring not to retire but to continue working, yet the life expectancy in Japan is one of the longest in the world. Perhaps from the permanent seeking for quiet and contemplation, the recognition of the transience of life, the knowledge that the broken can not only be made whole but be made better: to seek for perfection in the full knowledge that it can never be attained.