What Makes Japan Unique?
Heroic Samurai, Beautiful Geisha and Zen Philosophers
The Culture of Japan
What makes Japan unique? Partly, it is the romantic tradition of its heroic Samurai, beautiful Geisha and Zen philosophers. It is the striking art, Kabuki theater and serene gardens. But, especially, it is the culture of Japan, where everything suggests as well as represents, and less is considered more.
Japan, the Land of the Rising Sun, is a nation made up of over three thousand islands in the Pacific Ocean. Much of the country is mountainous and volcanic, including Japan’s highest peak, Mount Fuji. Greater Tokyo, with more than 30 million people, is the largest metropolitan area in the world. The Japanese population, half that of the US, lives in an area smaller than California.
In 1639, the shogunate rulers began a policy of isolation which kept out almost all ships from the western world. This isolation lasted about 250 years, and allowed the unique Japanese culture, traditions and arts to develop without western influence.
Japanese traditional arts are too lovely to be left behind in the rush of the 21st century. As Japan moves forward, technologically and economically, the memories of picturesque teahouses and thatched roofs are still cherished. Knowledge of the traditional arts and customs, such as the tea ceremony, flower arrangement and bonsai, sumo wrestling and the martial arts, and performing theater like Kabuki and Noh, enhances our understanding of Japan. Other traditions and customs include the soaking bath, the simple outdoor group dance called Bon-Odori, origami paper folding, bonsai, woodblock prints, painted folding screens, and decorated pottery and porcelain.
In contrast to the public world of modern skyscrapers and flashing neon signs, Japanese private life is still very reserved. Homes have quiet and uncluttered rooms. Traditional artistic design is simple and minimalist. In Japanese culture, art and literature, less is often considered more.
The koto is a very popular stringed instrument that was introduced in the ninth and tenth centuries. A Japanese legend says that the koto was originally formed in the shape of a crouching dragon, a charmed and mythical creature of ancient Japan and China. The thirteen strings of the koto are stretched along a soundboard of nearly two meters made of hollowed-out paulownia timber. The koto is one of the most popular Japanese traditional music instruments, with a sound that suggests a harp, dulcimer or lute. Koto music is highly symbolic and evocative of traditional Japan.
The Japanese tea ceremony, sado, the code of etiquette for taking tea, began in Zen monasteries during the 14th century. It is a traditional ritual in which powdered green tea is ceremonially prepared by a skilled practitioner and served to a small group of guests in a tranquil setting.
Of course, a tea practitioner must be familiar with types of tea and its preparation . But the tea ceremony also requires knowledge of the kimono, calligraphy, flower arranging, ceramics, incense and a wide range of other disciplines. There are various schools of thought about the rituals to be used in the tea ceremony. The study of the tea ceremony takes many years, even a lifetime. Even to participate as a guest in a formal tea ceremony requires knowing what gestures and phrases are expected, the proper way to take tea and sweets, and general deportment in the tearoom.
The geisha tradition evolved from the court jesters, and, originally, geisha were all male. Gradually, geisha became a woman’s role. The geisha were trained from girlhood in the arts of performance and entertainment. They are famous for traditional skills like music, dancing, singing, games and conversation. The traditional costume is lavish, with whitened face, brilliant makeup, high black wig, and precious hand-painted kimono. Historically, girls were forced into training for geisha, while they worked as servants in a house of a geisha. Today the position of geisha is voluntarily chosen. In modern Japan geisha are rarely seen now.
The geisha was hired as a hostess or companion by men of means, to appear at teahouses or traditional restaurants. The customer made arrangements through the call-office, which kept each geisha's schedule and made her appointments both for entertaining and for training. The geisha’s time was measured in incense sticks and is called “incense stick fee", or flower fees, or jewel fees.
The spellbinding movie, “Memoirs of a Geisha”, based on the novel by Arthur Golden, recaptures the mysterious and exotic world of the geisha. Set in the years before WWII, it tells the story of a penniless Japanese child who was sold by her family to work as a maid in a geisha house. Despite a treacherous rival who nearly broke her spirit, the girl blossomed into the legendary geisha named Sayuri. Beautiful and accomplished, Sayuri captivated the most powerful men of her day, but was haunted by her secret love.
The haiku is a short three-line poem with exactly 17 syllables. The subject of a haiku (pronounced "high-koo") is often a moment in time when Nature becomes part of the human experience. The poem is written simply, so that the reader can enter and share its moment. The famous haiku poets from the 17th century, Basho, Buson, and Issa are still read and studied today. Translators are not always able to preserve their meaning with exactly 17 syllables. Here are a few samples:
|because there is no rice|
for the bowl…
we shall use flowers. – Issa
all in a row
on tatami mats...
moon gazing - Issa, the Full Moon party
At the ancient pond
a frog plunges into
the sound of water - Basho
Traditional Japanese drums are known as taiko or wadaiko drums. Japanese drums are large, booming instruments, played with sticks by a standing drummer. The original concept for the large drums came from China over 1,000 years ago. Drums are manufactured from a single piece of wood from the trunk of a very large zelkova tree, and cowhide is used for the drum head. A performance with a dozen such drums is impressive, intense and highly rhythmic.
The kimono is a traditional form of clothing worn by Japanese women and men, a long, loose, wraparound gown belted at the waist with an obi. In recent decades, the Japanese have found Western dress more practical than the traditional Japanese kimono. However, the kimono is still worn for the tea ceremony and family weddings in the Shinto tradition. The best of these are collectors items, hand-painted on silk and displayed in the home, the kimono as a wall-hanging, and the obi as a table runner.
The Samurai warrior tradition developed between the 7th and 14th centuries. In pre-industrial Japan, samurai were warrior nobility rather than foot soldiers. Samurai were expected to be cultured and literate, and over time gradually lost their military function. Samurai essentially became civilian bureaucrats for the royalty, with their swords only a ceremonial item. During the reforms of the Meiji period in the late 19th century, the samurai were abolished in favor of a western-style national army. However, the strict code that they followed, called bushido, and aspects of the Samurai way of life still survive in present-day Japan. Tom Cruise in "The Last Samurai" recaptured the way of the Samurai on film.
Gardening is one of the traditional arts of Japan. Imagine a footpath of stones leading across a still lake with Koi fish swimming under fallen cherry blossoms. There might be a stone lantern on a bed of moss at water’s edge, and a bank of flowering azaleas. The still black pine adds an architectural feature, along with an arbor and a teahouse. The Japanese garden might also include a half-moon bridge, painted red and leading across a gully.
The Ryoan-ji Temple garden is a famous example of Zen art, and many say it is the greatest masterpiece of Japanese culture. Surrounded by low walls, it is a dry landscape garden, a serene arrangement of fifteen rocks sitting on a bed of raked white gravel. Plants, water or other distractions are absent. It is a minimalist presentation that inspires contemplation and focuses the mind. The carving on a stone basin nearby says, “I learn only to be contented.”
In Japan, the brush was used as the writing tool, and the rendering of words in flowing brush strokes is a traditional art form. The art can consist of phrases, poems, stories, or even single characters. The act of creating calligraphy is considered as much an art as the pictures themselves, and it can take over one hundred repetitions of a brush stroke to produce the desired effect of a single character.
Ikebana, Japanese flower arranging, dates back to the 14th century and is famous worldwide as one of the traditional arts of Japan. There are many rules to follow. The flowers are chosen to symbolize the earth, water and sky, with a focus on harmony, color, rhythm, and elegantly simple design. Strikingly unique and stylized arrangements include the vase, stones, and water, as well as plant material, in the artistic composition.
Wabi Sabi is the art and practice of honoring the imperfect. It recognizes the beauty that comes to all things with age and wear. Wabi Sabi celebrates the cracked pot, the worn desk, the wrinkled skin. Wabi means "the humble," and Sabi, "the beauty of the natural progression of time." Wabi Sabi turns away from the frantic pursuit of perfection in order to appreciate the simple, unaffected beauty of things as they are. It is calming to learn to accept and cherish timeworn things.
These Japanese traditions, and many more besides, have been adopted by non-Japanese around the world to enrich their lives.
It's time to say Sayonara (sa-YOH-nah-rah, which means “goodbye”).
I hope life brings you much success. I wish you a very happy day.
----- Surfer Sam
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