I took part in a study tour (community learning tour) to Izu peninsula, south of Tokyo, together with 26 other participants. I was invited by a friend, whose grandfather happens to be Hirohiko Okano, a 90 year old veteran in Japanese literature and poems. He was formally recognized by the country and accredited for his distinguished services to Japanese culture and literature.
In the greatest of ironies, when I came to Japan, I entered an “international” faculty where most of the Japanese students had a global mindset. I did not have much opportunities to talk to my Japanese friends about Japan itself, rather, we all seemed to be more interested in the globalized world. Why keep reminiscing about the good old days when the world is advancing forth?
However, this tour gave me fresh perspectives. For the first time in the 6 years I have been living in Japan, I was engaged in interesting discussions with the Japanese, about the roots of Japan, how they have changed, and what would become of Japan. Perhaps, before we look forth and move on, we should remind ourselves of what created us and our identity, and what we should bring with us into the next era.
Culture changes inevitably, but if we were to lose the essence of its origin, the whole culture would disappear into the periphery, overwhelmed by the “global culture”.
Okano sensei, 90 years old, spoke with some extraordinary conviction and power that was quite unbelievable for his age. He is a Japanese poet, with many tanka, haiku and literature works winning various awards.
He says that tanka (traditional Japanese poems) carries the essence of Japanese thinking, spirit and language. He also brought up various examples to exemplify his notion, including the relations to Japanese history and religion (two fields which I am not very knowledgeable about, hence did not quite understand his points). Nevertheless, I understood his point about how the poems carry the Japanese essence.
Haiku poems have various rules- number of syllabus per line, a certain tempo rhythm, the inclusion of seasonal phrases, and specific themes for specific lines. The first lines usually talk about geography of the land, whereas the following lines should hint of emotional expressions.
I felt that this was something very uniquely Japanese.
Haiku poems (and other forms of Japanese poems) comprise of two broad aspects: the natural theme (geography of the land and seasons), and the humane theme (phonetics and emotions). Human and nature are perfectly blended together to form a literary poem.
Moreover, in another form of Japanese poem “renga” (literally translated as “joint poems”), it is created by multiple poets/ participants. A person starts with the first lines, and the next person has to come up with the next few lines that match the themes. This goes on and on until it becomes a complete series.
The collaboration between multiple poets that creates one literary piece. The cooperation between people and the blending with nature are indeed the true essences of the Japanese spirit. The world saw the calmness and cooperation of the Japanese after the fatal disaster in March 2011. They probably came a long way in history, in various forms including that of poems. The art of coexisting with nature and helping each other did not appear from anywhere. They came from a valued tradition in Japanese history.
Unfortunately, Japanese poems, together with classical Japanese rapidly declined after the defeat at World War Two. Okano Sensei attributed the decline of the Japanese spirit to the disappearance of the classical poems and the rich language and philosophy that they carried. Indeed, although Japanese schools nowadays still do teach classical Japanese, but they are mere subjects part of the school curriculum, and are void of the rich culture and philosophy.
Of course, I don’t think this problem is faced only by Japan. In many other countries, including Singapore, we are no longer capable of producing the classic literature, poems or even understanding them anymore.
However, some came up with the idea that classical poems are a medium of philosophy. They carry the philosophy with it, but as time changes in the globalized society, the medium might change. Our job is to make sure the philosophy behind it remains. The unfortunate thing is that, both the poems (medium) and its philosophy are not being properly taught in today’s schools.
To elaborate on that, the philosophy of “coexisting with nature” and “helping each other” actually exists apart from the “renga” (joint poems) mentioned above. There is a culture of interdependent living in the mountains called the “satoyama” culture. It basically means a village in the mountains. I see this as something similar to the kampung culture in Malaysia/ Singapore. (I guess this does not really apply to China villages since they are all part of the government.)
Satoyama culture still exists today in Japan, as we see how each city and town treasure their own characteristics and culture. They depended on each other for a living (exchanging agricultural products and cattle) in the past, and as times changed, they work together to produce an identity that helps the town’s economy.
Not only do the people in a village help each other, the villages in the country are always ready to lend a hand to each other too, as we have seen from the disasters that happened.
Japan is an isolated country, with (virtually) a homogenous population. Perhaps due to this, they never needed to “emphasize on their identity and tradition”, unlike the United States of America or the countries in Europe that were constantly surrounded by foreign cultures.
The “western countries” had to create their identity using words and easily understandable concepts to bring out the identity and integrity in their people. On the other hand, the Japanese all knew about their own culture and did not see the need to clarify what their tradition is all about.
After World War Two, when Japan declined for a while, in came the foreign “western” cultures that were easily understood, with themes like “freedom”, “democracy”, “justice” etc. On the other hand, the falling Japanese culture could not find a word to express their “ambiguous” culture.
As a result, many of the young Japanese, without a clear idea what their own identity was, became influenced by foreign cultures. Together with the disappearance of the mediums such as Japanese poems and classical Japanese, the philosophy was suddenly lost in a short span of time.
Okano Sensei told the younger generations of Japanese, “you are probably the last generation that can bring the good old traditions to the next generation”. This probably applies to many other countries too, including my own.
Perhaps it is time to reflect on our roots, and take some of these philosophy and traditions to the next era, before they are all gone for good.