Archive for the japanese concepts Category

We Japanese are not philosophers

Posted in japanese concepts with tags , , on November 7, 2010 by mikele

A quite poignant quote from May’s book “Atomic Sushi” (that I talked about in a previous post). The author is talking to his japanese host about the reasons for being a philosopher in modern Japan (p.148-149):

“We Japanese are not philosophers,” he conceded proudly. “We have our philosophy, of course; but we prefer not to speak about it.”

I agreed with this wholeheartedly: “You don’t need to spell out your philosophy unless your roots are endangered, unless the question of your identity becomes a conscious, live problem.”

“Like the Jews,” he said, without a trace of anti-Semitism.

“Yes. In the West we are all becoming Jews,” I replied, tongue-in-cheek.

“You are right, May-san. We Japanese do not need philosophy. We are still racially-pure. Perhaps we are the last racially-pure people.”

I found this a shocking gloss on my point, and yet the way he said it was too “innocent” to be sinister. Japan must be the only nation in the world where a blut-und-bloden – blood-and-soil – mythology is openly voiced in an inoffensive, even naive, way. People don’t seem to associate it with Nazi evil, or with names like Auschwitz.

“But if we are forced to accept more foreign influence, then we will need more philosophy,” he persisted, warming to the theme. “Foreigners will endanger our identity. Then we will import their philosophy in order to regain the identity they destroyed.” He grinned with satisfaction as he drew his conclusions: “Foreigners will try to cure the disease they cause to us. But the cure will simply lead to further disease.”

Book: Atomic Sushi

Posted in japanese concepts with tags , on June 27, 2010 by mikele


Here’s a book [see it on Amazon] I’d advice people to read before going to Japan (or after they’ve been there, like I did). Funny but at the same time very pungent and insightful, in the way it depicts many typical aspects of the Japanese society.

Simon May is (among other things) a philosopher.. that’s probably why I enjoyed the book so much. You constantly have the feeling that underneath the often lighthearted tone of the jokes and weird situations May describes in the book lies a much deeper knowledge of eastern world’s theories and ideas…

But I’m still half-way through it so maybe I’ll have more to say when I’m finished!

The Daruma Doll

Posted in japanese concepts with tags , , on April 30, 2010 by mikele


Nanakorobi yaoki, jinsei wa kore kara da…

[To fall seven times, to rise eight times, life starts from now…]

Named after an ancient Chinese Zen Master, Bodidharma, who lost the use of his arms and legs after sitting nine years meditating in a cave, the Daruma Doll is a symbol of his self-discipline and positive outlook. Its weighted bottom and rounded shape forces this ancient cultural doll to right itself after being knocked over, teaching us to be dedicated and persistent and symbolizing our recoveries from misfortune.

The Daruma doll comes with both eyes blank. Upon purchasing or receiving it as a gift, you paint one eye and make a wish or begin a new project. The second eye is painted when the wish comes true or the project is completed.

Daruma burning:

At the end of the year, all the Daruma are brought back to the temple they were purchased from for a traditional burning ceremony..[22] This ceremony, called the Daruma Kuyo (だるま供養 daruma kuyo?) is held once a year usually right after New Years Day. The most renowned of these events are held at the Nishi-Arai Daishi Temple (Tokyo), and the Dairyu-ji Temple (Gifu). At these events, people bring the Daruma figures they had used that year to the temple. After expressing gratitude to them, they turn it over to the temple and buy new ones for the next year. All of the old Daruma figures are burnt together in the temple. After a solemn display of the monks’ entry, reading of the sutras, and blowing of horns, the tens of thousands of figurines are then set aflame.

A useful survival guide..

Posted in japanese concepts with tags , on March 27, 2010 by mikele

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My brother gave me this book before I left for Japan, and I can say it’s been quite an inspired gift! [check it out on amazon]

Kenson / Kenkyo [=Modesty]

Posted in japanese concepts with tags on February 22, 2010 by mikele

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The word

The Japanese word kenson translates as “humble, modest” and is composed by two kanji signs, the first one (read ken) meaning “humble, modest” and the second one (read son) meaning “humble, modest”.

Japanese people are very modest, it’s something which is deeply rooted in their culture and that constitutes a remarkable point of difference with our western culture (probably even more with american culture).

Being modest means that you’d never boast yourself about anything; rather, you’d be more inclined to claiming that you’re less that what you really are. A social interaction based on this paradigm is likely to become a reciprocal race aiming at who can show more modesty. This mind frame generates various problems: imagine for example a job interview, where you’re supposed to be ‘selling’ yourself. How could you do that if culture forbids you from showing off your skills a bit?
Quite interestingly, what I hear from my colleagues is that job interviews are a relatively new thing in japan. The process of westernization has made it a common thing to do, but still some japanese wouldn’t find themselves comfortable in such a role. Samurais didn’t do job interviews, apparently!


An example of cultural modesty my colleagues brought up is that when they’re talking to me, they’re dropping the usual ‘appellations’ they’d normally use when talking among themselves (e.g. ‘professor’ or ‘sensei’). So they just call themselves by surname (despite their differences in ranking) as a way to make me feel more comfortable, that is, as an attempt to be very polite to me. The underlying assumption is that I would feel somehow distressed by being in a situation where certain people are higher than me in the social scale. So, with an act of respect and kindness, japanese people ‘lower‘ themselves to a position that normally wouldn’t be theirs.

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Another example is the gift-giving ‘ceremony’: the proper form to do this is by denigrating your gift, saying that it’s just a small and invaluable thing irrespectively of how valuable your gift is in reality. And all of this, cause being modest is the way. Praising or describing the positive features of the gift, as we would normally do in italy or britain, would be considered vain or maybe even rude. By the way, the exact gift-giving formula is “tsumaranai mono desu ga” (it’s nothing, really).

A related example, they claimed, can be the one of the samurai who, when in public, apparently mistreats his wife by not giving her any attention. By doing so he ‘lowers’ her partner (and I guess japanese would say that in doing that he’s lowering himself too), thus making the other people present more at ease.
There must be also some sort of soldier-related machismo involved in such a situation, but I still haven’t figure how what’s the interplay between the two attitudes there!

Other material

To conclude, I found an interesting essay on the subject (Kenkyo: The Virtue of Modesty in Japan), written by someone who lived in Japan for a while. Nice read, here’s a small excerpt:

One of my greatest pleasures is giving gifts, and in Japan I am often presented with the opportunity to indulge myself. The proper form when giving a gift to someone, however, is to humble oneself and denigrate the gift, saying “tsumaranai mono desu ga”—which we might translate as “this is only a trifle” or “it’s nothing, really.” And yet, despite knowing this, I still sometimes cannot hide a smile when presenting someone with a gift! I suppose it is vanity, or something vaguely “cultural” that makes me feel a sense of satisfaction in selecting and giving nice gifts to others, but for whatever reason, I have difficulty concealing my enthusiasm and restraining myself.

This can lead to confusion, of course, and naturally such misunderstandings can run both ways. For example, whenever I mention Paris Hilton in class (a mercifully rare event), I am usually reminded by at least one student of a visit she paid to Japan a few years ago, promoting something or other, in which she disdainfully tossed aside a stuffed animal that she had been given at the start of an interview. As one might expect, the Japanese media was not impressed with her attitude, but I wonder if she had been told, through an interpreter, something like “this is nothing, really” or “this is just a cheap doll, but…” Normally, I’m not one to defend such vanity, but I often think that Japanese humility can be excessive and, for an outsider, downright confusing.