I was riding the train to my internship on Friday morning when I crossed over the Charles River and saw the Boston skyline.
Buildings alongside the river
Through the train’s windows
I am interested to find out how the two main concepts of this course, evanescence and form, (Lecture, 1/16) apply to every aspect of Japanese culture. For example, I enjoyed the connection between Japanese poetry and baseball (Inouye, 15). Form dominates both. Making connections like this will be an integral part of learning about Japanese culture as well as I can. There are things I agree with. For example, I agree that sadness is a beautiful thing (Lecture, 1/23). My favorite films all have incredibly sad endings, but there is something that is so beautiful about it and I am keen to learn more about how Japanese culture frames this idea. While learning about kami (Kitagawa, 44), my favorite aspect of religion in Japan is that “the past, present, and future [are] not mutually exclusive” (Kitagawa, 54). This is a difficult idea to grasp. My interpretation is that our lives are an amalgamation of the cycle that our ancestors have lived through and we endure every day. I suggest that this is because of the nature of evanescence and form and how the paradox of these two ideas blends together our past, present, and future.
The other night I was walking by the football field late at night and saw the snowfall blowing in front of the field lights.
Against stadium lights
Welcome the night’s silence
We began our discussion of Japanese culture with two key terms—evanescence and form. These concepts seem to contradict one another at first glance. Evanescence, known as hakanasa or mujō in Japanese, pertains to the ever-changing, impermanent world, where all things come and go, sometimes for only a fleeting second. On the other hand, actions and behaviors, particularly in Japan, have a special form associated with them. When you enter a house or a school, you take off your shoes; when you write a haiku or tanka, you make sure to write only the correct number of syllables in each line. Combining evanescence and form yields a world that constantly changes in the exact same way. We learned that classical Japanese poets often used the epithet of the cicada shell (utsusemi) in their poetry to embody this dichotomy (Inouye lecture 1/23). Similarly, our class talked about how most Japanese people believe in fundamentally animistic principles. When a person feels that a particular tree produces an emotional response in them, they might wrap a shimenawa rope around its trunk to declare that tree as sacred. We made the important distinction that “in early Japan…symbols were not understood symbolically” (Kitagawa, 45). That is to say that the sanctified tree does not point to the heavens or glorify an idea in another realm, rather the tree presents itself as sacred. I found it particularly interesting to think about the influence of Buddhism and Confucianism in Japan as another example of matching the fleeting world with repetitive forms (Inouye text, 18). Coming into this course, I assumed we would be talking about Japanese pop culture, food preferences, and other seemingly cultural characteristics, but I think I can buy into how evanescence and form will impact those aspects of Japanese culture. Instead I leave class tired from a mental workout. Who knows how this semester will go? It was only the first week.
The epithet of the cicada shell, or utsusemi, seamlessly combines evanescence and form.
Name: Min Zhong
On my way home, snow fell on my palm and vanished.
Blue clear night,
White crystal snow,
Vanished without a trace
In the first week of class, professor Inouye showed us a haiku example written by a former student.
A towering tree –
This Haiku only has three lines of five or seven syllables, but it secretly grasped my feelings. Through these simple words, I could experience the moment that the author tried to create. I felt slightly sad and this sadness was subtle, personal and indescribable. I wondered how these simple words create resonance with readers. Human being and nature are naturally connected. The feelings that images associated with are universally consistent. Cherry blossoms represent spring and snow is for winter. We “understand” the author “because we visualize the moment of the poem’s creation” (Evanescence and Form). Building a connection with the nature might be a first step to understand Japanese Waka and its culture.
Name: Ge Cui
Class:[JPN061] Intro Japanese Culture
Professor: Charles Inouye
Week 1: The secret of Winter
I was walking to Cohen Auditorium at 9 in the January morning when my breath steamed in the air and soon vanished.
Words, laughs, and sighs.
Where did they go?
All in the cloud.
“In spring the cherry blossoms” (Lecture 1) was the first “fact” I got to learn about Japanese culture from the class. I still remember in my high school senior year when my family decided to travel in Japan, all we worried was when the cherry blossoms would be open. We checked Japan weather report and read online analysis everyday. It was all because the flower only opens a week long per year. And when we finally arrived and watched them falling gradually from the branches like a pink rain, my world just slowed down all in a sudden. I actually love it when Professor Inouye told us that the whole semester we would be talking about “evanescence and form”. It is really interesting how the whole content of a culture can be generalized within two basic phenomena. “Evanescent – brief, fleeting, ever-changing, unpredictable, and fragile”(Inouye 1) as the cherry blossoms, “dying at the hight of their beauty”(Inouye 2). There is no permanence and everything is changing. But they either change in a certain way or remain something unchanging while changing. It looks familiar to me by reminding me of human’s heredity and variation. If we realize how many different individuals are in this world, we understand how genes never stop changing. But all the genes are listing in a certain order in the DNAs, and forming proteins in a certain way. That’s why most of us have one dead, two eyes, one mouth, and four extremities. Chinese media have always been talking about how Japanese people build the “sense of crisis” into each generation. Now I understand it as the “earthquakes, volcanoes, seasons, utsusemi, and cherry blossoms” taught Japanese people that anything can happen to anyone at anytime-nothing lasts forever. We can’t control them, so we should cherish them. And the “form” works as the paths we walk on in the chaos so we won’t get lost. Evanescence and form sound like two opposite words, but without either both of them might just lose the meaning.
Crossing the Charles River Friday evening on the Red Line.
City lights –
The frosty river.
How is it that evanescence and form – two seemingly opposite concepts – came to be two of the most central elements of Japanese culture? The tension that exists between the two seems to be inherent. (Inouye 1) Is it an attempt by society to impose order on the ever changing world that it observes around it to make sense of it? Or is it based on an acute awareness of the constant forms that exist in the world, even one constantly in flux? I have yet to decide. The imposition of form on seemingly everything in Japan is apparent upon arrival – the ubiquitous uniforms, the bowing (with the angle of the bow depending on the circumstance), and the clear divisions of space demarcated only by lines (sometimes invisible). Hierarchical form can even be observed in the Japanese language (which is fluid and alive) – the nuances of which take much time and work to grasp as a foreigner. (Lecture 2/16) The discussion of mujō – impermanence – in class reminded me of what my mother says every time I tell her about some human tragedy. She would simply sigh and say something to the effect of such is life –無常 (wúcháng – in Mandarin) . On another note, the statement by Kitagawa that the native Japanese religious tradition is based on a nation-centered perspective as opposed to a universal one is interesting. (Kitagawa 52). I wonder how it plays into the theories of nihonjinron that would arise later in history and the navel-gazing that Japan is often criticized for in the international press.
First, About the lyrical moment:
I was walking to Lane Hall on Thursday afternoon and saw an ice cream cone lying on the street elegantly.
An ice cream cone
Lying on the street, unmelted
Like a pale new born baby
We talked about utsusemi and animism last week, and the reading for this week focused more on the ideas of hakanasa and a Buddhist world view of impermanence (mujo). Personally, the past experience of being in love as a whole can be summarized as hakanasa. As for the feelings of love, both beginning and ending are uncontrollable, changeable and fleeting. (Inouye27) It disappears so fast and thoroughly that I started to doubt the thing called love actually never existed, and the whole experience of being in love is nothing but a sweet illusion. Shift from hakanasa, Mujo is a broader concept of impermanence that permeates every aspect of life, from dreamlike affection to unreliable human relations (Inouye 31). This Buddhist interpretation of reality explains and provides a solution to our frustrations and sufferings in life. A rather simple takeaway from the readings is that since everything is impermanent, the desire and effort to pursue them will give us frustration sooner or later, and the only way to free ourselves is to stop relying on those external things to reach reality and start to accept whatever life has to offer.
Thinking about Cicadas
By Songwha Choi
When I was on my way home in cold weather, I realized that many trees in my garden already had lost their leaves.
Garden trees without leaves
Winter’s withered trees
With having a snowstorm
In our class, we are going to discuss about “evanescence and form.” (Inouye 1) Since I was young, I have been curious about these ideas. As an Asian student, when I was in high school, I learned about those two concepts. However, I want to explore them in more detail from our class. Change is balanced by “shape” (kata) to the evanescence. (Inouye 7) It is hard to understand because I have never heard of the idea. According to Professor Inouye, Utsusemi is the essence of change. This image is the Japanese world view. He said that “nothing is permanent, and nothing lasts forever!” That idea makes me take some time for introspection. If everything changes, my life also is limited, but I would not like to think this in a pessimistic way. The poem by Otomo makes me understand Japanese sadness. It is not a bad thing, but rather positive and beautiful. (Lecture 1/23) Even though our lives are fragile or unpredictable, we can be contingent to overcome our weaknesses. Nothing is permanent in this wicked world-not even our troubles. (Charlie Chaplin) I think that after finishing this class, I would have learned a lot and become more insightful in my life.
By Nina Watts
I was standing out in the clump of trees behind Latin Way one night when I looked up at the sky.
Cold wind blows
Bare tree branches sway
Moon shines through the clouds
So far this course is much more philosophical than I expected it to be and I like it. I thought the course would be more focused on the external rather than the core of Japanese philosophy. I love the fact that we’re starting with the idea of evanescence and form. In order to understand a culture, the central philosophy on which it was built is essential. I find the idea of evanescence and form beautiful because of its truth. Everything is always changing, but there is some kind of pattern to the change. This is also a somewhat dark philosophy, because how can something like true love exist when everything, including yourself, is changing? There is a lot to think about concerning the idea. My favorite expression of the concept occurred in the explanation of earthquake-proof buildings in Tokyo: “Rigidity invites disaster. Flexibility enhances survival” (Inouye 6). I assume that we’ll be spending time building upon this foundation, but even then, how can one really understand a culture without living it? Professor Inouye addressed this on the first day of class and I really appreciated that insight.
By Julia Russell
In the late afternoon I opened the shade in my room in Lewis Hall, which faces off campus toward Davis Square, just in time to catch the last few moments of the sunset over Somerville.
The sun’s descent—
Silhouettes of rooftops and trees,
Birds fly in the distance.
I can easily see evanescence and form as two separate ideas: evanescence, hakanasa, is the concept of constant change, while form, kata, is the practice of routine, giving regularity to our unstable world (Lecture 1). I understand how this manifests itself in nature; “In spring, the dawn is most beautiful…In winter, I like early mornings” (Shōnagon 11:63, as cited in Inouye 7). Emphasizing elements of each season demonstrates the consistency of the way things change. I’m impressed by how there can be such a “cultural consensus” (Inouye 15) on a single image’s interpretation. Where I was/am a bit confused is how this concept of “the form of evanescence” (Inouye 14) transfers over to the human world and day-to-day life. I can see some connection with the “non-symbolic” quality of animism (Lecture 1). A lack of metaphor makes the spiritual world more tangible, suggesting that we are a part of it, rather than outsiders looking in on the divine, as in Christianity, for example. There is an understanding of “participation” in the natural world, as well as the natural world’s role in our lives (Kitagawa, 48). There is no “distance” between humans and the natural world in ancient poetry (Inouye, 25), and I guess this idea has evolved as part of the modern mindset. So the evanescence and form, and the specific “form of evanescence” (Inouye 14) easily observable in our environment holds a highly personal relevance because we are not really observing it, we are a part of it. This makes tentative logical sense to me, for now.
Nothing the week
The idea of evanescence and form, or structure, in Japanese culture has been somewhat confusing for me. I guess the only way that I understand the concept is through the line, “In Japan, formality affirms the potential chaos of evanescence..” (Inouye 1). To me this seems to say that the relationship between evanescence and form is a balancing act of sorts. The way I understand it is that the Japanese embrace the “fleeting …unpredictable” nature of life and counteract the lack of control they have over things with rigorous form and tradition. I also had some difficulty understanding the concept of animism. I only came to fully understand the “non symbolic readings of symbols” (lecture 1/24) when I spoke to professor Inouye after class. The way I came to understand it is that a cross is a symbol the represents Christianity whereas a sacred tree does not represent anything other than itself. The tree is sacred; it is not representing something greater than itself. Being a Catholic this concept is very foreign to me because nearly everything in Catholicism is representing God, Jesus, or something of greater importance.