by Benjamin deButts
I was reading on a bench near the prez lawn when there was a strong breeze.
A gust disturbs
Moments later, gone
This past week in Japanese culture the focus was mostly on what we are going to learn—obviously evanescence and form being the focus. Both play a fundamental role in the culture of Japan and I think so far have fit nicely into what I knew of Japan beforehand. In visiting Japan, the most striking difference to me was definitely the formality of everything, the great example being the Japanese Railway man politely asking the drunken businessman: “Honorable Passenger. Are you getting on? Or are you getting off? (Inouye, 3). We learn that this formality can be traced far back into the roots of Japan when Confucianism made it’s way to the island, stressing the importance of “order and hierarchy” (Inouye, 18). Buddhism, too, reached the island where the Chinese word, mujo, came to signify the impermanence of things (Inouye, 22). In a place that was already fascinated with the transience of life (as evidenced by the Man’yoshu’s use of utsusemi, or cicada shell), the Japanese were quick to adapt their previous experiences to this new culture (Inouye, 23). Thus ancient Japan coalesced all these influences into a pretty interesting outlook of a chaotic world. I particularly like the “localness” and “non-symbolic understanding of symbols” Kitagawa describes. I think what really attracts me to it is the appreciation and closeness to nature. Here in America, there are naturalists and fanciful nature writers sure, but nature isn’t quite as embedded in our language, history, (and soul?) as Japan. The simplicity of marking a part of nature with a rope to designate its sacredness is something I find really beautiful.
By Laura Sabia
Unable to sleep, I waited alone through the first hours of the morning in the guest bedroom of my friend’s house in New Jersey.
I lie awake-
New day’s first light
Breaks through my window
We begin the semester with a major contradiction, one that will remain with us throughout our study of Japanese culture. Professor Inouye tells us that the main object of our studies will be to understand this paradox: the interaction of form and flux (Inouye 2) or “evanescence and form” (Lecture 1/16). Evanescence (hakanasa and mujo) is the concept that “all things [change] all the time.” (Inouye 17) Form (kata) refers to a certain shape or pattern of all things in life (Lecture 1/16). The intersection of these two elements leaves us with a bit of an oxymoron- organized chaos? I can’t say this is idea is easily grasped, but nonetheless, I like it. The Japanese have basic conclusions about reality: that the world is both restrictive- filled with rules and obligations- and fleeting. (Inouye 22) I can’t help but feel a little frustrated about all this. On one hand, I’m anxious to run through life trying to take everything in, but on the other hand I’m held back by the molasses that is ‘form’. Maddening to be sure. So how to make manifest an intimate relationship with the world while remaining within the boundaries of form? Challenging. The Japanese attempt by writing waka: brief, lyrical poems about direct experience in the world. (Lecture 1/23) I’m thrilled with this idea, although equally as frustrated by the limitations of the art. My favorite line of the few poems we’ve looked at so far is Ōtomo Yakamochi’s “I know well/That in this cicada-husk world/there is no permanence…” (Inouye 13) This image of the cicada shell is central to the Japanese worldview and I believe it echoes of everything we’ve discussed this past week: form (in this case a physical shape) and change (an insect’s metamorphosis). Both exist concurrently in this tiny vacant husk. How strange and wonderful!
I had just left my house on Friday night when I turned onto Packard Ave and couldn’t tell if it was snowing or not until I saw the glow of a street lamp.
Illuminated by the lamp
At night in winter
This week we focused on the guiding ideas for the rest of the course, evanescence and form. The importance and ubiquity of cherry blossoms and cicada shells were emphasized to introduce the concept of evanescence, and these two natural occurrences seem to encapsulate the notion of constant change. This is central to Japanese culture, especially from the perspective that we will take (which I understand is only one approach, and wonder how much that will shape the way I learn). It was interesting to read how evanescence is sort of related to eternity in a sense, with historians recording and reporting the historical record believing in the “the centrality and eternality of the present” (Kitagawa 58). I think form is natural counterbalance to this notion that seems to have developed in order to give some form of meaning to life, unpredictable and impermanent as it may be. We also talked a lot about animism and the non-symbolic nature of the sacred, which I think is a little bit tricky to grasp from a Western perspective. I am interested to see where the weekly poetry project goes, since I get the principles behind waka/tanka but don’t quite fully understand the appeal of that style of lyricism yet. It also seems like a trick of some sort, with the act of doing the assignment seeming more important than the content itself. I’m guessing that we will figure this out the further we go into things. I like the idea of the Japanese finding beauty in sorrow, and on a whole there seems to be a lean towards some (objectively) kind of depressing guiding concepts in this course. This start makes me really interested to see how these concepts will connect to more current cultural phenomena, like the somewhat bizarre facets of pop culture that Japan is known for today since they seem unconnected so far.
I wasn’t able to write a poem about an experience this week.
I had a surprisingly difficult time finding subject material for my brief poem this week. This is surprising because I don’t find the concept of Japanese poems all that difficult to understand. I recognize the important of brevity in Japanese poetry, as “’wordiness is… taboo to animistic beauty’” (Konoshi in Inouye 26). In many of the poems we have read and seen in lecture the volumes few words can speak is powerful and apparent. The context and uses of “utsusemi” is a key example of this idea (Inouye 17). Yet in practice I’m having a difficult time evoking the emotion needed to produce poetry characteristic of Japanese tanka poets. Though I was admittedly busy this last week I put in an effort to become sensitive to my surrounding, with nothing to show for it unfortunately. I wouldn’t say I’m frustrated yet though. This week I’m determined to keep my eyes open to my surroundings. Japanese perception of nature is “’concrete and visual,’” and I will continue to attempt to draw inspiration from my environment (Susumu in Inouye 25).
I loved the fresh snow on Saturday but was disappointed because I could tell it was going to melt quickly that morning.
footprint in new snow
sunlight is strong
I’m really excited to explore this idea of “evanescence and form” (Inouye 1). I think it’s a really eloquent and simple way to explain a lot of behaviors we see in the world. Even these assignments fit the concept; all of us will turn in assignments of the same form but with the chaos of our opinions (or in my case the chaos of my limited drawing skills…) making them different. I wish I this course was last semester because I really think that I could have appreciated the sad beauty of the fall when “change is most obvious” (Inouye 7). I never enjoyed the fall back home in California because it was the same as summer. Now I understand why fall is the best season: the temporary nature of its beauty is what makes it so alluring. Finally something to explain why I had the strange desire to take hundreds of photos of trees on my phone last semester.
By Michael Chu
I was walking to mail service on Friday afternoon and saw the outskirts of Medford when I was near Olin.
Beyond the hilltop,
Houses behind winter trees,
Ah, left unexplored.
Professor Inouye kept mentioning evanescence and form in the first two classes. Having been to Japan a couple of times, I understand that form is a big part of the culture but evanescence? I had no idea. It is not until that I saw Dōgen’s and Yakamochi’s poems that it made more sense. “In this cicada-husk world there is no permanence” (Lecture 1/23). Our identity is not constant but is constantly shedding and changing. The “epithet” of the cicada, or rather, utsusemi, further conveys the brevity of mortal life (Inouye 19). This line also reminds me of the depressing scenes in the media where Japanese samurais or soldiers are willing to accept the evanescence of life and sacrifice themselves. Although evanescence does seem depressing, it is the acceptance of the fluid change and fragility that makes “sadness beautiful” (Lecture 1/23). I actually never thought that evanescence and form would go together. This paradoxical nature has gotten me to think a lot this past week. What a thought-provoking class.
I was riding my motorcycle around Mystic Lake when I pulled over for a moment to admire the sunset’s reflection on the lake’s ice.
A moment of rest
A cursory glance of the syllabus on the first day of class made me realize that Japanese culture already plays a defining role in my life. The set of my favorite movies is a subset of the movies we will watch. Two of my three favorite authors are represented in our upcoming readings. I expected the course to be more pragmatic than ethereal, but it’s already morphing my perception. The “plurality of the kami” (Kitaqawa, 44) is very appealing. The nonsymbolic reverence of inanimate objects means that the “mountains were not only the kami’s dwelling places; mountains were the kami themselves.” (Kitaqawa, 46) This intuitively makes sense to me; I’ve always felt a certain veneration for the lifeless. I used to whisper encouragement to my computer as it struggled through calculations. On a more serious note, the readings on evanescence have fostered in me a profound fear. The concept of “utsusemi”, which “affirms life’s brevity and fragility,” has given me pause. (Inouye 13) I ride a motorcycle, which is fairly awarded the epithet, “dangerous”. I can only hope that my shell — my helmet, leathers, gloves and boots — does not signify “empty, frail, and quickly passing.” (Inouye 19)
Walking along Powderhouse around 4:00pm, feeling uninspired and frustrated at a boring tree while disappointed by the short Winter daylight.
Not this leaf, nor this tree,
I mourn the loss of the day.
cold, and dark, so early.
I’m really enjoying the pacing of the class. It seems that Tufts has put a lot of trust in the Professor, and he seems to know what he’s doing. I understand the concept of evanescence, I think. Finding beauty in the fragile and temporal. “Dying at the height of… beauty, … the fate of us all,” sums up the idea nicely. (Inoye, 2) If something’s eternal, there’s no real point in celebrating it. It can be taken for granted without consequence. But form eludes me. The very first class explained that form makes meaning possible in a “world of constant change.” (Lecture, 1/16) Is it a reaction to an oversensitivity to change? Were the ancient Japanese people so concerned with the fragility of the world that they insisted on strict rituals for meaning, evidenced by the Japanese artists who learned by rigid practice? (Lecture, 1/23) Finally, we covered the essence of Japanese Shinto, which is animistic and differs from traditional symbolic religions in one key way: while Mt. Olympus was revered because it represented the throne of the Gods, Mt. Futagami or Tachi were revered for their own majesty. (Kitagawa, 46)
I was taking the T back from Boston College on Friday night when I noticed that while there were about a dozen people on the car, the only sound that could be heard was the clacking of the train tracks.
The subway lights flicker–
A man sleeps in the corner
In our first week of class, we began our discussion on evanescence and form by considering what a first glance seems to be a glaring contradiction. How can I be always changing (evanescence) while simultaneously staying the same (form)? “While Japanese embrace the notion that life is evanescent…they also demonstrate a predilection for formality” (Inouye 1). In our minds, we must realize that chaos and structure are not opposites in the minds of the Japanese, but two sides of the same coin. The changing of the seasons can help to combine both ideas in my mind, as the constant change of season conveys the ephemerality of nature while conforming to a set pattern of seasons (Inouye 2). In the words of the poet Dogen, “In spring the cherry blossoms, in summer the cuckoo” (Inouye 1). The seasons always change, yet there is a form to that change. With this constant change comes a sadness of nothing remaining the same. Our body, our friends, even our very identity is constantly changing without our control. To a neophyte of Japanese culture like me, this notion of uncontrollable transformation does not sit well. Not being able to control what happens to me is not a comforting notion. As Professor Inouye said, I could walk out the door and immediately get hit by the Joey (Lecture 1/21). I hope that through this class I can begin to understand how the Japanese are not constantly on edge, wondering if the next moment is going to be their last.