Category Archives: Week 7: Bushido and the Transcendental Order

Week 7 posts.

Blackout by Kaveh Veyssi

This past Thursday I was on the t in the morning going to my internship when the train stopped and the lights went out.


Silence –

The black walls

Of the tunnel.

One idea that captured my interest this week is something Professor Inouye said in class; he said that during the modern period, animism gave rise to or became nationalism (Lecture, 3/6).  I believe that this change occurred because “the world beyond Japan mattered in a way that required the Japanese to change their conception of space itself…Japan would become part of (world) space rather than the definition of space itself” (Inouye, 106).  This statement might help explain the shift from animism to nationalism; since Japan was now opened up to the world, it needed a way to maintain it’s principles of oneness that stem from animism.  As a result, this nationalist movement began.  Another example of animism-become-nationalism is the familial structure in Japan; Inazo Nitobe writes in his instructional book, Bushido, “The individualism of the West…necessarily brings into strong relief the duties owed by one to the other; but Bushido held that the interest of the family and of the members thereof is intact—one and inseparable” (Nitobe, 88).  It’s this very idea of “one and inseparable” that the Japanese shared with nature and their environment before the modern period, which transformed into nationalism.  That same oneness is present in the concept of revenge: “He must perish by my hand; because he shed my father’s blood, I, who am his flesh and blood, must shed the murderer’s” (Nitobe, 114).  In the same vein as my previous comments, I think that the idea of revenge through oneness is another example of animism on a different level.  These ideas when blown up to the national scale are what made Japan into a nationalistic country during the modern period.


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Transcending the Nation



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Transformation of Symbols

I was walking back at night to my dorm and slipped on ice because I thought the ice patch was water from the melted snow.

Melted snow reverts to ice

Before I took this class, I have always wondered why the Japanese like the samurai and the suicide plane bombers seem to brave the death. Why do they seem to de-value life? As Inazō puts it, “the whole teaching of Bushido was thoroughly imbued with the spirit of self-sacrifice” (Inazō 136). In the Meiji period, every citizen is loyal to the emperor who is “a point of commonality” (Inouye 111) and the symbol of Japan (Lecture 3/6).  The loyalty and patriotism was to the point that “no sacrifice [was considered to be] too onerous” (Inouye 117).  I was surprised how such patriotic spirit can be fostered so quickly because to be patriotic requires a symbolic understanding of homeland. It made more sense to me to think that patriotism and nationalism were derived from the existing lyricism and animism (Inouye 122). In lyricism, the notion of the cherry blossom conveys the feeling of evanescence. But with change redefined as being along a linear vector, the expression of cherry blossom is, instead, a sentimental emblem of Japan and is able to “call forth the whole nation” (Inazō 153). Interesting transformation from “non-symbolic reading of symbols.” I think the combination of animism/lyricism and symbolism had a synergizing effect. Symbol represents an abstract concept, but with lyricism and animism, strong emotional and visual aspects are added on. The strong emotional appeal of the cherry blossom symbol strengthened one’s ever-lasting loyalty to Japan. No wonder the kamikaze missions existed. The country and loyalty are ever lasting, but life is evanescent. Perhaps, for the kamikaze pilots, dying for an honorable mission and the unchanging symbol of Japan is both empowering and beautiful as it embraces the evanescence of life and progress for the greater good.

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The Rising Sun

On Saturday, I took a long detour home because it was beautiful out and saw a hawk perched on top of Carmichael.  I looked down for a second to get the camera on my phone ready, but it had disappeared.

Sun silhouetted spire–

Bird and building

No longer aligned

This week’s classes felt appropriately like a preparation for a big transition, as we discussed not only the “opening” of Japan to the Western world but a shift in the Japanese concepts of identity and place within this new context. The modernization of Japan seems to have had a polarizing effect between Japanese and non-Japanese which ultimately gave rise to more violent expressions of evanescence and form: “if someone was right, someone else had to be wrong.  This was the aggressive, even deadly logic of modernity” (Inouye 113).  However, as usual, we found contrasts to this: Japan stayed firmly Japanese, and though colonial ideals were not imposed upon them quite as dramatically as in most cases, they did accept some elements of western culture.  I found the Ryounkaku tower to be especially helpful in understanding the new perspective which formed during this period: not only did it showcase items from around the world, but stood as a monument to a new, singular viewpoint and an expression of greatness and prestige (Lecture 3/27).  This symbolic tower was a huge departure from the sacred trees and stones of animism and represented the new push for progress, but it also seems to be a marker of the Japanese effort to retain tradition while proving to occupy a high place within the world order.  I thought the tower was a pretty tangible example of how Japan carefully adopted certain aspects of western culture that they saw as beneficial, but still saw the Japanese way as the best way.  This was also expressed in Bushido: “if there is anything to do, there is a best way to do it, and the best way is both the most economical and the most graceful.” (Nitobe 53). I interpreted Bushido as a modernized synthesis of preexisting kata with both an appreciation for tenets of the past and a lot of consideration for the new context of Japan in the world (although it did strike me as odd that the book seemed so overwhelmingly geared towards Westerners…maybe this was an effort to make sure as little as possible was lost in translation, or just a product of Nitobe’s own cultural identity).  I think it is really amazing that even during a period of major change, Japan’s efforts to limit colonial influence kept a lot of cultural institutions and traditions intact. I’m guessing that a lot of the questions that have been raised in class and posts about paradoxes between evanescence, form, and facets of current Japanese culture will become relevant in studying this transition from a non-symbolic to symbolic society as cherry blossoms “become a boundless symbol of a newly expanding Japanese empire” (Inouye 118).


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A New Perspective (Week 7)

While procrastinating in my room Wednesday night I stared at the dying houseplant in my bedroom for an extended period of time.

Thirsty plant

fading colors

death in the month of spring

This week we focused on a pivotal period in the history of Japanese culture, modernization.  Prior to this shift, Japan could best be described as “xenophobic,” characterized by extreme isolation and ostracization of things considered foreign (Inouye, 90). This is a concept we explore briefly in previous weeks when we discussed Buddhism and how Christianity was avoided at all costs. However, all of this changed in the latter half of the nineteenth century as Japan experienced a powerful “influx of western culture” that would redefine the Japanese perspective (Inouye, 103). In the face of threatened colonization, Japan was forced to alter the notion of “Japan as the world” to “Japan in the world,” placing themselves in the context of a much larger world (Lecture 3/06).  In the face of the looming threat to “colonize or be colonized” Japan demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt, as they have shown before after the introduction of Buddhism, but impressively did not lose the essence of their nation (Lecture 3/06). Though the rapid introduction of Western culture did mark a strong change in many facets of Japanese culture, namely a “considerably more linear and goal oriented concept of change” and a shift from the here-and-now order to a more symbolic transcendental order, national identity still prevailed (Inouye, 105). Nitobe Inazo’s Bushido that we read this week proved to be a powerful example of this juxtaposition between the identity that is so uniquely Japan and the new modern. This work is inherently very modern, as it was written and published in English and acts as a symbol for the nation of Japan. There is tension, however. Despite these strikingly modern facts, the traditional nature of Bushido as a “code of moral principles” used by the samurai is apparent, as well as many other uniquely Japanese attributes (Nitobe, 35). Nitobe writes “chivalry is a flower no less indigenous to the soil of Japan than its emblem, the cherry blossom” (Nitobe, 33) and continues to mention the sakura as an important element in his written code. For me this was a telling sentence. While the ancient symbol of the cherry blossom is acknowledged and embraced as a national emblem, this work clearly recognizes Japan as a body within the much larger context of the world, drawing parallels to European chivalry and acting as a liaison between the East and West. I really enjoyed this week’s lesson and I am excited to see the direction Japanese culture takes after this radical change in perspective.

-Nicholas Economos

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Japan is now Japan

I left my dorm room this after noon and realized how it was beginning to feel a lot like spring.

Gentle sun

snow melting

spring is coming

I still need to upload picture

The period of change under the transcendental order was one of, if not the biggest change in Japan’s culture and society to date.  Due to Japan shutting down its ports in recent years they had become an isolationist country.  Now, however, Americans were forcing their way into the country, bringing with them the modernized world.  This forced entry by the United States left Japan with one option, adapt or be colonized.  Japan naturally chose the former.  In order to adapt, Japan needed to move away from the narrow vision of here and now and broaden their gaze to the entire country; they needed a national identity.  One way that Japan began to nationalize was the “Cloud Scraper” building.  The building was, “designed to be a showcase of world space, the tower introduced the Japanese masses to a larger, international context” (Inouye 109).  The building allowed the Japanese to purchase goods from across the world and view the surrounding area in an all-at-once style as opposed to the previous one thing at a time style.  Another, more drastic, movement of nationalization was the involvement of the emperor.  He began to make public appearances and, “Upon seeing him in the flesh, they were able to identify him as their leader, a point of commonality” (Inouye 111).  This drastic change from invisibly to the public eye gave Japan a central point of government and nation.  With Japan’s nationalization also came their need to be legitimized and understood by the large countries of the world.  Nitobe Inazo’s Bushido is a prime example of this need to be noticed.  The book was written in English as a way to explain to the outside world who the Japanese were.  However, when viewed more critically we see that Inazo refers to Western thinkers and rulers very often to explain Japanese concepts.  This was undoubtedly done to make the concepts more easily understood, but it also has a tone of “see we’re like the French, and we’re like the Spartans.”  Inazo seems to be making the point that the Japanese are just as worthy of respect as the Western world and should be treated that way.  Regardless of whether Inazo’s teachings were immediately grasped Japan was now Japan, a nationalized country like it had never been before.

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Cherry blossoms have just bloomed at Wuhan University, while snow was falling here in Boston.


Cherry blossoms at Wuhan University -

Photo shone on my laptop screen

Snow outside the window.

This week’s discussion is a big step that leads us into Japan’s modern era, with fascism lurking ahead. In the context of the Japanese’s realization of its place “in the world” of competing empires, Japan quickly turned to “learn from the barbarian” and allow the modern transcendental order, progress, to take charge, whereas the contemporaneous Chinese, despite some who came up with similar slogans, were much slower to react (Lecture 03/06, Inouye 110-113.) As I come to think of it, it may in fact be true that the “Japanese appreciation of change actually helped it embrace necessary reforms,” whereas the overall Chinese value seems to appreciate “middleness,” or inaction (Inouye 104.) Then, as Japan began to assert its place on the imperial food chain, several scholars, essentially “nostalgic” toward the “golden age” of Tokugawa Japan, each attempted to discover and re-establish an essence of the Japanese culture and people: thus came Bushidō, Sadō, and Iki (Inouye 120.) The tension that underlies all three theorizations, namely one “between Japan the unique and Japan the universal,” appears to be particularly noteworthy to me (Inouye 114.) It appears to me that, while all three scholars aimed at celebrating the traditional Japan, the impulse they feel to boast it as universal is essentially modern, in its assertion of unipolar correctness. This might be, again, a Japanese response to the imperial assertions from Western countries, once again more rapid than the Chinese’s because of the Japanese readiness for change, and the Chinese belief in “middleness” (as far as my limited knowledge is concerned, no work was done to boast about “the Chinese essence” during the period; this, however, could also be the result of a dragged modern development in the first place.)

- Zesheng Xiong (George)

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Walking on the sidewalk at night after the snow storm, I stepped into what looked like solid concrete, but was actually a large puddle of wet snow.

Solid ground collapsed

into cold, dark, wetness

never to hold weight again


Japanese advent of Westernization brought upon a perspective in Japanese culture that strayed from the non-symbolic, to the objective. During the Tokugawa period in Japan, the country was centralized and isolated, while with the advent of the Meji period and westernization, the Japanese people not only were exposed to western beliefs but acquired a more globalized perspective (Lecture 3/6). I was extremely disheartened in learning about this stray from evanescence, as personally I felt the Japanese perspective almost refreshing. Gone were the days of discovering and appreciating small moments of life as in the gardens of Katsura. Artists now tended throwing away the evanescence in their work and simply concentrated on the “big picture.” I feel this theme permeates not only through the Japanese perspective at this moment but also through Western philosophy as a whole.  Inouye mentions of how, “ rather than focus[ing] on bubbles drifting haphazardly upon the river of change, the rhetoric of progress comes to fixate on the current itself”(Inouye, 105).  While the Japanese people understood the “haphazard” mode of life through evanescence, I feel like this grounded perspective seemed as a way to gain control. Here, evanescence became, “either [being] progress or regression (Inouye 95). Upon reading this I asked myself, how could this last? How can you simplify something so insatiable and so incomprehensible as evanescent qualities of life? This reliance on form was contradicted in Nitobe’s description of Bushido, which in itself was characterized  (at face value) as the most symbolic and formalistic aspect of Japanese culture. Nitobe went on to say that, “having no set dogma or formula to defend, [Bushido] can afford to disappear as an entity; like the cherry blossom, it is willing to die at the first gust of the morning breeze” (Nitobe, 153). I feel like this statement clarifies what many misconstrue about this supposed westernization of Japanese culture. While the advent of form and linearization of evanescence became pertinent during this time, something like Bushido, the cherry blossom, or any symbol or entity could still change at any given moment or time. This makes me think that the Westernization of Japanese culture wasn’t actually a straying away from past philosophy, but a way to retain form in an ever changing society as Japan became more globalized (Lecture 3/6). Even then, this “western” idea of retaining form is cyclic, nothing can be held down forever, just as the cherry blossom or the ideology of Bushido. As Inazo puts it, “[form] can well repress the genial current of the soul. It can force pliant natures into distortions and monstrosities”(Inazo 110). We see that we can impose form on something, but if we rely too much upon it, it will cause us to distort the way we look at things and entrap us in fallacy. The Japanese looking to Westernization was reactionary, but at the same time they still realized that if they relied too heavily upon it they would suffer. I feel now, more than ever, that the Japanese attempt to achieve balance, but now adding the dimension on a societal level, rather than just with the individual.

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Into the World

Walking on the academic quad after the snowstorm.

Snow covered field-

Through a gap in the snow,

Green grass.

This week’s lectures focused primarily on Japan’s relations with the world, and how that changed with the arrival of foreigners (for a second time), in the mid 19th century. Japan was forced to “become a part of the world space rather than the definition of space itself” (Inouye, 106). This was seen in class by the comparison of the grand view in Versailles to the one of the Sumiyoshi pine, which purposely blocks the view of the garden. The difference I feel is that, from the Versailles view, you see all, but at the same time you see nothing; although the general picture is seen, the little details in the plants, their arrangements and the life that surrounds them cannot all be seen from one stance. By being forced to go through the garden to see it, a moment is created with everything you interact with, rather than just looking at it from a cool distance. Furthermore, I found it sad for Japan to transition from the lyrical moments of utsusemi and Bashō’s ‘sound of water’, fleeting moments in existence, to the nationalistic “Tenno Heika, Banzai” (Inouye, 111). By being forcibly integrated into the world at large, it seems as if it was necessary for Japan to swallow this bitter nationalistic pill and become a colonizing power itself, lest it be taken over by the Europeans or Americans. It seems as if the Japanese needed to make an identity for themselves to relate to the “other”, the non Japanese that was now affecting the land in a way that had never happened before. Izano Nitobe’s work, “Bushido: The Soul of Japan”, claims that “unformulated, Bushido was and still is the animating spirit, the motor force of our country” (Inazo Nitobe, 139). I do not particularly agree with him on this point, however. The Samurai only came to prominence during the Kamakura Shogunate, established in 1185. Before that period, the cultural makeup that resonated in the country did not stem from Bushido or the Samurai, but from the established Buddhist monasteries and the nobility in Kyoto, as well as from native Shinto. To summarize “Japan” as simply “Bushido” is, in my view, a neglect of all that came before it, ignoring the fundamental base of the conflict between evanescence and form. Moreover, I found the references to rice being “sacred… [as] Amaterasu obtained the best rice seeds…” (Inouye, 108) particularly interesting. It is as if rice moves from being this very concrete source of sustenance, to an abstract embodiment of the new Japan. Although it was probably regarded as a sacred food in times past, it status was ‘asserted’ as such by people Aizawa Seishisai. The move from non symbolic to symbolic added and altered some of the basic concepts that we studied in the previous weeks; the “land” of Japan, and not the unique space, was seen as holy/sacred. Imperial ambitions derived partially from the fact that Japan was perceived by the some to be “The head of the world.” (Inouye, 107).

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Change is changing

Sitting in South Hall, I looked out the window at the stormy whether outside and in the dark room, I thought about the challenges my life was presenting me.

The trees are moaning.

Rain falls from the sky to ground,

And the world is gray.

Throughout this course, evanescence has held similar meanings and representations.  Japan’s transition from here-and-now to the Transcendental Order showed evanescence changing for the first time.  Evanescence changed from being focused on impermanence and form to progress (Lecture 7/15).  This shift develops because Japan now has a global existence rather than a local existence.  By competing with the other powers in the world, Japan’s views changed as they see the main difference between all the countries being progress and a lack thereof.  More shocking to me than this was the emperor’s new role brought in an idea of an unchanging and lasting essence (Inouye 111).  For Japan to accept something as permanent seemed to go against the ideology I had known them to have.  This seemed to me as if Japan was becoming less Japan.  What made me rethink this thought was bushidō, the way of the warrior.  Bushidō, written by Nitobe Inazō, is a book that explains and defines Japan as the way of the samurai.  Most interestingly to me is that Nitobe compares bushidō to chivalry (Inazō 34).  As a competitive person, I define and compare myself to what is around me.  In a similar way, Nitobe is defining the essence of Japanese character with another type of character from a prevalent society.  By using another existence to decide what makes oneself different was a concept all too familiar to me.  This made me realize Japan’s westernization was just another example of evanescence, yet its retention of form still made it Japan.  In fact the comparison to other cultures made it all the clearer how Japan is Japan.

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