When I was a kid, someone gave me a chunk of tree-sap called Amber. Amber is hardened over thousands (or even millions) of years to become hard like plastic. And it has the novel aspect that it hardens very slowly, allowing very delicate insects, who walk across it as it forms to become encased and preserved. The amber that I had contained an ant that had been trapped hundreds or thousands of years prior. It struck me when I was young that I was peering deep into the past as I studied it.
When I lived in Japan, I saw so many aspects of historical culture from thousands of years prior that were still being practiced and performed in the fashion that they were first introduced in the feudal era. I decided to study two of these arts, Karate (Chinese characters 空手 meaning “Empty Hand”) and Taiko (Chinese characters 太鼓 meaning “Fat Drum”). Many cultures have a drive to preserve and polish folk-arts in their original forms. It seems the preservation of folk arts in Japan is a broadly-pursued national pass-time.
Japan is at once ultra-modern and yet deeply traditional at the same time. You can see this if you visit Tokyo, the modern capital, and contrast it with Kyoto, the former capital from the feudal era. The capital was the seat of the emperor, who was said to be a direct descendant of the lineage of the country’s matriarchal god, Amaterasu. (Chinese characters 天照 meaning heaven illuminator and commonly referred to as Sun Goddess.) Kyoto is the hub of the traditional arts and religion since the shogunate moved the emperor to the port town of Edo. Edo was the center of Japanese industrial revolution (called the Meiji restoration) during which Japan embraced international trade and became the economic powerhouse it is today. Edo was called the eastern capital, not to detract from the western one, Kyoto. Chinese characters for east capital are 東京, pronounced Tokyo. During WWII, the military of the Japan and allied forces agreed that Kyoto would never be used for military purposes, and would never be involved in the war. (It’s amazing to me that warring countries agree to rules in conflict. But that became a thing, as evidenced in the Geneva Convention.) So Kyoto’s traditional architecture was left “frozen in amber” in the shape it was at the start of Edo period. All its temples and shrines from the pre-Edo period are still in tact. And the district of Gion in Kyoto feels like you’re walking through pre-Edo Japan even today.
I took this picture at a second-hand store just south of the village where I lived, Maruoka. It seemed like a perfect tableau of Japan. The boddhisattva Avalokiteshvara stands next to Ultraman, the epitome of the futuristic pop culture. Both are revered mythical heroes of the Japanese psyche. Avalokiteshvara (She is also known as Kannon, Chinese characters 観音 meaning: observe sound) is the boddhisattva who watches over all souls on the path to Nirvana. Ultraman is a similar protector character born of the modern era to protect humanity against threats natural and alien.
Many of the festivals and celebrations of Shinto religion are observed in the same ways they have been conducted over hundreds of years. One of the most awesome festivals I witnessed dates back from the Heian era 1000 years ago, called Seihakusai. In the Noto peninsula region of western Honshu, in a small fishing village, the local residents roll massive “Dekayama” portable floats (Dekai means “vast” Yama means “Mountain”) with wheels the size of people through the streets. Here you can see dad hoisting his little boy up to the top of the Dekayama cart’s wheel!
These floats can weigh up to 20 tons. And as they are pulled by the villagers through the streets of Nanao, dozens of people climb on top of them, hanging from the tops 4-5 meters off the ground. These floats tower above the houses and seem as if they could do tremendous damage if they were allowed to roll freely. The sight of these massive things careening down the narrow streets of Nanao are at once awe-inspiring and intimidating.
In my village of Maruoka, I’d joined a local taiko troupe. We would perform in the autumn harvest festivals and accompany the parades of the portable shrines called “Omikoshi”. These are carried about the towns on the shoulders of dozens of people. There is an old saying in Japan, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” It is a lesson that individuals should work toward the common good. And in the carrying of the Omikoshi, you understand literally what it means. The Omikoshi below is a tiny example. But the one in Maruoka was so massive that any individual who tried to lift it, would barely be able to make it budge as it weighed almost as much as a car. But dozens, lifting just a little bit, were able to move the shrine fluidly through the streets.
Aside from taiko, my favorite ancient art in Japan was the tradition of Noh Theater. The texts of these plays came from the early Buddhist tradition in Japan. (Their texts are written in archaic form of Japanese that needs explication to a modern audience.) They are structured around the concept of deceased spirits who become tied to the physical plane by attachment rooted in some injustice that happened during their lives. In modern Japan, while Shinto is the religion surrounding ceremonies of birth, Buddhism is the religion accompanying ceremonies of death.
To see the way that amber encases and preserves art, I think it’s a good to look at older traditions as well as to observe the fervent practice of new arts being imported into Japan. Modern music is a good example. When I lived in Japan I often would see Jazz performances that exceeded the quality of anything I’d seen in my home country, arguably the origin of the genre!
I thought a great deal about what it is about Japanese culture that makes it such a hot bed for artistic perfection. There is a spirit of extreme determination that is taught in Japanese culture. It was demonstrated in my Karate classes, a combination of extreme modesty combined with extreme determination. The term we used to hear this referred to is isshokenmei (Chinese characters 一所懸命 meaning one-place, hang life) which is the concept that one has tremendous focus and resolve, literally in “one place”. Many of my Japanese friends thought that my predisposition to pursue many hobbies was an indication of a life of fickle curiosity. (“Hirokuasaku” Chinese characters 広く浅くmeaning broadly-shallowly.) And when you watch a master of the traditional arts of Kyudo (Archery), Chado (Tea Ceremony) or Ikebana (flower arranging) you can see where a life dedicated to one thing elevates the individual to representing an ideal of great beauty, rooted in tradition.
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