Is it possible to love the concept more than the subject itself?
I find myself settling into a Madness about China and, subsequently, Japan again. What I think I understand however is that it isn’t living in Japan that appeals, but its “Japan-yness”. Because of having such a large number of people living in a comparatively small nation – Australia has 7.7 million square kilometers with a population of 24 million people compared to 129 million people living in 378,000 square kilometers in Japan, thus a population density of 3 people per square kilometer versus 340 – there is a greater focus on group harmony or community harmony. No one wants to upset one another, everyone has a great respect for each other’s space and peace.
On rereading “Persimmon wind” by Dave Lowry, I learned of two concepts. The first, “Wa” (和) refers to “harmony” – maintaining the peace in the group by putting aside their own individual desires for the benefit of the many. This is a concept that very much goes against First World Western perspective – we are a society that is very focused on the needs and wants of the individual. We might have a rowdy party without considering how much this might disturb our neighbours, or talk loudly into our phone whilst on the train or in a restaurant.
The second concept is “Ma” (間), or “negative space” – it is often translated as “interval”, “gap” or “pause”. Its the things left out that convey more meaning that the things put in.
Put another way, the Western perspective is to fill every available space, every available moment with substance and noise – even to the point where we lose ourselves and become buried under endless nonsense.
The concept of “Ma” is that we keep things simple and empty – instead of filling a wall with dozens of posters and pictures, we might have only one or two images on the wall that we would be able to focus on and absorb all the details. Compare Bach’s “Air” to a Yngwie J. Malmsteen million-notes-per-second guitar solo. Peak hour traffic versus a quiet drive along the coast or walk in the mountains.
We fill our lives with so much stuff and nonsense that we leave no room for ourselves. Sometimes we become so filled with everyone else’s ideas and concepts that we no longer know who or what we are.
We don’t take the time to stop and appreciate what we have. We don’t take time to just stop and breath.
Despite my crazed passions of the last year, I have no real desire to live in Japan for an extended period, nor have I any great desire to learn the written language even though I have managed to (largely) get my head around the spoken language. Truly, it is to the point that I struggle to learn any other language – someone speaking to me in French or Indonesian would have me automatically replying in Japanese despite my best efforts.
This isn’t to say that I haven’t wanted to move there – during my illness and extended recovery last year, depression led me to want to leave my marriage, move to Japan and take up permanent residence, change my name to Akira Kobayashi and go native. I wanted to renounce my previous life and start afresh in a new land.
Perhaps one day I will – I’m toying with the idea of retiring to Japan; that is, at least, when I am in a position that I no longer need to earn a living or march to the beat of another’s drum. I can go out to teach, or stay home and drink beer, people watch and smoke my pipe, whenever and however I feel.
So why do I keep becoming obsessed about Japan? I’ve done my share of hard work and long hours, enough that I wouldn’t want to go back to living that way again. I’ve lived in small apartments, but even the smallest here is nothing compared with how small they are there. I’ve done my share of long commutes, typically covering 500km a week. And after 25 years of anime and manga fandom, I’m quite over the insatiable appetite and shallowness of popular culture.
What is it that calls to me from there? I’m attempting to find out some more at the Perth Japan Festival coming up in three weeks. I’m endeavoring to distill the essence of Japan in an attempt to apply it to my life here, within the confines of a self absorbed, self centered and selectively tolerant Western society. Around the world, major cities will often have their “Chinatown” and “Little Japan” areas where entire suburbs and communities are given over to a single culture, but Perth is small enough and isolated enough that we have, at best, Generic Asian Fusion Town – Northbridge – where every non-Anglo-Saxon culture rubs shoulders on a daily basis. Consider the number of Japanese restaurants and eateries operated by Korean and Chinese with how few are operated by actual Japanese.
I have visited the Hyogo Prefectural Government Culture Centre in City Beach though I have yet to sign up for their study groups – I work alternate weekends at The Day Job but it is a better arrangement than it used to be. Aside from formal lessons, there is a comprehensive library for everyone to read (though you have to be a paid up member to borrow items) and casual chat sessions where one can just drop in and pass the time of day over a coffee, each helping another to practice a less familiar language – open to members and non-members alike.
Though it occurs to me why I might desire to learn about Japan from someone who has chosen to leave there.
Perhaps it would give me a better perspective and appreciation of “here”?