The Eastern Education of an uninformed Westerner
“Shinto sees nature as the divinity itself.” (Palmer & Finlay. 2003)
A cityscape positioned precariously on the precipice. A fortified mecha of steel and titanium conjured up by the delirious minds of men hell-bent on innovation and security. The first-line of protection against seemingly incredulous acts of malevolence. A country driven by technology and imperious advancements finds itself under threat, but not from a sentient alien being whose only purpose is to destroy (as their literature may have you believe, ie. Neon Genesis Evangelion (Anno, 1995)) Instead, Japan’s most fearsome foe, despite being told otherwise by pen-wielding mercenaries, is its natural existence, or the uncompromising balance of which they’ve long-preserved, and the problems that 21st Century Japan has encountered.
It’s a teetering instability. With Japan’s growth comes its inevitable globalisation; a previously unimpeded culture begins to let Westernisation slip through the cracks of its ornately cobbled streets. But is congruence enough? The forced interdependence of two conflicting ideas can bring about, well, conflict. Is it truly possible for two things, two seemingly paradoxical things, to find that precarious, but poised co-existence which insists on their refusal to negate each other’s presence, instead combining to create something greater than the sum of its parts?
It’s possible for Japan.
An inherent love for their environment has been cultivated over thousands of years, values carried with them through wars, poverty, eruptions and disasters. The widespread smile on the face of the weathered countryman is a worthy adversary to any tragedy that the natural world can conjure up. They’re tried and tested, their loyalty stretched to the corners of their country and beyond and in spite of these trials, the Japanese remain temperate, with only love for their protectors.
But it’s being stretched further than they could’ve ever imagined.
Of course, moments are fleeting; they’re but a small glance through an infinite peephole. A wise philosopher by the name of Calvin once stated, “Yes, we’re just tiny specks on a planet particle, hurling through the infinite blackness.” (Watterson, 1988) Yet no matter how supposedly insignificant you may seem, no matter how small the speck, Ecology insists that you will always serve a purpose. You’re a biological necessity, congruent with the ever-shifting world around you. Your purpose lies at your very core, every little detail in your genetic make-up is a feat of evolution. But it can be difficult to consider your purpose. Calvin’s cynical sentiment felt outweighed by his own childish joy, providing himself with purpose in the world, while those around him may not yet understand it. All it takes is cognisance, that sole moment in which we find a reason to exist. Yes, we may play a role in nature, but we can’t possibly devalue our own opinion of our existence.
“That even if that moment meant nothing to the Universe, it’s the closest thing to God I’ve got.” (Watsky, 2014)
Through that thousand year old peep-hole, I experienced just how big the world can feel. I felt my physical insignificance first-hand, but in that instance I felt I belonged. 6,000 miles from a home that I’d outgrown, I’d found a new one. Monolithic mountains adorned the grey horizon like sentient kami, watching patiently over the world and its people. There I was, below them, tucked underneath their careful gaze in a hulking piece of machinery. My soft breath on the window, I chased after the world with my amazed stare. In that moment, I’d reverted back to a child and was overcome with an implicit sense of wonderment, made so clear by my own expression and shared wholeheartedly by those I was travelling with. A deep grey set upon the skies, but the land of the Rising Sun shone through. It was a world untarnished by any momentary lack of colour or clouded empyrean. The peaks of mountains poked through the thick fog in search of sunlight. We on the ground weren’t afforded the same opportunity. Even as we approached the city’s stretch of high-rise plateaus, the sun could not be found, even by those on the top floor.
Bird songs to quietly accompany your journey, the quick bleating of Cicadas. Even in the rain, the wilderness comes to greet you. Even in the city, the countryside is inescapable. It’s carefully moulded into one. Distinct hazes of forest greens sit comfortably at the feet of architectural anomalies; the modernity of Japan remains perfectly in-sync with its heritage. Aware of its history, its contemporary counterparts not only preserve its origins, but protect them: a visual shield which holds the old in its safe embrace.
If the aforementioned mountains were monoliths, then this is a colossus. Imperial in its stature and almost entirely other-worldly. It stands proudly in the Japanese country-side, knowing with power. The sacred symbol of Japan, Mount Fuji adorned with snow, wearing a cap of white, is the very embodiment of the spirit of nature. Almost symbolically, shrines circle the base of Mount Fuji like spirits wandering to their Kami. Like a God, Fuji holds in its grasp destructive capabilities, a power so ferocious it could spell the end for surrounding areas.
Fuji possesses an unquantifiable might, an existence that’s seen the growth of our world. He was there at the beginning, and he will remain until the end. He’s spared the Japanese for some three hundred years, instead providing sanctuary and commerce for the local trade in return for their respect, paid through pilgrimage and worship at nearby shrines. Fuji’s volcanic nature has gifted locals with onsen3, an open invitation to cleanliness, a tenant in Shintoism. Entering the body of the bath, what can be deemed in itself the body of a God, provides cleansing of the mind, body and soul ensuring clarity in thought and existence, hatching a seamless coexistence with nature. Yet the volcanism was palpable. The air felt different, as if not at ease. It was tighter, constrictive and foreboding. Or perhaps it was the altitude.
The charcoal clouds seldom leave the sky throughout June and July, a necessary ritual that balances the elements throughout the annum; a perfect marriage between opposition, like the concurrence of Shintoism and Buddhism in Japan. Two supposedly contrary ideals that have in time found a curated equity in society, and have long lived side-by-side to aid in Japan’s harmony. However, this June, the rainy season chose to over-stay its welcome, as if compensating for some unseen alterity.
1Kuraokami: Legendary Japanese dragon or Shinto deity of rain and snow.
2Karoshi: Death through overwork
3Onsen: Hot Spring
“The sky’s still the same, so it’s not over yet.” (Miyazaki, 2013) An ominous prediction from a man famed for his understanding of the natural balance of the earth. Despite the sky, despite the storm and despite these supposed unnatural shifts, the city refused to halt. Its people refused to stop. The endless beams of neon lights slowly began to spill into the darkening sky, like a watercolour painting insistent on its artist finishing his tale. Underneath the dancing incandescence, seas of people cascaded through to their destination like weaving Kuraokami1, their umbrellas held aloft – a futile barrier between them and the imperious rain. They pay no attention to the warning signs.
Men and women dressed in white shirts, black ties, black trousers, black skirts walk in congregations down the sodden streets, uniformly seeking shelter from the ill-tempered tempest. Its incessancy admirable; an entire month in the yearly cycle dedicated entirely to its quasi-ubiquitous self, yet it still refuses to leave. Treading carelessly through the puddles, their shined leather shoes no longer shining, feet no longer kept dry; underwear dampened, but not their spirits. With karoshi2 being a genuine and lingering threat in contemporary Japanese society, a little rain couldn’t possibly hurt anybody. Loyalty to their work perhaps taken a little too seriously, it could be argued that the Japanese have been losing sight of their established purpose, one that’s been celebrated and accentuated through centuries of worship and discovery.
A disruptive imbalance incrementally creeping up through the generations. The equilibrium hangs in the balance, and the tides creep closer up the shrinking shores.
So to the uninitiated Westerner, the presence of Religion seems perhaps more predominant than someone from England could begin to understand. Despite the conglomeration of churches scattered through my home-country, and religion’s deep-rooted presence in our history, Japan’s beliefs seem so intrinsic that an apparent disillusionment with their heritage seems unfathomable. Despite their best attempts to find a balance, the growing consumptive nature and stark over-working are presenting a dangerous predicament: the alienation from their cultural traditions.
It’s been addressed. The Japanese are cognisant of this looming quandary, but there’s an inevitability about it. The younger generation are disconnected, uninterested and dangerously ignorant. To them, nature is their walk to school: a path adjacent to a stream, perhaps the occasional frog on a lily-pad. The great outdoors’ existence has been over-sold- just take a gulp of fresh-air and you’re there. Memory’s become more distant as time passes, and that feels applicable to Japan’s history. It’s not yet as hazy as my third birthday party, but the edges are no longer distinct, the mist is settling over it. The tether between person and nature is slowly fraying; the seams are splitting before our eyes and soon, they’ll burst.
The protection of culture weighs heavy on Kyoto’s shoulders. Their humility in heritage is being stretched into the grasps of tourist traps and consumerism. They’re fighting a losing battle, but in amongst it all, it remains an innately special place. Despite the ever-spreading discontent, there’s a sense of serenity that cascades through the city, like some form of Karmic existence. “The Pure Land” perhaps – it plans to rid itself of all contamination through its preservation of culture, and much like the Zen Buddhist Philosophy it “demands an overcoming of [this] paradigm by achieving an holistic perspective in cognition, so that the Zen practitioner can celebrate, with a stillness of mind – a life of tending toward the concrete things and events of everyday life and nature.” It moves past the trivial, the anxious and nervous, and enters its own plane of existence unto itself.
The Ancient Capital
A cat lies sleepily next to the front gate. People stand and marvel, snapping photos for their blogs despite the grandiose Buddhist structure that stands before them. Inside, a courtyard is punctuated by a contorted Japanese maple that grows defiantly in the centre. “Western Temple of the Original Vow”. The decorated paper screens guard the temple from the infiltration of light. The steps leading up to it house a dozen other people, each removing their shoes as a sign of respect. Inside, the ornate red and gold stand a world away from the tatami mats and decorated screens. The scent of burning incense played delicately in the air. I knelt, watching patiently and respectfully. A young family, two parents and their new-born child smile. The mother cradles the infant, unable to take her eyes off of him. A monk kneels before them and takes a photograph. “Now life is living you”, read the words printed on the wall, the slogan used for the 750th memorial of Shinran Shionin, a Buddhist monk. A cryptic saying; perhaps it’s lost in translation, or perhaps it offers a deep insight into Buddhist philosophy: “… your life and my life are part of one Life. All arise by conditions. The differences between you and me are just [different] conditions that are shaping you as you are and me as I am.” It’s clear that Nianfo’s ideals coexist with Shinto’s understanding of “nature being life”, so emphatically stated by Prince Ashitaka in Mononoke, a young man who sees the ferocity of nature’s redemption when human’s fail to uphold their mutual respect for each other.
An endless barrage of vermillion meanders through a dense forest. Fushimi-Inari is a world unto its own. From the instant you step through the first torii gate you are enveloped in an almost spiritual existence; a world called upon by Gods and humans-alike to bridge the gap between their worlds and provide for all who need it. A shrine, tasked with good fortune and prosperity. An almost ancient precursor that still to this day exists as it did over a thousand years ago. Seldom does wandering aimlessly feel so rewarding – as you tread carefully beneath the gates, with only the last remnants of twilight as your guide, it’s difficult not to feel as if you’ve been transported to another world, a world far removed from the one you’re accustomed to, a world that refuses to get caught up in the troubles of the modern age. It’s the closest metamorphosis of Shinto’s idea of nature, as a tranquil sanctuary running deep into the forests beyond humans’ realm. But is it all a facade? A flickering light in the inevitable darkness? A redeeming factor perhaps, but not enough to appease nature.
There’s an over-arching sense of irony about this: An outsider, mostly ignorant to the nuances of the Japanese culture commenting on their fledgling links to their heritage, and their ever-expanding distance to the ancient Religions that they’ve practised for so long. But I had glimpses of it, moments of clarity that provided me with an unrivalled insight into the older generation of the Japanese. Courtesy of an elderly man, cracked and withered by his work yet wearing the kindest of smiles. He wasn’t yet defeated, and certainly not by his ailing body. Whilst the younger generation sit staring at their moving screens, enamoured by things they can’t touch and feel, the older generation retain their connection to nature. Their insistence and belief in karma, their treatment of that which sits around them, they hold Shintoism and Buddhism close to their hearts, and whether or not they practise it, they abide by their guidelines.
Perhaps an outside perspective is the best way to view it. Through that supposedly infinite peep-hole, we can learn a lot. Unfortunately, that peep-hole is stretched past infinity when viewing it through the lens of a camera, relayed through to our screens. There’s a sense of detachment, much like the one the younger generations of Japan are cultivating. Unfortunately, they were there to weather the storm.
The Great Wave
“March 11th 2011. The day that nature changed course.”
“The sky’s still the same, so it’s not over yet.” Penance for the impotence of the Japanese? A warning to its current generation? The quake came and Japan stood still. The wave came, and Japan fell to its knees. The sheer brute force of nature, its destructive capabilities on show for the world to see through their looking glass. The younger generation forced to watch on helplessly as their countryman lose their lives, land and loved-ones. A hapless display of the earth’s unbalance, a response to the growing petulance and hubris displayed by humankind. “Our thirst to possess heaven and earth is what makes us human” said a monk in Princess Mononoke. It’s devolved into a war that humankind can’t win. This isn’t malevolence, this is the restoration of the natural order.
Nature is life, and without it, we only know death.