#2 The Idea of the Body in Japanese Culture and its Dismantlement

continuation of #1 The Idea of the Body in Japanese Culture and its Dismantlement  by Hiroyuki Noguchi  published in 20041.

Perceiving Life in All Things

HiroshigeAmong the policies of Westernization that drove the disassembly of traditional Japanese culture was the calendar change, issued in 1873. With this, the Meiji government decided to abo-lish the lunar-solar calendar that had been used for twelve hundred years and replace it with the Gregorian, or solar calendar. Actual use of the new calendar was implemented only twenty-three days after issuing the order, and as such, caused great confusion amongst the general population. But more importantly, it had an enormous impact on the Japanese people’s fundamental sense of the seasons and cycles of life. The old calendar was commonly called the “farmer’s calendar” because of its close ties to the cycles of agricultural activities [Fujii, (1997)]. It was calculated not only through astronomy, but was based on a deep understanding of the life cycles of plants and creatures of the land, with further adjustments made according to observations of the heavenly planets. It can be said that the switch from the old to the new calendar was in essence a switch from a life-cycle-centered time order to an objective time order based on the Western science of astronomy.
The old calendar marked New Year’s Day at the first signs of spring, symbolized by the blooming of plum blossoms and the bush warbler’s song; the second month with the cherry blossoms; the third month with the peach. Time was kept according to the cycles of nature-life activities, which basically do not act in regular time intervals, as do the planets and stars. For this reason, a gap will inevitably occur over time between a life-cycle-based calendar and an objective planetary time order. Because the old calendar placed more importance on the growth cycles of plants and creatures, and on the human experience of the seasons, with less emphasis on strict calculations of the objective regularity of planetary movements, every year would begin on a different day according to the new calendar. Each year, in the eleventh month, the calendar for the following year was announced, and people would plan their next year’s schedule of agricultural activities, events, and festivals accor-dingly. The Meiji government considered this life-cycle-based calendar to be unscientific, and decided to use the astronomy-based solar calendar instead. A time order that is rational from the viewpoint of astronomy, however, is not always rational from the viewpoint of human and creature life. Modern science rejected the life-centered time order and proposed the measurement of objective time. This is much like taking tempo in music, originally established according to the speed of walking, and converting it into mathematical time measured by metronomes, thereby making music that feels stiff and suffocating for player and audience alike. Or, it is like replacing human breathing with artificial lungs that move in mathematically regular patterns of repetition. The rhythms of Life, however, exist in a different order from mathematical cycles of repetition.
With the changing of the calendar, the Japanese people’s sense of the seasons entered into confusion. The new calendar gives them no choice but to live in a time frame that is completely cut off from traditional Japan. For our ancestors, the beginning of the new year always came with the clear feeling of spring’s arrival. Now however, New Year’s Day is smack in the middle of winter. And yet, every year the Japanese continue to greet each other with New Year cards containing words that celebrate the arrival of spring. This is nothing but the performance of a ritual, acting out the new spring without the expe-rience of it. On the seventh day of the year’s first month, every household in Japan eats rice porridge cooked with seven spring herbs. However, it is the seventh day of the first month accor-ding to the old calendar, in which all seven types of herbs are actually present in the fields. None of them can be found on January 7th of the current calendar. Thus, in order to proceed with this fictitious rite, the stores line their shelves with artificially grown herbs from greenhouses. Similarly, the festival of Hinamatsuri, where families celebrate the growth of their daughters, is on March 3rd. On this day, every household with a girl will set space in their homes for dolls dressed in traditional robes and place peach flowers to their side. Peach flowers are not in bloom on March 3rd of the new calendar. Again, the stores line their shelves with flowers from the greenhouse. The people of modern Japan repeat such false events year after year. Yet, they continue to introduce their own country to people overseas with the explanation that “the beauty of Japanese culture is in the harmonization with Nature.”
The important point is that virtually no one in Japan today realizes this disparity. They have lost the direct perceptual experience of the changing seasons, and what remains is only the conceptual relationship between the dates and the events. In any case, the strange tendency of the Japanese today to act like the traditional people of Japan towards others, after accep-ting the governmental policies of Westernization and rejecting tradition for so long, could be considered an interesting subject for the study of psychological disease.
Ironically, most Japanese do not realize that while the years of historical events are recorded according to the Western calendar in every book on Japanese history, the month and day, in the same books, are actually recorded according to the old calendar. Another example of their confusion concerns the alias names that belong to each month. Although these names make no sense unless used according to the old calendar, people continue to use them for the new calendar months. What results is the disconnection between name and experience: Minazuki, the name of the sixth month of the old calendar, which means “the month with no water”, is now used for the month of June, despite the fact that June is in the middle of the rainy season. In such circumstances, it is no wonder that most Japanese today have lost their interest in reading and understanding classic lite-rature.
In the end, perception of the seasons among modern Japanese is merely the recognition of temperature change. The different seasons have become nothing but the categorization of temperature distribution over the course of a year. For people who lived with the old calendar, however, perception of the seasons was certainly not based on temperature change. They paid close attention to the subtle messages received from the natural environment that surrounded them, and delighted in cultivating a delicate awareness of the changing of the seasons. This is clearly demonstrated in the Waka and Haiku poetry of old.
The direct perceptual experience of contact with the seasonal cycles, examples of which abound in the classic literature of Japan, speaks of a most fundamental aspect of traditional Japanese culture: namely, a worldview in which all things possess life. This ability to perceive that all things are alive, reso-nating in harmony with one another, is what guaranteed people the certainty of being alive. “I am alive.” was indeed synonymous with “Everything else is alive”. Cultivating the ability to perceive a sense of liveliness in all that surrounded oneself was, directly, the way to nourish one’s own life. Ze-ami (1363?-1443?), considered the founder of Noh, explains to his disciples in the “Fushikaden”, that “the Way of Poetry fosters longevity and so should be learned by any means” [Nogami & Nishio, (1958, p. 11)]. Today, no one would think that poetry could serve as a method for gaining health. But in a world in which everything is alive, everything, including poetry and Noh, could lead to longevity. Because creating a reverberating relationship with the natural world was exactly the way to invigorate one’s own life.
The traditional culture of Japan is an artisan culture. Master craftsmen of all fields have relayed the same words to their apprentices for centuries on end. Without exception, they claim that the materials used for their art are “alive”. The dye-maker says that the cloth is alive; the potter says that the clay is alive; blacksmiths maintain that the steel they hammer is alive [S.B.B. Inc., (19xx)].
The steel nails forged by traditional Japanese blacksmiths contain more impurities than modem nails produced in the smelting furnace. Yet, it has been discovered that nails taken out from structures built six hundred years ago are still without rust and in perfect condition to be reused today. This fact, which goes against the theories of science, may not in itself demonstrate the belief that everything was alive, but it does suggest how the blacksmith’s long-standing conviction of the life in steel could be poured into a single nail to become a powerful and lasting life force.
This world view, in which all things possessed life, was also the foundation of the construction methods for traditional wooden architecture. Timber material used for construction was traditionally left out to weather for a period of approximately ten years. After World War II however, scientists advanced their way into the timber industry, analyzed the amount of moisture contained in the weathered timber mate-rial, and introduced a drying machine that could achieve the same level of moisture reduction in the course of just three hours. This compressing of ten years into three hours, however, takes away the moisture in timber on a cellular level, making superficial the timber’s ability to absorb moisture. In other words, it robs the wood of its original attributes, leading to a shorter life span. From the start, scientific proof has always required making visible the invisible. The method used by science is to convert what cannot be quantified into something that can be. In this case, “weathering” into “drying”. Weathering timber for ten years means to leave the timber out in the rain, wind, heat, and snow for ten years. The shrine and temple carpenters of Kyoto actually weather their timber in water in order to exchange the old water contained in the wood with new. This obviously and fundamentally differs from “drying”. The weathering process allows the timber ten years to adjust itself to a different environment from that in which it was raised, and this reflects the ancient attitude that considered timber “alive”. It was this ability to perceive timber wood as alive that enabled the creation of wooden structures with life spans of a thousand years.
The policy of Westernization, however, continues in the world of architecture today. Government regulations require a moisture level of under 20% for construction timber. This is a number impossible to achieve through natural weathering methods, and in actuality means that the government permits only the use of artificially dried timber for construction. Although it is true that the unit strength for each piece of timber is increased when moisture levels are contained below 20%, the natural attributes of wood are lost; its ability to breathe is robbed. Western architecture places emphasis on unit strength, but it does not see timber as a living being. By all practical means, wood is treated in a manner no different from steel beams. Traditional architecture, on the other hand, emphasized balance. It sought strength through balance, and considered the life force of the timber to be of utmost importance in achieving the desired balance.
For the past hundred years, science has done its best to rob time of its power. But life grows and ripens with time, and the compression of time necessarily comes with sacrifices. Just as listening to music requires time that does not allow compression, forced growth will only result in abnormal development. The layering work of lacquer workers, the blacksmith’s forging of nails, the work of the swordsmith, all of these coexist with time. For centuries on end, craftsmen have focused their attention on the grasping of Ki (timing) and the utilization of Ma (the in-between, lull in time). The swordsmith’s work is to heat the iron, remove the iron from the fire at precisely the right timing, then after an appropriate lull, cool the iron rapidly with water before returning it to the fire. This process is repeated over and over, and the art is in mastering the right timing, degree, and interval (Ki, Do, Ma). These skills have made possible the creation of swords that cannot ever be reproduced with the most advanced of modern machinery.
Each medicine pill that doctors of Western medicine give to their patients contains a multiplicity of effective ingredients. The patient simultaneously consumes, for example, ten effective ingredients through a single pill. This speaks most directly of the nature of the pursuit for “efficiency” seen in artificial drying and forced growth methods mentioned before. In simple terms, it is the conversion of time into space, and we should recognize that here lies the true cause of modern medicine’s harmful side effects. In the practice of Chinese medicine, the doctor gives a single effective ingredient to the patient, then observes the resulting condition before deciding on what to provide next. This means that they need at least ten days in order to give the patient ten effective ingredients. To observe a patient’s conditions, and then respond according to his or her progress is a process that is quite natural, and certainly should not be scorned as being “inefficient”. It only seems  inefficient because science has recognized value in replacing the invisible rhythms of life contained within time with the visible movement of clock-time. The philosophy here is one that values result over process, outcome over experience. We should reconsider whether the fulfillment we seek in life is about experience or result. Rhythm within time provides us with rich experience and the certainty of being alive. Under the pretext of positivism hides the absurdity of the scientist who turns on the lights in order to investigate the nature of darkness.
One of the very basic skills in the art of traditional carpentry is to be able to take one glance at a piece of sawn wood and discern its top and bottom. This is because traditional carpenters believe that each piece of wood retains the memory of heaven and earth from when it stood in the mountains, and furthermore, that the wood would not gain new life unless it was set to stand according to that memory. The distinction between front and back is equally important. The front is the side of the tree that faced the sun; the back is of course the opposite. Trees that grow on the east facing slopes of a mountain are used as pillars for the east side of buildings; trees from west facing slopes are used on the west side. The pillars for each of the four directions are arranged according to the way they grew in their homeland, and it is believed that the trees can gain a second life in this manner. In fact, when just one pillar is set with top and bottom reversed, the resulting space will exude an odd feeling of disparity. The traditional spaces inhabited by the Japanese for two thousand years were constructed using such methods that harmonized living material with life [Nishioka, (1993)]. The resulting feeling of being surrounded by life intangible was exactly the sense of comfort they chose to cherish.
In this manner, the basis of the construction methods found in traditional Japanese wooden architecture differs from that of Western architecture. However, the traditional methods acquired through accumulated experiential knowledge alone would not make Japanese architecture worthy of the title, “culture”. The “culture” of Japanese architecture lies in the indivisibility of the carpenter’s sensitivity from its construction methods. The discovery of how one’s perception or awareness of the intangible can be utilized in the execution of certain methods so that those methods acquire life – this is what the Japanese of old called Waza (art or skill). The refinement of such Waza, or in other words, the refinement of one’s sensitivity – to continue with the example of architecture – is what initiates correspondence with the dweller’s own sensitivity, and in turn creates a sense of richness and comfort in the inhabited space.
In essence, “culture” is the sharing of certain intangible va-lues by a people – the collective consciousness of a people, gathering towards the abstract.
Consider the traditional Japanese kimono. Unlike Western clothes, the kimono is not an end in itself. The actual product is not the kimono, but rather the fabric from which it is made. By nature, the kimono is composed entirely of straight-line cuttings. Therefore, it can easily return to its original fabric state, simply by taking apart its stitches. The fabric then can be re-dyed or reused to make a new set of clothing. It can even be handed down through several generations of ownership. Such a concept of regeneration is fundamental to the cultural worldview in which everything possesses life.
The construction of Ze-ami’s Noh even included correspondence with the dead. Noh is a theater art with a unique construct involving dance, song, and storytelling. The story is acted out by three main characters – traveler, monk, and ghost. What
Ze-ami expected from the performers was neither acting nor emotional expression, but direct correspondence and harmonization with the dead. Noh, for Ze-ami, was a ritual of purification, in which the dead were to be pacified and reborn. This serious theme cast by Ze-ami brought about the concept of Yugen (usually translated as the “subtle and profound”), to Japanese culture. The perceptual experiences of Mono no Aware, Wabi, Sabi, and Yugen – crucial in the understanding of Japanese culture – all emerged from that same worldview, and for this reason could be shared by the Japanese [Shinkawa, (1985)].
The Ise Shrine is Japan’s foremost Shinto shrine, with a history of fifteen hundred years. In the vast forest compounds of the shrine, a certain ritual has been repeated every morning and evening throughout the shrine’s entire history. This ritual, called the Higoto-Asa-Yu-Ohmikesai, involves cleansing of the shrine and offering of foods to the Spirit. Self-sufficiency is the rule; all offerings must come from within the shrine compounds. The shrine has its own gardens and fields from which to harvest rice, vegetables, and fruits; saltpan where salt is extracted according to ancient methods; and a well that has never gone dry for fifteen hundred years. The food is prepared with spiritually purified fire, called Imibi, kindled by rotating a wooden drill on a dry wooden slate – a method dating to the Yayoi Period – while the plates are made of unglazed pottery fired in the shrine kiln. The most outstanding aspect of the Ise Shrine is its ritual of Shikinen Sengu. This ritual   consists of the total disassembling and reconstructing of the shrine’s buildings once every twenty years. Construction materials for the new buildings come entirely from the shrine’s forest. With these materials, the buildings are reconstructed in the exact same form, and new trees are planted in place of the logged trees, to be used for the reconstruction ritual that is to happen two hundred years later [Yano, (1993)]. These activities, continued over a span of fifteen centuries, is where the shrine’s views on life and the world are told without use of language.
In this way, the idea that life exists everywhere was the underlying current beneath Japan’s traditional culture. It reco-gnized life in all things, leading to the certainty of correspondence between all things, and touched upon that which flows ceaselessly from past to future.

Next chapter #3 The idea of the body in asceticism

1Journal of Sport and Health Science, Vol. 2, 8-24, 2004. http : //wwwsoc.nii ac jp/jspe3/index.htm.

Sources des images

  • Estampe : Le moineau sur le camélia enneigé.  Auteur : Utagawa Hiroshige 1 (1797-1858). Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie
  • Estampe : Les scieurs dans les montagnes de Tôtômi ( Tôtômi sanchû ) : Les « Trente-six vues du mont Fuji » ( Fugaku sanjû-rokkei ), 19 e vue. Auteur :    Hokusai Katsushika (1760-1849) Bibliothèque nationale de France
  • Stillfried & Andersen. Views and costumes of Japan d’après des négatifs de Raimund von Stillfried, Felice Beato et autres photographes. Vers 1877-1878.