Kata – Way Of Writing – Part 5

Kata – Way Of Writing – Part 5

Kata – Way Of Writing – Part 5

Kata – Way Of Writing – Part 5

The deep influence of a writing system and language on a society can not be overstated. 

Language is a concept, and the Japanese society is built upon the constructs rooted in complex ideograms imported from China around 700 CE. 

There’s an incredible effort put into learn these complex characters and is definitely something that undoubtably forges the Japanese spirit of perseverance, forbearance, and patience. 

The Japanese writing system is made up of 3 different syllabaries.

Primarily the Japanese use Chinese ideograms, along with 2 indigenous Japanese syllabaries; hiragana and katakana. 

Evolution Kanji

These pictographs, otherwise known as kanji are complex ideograms and each kanji is made up of one to a dozen or more joining strokes.

Here is an example for the uninitiated, of a more complex kanji to ponder as one continue the story. 

Complex ideogram

To write Japanese properly, the stroke order is crucial, and to be executed in a carefully prescribe, no deviation allowed manner. 

Sometimes a sympathetic Japanese will say “stroke order is not important”, but one always disagrees.

Learning how to draw these kanji also instills the Japanese with a highly developed sense of harmony, form, and style. 

As a matter of course, the Japanese are instilled with a deep appreciation of aesthetics via the ridged training it takes in order to write in such a complex fashion (famous American talk show host flustered by Japanese schoolgirl’s gift of the kanji name). 

One could even go so far as to say the Japanese are all highly skilled artists.

Since these ideographs depicted actual things and concepts they communicates much more than just the mere sounds of a familiar alphabet. 

The Japanese system of communication and recording information and concepts embodies a much more personal experience, accompanied by deep and strong psychological content, as well as evoking emotions. 

The mental concentration in the complex and mechanical effort required to memorize and write kanji correctly has a fundamental effect on the psychology and physical development of all educated Japanese. 

It has instilled them with patience and diligence, enhanced manual dexterity well beyond the norm, and this has prepare them for a life which form, order, and process are paramount.

器用

In times gone by, the Japanese must have had to learn kanji by the thousands, however, the Ministry of Education thankfully reduced the official number of mandatory kanji one must learn in school at 2136 kanji, known as joyo. 

Adding family names, places, and specialty language vocabulary, the Japanese are in all likelihood able to recognize closer to 3,000 kanji, as a matter of course. 

The long-term practice and usage of kanji shaped and defined the Japanese physically, emotionally and intellectually, while harmonizing them and binding them to their culture.

Again reaching into the past, during Japan’s long feudal ages the pupils did not only have to mastering pronunciation, meaning, an intricate stroke order, but they were also required to become adept at drawing the characters in a stylized matter known as shodo, “the way of the brush” or calligraphy in English. 

Engaging in calligraphy is still very popular to this day, and an important part of the New Year tradition, where the Japanese engage in kakizomei, or the first calligraphy of the New Year.

書初

For an excellent place to view high level calligraphy check out Shinei’s social media feed here.

Come again next week as we present the last part of kata, where one ponders the continuing role of kata in the evolving Japanese society, and the implications on the future of the Japanese and our shared humanity.

Learn Kanji

Kata – Part 3 – Harmony

Kata – Part 3 – Harmony

Kata – Part 3 – Harmony

Kata – Part 3 – Harmony

The core principal of Japan’s kata cultural from the earliest times has been the promotion and maintenance of harmony. 

Personal behaviour, as well as all relationships, both private and public, was based upon strictly controlled harmony in the proper inferior-superior context of Japanese society, which continues up until this day.

Welcome to our tate shakai or “vertical society”.

Does one know the Japanese actually already had their own original constitution?

Japanese Constitution

This original constitution is the one the Japanese still function under today, spiritual speaking of course. This constitution is ingrained into the Japanese as they move through the form, order and process of daily Japanese life, regardless of one’s rung on the labyrinth ladder of the Japanese society.

Once upon a time there was a wise prince; Prince Shotoku was the regent to Empress Suiko in the 7th century, and it was he who codified the idealized virtues of the Japanese in what can considered to be Japan’s first constitution.

The first article of the original Japanese constitution made harmony the foundation for all of the other following articles.

和

Furthermore, the 17 articles of this constitution provided the framework for all subsequent development of Japanese culture thereafter.

In case one is yet unaware, the original name of Japan was Yamato, which translates to Great Harmony. 

So it figures, and is so very profound, that harmony would be embodied as the founding principal into the original constitution of Japan, think one not?

Interestingly enough, the 17th and final commandment of this original constitution was: “You must never decide great matters on your own. You must always discuss them with all kinds of people”. 

Now one can see where this society’s roots of consensus thinking comes from.

Indeed the mentality of maintaining harmony was not only mandated in the constitution, but developed from the historic personal relationship the Japanese have with the land as wet rice farmers.  

The cooperation necessary to maintain the complex irrigation systems demanded not only a spirit of cooperation, but also harmony.  

Furthermore, any threat to the harmony of the group is always viewed as a life and death situation, and the group does whatever is necessary to protect and maintain the group harmony. 

Life roles in Japan prescribed strict guidelines as to relationships between parents and children, younger and older siblings, workers and their superiors, samurai warriors and their lords, and ultimately between the nation as a whole and our beloved emperor, Naruhito.

All of these relationship were stylized by kata, and were deemed to be functioning properly when each person knew ones own place and keeping it according to the prescribed form and order. 

On top of these rigorous and strict protocols was the mandate to display honesty, integrity, goodwill, trust, confidence and selflessness. 

義理人情

There are specific obligations each person owes to the others. Relationships are to be maintained using the principles of giri and this is embodied into kata. 

One has explored giri in detail in a podcast entitled “Ongaishi: Covering With Obligation”.

Shame still plays a very important component in how the Japanese are molded into one’s society built upon kata, and one should always be aware of the shame factor in Japanese society.

kimono japanese laughing

Needless to say, avoiding bringing shame to one’s own family, and creating shame upon others is to be shunned at all cost. 

Fundamentally, most Japanese are unable to feel comfortable in anything but it clearly define socially ranked relationship. 

One submits, it is these harmonious relationships based upon wa and kata, which enabled the Japanese to rise from the ashes of the second world war, with a single minded determination to rebuild Japan and the dignity of the Japanese people.

Come again next week for part 4 of kata as one continues to explores katification of the Japanese and our society

World Harmony

Kata – Part 2 – Way Of Doing

Kata – Part 2 – Way Of Doing

Kata – Part 2 – Way Of Doing

Kata – Part 2 – Way Of Doing

One could say the most used and significant word in Japanese is shikata.

In particular, and most significantly, the form and order of the process.

The roots of shi, in shikata, is a combination of “support” and “serve” in the sense of an inferior serving a superior, and kata is roughly translated as “form”. 

Add kata on to a word and you have started on a life long journey that will only end when it is one’s turn to cross the sanzu no kawa.

iki kata; way of living

kangae kata; way of thinking

kaki kata; way of writing

yomi kata; way of reading

tabe kata; way of eating

Door To The Universe

One is almost certain there’s hardly any area of Japanese thought or behaviour which is not directly influenced by one or more kata. 

Kata also incorporates the physical and spiritual laws of the universe, which is seen by the Japanese as a well-ordered whole, and the uniquely Japanese protocols encompassing kata refers to the way things are supposed to be done.

Even more so and profoundly, both form and order are regarded as the fundamental means of expressing and maintaining harmony in society and in the orderly universe.

Historically, the Japanese have held the belief that form itself has a reality of its very own, and this form more often than not took precedence over substance. 

The Japanese also believes that anything could be accomplished if the right kata was mentally and physically practice long enough. 

One familiar with the esoteric coffee shops in the nooks and crannies of the metropolises of Japan can attest to the form and process going into what may seem like the mundane act of making coffee. However, to the coffee shop master, ingrained kata is a ritualized process which produces a cup of java that can only be tasted at said coffee shop. 

古い喫茶店

This is all due to kata and the divine nature of the form and processes into the goal. 

One can also observe kata at the Japanese cake shop, and one can know about the “wrapping” kata in action in the article “The Japanese Way of Cake”.

One can surely say the sum of all kata in Japanese life, can simply be referred to as “The Japanese Way”. 

At some point in the evolution of kata, the proper observance of kata was equated with morality and one was either in kata or out of kata. 

One being out of kata was a sin against society and was worthy of being ostracized, or worse…

Let’s be clear, kata mandated only one acceptable way to perform all the various actions of life in Japan, from using chopsticks, to wrapping a package, and through this, there being only one right way of thinking, and that is in no uncertain terms, The Japanese Way.

The Japanese think in terms of an inner order (individual heart) and the natural order (orderly universe), and these two are indelibly linked by form, by kata.

Orderly Universe

Indeed, kata serves to link and bind the individual into society. 

If one did not follow the explicitly prescribed forms, one was not only out of harmony with one’s fellow humans, but also with nature. 

The challenge facing the Japanese was to know their own honshin or one’s own “true” or “right heart”.  After understanding this, one only needed to learn and follow the kata that would keep them in sync with society, and the orderly universe.

The learning of every day behaviour, proper etiquette, working skills, and professionalism became a codified process of learning the basics, and then developing one’s skills in accomplishing the necessary actions in the prescribe form, order, and manner. 

Life-long conditioning in this finally meshed web of rules and form has made it second nature for the Japanese to expect that every situation would have its exact process and form.

The significant difference between The Japanese Way and the customs that developed in most other societies was that the Japanese create their own existence based upon kata with practically nothing left to chance nor to one’s personal inclination. 

So, where did kata come from, and how did it evolve?

Come again next week for part 3 of kata as one explores the roots and history of kata, how it evolved, and the way it continues to mold the Japanese and our society up until this very day.

Way Of Doing

 

Kata – Part 1 – Form Order & Process

Kata – Part 1 – Form Order & Process

Kata – Part 1 – Form Order & Process

Kata – Part 1 – Form Order & Process

Is one aquatinted with the Japanese term kata? 

If not, one should very well be. 

Having an awareness and understanding of kata is paramount to gaining comprehension of, and deal with the Japanese.

Perhaps one has heard this term used in the martial arts space, where it describes the formal process used in training. 

Asian Boy Doing Kata

However, the essence of kata is far more important than this implies.

The entire traditional Japanese culture, starting with personal etiquette, and then in how one learns to do all routine things in life, was, and still is based upon precise kata. 

In other words, the Japanese are shaped by an exact, prescribe way of doing things. 

Throughout the history of Japan, the interjection of personal preference or any sort of deviation for any reason from the prescribe kata was taboo. 

This prescribed and strictly enforce conformity to precise ways of doing things continues to have a profound influence on the character and personality of the Japanese up until the very day.

This makes them homogeneous to an extraordinary degree, and predictable as everyone was taught and trained to do things the same way. 

Japanese Salaried Workers

One can easily observe in this in the Japanese school system. 

For example, as you see the children cleaning their own schools, and serving their fellow students school lunch, you could say they are being trained in the kata of service to one’s fellow citizens, and the kata of responsibility for the upkeep and cleanliness of shared spaces (check about Japanese school lunch here).

Having kata drilled into one from the beginning of life can also be said to bear positive responsible for the remarkable manual skills and the dexterity that have long been typical of the Japanese. 

One can also see this in the Japanese ability to focus on things with great intensity, the compulsion to get things right, and an incessant need to strive toward perfection.

Still today no one can fully understand and appreciate the typical attitudes and behaviour of the Japanese without realizing that the foundation of the Japanese Way is kata, and how this forges and forms those raised in the Japanese Way.

Kata is so vitally important for a deeper understanding of the Japanese people, our society, and the way things work here, one will be further exploring kata in depth so stay tuned for Part 2 of Kata, here, in Land Of The Rising Son.

 

The Wisdom of Japanese Proverbs

The Wisdom of Japanese Proverbs

The Wisdom of Japanese Proverbs

The Wisdom of Japanese Proverbs

Proverbs are indigenous to all cultures, and often expose the deeper roots of the philosophy and psychology of a society.

Japanese culture is especially rich in kotowaza or proverbs, as Japanese culture is ancient and has been highly sophisticated for a very very  long time. 

Furthermore, the richness of Japanese proverbs stems from the influence of Shintoism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Zen Buddhism, all of which one believes are much more philosophically and metaphysically profound than much younger and more immature religions, such as Christianity.

Nonetheless, the more profound proverbs can be found in virtually all old cultures, which is an obvious sign of the universality of humanity, despite racial and cultural differences. 

Here some Japanese proverbs and some food for thought along the way.

(1) 実るほど頭を垂れる稲穂かな (minoru hodo kobe wo tareru inaho kana)

The more respectable a person is, the more humble they are

As the rice grows, it bears fruit, and the more rice, the lower the it bows, which means that the more respectable a person is, the lower his or her head is, the more humble he or she is.

Sitting at the counter, with my very good doctor friend in a delicious sashimi specialty store, in the countryside of Japan, there were three men sitting along side of us. As the sake flowed we started to chitchat with them,  as we did the two younger ones seemed slightly arrogant, and little full of themselves, while the older gentleman displayed a more humble mannerism. During the conversation, the name cards came out and lo-and-behold, the cards indicated the two younger braggarts as low level bureaucrats, while the name cards of the other gentleman, you guessed it, held an important high level position in the city government of this particular country town. After they departed the shop, my very good doctor friend taught me this important proverb. Thank you Dr. Yuki for your friendship and wisdom.

Rice Stalk

(2) 七転び八起き (nana korobi ya oki) 

Life is full of ups and downs

Everyone without exception, everyone experiences the tides of life. This proverb holds special meaning for me after seeing my father get  sued by a major oil corporation,   and losing all his material goods including his house in his 60s. As devastating as this would have been to others, my father got back up, brushed himself off, and never lost his sense of humour. Not only that, my father brought himself out of poverty and made an extraordinary life for his family, for which I am eternal grateful. If one is ever wondering what to do after a devastating set-back, the answer is to get back up again and move toward one’s own vision; this makes life meaningful.

By the way, my father celebrated his 85th birthday in 2020 (read about my fathers hat coming back to Japan after several decades here)

Life's Ups and Downs

(3)千里の道も一歩から (senri no michi ha ippo kara)

Every thousand mile journey starts with the first step

Starting is hard. The road in front of one is uncertain, and there are dead-ends and danger lurking here, there, and everywhere. There are also extraordinary experiences, teachers, and countless gods, saints,  and angels helping one along one’s the way, yet one may not even know their names. So why would one not take the first step? Believing in oneself and having the courage to take the first step on an uncharted road is really the essence of a life well lived, it not?

Every thousand mile journey starts with the first step

(4) 親孝行をしたいときに親は無し (oya koko o shitai toki oya wa nashi)

By the time children realize the virtue of their parents, and the obligation they owe to them, they are already gone

The Japanese are born into obligation, and none of these obligations is more important than oyakoko (filial piety). Rooted in Confucius principals, one believes it is significantly important to honour one’s parents. I can not imagine those who came before, and the hard roads that they were obliged to hoe. Traditional families who work to build a reputable house with an honourable legacy are to be venerated. 

filial piety

(5) 災いを転じて福となす (wazawai wo tenjite fuku to nasu)

Turning disaster into good fortune

Japan is known as the country of disasters. In light of all of the typhoons (recently known as megaphoons), volcanos, and frequent earthquakes, one would have to say this unfortunate label is probably well deserved. The Japanese are a resilient and stoic people, who have accepted disasters are a normal course of the human experience. I have always been impressed by the Japanese how they come together in times of disaster, not only to repair the damage, but to support each other in these time of crises. 

Good Fortune

There are countless of these philosophical and meaningful proverbs in Japanese, and once one internalizes the lessons lurking inside of them, another dimension opens its door, one from which you can never exit again, as the depth of the Japanese language will take one into a sublime world, unlike any other.

Language is a Concept: Formal Greeting-Aisatsu

Language is a Concept: Formal Greeting-Aisatsu

Language is a Concept: Formal Greeting-Aisatsu

Language is a Concept-Formal: Greeting-Aisatsu

Japan’s traditional etiquette continues to be one of the most structured, refined, and sophisticated patterns of behaviour ever imposed on any people. From infancy, the Japanese were trained physically and verbally on how to behave in the prescribed Japanese manner.

An example of instilling important behaviours upon the Japanese would be how babies have transitionally been carried by the Japanese. An “ombuhimo” is where the baby is strapped to the back so one can use the hands freely. Going about the day, the Japanese greet each other with a bow, thus the baby is also instilled with this important cultural protocol, as they too by default, are bowing to the other  party while strapped to the back.  

おんぶひも

Being trained in proper etiquette and behaviour protocol is indeed an integral part of being Japanese right out of the starting gate. 

Moreover, not behaving in the prescribed manner is a serious fail and could get one ostracized (read about the gravity of being ostracized in the Mask post here), if not eliminated from the earth forever.

The rules and forms involved in aisatsu are specially important between inferiors and superiors. The higher the rank of an individual, the more detail the prescribe manner of greeting him or her, the more rigorous behaviour was enforced, and of course this is true today as it ever was.

The first Occidentals to show up in Japan noted that the behaviour of the typical Japanese was the kind one might expect of royalty. One also recalls being treated in a royal manner in many situations even until this very day. However, for the Japanese, these polite, and to the Occidental mind somewhat strange behaviours, are culturally a matter of course.

Perry's Black Ship

The youth of Japan continue to absorb these important cultural conventions by witnessing it among adults as they grow up, and most of the traditional forms of etiquette are still followed by adults, particularly in formal situation.

Occidentals who really wants to “fit in“ in to Japan must learn a number of these crucial forms of aisatsu, and the formal greeting that takes place in the business world during New Year’s and on numerous other auspicious occasions, from weddings to funerals. 

One can not understate the importance of understanding and adhering to these crucial social conventions, so as to make one’s relationship with the Japanese counterparts respectful and proper. 

Even more so, while making the appropriate greeting following these Japanese protocols, one also can understand one’s own position in the most curious world of Japanese society.

Proper Bowing Technique-02

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