|Falling cherry blossoms at Yasukuni shrine|
Photo by DK
This is the unstable world and
we in it unstable and our houses
--Basil Bunting, from Chomei at Toyama.*
Time out of mind, East and West, the aestheticisation of transience - that is, the aesthetic association of human impermanence with evanescent phenomena of nature like the mutability of seasons, snow, the changing colour of leaves, falling cherry blossoms - has been a way of coping with uncertainty, decay, suffering, loss, and all sorts of predicaments and catastrophes beyond our control.
In Japan it has been an integral part of the country's cultural tradition, shaped by the Buddhist worldview and invariably revived at times of national disaster and soul-searching, as epitomised in the opening lines of Kamo no Chomei's poignant evocation of the great earthquake of Genryaku, which in 1185 wrought havoc in the Kyoto region:
The flow of the river is ceaseless and its water is never the same. The bubbles that float in the pools, now vanishing, now forming, are not of long duration: so in the world are man and his dwellings. It might be imagined that the houses, great and small, which vie roof against proud roof in the capital remain unchanged from one generation to the next, but when we examine whether this is true, how few are the houses that were there of old. Some were burnt last year and only since rebuilt; great houses have crumbled into hovels and those who dwell in them have fallen no less. (Hojoki / An Account of My Hut; trans. by Donald Keene)
It isn't thus surprising to find articles such as this recent one anticipating the coming cherry blossom viewing season as a source of both sorrow and solace under the current devastating circumstances. I have no doubt it will be so. Yet, at the same time, I feel somewhat perplexed and uneasy when I read passages like the following, unwittingly linking cherry blossoms with national identity - with a quintessential Japaneseness:
Consider this Japanese paradox: The delicate cherry blossom was also the symbol of the samurai, the epitome of Japanese valor.
The warrior class liked the flowers because they didn't cling to life, but rather showed up for the briefest spell, and fell at the peak of their splendor. In this way, they embodied the spirit of bushido — the way of the warrior that combines stoicism, bravery, and self-sacrifice.
These days, people invoke bushido less often than the common man's down-to-earth version — "gaman." It means gritting your teeth and just getting on with life. When people refer to Japan's salarymen as modern-day samurai, it's taken not so much in a swashbuckling sense but for the way these men in suits endure crushing, monotonous toil, and display unwavering loyalty to a common cause.
And amid death, people of all stripes here are plowing ahead with life, in an orderly and cooperative way. Many are already starting to return to the sites of their devastated homes, and thinking coolheadedly about how to start over amid Japan's biggest catastrophe since World War II.
Scenes of gaman abound: the homeless family sitting around a makeshift fire as snow falls at night, their stoic faces lit up by orange flames. The old man walking his bicycle through an ankle-high lake of mud, his son's wedding picture in the basket. Drivers waiting patiently in line for hours for scarce gasoline in quake-ravaged areas.
And the reason why I feel so discomfited is because while I deeply admire these characteristics in the light of the ongoing crisis, I can't help remembering how the intimate connection between cherry blossoms and Japanese national identity, alongside the aesthetic appreciation of transience, were once utilised by the military and politicians of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century to promote nationalistic sentiment and its resultant disastrous actions. The Japanese militaristic ethos was recurrently metaphorised through the cherry blossoms' 'virtue' of 'not clinging to their blooming', and utilised for instilling perseverance in hardship, inconvenience, deprivation and self-sacrifice in the name of the Emperor.
In other words, the nationalist aesthetics of the cherry blossoms was a powerful ideological tool for sweetening the bitter pill of servitude under a totalitarian regime.
As Yuriko Saito reminds us in her wonderful book Everyday Aesthetics, the belief that cherry trees embody the Japanese spirit and soul even led the military government to plant cherry trees on those Asian soils that Japan colonised and on the ground of the infamous Yasukuni shrine, which is believed to house the souls of the war dead. And, of course, this aestheticisation of falling cherry blossoms also ultimately served 'as a potent and poignant symbol for falling Kamikaze pilots, whose death was praised and celebrated by the wartime nation' (p. 195).
In view of the radical contrast between the current catastrophe and the Second World War situation, I fully endorse Saito's remark that the aestheticisation of transience can be a lofty and worthwhile goal from a spiritual and existential point of view - as Joji Sakurai argues in reference to the present crisis - but that it can also have dire consequences when utilised for certain social and political purposes, in particular the promotion of nationalism requiring citizens’ sacrifice of their own lives.
In any case, and because history has taught us that all too often cultural-aesthetic nationalism easily and dangerously slides into political nationalism, I'd rather refrain from aestheticising suffering, loss and gaman altogether, including at the present moment.
In this respect, it's worth remembering Ango Sakaguchi (1906-1955), a writer who in the wake of Japan's defeat analysed at length the role of bushido during the Second World War, and outspokenly argued that the country's postwar decadence was more truthful than a wartime Japan built on dangerous illusions like bushido with its extolling of self-restraint and self-sacrifice as not only virtuous but also beautiful (美徳/bitoku = beauty and virtue).
Indeed, I find that Sakaguchi's passionately anticonformist questioning may contain a valuable lesson for the present time:
What is true human nature? It is simply desiring what one desires and disliking what one dislikes. One should like what one likes, love the woman one loves, and get out of the false cloak of what is said to be a just cause and social obligation, and return to the naked heart. Finding this naked human heart is the first step toward restoring humanity. (qtd. in Saito, p. 193)
Japan has already amazed the world with its dignified stiff upper lip and gaman in the face of terrible adversity. Yet wouldn't it be even more amazing if this unspeakable catastrophe acted as a catalyst for restoring the country's lost humanity and shedding some of its past illusions and masks?
Because not accepting one's lot by questioning, criticising and rebelling against injustice is, after all, an integral part of being human, whose recurrent repression entails too high a cost in the long run. As the Irish poet W. B. Yeats phrased it:
Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter, seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
And who wants to live in such a stone-hearted society among emotionally atrophied people?
*Bunting's 1932 verse translation of the 13th-century Japanese prose work Hojoki / An Account of My Hut by Kamo no Chomei (1153-1216).