The Evolution of the Japanese Ego: Part I 

under-the-wave-off-kanagawa

Michael Hoffman writes: When Adam and Eve defied God, creator and master of the universe, and ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge, what did they learn? To say “I.”

They learned that they were “naked” — they were selves, egos. As such, there was no place for them in paradise. Their expulsion was “the fall of man,” narrated in the biblical Book of Genesis.

This seems a long way from Japan. It is. Japanese myth records no “fall,” no defiance of the undefiable, no primeval descent into selfhood. The Japanese ego evolved very differently from the Western one.

This is the introductory installment of a four-part series examining what the Japanese mean when they say “I.”

A peculiarity of the Japanese language gives it many first-person pronouns, varying with circumstances, rank, age and gender, but comparatively few occasions to use them. Japanese often leaves sentence subjects
unspoken. You can speak of yourself without emphasizing and reinforcing, as Western languages force you to do, your “I-ness.”

cs2317598-02a-big

Japanese tradition denigrates not only selfishness but selfhood. To Buddhism it was a delusion; to Confucianism, an object of “self-cultivation” whose ultimate object is self-denying, society-dedicated “benevolence.” Bushido, the “way of the warrior,” was especially hard on the self. “The way of the warrior is death,” declared the grim 18th-century military treatise known as the “Hagakure.” “This means choosing death whenever there is a choice between life and death.” The self that instinctively protests51e9jgsshl-_sl250_ its death sentence must be rigorously suppressed: “Every day without fail one should consider oneself as dead.”

[Check out Michael Hoffman’s book, “In The Land of the Kami: A Journey Into The Hearts of Japan at Amazon.com]

The first “I” in Japanese literature is identifiable but not nameable — her name is unknown. A noblewoman and poetess, she lived in 10th-century Kyoto and left posterity a diary — the “Kagero Nikki” (“Gossamer Diary”). It’s a brilliant portrait of a soul in torment. Her “I” is her suffering; her suffering forces her into the black hole of selfhood. Hers is no plea for individualism; if anything she pleads for release from it. She would be anyone other than herself, if only she could. Other people were like other people; only she was different, condemned to the morbid isolation of selfhood by an insufficiently attentive husband and the perversity (which she admits) of her own feelings. Sharing a husband was gall to her. Polygamy among the aristocracy was the norm. Other noblewomen resigned themselves to it, more or less graciously. Why couldn’t she? Why did she alone torture herself over slights and neglect that others shrugged off? Because she was she. She wanted a husband “30 days and 30 nights a month,” and, knowing she demanded the impossible, refused to settle for less. “If only the Buddha would let me be reborn in Enlightenment,” she prays. In other words: If only the Buddha would release me from the agony of selfhood. It never happens.

gossamer

Between the long peace of her time and the long peace of the Edo Period (1603-1868) stand 500 years of war — civil war, mostly — in which bushido prevailed. Life was nothing, death everything, the self a mere sacrifice to be laid on the altar of loyalty. Read the rest of this entry »


Emperor Akihito of Japan Raises Possibility of Leaving Throne

Emperor Akihito, 82, spoke publicly for the first time about retiring, saying he feared it would become ‘more difficult’ to fulfill his duties.

Jonathan Noble reports: It has been something of an open secret in Japan that Emperor Akihito would like a privilege most people take for granted: At 82, he wants to retire. The question is whether the Japanese and their elected leaders will let him.

In an extraordinary televised address on Monday, the popular emperor spoke publicly about the issue for the first time. Though his words were characteristically vague — he discussed his age, his rigorous daily schedule and what he called his increasing physical limitations — the message was unmistakable.

“I am concerned that it will become more and more difficult for me to fulfill my duties as a symbolic emperor,” he said in a prerecorded address that lasted about 10 minutes and was broadcast on multiple Japanese television networks.

If Akihito steps down, the move could redefine Japan’s royal family, the world’s oldest hereditary monarchy. While the emperor now has only symbolic power, an abdication could also resurrect a contentious issue in Japan: the debate over allowing a woman to occupy the throne.

[Read the full story here, at The New York Times]

First reported in banner headlines by the Japanese news media in July, Akihito, who has been treated for cancer and heart problems, was said to want to retire and pass the title to his son Crown Prince Naruhito, 56. Prince Naruhito appears to share his father’s quiet temperament and wish to keep the monarchy apolitical.

But abdication is complicated because of Japanese law, which says an emperor serves until death. Parliament would have to change the law for Akihito to step down. Read the rest of this entry »


BREAKING: Japan’s Emperor Akihito to Make Rare Public Address

Japan’s Emperor Akihito is set to deliver his second ever televised address to the nation, after reports he wants to step down in coming years.

Japan’s Emperor Akihito is set to deliver his second ever televised address to the public.

Last month, Japanese media reported that the emperor wanted to step down in coming years, which would be unprecedented in modern Japan.

He is not expected to use the word “abdicate” because he is barred from political involvement.

The palace said on Friday he would be speaking about his “feelings regarding his duties as a symbol of the nation”.

26CBEF0C00000578-3002178-image-a-30_1426760493935

Five things about Japan’s emperor

People in Tokyo sum up Japan’s Emperor in one word

  • Has adopted a more modern style, making efforts to draw the imperial family closer to the people.
  • He married a commoner in 1959 – their love story captured the nation and was dubbed the “tennis court romance” as they met over the nets. Together he and Empress Michiko have three children.
  • Has sought to heal the scars of World War Two, saying last year: “Looking back at the past, together with deep remorse over the war, I pray that this tragedy of war will not be repeated and together with the people express my deep condolences for those who fell in battle and in the ravages of war.”
  • Acknowledged his Korean ancestry in the run-up to the 2002 World Cup, which Japan and South Korea jointly hosted. This surprised many in Japan given the country’s bitter colonial legacy on the Korean peninsula.
  • His passion is marine biology and he is an expert on the goby fish.

[Emperor Akihito’s reign in pictures]

There is no legal provision for abdication in Japanese law, which would mean a law change would be required.

[Read the full story here, at BBC News]

Under the constitution the emperor is not allowed to have political powers so a wish to abdicate could be seen as him interfering in politics.

3405

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to issue a statement after the emperor’s speech.

A pre-recorded message from the 82-year-old emperor, who is revered in Japan, will be made public at 15:00 local time (06:00 GMT).

Public broadcaster NHK reported the emperor, who has had heart surgery and was treated for prostate cancer, would ask Crown Prince Naruhito and his wife to take over many of his public duties. Read the rest of this entry »