The Evolution of the Japanese Ego: Part I 

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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.”

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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.

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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 »


Jonathan Sacks: The Return of Anti-Semitism

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Seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz, violence and hatred against Jews is on the rise, especially in the Middle East and among Muslims in Europe

Jonathan Sacks writes: Last Tuesday, a group of Holocaust survivors, by now gaunt and frail, made their way back to Auschwitz, the West’s symbol of evil—back to the slave-labor side of the vast complex, with its mocking inscription Arbeit Macht Frei (“Work makes you free”), and back to the death camp, where a million and a quarter human beings, most of them Jews, were gassed, burned and turned to ash. They were there to commemorate the day, 70 years ago, when Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz and saw, for the first time, the true dimensions of the greatest crime since human beings first set foot on Earth.

“Today Christian communities are being ravaged, terrorized and decimated throughout the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia, and scores of Muslims are killed every day by their brothers, with Sunnis arrayed against Shiites, radicals against moderates, the religious against the secular. The hate that begins with Jews never ends with Jews.”

The moment would have been emotional at the best of times, but this year brought an especially disturbing undercurrent. The Book of Genesis says that, when God told Abraham what would happen to his descendants, a “fear of great darkness” fell over him. Something of that fear haunted the survivors this week, who have witnessed the return of anti-Semitism to Europe after 70 years of political leaders constant avowals of “Never again.” As they finished saying Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for mourners, one man cried out, “I don’t want to come here again.” Everyone knew what he meant. For once, the fear was not only about the past but also about the future.

Two Jews, kneeling at right, about to be put to death by the sword as revenge for the death of Jesus, who looks on at top left. Manuscript illumination, c1250, from a French Bible. PHOTO: THE GRANGER COLLECTION

Two Jews, kneeling at right, about to be put to death by the sword as revenge for the death of Jesus, who looks on at top left. Manuscript illumination, c1250, from a French Bible. PHOTO: THE GRANGER COLLECTION

The murder of Jewish shoppers at a Parisian kosher supermarket three weeks ago, after the killing of 12 people at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, sent shivers down the spines of many Jews, not because it was the first such event but because it has become part of a pattern. In 2014, four were killed at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. In 2012, a rabbi and three young children were murdered at a Jewish school in Toulouse.

“In 2008 in Mumbai, four terrorists separated themselves from a larger group killing people in the city’s cafes and hotels and made their way to a small Orthodox Jewish center, where they murdered its young rabbi and his pregnant wife after torturing and mutilating them.”

In 2008 in Mumbai, four terrorists separated themselves from a larger group killing people in the city’s cafes and hotels and made their way to a small Orthodox Jewish center, where they murdered its young rabbi and his pregnant wife after torturing and mutilating them. As the Sunday Times of London reported about the attack, “the terrorists would be told by their handlers in Pakistan that the lives of Jews were worth 50 times those of non-Jews.”

A copy of Adolf Hitler's ‘Mein Kampf’ is sold at a street shop in Cairo in 2009. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PESSE/GETTY IMAGES

A copy of Adolf Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ is sold at a street shop in Cairo in 2009. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PESSE/GETTY IMAGES

An ancient hatred has been reborn.

Some politicians around the world deny that what is happening in Europe is anti-Semitism. It is, they say, merely a reaction to the actions of the state of Israel, to the continuing conflict with the Palestinians. But the policies of the state of Israel are not made in kosher supermarkets in Paris or in Jewish cultural institutions in Brussels and Mumbai. The targets in these cities were not Israeli. They were Jewish.

The grand mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husayni, inspects Bosnian SS members in 1944. PHOTO: ALAMY

The grand mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husayni, inspects Bosnian SS members in 1944. PHOTO: ALAMY

According to the Middle East Media Research Institute, an Egyptian cleric, Muhammad Hussein Yaqub, speaking in January 2009 on Al Rahma, a popular religious TV station in Egypt, made the contours of the new hate impeccably clear: “If the Jews left Palestine to us, would we start loving them? Of course not. We will never love them…They are enemies not because they occupied Palestine. They would have been enemies even if they did not occupy a thing…You must believe that we will fight, defeat and annihilate them until not a single Jew remains on the face of the Earth…You will not survive as long as a single one of us remains.”

“Anti-Semitism has existed for a very long time. One critical moment came around the end of the 1st century C.E., when the Gospel of John attributed to Jesus these words about the Jews: ‘You belong to your father, the Devil.’ From being the children of Abraham, Jews had been transformed into the children of Satan.”

Not everyone would put it so forcefully, but this is the hate in which much of the Middle East and the Muslim world has been awash for decades, and it is now seeping back into Europe. For Jews, “never again” has become “ever again.”

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“If the Jews left Palestine to us, would we start loving them? Of course not. We will never love them…They are enemies not because they occupied Palestine. They would have been enemies even if they did not occupy a thing…You must believe that we will fight, defeat and annihilate them until not a single Jew remains on the face of the Earth…You will not survive as long as a single one of us remains.”

— Egyptian cleric, Muhammad Hussein Yaqub, speaking in January 2009

The scope of the problem is, of course, difficult to gauge precisely. But recent polling is suggestive—and alarming. An Anti-Defamation League study released last May found “persistent and pervasive” anti-Jewish attitudes after surveying 53,100 adults in 102 countries and territories world-wide. The ADL found that 74% of those surveyed in the Middle East and North Africa held anti-Semitic attitudes; the number was 24% in Western Europe, 34% in Eastern Europe and 19% in the Americas. Read the rest of this entry »


Adam and Eve Get Eviction Notice

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Adam and Eve Expelled from Eden

by William Blake Richmond

Date painted: c.1876

Oil on canvas, 202.5 x 89.9 cm

Collection: Brighton and Hove Museums and Art Galleries

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