Back to basics: The choice of seihin or kinben


“You’re up very late,” says Reiko.

What time is it?”

“Past 2.”

“Really. I no longer know what time of day or night it is.”

“Let’s talk, Stu.” Reiko sits down in the chair across the desk from me. We are in my room, my office, my study (shosai, 書斎), my hermitage (iori, 庵) — what I call it depends on my mood. “Let’s talk — without anger, without sarcasm (ikari nashi, hiniku nashi, 怒りなし、皮肉なし). We haven’t done very much of that lately, have we?”

“No, we haven’t.”

“What’s that you’re reading?”

I show her the book — a slim volume of poems by the Edo Period (江戸時代) hermit-monk (inja, 隠者) Ryokan (良寛) (1758-1831). “I’m thinking of taking a vow of poverty (seihin no chikai, 清貧の誓い).”

“I’m trying not to smile.”

Listen: ” ‘Kusa no iori ni ashi sashinobete . . . (In my grass hermitage, stretching out my legs . . . 草の庵に足差し伸べて . . . )’ “

“You’re not the ascetic type (kinyokushugisha no taipu de wa nai, 禁欲主義者のタイプではない).”

“No? But you know, I think deep down (naishin de wa, 内心では) I am the ascetic type. ‘Hachi no ko ni sumire tampopo … (In my begging bowl, violets and dandelions, 鉢のこにスミレタンポポ …)’ Hmm. To change the subject slightly (wadai wo kaeru, 話題を変える) — shall I tell you where I was today?”

“If it’s fit for a prim matron (katakurushii fujin, かたくるしい婦人) to hear.”

“I went to see a magazine editor who’s interested in having me write a column.”

“Oh, Stu, that’s …”

“Wait. It’s not settled yet (mada kimatte inai, まだ決まっていない). There are a few things we don’t quite see eye to eye on (iken ga icchi shite inai, 意見が — 致していない). It’s a monthly magazine called Varya. Here, have a look.”

There’s a copy on the desk, and I push it toward her.

“It’s quite good, actually. You’ll notice it has an article on seihin (清貧, literally “clean poverty”), which is what got me started on Ryokan. You say I’m not the 禁欲主義者 type, but did I ever tell you what got me interested in Japan in the first place? It wasn’t ‘Japan Inc.,’ or all this high-tech gadgetry, or bubble economies, or any of that. It was precisely 清貧 — back then of course it was called wabi (侘, beauty found in poverty and simplicity). What this article is saying is that this recession (fukeiki, 不景気) we’re mired in is maybe a good chance to return to some good old Japanese traditions (dentō, 伝統) that got swamped in the headlong rush to material prosperity (busshitsuteki na yutakasa, 物質的な豊かさ) and utilitarianism (jitsurishugi, 実利主義).”

“I enjoy Ryokan’s poetry too — but I wouldn’t want to live like him, and I doubt you would either.”

“What you’re saying is that you know me better than I know myself.”

“Why does everything I say make you angry (okoraseru, 怒らせる)?”

“I’m sorry — oh, sit down! Don’t get offended (hara wo tatenai de, 腹を立てないで) at every stupid little thing I say!”

“How did you meet this editor?”

“A former student introduced me. She’s his niece.”

“And what is it you don’t see eye to eye on?”

“Well, maybe I’m making a mountain out of a molehill (sasai na koto wo ō gesa ni iu, 些細なことを大げさに言う), but the guy’s politics are, shall we say, just a little rightwing (uyokuteki, 右翼的). I mean, there’s nothing wrong with patriotism (aikokushugi, 愛国主義), and I myself tend to be a bit conservative (hoshuteki, 保守的), at least in the sense of wanting to conserve (tamotsu, 保つ) the old outmoded traditions like wabi, but . . . well, in a word, he’s a bit of a creep (zotto saseru, ぞっとさせる).”

“It’s better than doing nothing, isn’t it?”

“You know, honestly, I’m not sure about that. There’s a lot to be said for doing nothing. How did Ryokan put it? ‘Ukiyo wo koko ni kado sashite . . . (浮世をここに門さして, I shut my gate on the floating world) . . . ‘ “

“Ryokan didn’t have a family. You have two children. It’s up to you to set an example (tehon wo shimesu, 手本を示す) of diligence (kinben, 勤勉), don’t you think?”

“Not really. What for? You’re diligent enough for the both of us.”

Fiction series “Keyes Point” appears on the first Bilingual page of every month.