Pursuit of happiness

The merry residents of Japan have long sought to attain the 'pleasantest of all diversions'

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

Is Japan a happy country?

It has a happy Constitution, Article 13 of which states, “(People’s) right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness shall, to the extent that it does not interfere with the public welfare, be the supreme consideration in legislation and other government affairs.”

It has, also, a happy mythological origin, in the pleasurable sexual congress of two beautiful young virgin deities, Izanagi and Izanami, who meet and court like shy teenagers and spawn the myriad Japanese islands. A rollicking set indeed are Japan’s gods and goddesses. Amaterasu Omikami, the sun goddess, retreats briefly into a cave, plunging the world into darkness — but it’s just a passing sulk. Hearing merry laughter, she peeks outside to see what’s going on and finds the deities enjoying a lewd dance performed by one of their number. How can she stay angry in such company? She has shone brightly ever since.

“Supreme consideration.” That means, or implies, that for the past 67 years — the Constitution went into effect in 1947 — the Japanese, like the Americans, have been, first and foremost, pursuers of happiness. Is that true?

What is happiness? We seem to know it when we feel it, but a definition is elusive. Is happiness boisterousness? Gaiety? Quiet contentment? Resignation? Religious awakening? Freedom? Security? Prosperity? Love? Sex? A feudal lord’s favor? Death in battle?

“The pleasantest of all diversions,” wrote the 14th-century priest Kenko in a miscellany known as the “Tsurezuregusa” (“Grasses of Idleness”), “is to sit alone under a lamp, a book spread before you, and to make friends with people of a distant past you have never known.”

That’s nice, but a little tame for hardier spirits. Ihara Saikaku (1642-93), novelist-in-chief of the notoriously uproarious Genroku Era (1688-1703), describes more full-blooded pleasures in “Five Women Who Loved Love” (1686): “Shutting the doors and blinds to cut out the light he (the rake-protagonist Seijuro) created a place for constant entertainment, a kingdom of eternal night. He gathered fools to amuse his party with imitation of bats crying. . . . Procuresses chanted Buddhist prayers. . . . Finally, under the pretext of playing ‘naked islanders,’ the courtesans were made to disrobe in spite of their unwillingness.”

Kenko: “Nothing leads a man astray so easily as sexual desire.”

True, Saikaku would have agreed — but “astray” is precisely where happiness lay. Ruin, too, even death — but his characters never shunned it on that account.

‘World of dew’

Buddhism came to Japan from India via Korea and China circa A.D. 500, bringing with it a taste of dust and ash. “This world” is empty, say Buddhists; happiness is illusory; cherry blossoms, achingly beautiful, bloom only to fall.

“We go, we stay, alike of this world of dew.

“We should not let it have such a hold upon us.”

Of course we shouldn’t. “The shining Genji,” hero of court lady Murasaki Shikibu’s 11th-century classic “Tale of Genji,” is quite right. But beauty, besides being beautiful, is a snare and a delusion. Women, wine, music, poetry, the mist, the moon, the flowers of spring, the leaves of autumn — their treacherous beauty binds us to “this world of dew.” We forget that it is dew and cling to it as though it were real; meanwhile, the only real happiness — “leaving the world” by taking religious vows and becoming a monk or a nun — passes us by.

It passed Genji by. Magnificently handsome, preternaturally gifted in all the arts, inexhaustible and irresistibly attractive as a lover — happy, one would think, if anyone was — he remained in “this world” to the end, his sorrow deepening with the passing years.

Others, less gifted, succeeded, in the novel and in real life. There is Kamo no Chomei, for instance, a 12th-century Buddhist recluse who retired deep and alone into the mountains. He tells his own story in “Hojoki” (“The Ten Foot Square Hut”). “If,” he writes, “one knows himself and knows what the world is, he will merely wish for quiet and be pleased when he has nothing to grieve about, wanting nothing and caring for nobody.”

Is happiness peace? If so, the Heian Period (794-1185), of which “The Tale of Genji” is the cultural flower, was happy indeed. Four hundred years of relative peace is a rare historical achievement. It was peace that gave Genji and his aristocratic friends the leisured refinement to muse beautifully on the sad lot that is humanity’s.

Perhaps one has to have known war to appreciate the happiness of peace. Some 200 years after Genji’s death, the Heian Period was over. As it crumbled, the warriors took over, altering Japan forever. Civil war — seemingly endless civil war — became Japan’s fate, until the next “great peace” set in at last, that of the Edo Period (1603-1867) whose most ebullient voice we have already heard: Saikaku’s.

War brings suffering; suffering, sometimes, breeds happiness, though of a peculiar kind. A 12th-century war between two rival military clans, the Heike and the Minamoto, marks Japan’s first (and far from last) descent into chaos. The Emperor at the time was Antoku, a child of 8. Foreseeing defeat, a Heike court lady, “taking the Emperor in her arms, spoke thus,” relates the 13th-century epic “Heike Monogatari” (“Tales of the Heike”):

” ‘Though I am but a woman I will not fall into the hands of the foe, but will accompany our Sovereign lord.’” Accompany him where? “This land (Japan) is now but a vale of misery. There is a pure land of happiness beneath the waves.” And thus comforting (the Emperor), she bound his long hair up in his dove-colored robe and . . . sank with him at last beneath the waves.”

‘If only we might fall’

“Dear parents: Please congratulate me. I have been given a splendid opportunity to die. This is my last day . . . I shall fall like a blossom from a radiant cherry tree.”

The kamikaze (divine wind) suicide pilots of the dying days of World War II wrote the final chapter of Japan’s bewildering, age-long courtship of death. The story is rooted deep in the misty past but acquires form with the emergence of bushido, the way of the warrior. The word itself is an 18th-century neologism but the concept is traceable to the Genpei War between the Heike and Minamoto clans. “Die every morning in your mind, and then you will not fear death!” enjoins the “Hagakure,” an 18th-century treatise on samurai mores. The mental discipline it urges turns death into a kind of eros: “Tranquilize your mind every morning, and imagine the moment when you may be torn and mangled by arrows, guns, lances and swords, swept away by great waves, thrown into a fire.”

The great 14th-century guerrilla warrior Kusunoki Masashige, having unsuccessfully defended a lost cause and about to disembowel himself in the ritual samurai manner known as seppuku, or harakiri, professed only one regret: that he had only one life to sacrifice for the Emperor. He wanted seven, he said, and “seven lives” became a prominent slogan among the kamikaze pilots half a millennium later. For them as for him, the greatest mortal happiness lay in sacrificing one’s life for the divine Emperor.

Was peace happiness? No, peace was wretchedness, peace was sloth, peace was degradation and living decay. An Edo Period samurai, becalmed by peace, deprived by peace of a warrior’s greatest happiness — an enemy to fight — compressed his frustration into a poem. “What a waste! / Born into times so fortunate / that I must die lying at home on the tatami!”

How well he would have understood a warrior-poet of a later age, a kamikaze pilot of the Seven Lives Unit who, boarding his suicide plane, in the ecstasy of impending death on the very threshold of life at age 22, wrote, “If only we might fall / like the cherry blossoms in the spring — / so pure and radiant!”

‘Mutual love and kindness’

Modern Japan begins with the Meiji Restoration of 1868. By the end of the century, the remote, isolated, stagnant, pathetically vulnerable island backwater was an economic, industrial and military superpower. Happiness was beside the point. The Meiji Constitution of 1890, unlike the current one, does not mention it. The government drove the country relentlessly forward. Its slogan was “rich country, strong army.” It was a dour march, not a joyous parade. In 1908, the government declared a “campaign of national mobilization” to “stem the evil tide of extravagance and frivolity.” Japan would not be trampled on by the West as other Asian nations had been.

And yet it was the stern Meiji Era (1868-1912) that discovered domestic happiness — the pleasures of hearth and home. Old Japan had known little of them. As Edo Period merchants grew steadily richer, they sought pleasure not at home but with the prostitutes of the licensed pleasure quarters. As for the samurai, his pride was his gravity. A samurai, ideally, was supposed to smile only three times in his life — when he was born, when he married and when he had his first son. We may doubt whether he alone among mortals was born smiling. That leaves two smiles. The samurai’s happiness, it would seem, was the happiness of being above happiness.

Domestic felicity, like most Meiji novelties, was a Western import. The active agents were Japanese Protestants, the scrapping of a centuries-long ban against Christianity having been among the Restoration’s reforms. “The true essence of domestic entertainment,” explained a “home education” manual published in 1894, “is for everyone in the house — old and young, man and wife, master and servant — to come together and enjoy themselves. . . . Institute a conversation or (tea) gathering at home every evening for an hour or two after supper, bring the family together and console one another with mutual love and kindness after the day’s labors. Tell one another amusing anecdotes of things you have seen and heard during the day . . . gaze at the baby’s endearing face and smile together, or listen to the innocent voices of the children recounting the subjects they studied or the moral lessons they learned at school.”

A new fixture came into being — the dining table, round which all could gather for a family meal. Earlier generations of Japanese had taken their meals separately on individual trays, the wife serving, the husband lording. Blessed equality! Is true happiness possible without it?

Meiji ended with the death of the Emperor Meiji in 1912. The succeeding Taisho Era (1912-26) is best remembered for “Taisho democracy” and “ero-guro-nansensu.” Eros meant free love; grotesquerie and nonsense meant what a later age would call “doing your own thing,” whatever it was, the crazier the better — Genroku in modern dress, an oriental Jazz Age. The novelist Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965) wrote after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 destroyed much of Tokyo and killed 100,000 people, “I felt a surge of happiness which I could not keep down. ‘Tokyo will be better for this!’ I said to myself.”

Happiness is not always nice. Maybe that’s why graver spirits are perennially suspicious of it.

Once upon a time (1)

Once upon a time, in the distant past, rulers were benevolent and wise and their subjects, high and low, were happy.

“In the times of the ancient kings, every household was well provided for and prospered. The people were at peace, and manners and customs gentle. From dawn to dusk, from spring to winter, the hearts of the people were in harmony.”

So wrote Ito Jinsai (1627-1705), a Confucian thinker of the Edo Period, one of many, who taught that happiness belonged to a lost “golden age” deep in the mythic past. What had once been could be again — given a return to the ancient benevolence and wisdom that had produced it.

Confucianists looked backward. The passage of time, they taught, brought not progress but regress — a descent from purity to corruption, civilization to barbarism, happiness to despair. Ancient ways were best. We must return to them.

Modernity has little patience with such thinking. We look to the future. Those fixated on the past are stuck with a nasty label: “reactionary.” Its opposite is revolutionary. Twentieth-century revolutionaries also saw a “golden age,” but theirs lay in the future. Rulers were not the key to it; they were obstacles blocking it. They must be swept aside. That meant war. Taisho Era corruption, official and commercial, bred revolutionaries willing to sacrifice their present happiness — their lives, if necessary — for the future happiness of all mankind. One revolutionary wrote, “We will lose our families . . . we will lose our pleasures. We will live only by a revolutionary resistance toward capitalism.”

The revolution never happened here. It happened elsewhere but failed to produce universal happiness. So has capitalism, although faith in its ultimate ability to do so remains firm in some quarters. What it has produced is a hyper-technological wonderland that gives every one of us, rich and poor, brilliant and dull, powers that to earlier ages of mankind would have seemed magical, or divine, or diabolical.

Are we happy?

We ought to be. We have everything, and soon we’ll have more of everything, for the marvels we’re seeing and enjoying now promise to be (if civilization survives) only the bare beginning. What we can accomplish at the touch of a button will seem laughably primitive to our children, to say nothing of theirs. And what about our descendants four or five generations, or four or five centuries, down the road? Will they be happy?

Once upon a time (2)

Once upon a time, the Japanese cultivated a quality known as wabi, generally defined as contented poverty, or sometimes, by more rhapsodic souls, as the worship of poverty. Its roots go back to the 14th century, and its spirit infuses such characteristic Edo Period arts as haiku poetry, ceramics and the tea ceremony.

Koshiro Haga, in an essay titled “The Wabi Aesthetic Through the Ages,” writes of it, “Wabi means to transform material insufficiency so that one discovers in it a world of spiritual freedom unbounded by material things. It means not being trapped by worldly values but finding a transcendental serenity apart from the world.”

That, too, is happiness.

  • cowannar

    wonderful, thought-provoking essay. thank you very much for this.