Masako Shirasu: woman of the world

Essayist Masako Shirasu helped define the tastes of postwar Japan in almost every aspect of aesthetics and design

by Roger Pulvers

Special To The Japan Times

“If you use beautiful things every day, you will naturally cultivate an eye for beautiful things without giving it a second thought. In the end, you will be repelled when you encounter the ugly and the fake. If only all Japan would come to see this, how much more joyous our lives would be and how genial and gentle people would be!”

Few Japanese lived a life in closer contact with everyday beauty than the woman who penned these words, Masako Shirasu, and I suspect that no Japanese has as much to tell us today about how to revitalize a culture caught in the cul-de-sac of value stagnation.

She published more than 50 books during her lifetime, although she did not start writing in earnest until she was in her early 30s. Her complete collected works, published by Shinchosha in 2001-02, include more than 60 books, not counting those she co-authored.

She defined the tastes of postwar Japan in almost every aspect of aesthetics and design. Yet despite the immense erudition underpinning her principles and the uncommon elegance of her style, she was totally lacking in pretense and affectation.

“I believe, without a doubt, culture to be something that exists in the life of every single person as a part of their life from one day to another,” she wrote in a notebook in 1947. “Being faithful to yourself and becoming engrossed in your work, that’s culture.”

The evolution of this iconic figure from pampered little princess to Japan’s premier advocate of the simple, the austere and the unadorned in Japanese art brings to light a remarkable story.

Masako was born on Jan. 7, 1910, in a mansion at Nagatacho, Tokyo. Both of her grandfathers were admirals in the Imperial Japanese Navy. Just 2½ years before the death of Emperor Meiji, Japan was on the cusp of monumental change both domestically and internationally. Cultural and political democratization were to be the hallmarks of the new Taisho Era (1912-26), and the Japanese people aspired to be the equals, on the world stage, of the dominant European powers. And yet the society itself had only half-emerged out of the hard shell of the feudalism that had confined its progressive growth for centuries.

Masako had a foot in both camps from a very early age. At the age of 4, she began taking lessons in noh theater, the ritualistic performance art that had come to be the symbol of staid refinement during the Edo Period (1603-1867). When she was 14, she became the first female to perform on a noh stage. At the same age, she left Japan to enter school in the United States.

She studied at Hartridge School (now Wardlaw-Hartridge School) in New Jersey. Hartridge was known as a girls’ prep school for the exclusive Vassar College. Her experiences there, and at summer camp in Massachusetts among the privileged classes, turned her into a cultivated native speaker of English. But they weren’t to last long.

Her father, a man of stalwart morality and, apparently, unending generosity, lost his money in business, and Masako was forced to sail back to Japan in 1928. As fate would have it, another bankruptcy — that of the father of Jiro Shirasu — also saw the young son returning to Japan from Cambridge University in the United Kingdom the same year. Once back home in Japan, Masako and Jiro met and were married the next year, when she was 19.

Jiro, born on Feb. 17, 1902, was more than 6 feet (183 cm) tall, devastatingly handsome and a man of highly sophisticated westernized tastes. He had been sent to the United Kingdom after graduating middle school and had immediately taken to the lifestyle of the country gentleman, driving a Bentley around town and racing a Bugatti on weekends. Up to the end of his life in 1985, he drove a Porsche about the Japanese countryside.

When, shortly after the war, he was appointed by Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida as councillor of the Central Liaison Office and given the task of being go-between for Yoshida with Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of the Allied powers, Masako called him “a straightforward obstinate samurai,” a fitting adversary to the pontifical general. A little later, Jiro played an instrumental role in laying the groundwork for Japan’s postwar economic recovery as deputy head of the Economic Stabilization Agency. (Incidentally, Jiro worked, for a time, for The Japan Advertiser, an English-language newspaper that was absorbed by The Japan Times in 1940.)

But Masako and her obstinate samurai both realized as early as 1940 that Japan was destined to lose the war in Asia. Concluding in 1942 that Tokyo was bound to suffer mass destruction, they purchased a dilapidated thatched-roof farmhouse in what is now Machida, then a village located away from potential targets. There, at least, they could grow their own food while they waited for the war to end. They collected butterbur sprouts, myōga (Japanese ginger) and seri (Japanese parsley) from nearby fields, ate bamboo shoots from their backyard garden and baked bread from homemade flour. (This house, called Buaiso, is now a museum that is open to the public.)

Masako’s sharp eye on the mores of her people can be seen clearly in something she wrote in “Shirasu Masako Jiden” (“The Autobiography of Masako Shirasu”):

“During the war there was a thing called the tonarigumi (neighborhood association). They would come to the aid of people in need. I didn’t take to this institution. The Japanese may be an honest people, but when they start helping you they also begin to tell you what to do. That’s fine up to a point, but it gradually escalates and they are soon telling you what you have to like and dislike and what you have to do in your daily life. All of a sudden, your clothes are too loud or your manicure too conspicuous. We are still a people like this even though the era has changed.

“The government and the military were overly optimistic and thought you could protect yourself against bombing by passing around buckets and waving broomsticks in the air. When we left the city, the word sokai (evacuation) was not yet in use, and anyone who escaped from Tokyo was labelled a traitor.”

It was the experience of living in the farmhouse, I believe, that transformed Masako, instilling in her the sense of what is absolutely necessary to survive in body and spirit. After all, the Japanese aesthetic is founded on the essence of all things.

Not long after the war she met brilliant men such as Hideo Kobayashi, Japan’s foremost literary critic; antiques’ guru Jiro Aoyama, about whom she subsequently wrote a book; and Hidemi Kon, author and, from 1968, the first director of the newly-created Agency for Cultural Affairs.

Masako blossomed as a fiercely original essayist on all subjects relating to culture. Late in life, Jiro wrote of her, “My old lady is amazing. Everyone else just reads about a place without going there, but she always sets out to wherever it is even just to write a few pages about the place. No one does that anymore.”

When Tokyo hosted the Olympic Games in 1964, she left the capital for Shikoku to walk the island on a pilgrimage to its many temples. She visited scores of out-of-the-way places in Japan to view old noh masks. These masks are primarily held in private collections, and owners are reluctant to send them away for display. In preparation for a ground-breaking study of the old temples and stone art in rural Nara described in a book titled “Kakurezato” (“Hidden Village”), she made monthly trips to the area over a period of years and trod every path there.

The key to understanding her passion for Japanese art can be found here, in the rough beaten paths leading to it.

“As noh theater has its hashigakari (bridge to the stage) and kabuki its hanamichi (runway from the stage through the auditorium),” she wrote, “life’s charm is not a result but rather the journey toward a result.”

She saw Japanese art, in all its spare simplicity, as an unending process leading to natural imperfection.

“He hates being called an auteur or a ceramic artist and never uses the word ‘a work of art’ when talking about his pots,” she wrote of the renowned Iga-ware potter Masatake Fukumori in her book “Nihon no Takumi” (“The Ingeniousness of Japan”). “The reason why he became so interested in food is because he wanted to create the plates to put it on.”

Her entire life she was attracted to the act of creativity, focusing on the creators and their pure relationship to their materials. “What we need is not artists but artisans,” she wrote in 1947, referring to the craft of dyeing, but applying the statement to all the arts. “People attempt to create art and fail. If you create something with great skill, it may very well result in art.”

She went so far as to view nature through the lens of its fashioning at the hands of those artisans. She professed a love for things that displayed an ubuna (artless) art. She loved the phrase hana o ikeru (arrange flowers) because of its connotation of “bringing flowers to life.”

“The fleeting nature of the flower,” she wrote, “is brought to life for the first time as the perfect harmony of stillness and movement, immutability and fluidity, thanks to the vase it’s in.”

And there you have it: It is the artificial container that gives life to nature as a medium to experience something spiritual and profound. The vessel is the message. Nature gives rise to art, and art illuminates it in return.

She spent more than half a century after the war probing the relationship between nature and art, concluding that “there is nothing in the world as all-encompassing as Japanese nature. Religion, art, history and literature are latent within it.”

She was a superb dresser drawn to the craft of fabric making, in her later years favoring clothes designed by Missoni. She traveled extensively around Iran, France, Spain and Hungary.

She was a lover of Japanese cuisine who said, “Eat what you feel like eating all the time. Those food connoisseurs and gourmets who glow with self-satisfaction give me the creeps.”

At Katsuragi, Nara Prefecture, she went straight back to the very roots of Japan’s culture, from the time before influences from China and Korea swayed it.

“Nothing stirs the human imagination as the primeval natural landscape and faith as found in Katsuragi,” she wrote in “Kakurezato.” And yet her library of some 10,000 items — a collection that is still preserved at Buaiso — has a great many books relating to world culture, from texts in Latin to Proust and Gide, from Dostoevsky to Elle.

Masako died on Dec. 26, 1998, and is buried at Shingetsuin Temple in Mita City, Hyogo Prefecture, beside her husband, Jiro, who predeceased her by 13 years.

She stands as a prime and perfect symbol — I would even go as far as to say, a beacon of light — for the coming decades in Japan, where a renewal of the spirit is the sine qua non of social and economic regeneration. I think she should appeal to young Japanese, this fascinating and free-spirited woman who wrote:

“Looking back, it seems that I’ve spent my whole life dawdling by the wayside, from one road to another. . . . I may have lost something on the way, but I think I have gained more.”

Buaiso: 7-3-2 Nogaya, Machida City, Tokyo 195-0053; tel: 042-735-5732; www.buaiso.com

Roger Pulvers’ latest book is “Odorokubeki Nihongo,” published by Shueisha International


In her own words

• “Fall foliage in America is fine, but it lacks character. It doesn’t make you feel the passage of time or give you a sense of wistfulness. I really became aware (in Japan) of the profound effect that nature has on the human psyche.”

• “The appreciation of art is not a process of folding one’s arms, viewing and listening to the explanations of others, but rather of participating in the acts of the people who create it.”

• “There is no people who have incorporated art into their daily lives as have the Japanese. . . . And that is why there is no fine line in the tradition between art and craft.”

• “The officials of the Meiji government were mesmerized by the pageantry of foreign civilization, as if everything from overseas was good and everything in Japan of no value. That’s the oversimplified view they had and, as a result, their education was drowned in the culture of distant waters. Even now (1995), this is still the case.”

• “Your eyes are opened not just once in your life but over and over again, and that is how you come to see what is real. . . . As people in olden times said, ‘Being enlightened is equivalent to the state preceding enlightenment.’ ”

(Compiled and translated by Roger Pulvers)