“Man the change-maker.” That is one definition of Homo sapiens. Other creatures are changed — by Nature, by evolution — over vast expanses of time measured in hundreds of thousands or millions of years. Humankind consciously generates change. We innovate, build, invent, destroy, build again. Even our earliest civilizations, ploddingly slow by present standards, far outpaced Nature as agents of change.
Modern change, of course, knows no bounds; there’s never been anything like it. Last week’s science fiction is yesterday’s reality and today’s artifact. We’ve conquered space, conquered time — very soon, say some futurists (Raymond Kurzweil, most famously), we’ll conquer death, translating our mortal “selves” into immortal algorithms living on into cybereternity.
To some this is exhilarating; to others, harrowing. Even the most progressive among us must at times long for a little rest, a brief pause, a quiet interval of contemplation: Where are we going? To what purpose? Are we headed in the right direction?
Japan today is as frenetic as any other advanced society, but its past is long, and long stretches of it were surprisingly — astonishingly — changeless. Time stood almost still. Hundreds, thousands of years went by without life altering its course sufficiently to startle an imaginary observer who, having known the beginning, returned to see the end.
Two periods in particular come to mind: the Jomon and Heian. They are not usually thought of together. The Jomon Period began roughly 12,000 years ago and lasted until about 300 B.C., making it one of the most enduring cultures in world prehistory. The Heian Period (794-1185) is an eye-blink in comparison, but by civilized standards long enough — and yet 794 and 1185 seem, culturally, economically and technologically, more similar than different. Nothing in 1185 would have left anyone in 794 speechless.
What can neolithic hunter-gatherers, locked in a brutal and often losing struggle for mere survival in a harsh and untamed world, have in common with the dandified aristocrats of the urban, literate, musical, indolent, elegant, hyper-refined Heian Period? A few things. Changelessness, for one.
We can’t penetrate the Jomon mind as we can, to some extent, the Heian. Jomon people left us no writing, as Heian people did, in profusion — “The Tale of Genji” most notably. “Genji” is a long (1,000-page-plus) novel, arguably the world’s first, by a sometime court lady called Murasaki Shikibu (born circa 975, death date unknown). Her prime concern was with the thoughts and feelings (mostly feelings) of her characters, some 430 of them. We get to know them and their small, narrow world very intimately. Of how many ancient societies can we say the same?
They had everything, those Heian grandees — wealth, leisure, love, art, exquisite sensitivity, all the material satisfactions — and yet they were not happy. The dominant mood was melancholy. Their overdeveloped sensitivity was the problem. It showed them beauty’s beauty — but also its poignancy. Beauty blooms but also fades. The cherry blossom was Heian’s symbol par excellence — so beautiful and yet so fleeting!
That visible truth reinforced their one overriding philosophical concept, derived originally from Buddhism — that the world was illusory. It was smoke; it was a wisp of cloud; you clung to it in vain. Better let it go — “leave” it if you can, not by suicide but by taking holy orders and becoming a monk or a nun, absorbed in prayers and visions of the next world, hopefully a more “real” world than this one.
If this world is not real, why, or how, strive to change it? Not once does even a single character in the vast and populous “Genji” reflect on the possibility that human energy and creativity can change the world for the better. The Heian people were not change-makers. They were, ideally, world-transcenders. How different in that respect from us! We too have everything and are not happy — but we will be happy, so we seem to believe, if we can only produce just a little more of everything … and then a little more still. Heian Japan knew no corresponding hope.
Jomon folk were artistic too. They produced not literature but pottery and sculpture — wildly primitive, shockingly beautiful ceramic sculpture, much of it representing pregnant women. The earliest figurines, called dog?, are some 12,000 years old, and thousands of years passed from then before experts can point to changes in style and technique.
A nonexpert might sum up one change thus: For the first several thousand years, what seems most expressive in the dogū are not their faces but their bellies, source of life and sole defense against rampant, ever-present death. The odds of a newborn surviving infancy were surely very low and maybe, some archaeologists hypothesize, the dog? were a form of prayer on behalf of fertility and life.
Conditions eased little by little across the millennia, accounting perhaps for an apparent shift in emphasis from belly to facial features. Though inconceivably harsh by civilized standards, the Jomon environment was not unkind as prehistory went. Archaeologists have discovered some 600 types of Jomon food, including a “bread” made from bean skins. Most neolithic cultures graduated from hunting and gathering to agriculture. Jomon didn’t. Why not? Evidently starvation, though widespread, was never urgent enough to demand or stimulate radical improvement.
Contentment with the status quo — or perhaps an instinctive certainty that the status quo is all there is and all that is possible — infuses both the cultures of the Jomon and Heian. Their inertia baffles and disconcerts us, whose insatiable craving for change, for more, for better, hurtles us forward into an unknown future. Would they have envied us? Do we, in some secret corner of our 21st-century hearts, at odd moments in our busy, harassed, restless days, envy them?