After more than 30 years of studying Japan, I’ve learned to appreciate one thing people here do well: living in the moment.
By that I mean there seems to be a common understanding that moments are temporary and bounded — that the feelings one has now may never happen again, so they should be enjoyed to the fullest right here, right now, without regard to the future.
I can think of several examples. Consider the stereotypical honeymooning couple in Hawaii. They famously capture every moment in photographs — from humdrum hotel rooms to food on the plate. They even camcord as much as they can to miss as few moments as possible.
Why? Safekeeping. For who knows when said couple will ever get back to Hawaii (or, for that matter, be allowed to have an extended vacation anywhere, including Japan)? Soon they’ll have kids, demanding jobs, meticulous budgets, and busywork until retirement. No chance in the foreseeable future to enjoy moments like these.
So they frame a beachside photo atop the TV, preserve a keepsake in a drawer, store a dress or aloha shirt far too colorful to ever wear in public — anything to take them back to that precious time and place in their mind’s eye. (Emperor Hirohito reputedly treasured his Paris Metro ticket as a lifetime memento, and was buried with his Disneyland souvenir Mickey Mouse watch.)
Another example: extramarital love affairs. Sleeping around is practically a national sport in Japan (hence the elaborate love hotel industry), and for a good reason: the wonderful moments lovers can surreptitiously capture. It’s a vacation from real life. For chances are their tryst is temporary; it fills a void. But how pleasant their time is in their secret world!
But here’s the catch: When it’s over, it’s over. There’s no looking back — except maybe during karaoke sessions singing wistful enka songs about “lost love” (which has a rich vocabulary in Japanese). It’s a savored memory. A natsukashii (nostalgic) moment.
You get better at savoring brief bounded moments as you get older. The Japanese elderly are some of the best partiers around, masters at rejuvenating the natsukashii moment. All they need are four walls and booze. Or a spa trip with booze. Or a gateball club with booze. Or anyplace where they can make instant friends through beer-induced bonhomie with strangers.
Once they find touchstones of old memories their generation shares, they can revel in secret worlds. They drink like there is no tomorrow (at this age, there might not be!), determined to have a good time and not spoil the mood. For the fleeting moment is now. Enjoy before it fleets.
Scholars might plug into theories of Japanese wabi-sabi: finding a beautiful moment in a state of transience. I would not disagree. But the ability to enjoy living in the moment nevertheless requires a serious adjustment of expectations, especially for young people and outsiders not used to it.
For a state of transience implies a lack of control — over your present, over your future. After all, if in a state of bliss, why would you ever want it to end? Transience means surrendering your world to fate.
People adroit at creating secret worlds, however, expect the state to end sometime. Their mantra is “Shikata ga nai” (“There’s nothing I can do about it”). And that forces them to enjoy the moment all the more — unadulterated by worries about the future. Plus there are no regrets when it’s over. The older you get, the more “Shikata ga nai” becomes a lifestyle.
In contrast, consider what happens when you don’t shikata ga nai and thus spoil the moment. Have you ever experienced an evening where a sudden lover appears out of nowhere, and you reach an overnight closeness that authors such as Donald Richie, the virtuoso of Japan’s secret worlds, would wax lyrically about?
Then your newfound companion puts his or her clothes back on and is gone — even looks annoyed if you ask to meet again. Suddenly you find yourself standing on the street alone, sleepless and slightly dazed, wondering “What was that all about?”
The answer is pretty simple: Your sudden lover wanted a moment. And you were there to oblige. I call these kinds of rendezvous “Year of the Cat” adventures (listen to the Al Stewart song), and they are one of the most attractive things about Japan.
If you haven’t experienced this kind of rendezvous, consider a milder example of transience: moving to a new city. Steadily your old friends from your previous burg drop out of sight. Yes, you’ll all get together for a party when you’re back in town, but otherwise, outside of a few texts on Line or Facebook, they’re no longer in contact with you. Why? You were but a phase in their lives; now you’re gone. Move on.
Or consider a surprisingly normal way of shutting down a rural Japanese company: the big sayonara party. Although there will be grumbles, rarely are there organized strikes or protests by workers. They just get told that closing down is shikata ga nai in today’s depopulating countryside, followed by a banquet celebrating everyone’s efforts and memories. And then the moment’s over. Move on.
However, there is one big drawback to expecting impermanence, and that is conversely expecting the status quo’s permanence (especially if you’re tying to change Japan). Let me tell you what I mean:
As an activist for the rights of non-Japanese residents, I have lobbied thousands of people at all levels of society. After a few hours of discussion, almost everyone vocally acknowledges (even the biggest bigots!) that all people in Japan, regardless of nationality or physical appearance, are human, and that they deserve fair treatment and equal opportunity to make something of themselves.
Great! Progress made, you think. But then the speech ends, and the moment is gone. And your audience return to their lives and look back at the moment we had as mere wishful thinking in a secret world.
Because for most people, life is cold, harsh, unyielding and disempowering. Especially so for foreigners — they’re by definition only temporary anyway.
That’s why you see people latching on to foreign friends with fetish. While the foreign guest is here, be friendly, enjoy the moment and have an experience that will leave a pleasant memory and maybe even create a secret — but temporary — world. But it will likely not change their worldview.
Because what happens in this interaction is bounded in space and time, and will likely change nothing big-picture outside. In a state of transience, the only apparently intransient thing is unyielding Japanese society.
So, shikata ga nai. Don’t make plans and spoil the mood. Ride the wave and enjoy the wabi-sabi of Japanese relationships with life events. You will very likely find secret worlds that are impossible elsewhere on the planet. And that is one of Japanese society’s major appeals.
Chasing after those moments keeps adventurous people here entire lifetimes.
Debito Arudou’s textbook, “Embedded Racism: Japan’s Visible Minorities and Racial Discrimination” (Lexington Books), is out in paperback in July. See www.debito.org/embeddedracism.html. Twitter: @arudoudebito. Comments and story ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org
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