Let’s hear it for the big wa in a small country


Although we seem to have built an entire culture based on loathing of all things Japanese and admiration of all things foreign, scratch the surface of our inferiority complex and you’ll find a streak of patriotism somewhere.

Once found out, we might argue that it’s not the nihonteki (Japanese) aspects of Japan that stir our love, but the thing we call wa (harmony). Harmony with ourselves, with others, with nature. For us, it makes the world go round. Wa is all we need.

Wa is a concept as old as Yamato, the name by which Japan was known about 1,000 years ago, for Yamato is comprised of the characters “large” and ‘‘wa.” So Japan itself is just one big wa (or we like to think so) and the Japanese psyche is based on what we call “Yamato damashii (the soul of the big wa).”

The notion of wa is stamped on our collective conscience, as inescapable as our very DNA.

Consequently, wa remains a favorite and oft-used character in the Japanese language, often combined with other characters to describe the ideals of the Japanese temperament. Washoku (Japanese food) is thought to calm the nerves, cleanse the body and help control physiological damage. Yoshoku (Western food), on the other hand, is for those looking to indulge the senses and nourish the body — but an exclusive diet of yoshoku will result in weight gain and general malaise.

Wafu (the winds of wa) are thought to enhance tranquillity and subtlety. Yofu (west winds) represent dynamic movement, progression, extravagance.

Wa is also about accommodation and the elimination of confrontation. Wago is to become friendly with others through repeated contact. Wakiaiai implies a state of friendship reached by discarding individual differences. Wakai is mutual understanding and forgiveness.

In each of these cases, the relationship is about sharing common ground and acknowledging an inherent sameness. Wa is not reached through debate but achieved by muting individuality and blending one’s opinions with others so that everything becomes indistinct. Perhaps the closest English equivalent to wa in this case is “whatever.”

Above all, wa is about softness. Words like onwa, comprised of the characters for “warmth” and “wa,” is a prized characteristic. Similarly, nyuwa (comprised of the characters for “softness” and wa), is a trait highly valued in women.

Kanwa means to loosen up and make smooth. And heiwa, made up of the characters for “flat” and “wa,” means peace. On its own, the character “wa” can also be read nagoyaka or nagomu — to make peaceful and feel healed.

Every once in a while, though, wa will start to pall. There is such a thing as having too much of it, spawning a state known as heiwa-boke (going bonkers from too much peace). It’s OK to feed on washoku and be harmonious and abhor conflict, but after a while, something gives. We are stirred to action. We begin to crave heated arguments, locking horns and jikoshucho (asserting one’s identity).

This is when the Japanese run to sa (difference), which is the polar opposite of wa. Sa endorses ambition, competition, confrontation. To hell with indistinct opinions and friendliness all around — we want bigger, brighter, better! Vive la difference — and individuality!

And so it goes, the inner pendulum swing from wa to sa and we pack and unpack all the mental baggage that goes with them. Call it the Jekyll-and-Hyde syndrome of modern Japanese living, if you like.