When times are tough, the Japanese get going, or something to that effect. My grandfather always held that as a nation, we were much better at being poor than being rich — “Nihonjinga kane wo motsuto rokunakotoni naranai日本人が金をもつとろくなことにならない, Nothing good comes of the Japanese having money)” was one of his oft-repeated observations.

Even the language was better suited to describing deprivation and poverty than riches and prosperity. There’s depth and wit to words like shoboi (しょぼい, shabby), samui (寒い, chilly, or deprived), binb kusai (貧乏臭い, smelling of poverty) — and a certain bohemian charm. “Borowa kitetemo kokorowa nishiki (ぼろは着てても心は錦, Though my clothes may be in tatters, my heart has the value of silk)” goes a line from a popular song penned 50 years ago. In those days, the country was struggling to recover from defeat in WWII — the clothing of many were indeed in tatters, but a feverish optimism was in the air.

Hinraku (貧楽) means the state of relaxed freedom that comes from being poor — the logic being that when one has nothing, there’s nothing to worry about. True, most Japanese culture and aesthetics are based on hinraku and what is now known as hikizan no bigaku (引き算の美学, the aesthetics of subtraction).

The tea ceremony, raised to an art form by tea master Sen Rikyu (千利休) in the 16th century, is about seeking value in nothingness. Sen designed the chashitsu (茶室, tea room) as we know it — a wooden shack consisting of nothing more than four-and-a-half tatami mats and decorated with a single flower.

In Sen’s eyes, excessiveness was a slur against the art of motenashi (もてなし, hospitality) and a sin against life. His lofty stoicism enraged Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣秀吉), then the most powerful warlord in Japan, who loved wealth in all its forms. Their relationship started off with respect and friendliness, but eventually Hideyoshi saw Rikyu as a political threat and ordered him to commit seppuku (切腹, ritual suicide).

Hideyoshi suffered from the ills of a man who has everything: He just couldn’t stop or relax. Rikyu, on the other hand, basked in the glorious luxury of not caring. It’s said that Sen sensed his demise months before Hideyoshi issued the order. When the messenger was dispatched to inform Rikyu that he must die, the tea master’s affairs were in perfect order, his family relocated to a safe haven and his few possessions sold off to pay for a cheap chic funeral.

Extreme poverty, however, has never been considered a good thing. Hinsureba donsuru (貧すれば鈍する, Poverty blunts the senses) is a phrase that goes back a thousand years and is still in circulation — being poor is one thing, but outright destitution must be avoided at all cost. The distinction is layered and complicated: Somatsu (祖末, simple, unadorned, inexpensive) has Buddhist connotations and is commendable, but going lower than that is migurushii (見苦しい, insufferable to witness).

A classic somatsu meal called soshoku (粗食)and consisting of kayu (粥, rice porridge), misoshiru (みそ汁, miso soup) and tsukemono (漬け物, pickled vegetables) is the epitome of food aesthetics: It is believed to nourish the spirit and brain without damaging the body. But anything less than that will be hinshoku (貧食, poverty food), tinged with desperation and sadness.

Soi (粗衣, rough, simple clothing) are said to tone the body and warm the naizō (内蔵, intestines), making it possible to do many hours of hard work with little rest. Kabi na fukuso (華美な服装, decorated, luxurious clothing), however, encourage taida (怠惰, laziness) and gōman (傲慢, arrogance), weakening both body and spirit. Buddhist monks have traditionally worn sumizome (墨染め, charcoal dyed) robes to demonstrate their adherence to physical poverty and nourishment of the spirit.

During the Edo Period (1603-1867), the Tokugawa Shogunate deemed that danihoshoku (暖衣飽食, warm clothing and plenty of food) would ruin the nation, and Tokugawa Ieyasu took pains to instill stoicism and modesty across the social hierarchy. Among the bushikaikyuu (武士階級, samurai class), especially, money was fujyou (不浄, tainted) and too filthy to dwell upon. Until Japan opened up to the West and came into contact with capitalism (in the late 19th century), in fact, most Japanese couldn’t or preferred not to understand the concept of money. Now it seems we have the hang of it — though, as grandfather pointed out, money doesn’t appear to bring out our best, at least not like a healthy dose of deprivation.

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