There have been many theories deliberating on 鍵概念 (kagigainen, key concepts) that help us understand Japanese culture. Let me make my own modest contribution to the field by suggesting that the seemingly insignificant word 門 (mon or kado, gate) can actually serve as a portal to help you 日本精神を理解する(Nihon seishin o rikai suru, understand the Japanese psyche).

A few weeks ago I gave a lecture at a college in Tokyo and stayed a few days. The college has a compact and very pretty campus where everybody was kind and helpful. But upon arriving I had to fill in a form detailing what I would be doing each day. 門限 (mongen, the curfew) — when I had to be back inside the 校門 (kōmon, campus gates) — was 8:30 p.m.

When I strolled down to the gate on the first day, a very flustered 門番 (monban, gatekeeper) fretted about which gate I had entered from. Trying to shake her off, I remarked that I was just going for a little stroll to the train station, whereupon the alarmed official inquired exactly how long I was going to be.

I began to realize there were an awful lot of people involved in monitoring you, from office assistants to security guards. What exactly was it all for? After all, this was 世界の大都会で最も治安が良い東京 (Sekai no daitokai de mottomo chian ga yoi Tōkyō; Tokyo, the safest big city in the world).

I considered that there was actually something quintessentially Japanese about this obsession with 監視 (kanshi, monitoring) and 観察 (kansatsu, observing) who and what comes through gates.

Take, for example, the most famous of all kabuki plays, 勧進帳 (“Kanjinchō,” “The Subscription List”), where the entire drama centers on whether a group of rebels will be able to pass through a 関所 (sekisho, gated barrier) as they flee north. The play is set at the end of the 12th century, but during the 江戸時代 (Edo Jidai, Edo Period [1603-1868]) when the play was written, such gated barriers were in place across the whole length of the country as a means of monitoring people and maintaining control.

Power was maintained in the Edo Period by keeping the family members of feudal lords hostages in the capital and ensuring that no guns could be smuggled in. Shogunate officials believed 入鉄砲出女 (iriteppō to deonna, guns coming in and women leaving) was a sure precursor of rebellion.

For centuries in Japan, gated barriers have been a crucial means to 政治力を発揮する (seijiryoku o hakki suru, exert political power), but if you wished to turn your back on the vanities of the temporal world and enter instead the realm of serenity afforded by religion, then you needed to pass through, both literally and figuratively, the temple gate to reach 仏門 (butsumon, the priesthood).

One of the great Zen classics, full of 公案 (kōan, Zen riddles) intended to show us the intrinsic absurdity of our existence, is called 無門関 (“Mumonkan,” “The Gateless Gate”), as if the book itself is acting as a gateway to enlightenment.

Indeed, any branch of learning on any subject requires you in Japan to pass through a metaphorical “gate.” The word for an introduction or primer is called a 入門 (nyūmon; literally, “entering the gate”), and if you know nothing about a subject then you are a 門外漢 (mongaikan; literally, “someone outside the gate”). On the other hand, a subject you are fixated on is your 専門 (senmon, speciality). There are 部門 (bumon, branches of learning), 名門 (meimon, famous schools), 宗門 (shūmon, religious sects), 家門 (kamon, family or clans) and the threat of 破門 (hamon, excommunication). In this world of gates, the ultimate gate is the 御門 (mikado, the palace gate), another word for the Emperor.

Nor is it just the outside world that is full of gates. Your own body is packed with them, from your 門歯 (monshi, incisor teeth) to your 幽門 (yūmon; pylorus, a part of the stomach) to your, er, 肛門 (kōmon, anus).

So central is the word “gate” to Japanese thinking that at least 50 kanji incorporate it. There is even a film called 肉体の門 (“Nikutai no Mon,” “Gate of Flesh”), implying that the world of sensuality has to be entered via a gate. Indeed, the word “gate” lurks deep in the Japanese psyche.

In 1910 the great Japanese novelist 夏目 漱石(Natsume Soseki)published a novel called 門 (“Mon,” “The Gate”). Soseki was serializing his novels in the 朝日新聞 (Asahi Shimbun newspaper), and as the serialization of それから (“Sorekara,” “And Then”) drew to a close, the editors wished to announce the title of his next novel. Flustered with newspaper work, Soseki decided to get one of his 門下生 (monkasei, pupils) to choose a title for him.

The young man entrusted with the thankless task, Toyotaka Komiya, flung open a book on his desk and chose the first word he came upon — which just happened to be “gate” — and reported this back to the editors.

But there is more to this story. The book lying on Komiya’s desk was Friedrich Nietzsche’s ツァラトゥストラはこう語った (“Tsaratusutora wa Ko Katatta,” “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”), and within that book, 永劫回帰の門 (“Eigōkaiki no Mon,” “The Gate of Eternal Return”) is a central image. Komiya’s friend 生田長江 (Ikuta Choko, Choko Ikuta), had been translating “Zarathustra” into Japanese — a mammoth task for which he engaged Soseki’s help while he was writing “Sorekara.”

Far from being an innocuous word that Soseki was tasked to write a novel about, it was a word that was redolent with meaning and inspired Soseki to link such concepts as Zen and Nietzsche in original ways. Not for nothing does Soseki’s protagonist in the novel end up at a Zen temple pitting himself against the koan 父母未詳以前の本来の面目 如何 (Fubomishō izen no honrai no menmoku ikan, What did your face look like before your parents were born?)

Next time you are confronted by a zealous gatekeeper in Japan — one of those pettifogging bureaucrats brandishing interminable forms — consider that you are dealing not with an irritating clerk but actually a manifestation of something that connects to the very deepest core of Japanese culture.

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