• SHARE

When Adam and Eve defied God, creator and master of the universe, and ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge, what did they learn? To say “I.”

They learned that they were “naked” — they were selves, egos. As such, there was no place for them in paradise. Their expulsion was “the fall of man,” narrated in the biblical Book of Genesis.

This seems a long way from Japan. It is. Japanese myth records no “fall,” no defiance of the undefiable, no primeval descent into selfhood. The Japanese ego evolved very differently from the Western one.

This is the introductory installment of a four-part series examining what the Japanese mean when they say “I.”

A peculiarity of the Japanese language gives it many first-person pronouns, varying with circumstances, rank, age and gender, but comparatively few occasions to use them. Japanese often leaves sentence subjects unspoken. You can speak of yourself without emphasizing and reinforcing, as Western languages force you to do, your “I-ness.”

Japanese tradition denigrates not only selfishness but selfhood. To Buddhism it was a delusion; to Confucianism, an object of “self-cultivation” whose ultimate object is self-denying, society-dedicated “benevolence.” Bushido, the “way of the warrior,” was especially hard on the self. “The way of the warrior is death,” declared the grim 18th-century military treatise known as the “Hagakure.” “This means choosing death whenever there is a choice between life and death.” The self that instinctively protests its death sentence must be rigorously suppressed: “Every day without fail one should consider oneself as dead.”

The first “I” in Japanese literature is identifiable but not nameable — her name is unknown. A noblewoman and poetess, she lived in 10th-century Kyoto and left posterity a diary — the “Kagero Nikki” (“Gossamer Diary”). It’s a brilliant portrait of a soul in torment. Her “I” is her suffering; her suffering forces her into the black hole of selfhood. Hers is no plea for individualism; if anything she pleads for release from it. She would be anyone other than herself, if only she could. Other people were like other people; only she was different, condemned to the morbid isolation of selfhood by an insufficiently attentive husband and the perversity (which she admits) of her own feelings. Sharing a husband was gall to her. Polygamy among the aristocracy was the norm. Other noblewomen resigned themselves to it, more or less graciously. Why couldn’t she? Why did she alone torture herself over slights and neglect that others shrugged off? Because she was she. She wanted a husband “30 days and 30 nights a month,” and, knowing she demanded the impossible, refused to settle for less. “If only the Buddha would let me be reborn in Enlightenment,” she prays. In other words: If only the Buddha would release me from the agony of selfhood. It never happens.

Between the long peace of her time and the long peace of the Edo Period (1603-1868) stand 500 years of war — civil war, mostly — in which bushido prevailed. Life was nothing, death everything, the self a mere sacrifice to be laid on the altar of loyalty. Leading the celebration of a return to life as we know it was Osaka novelist Ihara Saikaku (1642-93). “Life is short, love is long,” he wrote. War or peace, life, as Buddhism teaches, is a dream, a soap bubble. What if love is — as it was — a “journey to death”? The law under the ruling Tokugawa shoguns put every obstacle in its path, so anarchic and socially destabilizing was love deemed to be. Example: “For (apprentices and employees) who have engaged in illicit intercourse with their master’s daughter, or who have attempted such: Death.” Well, what of it? Here was a new way to say “I”; to say it triumphantly — plunge headlong into love in defiance of a regime that made of it a capital crime. When caught, as Saikaku writes in one of his stories, “there was no room for mercy in view of their crime.” The lovers, in this case an employee and his master’s wife, “were paraded as an example before the crowds along the way to (the execution ground), where they died like dewdrops falling from a blade of grass.”

The Edo Period decayed, and Japan with it, to be reborn in the succeeding Meiji Era (1868-1912) as the modern state we know today. The Japanese ego was reborn too. Western borrowings are implicit in a neologism then current: “Inna raifu (inner life). This harks back, in a way, to the Gossamer lady; only here the twist is positive, progressive, hopeful. “Every human being … has, by a law of nature, the property of his own person,” wrote Yukichi Fukuzawa (1835-1901), Meiji Japan’s most ardent Westernizer. “He belongs to himself. In ordinary language, man is born free.”

Freedom was a burden as well as an opportunity. What is a person to do with it? The heroes of late 19th- and early 20th-century Japanese fiction are haunted by questions new to the culture: What am I to make of myself? Which road to take? Which path to follow? These are very different from the question obsessing the Gossamer lady: “(Has my) life been one befitting a well-born lady?” Compare her to Ushimatsu, the protagonist of the groundbreaking novel “Hakai” (“The Broken Commandment,” 1906) by Shimazaki Toson (1872-1943). Ushimatsu’s “self” is a deep, dark secret: he is an eta, a member of a despised hereditary underclass whose very humanity was in question among respectable people. Concealing the fact, he has become a teacher, and a successful one, but is a life built on falsehood a real life? What to do? Gossamer’s story is of what’s done to her. Ushimatsu’s is of what he must, if he can rise to the occasion, do himself.

The second installment in February will focus on the “I” of the “Gossamer Diary.” The third installment in March will treat the erotic “I” of the Edo Period. The fourth installment in April will return to Ushimatsu and the modern “I.” Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and, just out, “Other Worlds.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.

SUBSCRIBE NOW