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History shows that on the eve of the collapse of the Roman Empire, its denizens reveled as if they were crazy. Just before Paris fell to German forces during World War II, dressed-up people danced all night at nightclubs in the city. And when the Cuban government of President Fulgencio Batista fell, casinos in Havana boomed with gamblers.

Declines and falls of various nations and states come to my mind as I look back on the recent past in Japan at the turn of the century. In Japan, politics have become unbearably corrupt and the economy is sputtering, far from achieving the government-promised recovery. The U.S. economy, showing signs of slowing down, is unlikely to serve as the engine of the world economy, especially after the political paralysis over the outcome of the presidential election. Making little headway in structural reforms, Japan will face a bumpy ride in the new century.

Having retired from politics, I live in Yugawara, Kanagawa Prefecture. I work in the field in fine weather and read at home in wet weather. I do not often read newspapers and watch television. I am not concerned about passing, trivial events; I find satisfaction in reading classic literature, history books and biographies. Sometimes, I make new discoveries and find new pleasures in growing vegetables in a small garden.

Last year, I took up pottery as a hobby. I discovered the joy of forming vessels from clay and turning the potter’s wheels. From time immemorial, pottery has been considered the ultimate hobby in Japan. Pottery, basically the making of teabowls for the tea ceremony, is a Zen-like, quintessential art. The teabowl is all-important in pottery. It is said that in ancient Japan, a precious teabowl was worth as much as a feudal province or a castle. Since I took up the hobby, I have found increasing interest in the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568-1600), when pottery as an art blossomed. The period, which lasted only three decades, was a spectacular epoch in which the society underwent a sea of change and gave birth to a new culture. This period produced Chojiro, the originator of Raku ceramic ware used in the tea ceremony, and Furuta Oribe, a warrior and celebrated tea master.

The ensuing Edo period produced Kobori Enshu, the prominent teamaster and pottery connoisseur, and famous potters Ninsei and Ogata Kenzan. Their works, however, were much less challenging than those produced in the Azuchi-Momoyama period and were characterized by the sense of harmony and refinement. Teabowls reflect the times in which they were produced.

Pottery makes me think of poet Matsuo Basho’s idea that “the immutable and the changeable” are similar, since they both derive from the spirit of elegance in “haikai.” The immutable and the changeable are often contrasted but they should not be. The immutable often set the trend.

In a radio program I host, I recently interviewed Mansai Nomura, a kyogen actor. Nomura told me he valued the immutable. He said many of his fellow performers want to try something different, appearing in movies and musicals, for example. In his opinion, they should concentrate on stage performance. Nomura said that kyogen as an art has been perfected in the past seven centuries, and young actors should not try to change it. He said he would never try to change the traditional kyogen until he reached age 60. Nomura said that when he reached that age, he might establish his own style. I think that must be a real tradition.

Since World War II ended, we have blindly accepted the U.S. system of mass production and consumption, abandoning the old Japanese tradition. We bought new-model cars, brand-name bags and condominiums in resort areas. This resulted in the economic bubble, which eventually collapsed.

During a 10-day visit to Europe in September, I found out that Japanese were the only people who were pursuing fads. Culture will disappear from this world if we always seek convenience and efficiency.

West European countries try to preserve centuries-old buildings and streets and pass them on to later generations. If postwar Japan had been occupied by France or Britain, instead of the United States, Japanese culture, education and cityscape today would have been totally different.

A British friend of mine, with a reputable family background and a high social status, drives an old car and uses centuries-old furniture he inherited from his ancestors. He wears an old jacket, with patches on the elbows. This is nothing unusual and is something praiseworthy for the British.

Japanese kept a similar habit until the early Showa Era, when they were not so affluent as today. Japanese then did not throw out old goods. Many people had only one set of nice clothes. They used to wear the same kimono for their lives. While they did not have material wealth, they were not poor, spiritually speaking.

Some say the Edo period, in which Japan was isolated from the rest of the world, was a dark age lacking in vigor, but that is far from the truth. This period gave birth to a number of creative artists, including playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon; poet and novelist Ihara Saikaku; painters Ogata Korin, Katsushika Hokusai and Ando Hiroshige; Zen monk and poet Ryokan; and poets Yosa Buson and Matsuo Basho. Ryokan said that people driven by material desire would never be satisfied. Essayist Yoshida Kenko said in his “Essays in Idleness” that wise men do not leave large properties and assets behind when they die. In modern terms, it means that you cannot take your material possessions — cash, jewels, antiques, whatever — to your grave.

Such values were common in Japan until World War II ended. A sense of justice was instilled in Japanese by the Discourses of Confucius, and moral standards and social norms were firmly established. Lafcadio Hearn, who taught at the No. 5 High School in Kumamoto in the early Showa Era, wrote that the Japanese could look forward to a great future if they continued to foster the spirit of frugality and fortitude and to avoid luxuries.

More than 10 years ago, I met the late Japanese business leader Toshiwo Doko, chief of the Japan Federation of Economic Organizations (Keidanren) and a strong advocate of administrative reform. Doko lived in a humble home in a working-class area of Kawasaki near Tokyo, which did not exactly become the industrial tycoon who had served as chairman of Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries and of Toshiba Corp. He shared the house with his wife and a cat. Doko spent only 50,000 yen a month for living and spent the rest of his income on a girls’ high school that he had founded. Although he was more than 80 years old, Doko declined to ride in a chauffeur-driven limousine and chose to commute to Tokyo by train. He cultivated the spirit of fortitude and manliness and led a simple life. I learned the value of “selflessness” while associating with him.

Politics is the essential part of efforts to create a robust, generous and spiritually active nation. Politics directly and indirectly affects our lives, properties and daily living. I do not feel like writing on today’s disreputable politics, but one thing is clear: The destiny of a country depends on its leader.

At the beginning of the new century, our most important concern is how to establish a nation with quality and substance. Saigo Nanshu, better known as Saigo Takamori, is my favorite politician who played a leading role in the Meiji Restoration. He said that civilization means justice prevailing in the society, and has nothing to do with large homes, luxurious clothing and flashy appearances. As we live in a society lacking in quality and substance, we need to give serious thought to his words.

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