Quiet tea, talky tea

Butsuma--a space for the Buddha. Chanoma--a space where people drink tea, eat, chat.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Clothes make the man? or Don't judge a book by its cover? A view from Japan

Conclusion first: I think Japan would go with 'Clothes make the man.'  As part of the 'hippie' generation, I used to think this was a very shallow view.  I much preferred the other proverb.  But I am beginning to see things a bit more in the Japanese way.  Originally, I saw it as a surface thing--a man who wears expensive clothes will be perceived as better.  We resist the notion that a good person who can't afford fancy clothes is maybe less of a person.  But the Japanese view is a bit different: clothes are a reflection of your personality, or even your will or intentions.  The soldier strapping on armor before battle feels a congruence between the act of putting on the armor and the will to prevail in battle.  This is by no means unknown in the west.  Football players must feel something like this as they put on their gear before the Friday night or Sunday afternoon games.  Ancient Greek warriors described in Homer's epic works are always 'girding their loins' --this is a metaphorical way of expressing the mental preparations for battle. But the Japanese white-collar worker also feels this putting on his necktie before charging into the morning commute.  Many years ago, I was surprised that so many Japanese would spend so much time and money on their appearance.  Much of it is just 'image,' but that is no trivial matter.  How you look determines how people will treat you, and ultimately, it is tied in with your destiny.

The more serious the chef, the snappier the whites

Japan is big on uniforms.  A majority of school kids wear a school uniform somewhere along the line.  Department store greeters that push the elevator buttons are always dressed in snappy uniforms.  Sushi chefs are required to wear whites, while most other Japanese chefs also go for the snappy look.  We expect police, pilots and other safety-oriented workers to wear uniforms.  In Japan, this applies down the line to the lowliest train platform crew.  The public is reassured by this.  But this is nothing shallow.  There may be some deep-level influence of Buddhism in this.  Many Buddhist traditions mention the importance of body/action, speech and mind.  These are the source of actions that determine your karma.  Ideas originating in your mind can become speech.  Speech can become action.  Action is your karma, so paying attention to all three is necessary.  It is the intention comes to the fore.  To what use will you put these forces?  Unfortunately, there are lots of people don't give it a second thought, or even a first one.  

Early on, I noticed that Japanese people do not react to sarcasm.  Much of my sense of humor relies on sarcasm, but they just didn't get my jokes.  I have come to believe that the intentions implied by speech are not trivial.  The worst case would be joking about killing or violence toward a friend or family member.  This is pretty unthinkable for most Japanese.  (I do a lot less sarcasm these days.)  Likewise, pranks do not really work here, because of the intent to make someone look foolish.  There was a show like Candid Camera here, but the targets of the pranks were always celebrities who had been set up.  Ordinary members of the public were never targeted.  

These notions can overlap a bit into the realm of magic, including spells, mantras and other vocalized esoteric practices.  I was involved in some musical performances at a hospital, where I was advised, as a matter of common sense, not to program Chopin's piano etude no. 3.  The reason?  It is known in Japan as 'Wakare no Kyoku' or the Song of Farewell.  No one would want to plant the seed of farewell in the mind of anyone in a hospital.  Speaking of hospitals, one should never bring a potted plant as a gift to a sick person--the disease could 'take root.'  (Cut) flowers are a much purer expression of hopes and good wishes.
Girding my loins before a performance

Speaking of music, musicians here pay lots of attention to their clothes.  For traditional Japanese music, performers always wear traditional clothing, usually on the formal side.  There are similar traditions in the west--major European orchestras often perform wearing white tie/tails.  In pop/rock genres, the Japanese also give considerable thought to their appearance, no matter how casual it appears.  Ya gotta look the part.  

These ideas have given me a lot of insight into some of the differences in attitudes and thinking that I have encountered in Japan.  There is a famous Buddhist saying: If you can understand the mind, you understand everything.  Even my superficial investigations of the esoteric Buddhist theories of body, speech and mind have given me a lot to think about.  I also must say, there are a lot of people in this world who would benefit from a bit more attention and care in these realms.  

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