I have watched the series James May: Our Man in Japan on Amazon Prime twice and it was in these episodes that I first heard the Japanese word Gaijin meaning foreigner. It was a good travelogue series and showcased the beautiful and crazy of Japan handpicked from the north to south of the archipelago. That was two years ago. And now in 2022, while browsing at a bookshop called OM Books housed in Phoenix Market City mall, I saw this book Orienting by Pallavi Aiyar (published in 2021). I have not heard of the author before and found myself skimming through the book; it looked promising. And it is….fantastic !!
The author, her diplomat husband,two kids and the family pets are moving to Japan; the husband’s new place of posting and their home for the next four years. She is a foreign correspondent and an author by profession. Her earlier books were on China and Indonesia, all places of posting in the course of her husband’s work.
” Japan was an anomaly; it’s geographic location on the eastern edge of the map served as a metaphor for its seeming separateness from the rest of Asia. It was rich and quiet, old and punctual, a former colonizer rather than a colony, rule obsessed rather than loophole hungry.”Orienting by Pallavi Aiyar
Her writing is witty, absorbing and her journalistic background digs into the history of things which helps bring clarity into the present day Japanese culture. The chapters move like TV episodes, maybe it’s the after-effects of James May’s series plus she has also included some photographs in the book which are a definite added attraction. She has covered what May may have missed 😌. And yes, there is plenty of haiku included.
The book is a delightful read; it’s about the place, the people, the things and the fascinating Japanese words sometimes with no English counterpart. It’s not a travelogue but more like a window into the culture, lifestyle, leading philosophy and a way of life unique to Japan.
So the first question to ask is, what do Japanese think about the Gaijin ? Not much is the truth; just like in all other parts of our world, here too foreigners are treated with suspicion. They are looked down upon as they do not subscribe to the Japanese sensibilities of cleanliness, punctuality plus as the author says…“they (Japanese) feared losing the social cohesion and trust that made their cities safe and clean.” And as the author discovers, it’s the homogeneity ingrained by years of conformity that has created a still standing confidence in the community which makes the city (Tokyo) safe for school children to commute to school alone using the public transport; accounts for the higher return rates of lost items; lower crime rates compared to other metropolises.
“…it took me months to become inured to the sight of elementary school children, sometimes in groups, but often singly, hopping onto buses, changing trains in subway stations and walking along thoroughfares on their way to, or from, school. In Japan, this was unremarkable as, well, clean public toilets.”Orienting by Pallavi Aiyar
What makes this possible !? The author cites reasons such as accepted reliance on community for help if lost, training at a young age, dependable public infrastructure.
” Over the years I came to the conclusion that trust bred trust; good deeds encouraged good deeds. If someone had taken the trouble to turn in your valuables to the police, you were much more likely to do the same for someone else in the future. It was the result of the normalization of civic behaviour.
This normalization accounted for the village-like levels of public faith in the urban jungle of one of the world’s biggest cities.”Orienting by Pallavi Aiyar
Digging into the cultural core, the author gives a brief history about the origins of Zen, tracing the evolution of Buddhism as it travelled from India to China and to Japan.
“Many a foreigner came to Japanese Zen via Dr Daisetsu T Suzuki’s seminal work, first published in 1938, Zen and Japanese culture. I was no exception.
At the outset, Suzuki describes Zen as: ‘The product of the Chinese mind when it came into contact with Indian Buddhist teachings in the first century AD.’
Zen was a more practical, less metaphysical version of Indian Buddhism, in keeping with the ‘practical’ Chinese temperament.”Orienting by Pallavi Aiyar
The author contrasts the practice of Buddhism in India where the line of thinking was “epistemological” What is the soul ? How do we know what is real?; while in China Buddhism was made more practical in approach and combining with Confucian teachings focusing on the present, resulted in a new vein of thinking, the Zen (Chan, in Chinese) Buddhism.
” In the late twelfth century, Zen travelled further east and took root in the Japanese archipelago. In Japan, the practical aspects of the religion became more pronounced. All Zen monks had to do manual, and menial, labour, including gathering fuel, picking tea leaves, cultivating the land and cleaning the temple.
This was in stark contrast to the Indian Sangha, where for centuries monks had been prohibited from working, supported in their material needs by the generosity of their neighbourhood.”Orienting by Pallavi Aiyar
Now the book by Shoukei Matsumoto “A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind” makes perfect sense 👉Adding meaning to daily chores (Buddhist approach) 🧹 . In the book the author writes “The Zen sect of Buddhism is renowned for the cleaning practices of its monks, but cleaning is greatly valued in Japanese Buddhism in general as a way to ‘cultivate the mind.’ “
There is an entire chapter on cleanliness covering both its philosophical, religious and utilitarian aspects; from hitech toilets and Toilet Poetry Awards, to the daily cleaning sessions institutionalized in the elementary schools in Japan as well in their superfast bullet trains . The result “cleaning was not seen as a punishment. It was not seen as beneath anyone’s dignity. It was not seen as dirt, but as the means to be clean” 👏
The author met up with Shoukei Matsumoto in Japan and even joined one of the cleaning activity he organized at the Komyoji temple in Tokyo on a weekday, which people took time out to attend before their regular work.
” I was curious, I said, about what motivated them to devote weekday mornings to come and sweep the temple before starting their workday.
‘Cleaning is as important as drinking water and eating food.’ one of the salarymen spoke up. ‘I’ve heard that in Indian people often hire others to clean for them, but for us it is part of life and you should live your own life, not outsource it to someone else.’ “Orienting by Pallavi Aiyar
As per Shoukei Matsumoto, “Although for monks there was no difference between cleaning and meditation, the same could not be said for lay people. So, I thought, why not try to change the meaning of cleaning in people’s lives from something to avoid into a meditation practice? ….Sitting still in meditation was not for everyone, but cleaning was relevant to all the people. Through it everyone could cultivate their mind and simultaneously remove dirt, making the physical environment more pleasant.”
“…difference between Buddhism in India, with its emphasis on renunciation, and it’s Japanese/Chinese variants, with their focus on work. Not only did the Japanese monks work unlike their Indian alms-seeking counterparts, they made no distinction between work and meditation.”Orienting by Pallavi Aiyar
The world as a whole has a certain curiosity and fascination with the Japanese culture. Their lifestyle is often perceived as simple, slow and natural (but stickler to cleanliness and punctuality) living. They must be conforming, orderly, tidy, punctual, calm, close to nature, minimalist people enjoying wabi sabi moments everyday. There industry and efficiency perfected with practices such as kaizen, ikigai and shokunin as described in the book: “the relentless pursuit of perfection through the honing of a single craft.” But everything is not hunky dory and life is messy; Japanese society too has its glaring contradictions – overworked salarymen, the gaijin stigma, the honne and tatemae and if you thought all Japanese homes were minimalist, Marie Kondo inspired and straight off Muji (or Ikea) catalogues, the author sees differently…
” They (middle-class Japanese homes) were so tiny that toys, bedding, utensils, cleaning equipment overflowed from shelves and onto the floor in a flood of clutter. The problem of gomi yashiki (houses overflowing with junk) and gomi-beya (apartments crammed with junk from floor to ceiling) were the staple of TV shows and newspaper features.
The space crunch and consumerism were the obvious culprits.”Orienting by Pallavi Aiyar
The book is a gem as the author unwraps the enigma associated with Japanese culture with witty candour and in constant comparison with the Indian and Chinese. Tea, zen and nature; sakura, komorebi, shinrinyoku; there’s food too…
“I had oohed and aahed my way through course after course of the seasonal banquet. But I was hiding a terrible secret. I wasn’t all that keen on Japanese food in general and kaiseki in particular. The admission feels blasphemous….
As an eater I was mildly adventurous. In China I’d consumed scorpions and sea cucumbers (verdict: hideous); but drawn the line at dog, donkey and rat.
But the Chinese had two weapons in their gastronomic arsenal that the Japanese lacked: spices and cooking. Cooked foods bathed in spices and sauces appealed to my unsophisticated taste buds more that raw foods intended to taste mostly of themselves. For all my globetrotting, I was Indian like that.”Orienting by Pallavi Aiyar
But there is more….😌
Till next post, take care !!