Latest Articles Subscription Back-numbers blank

Date of Issue:15/December/2003

Ambiguous Glissando - Of beautiful culture

Hamaji & Associates

In the relations-based society of Japan, ambiguity is a virtue at the core of social functioning. This could be illustrated in a heart-moving love song expressed by a Princess 800 years ago.

The sentiment expressed in the 5-7-5-7-7 syllable tanka by Princess Shikishiid. 1202j,
@Tamanofo-yo@String of beads,
@Taenaba-taene@if you must break, break;
@Nagaraeba@If you last longer,
@Shinoburukotono@my endurance is
@Yowarimozo-suru@sure to weaken.
is profoundly sad.

@A gstring of beadsh - some gleaming, some dull - should be an appropriate metaphor for life. Included in the popular anthology known as Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets), this poem embodies what I, in my ignorance, think lies at the heart of Japanese culture. Love is something you secretly endure and suffer from.
Expressions such as kanawanu koi (love yet to be fulfilled) and mihatenu yume (a dream that has not come true) strongly appeal to me.

@gWhy canft you be more straightforward?h gWhy arenft you more up front?h These are the things that American people, from President Bush on down, often say when negotiating business and I believe they have a point. Yet, culturally ingrained sentiments and attitudes are hard to change. Of course times are changing, and many young Japanese are beginning to find things like unstated statements incomprehensible. Still, the ability to understand your partnerfs unexpressed feelings largely remains intact at the core of Japanese social functioning.
By way of explaining this, I sometimes say to my American businessman friends: gYou see, if a Japanese says in dating, eLook at that beautiful moon!f or eThe stars twinkle tonight, donft they?f, he really is saying, eI do love you.fh My friends burst out laughing and say, gNow I see what you mean!h

@I was greatly impressed, at any rate, when I heard that Princess Shikishi left 400 tankas and that my friend has translated all of them and published.@I learned of this String of Beads: Complete Poems of Princess Shikishi (SATO Hiroaki, Univ. of Hawaii Press) when I was invited to a party to celebrate the publication of this elegantly designed book.
@The party was held one evening in a loft on the southwest waterfront of Manhattan where warehouse-like building stand in a deserted-like space. My wife, whom I took along, said, gA gangster can pop out anytime!h The place certainly had that kind of atmosphere. As we went up to the loft, though, we found a specious room graced with a piano and old furniture - a comfortable living space with quiet interiors that were evidently laid out with care by its owner, and it gave us a pleasant sense of relief. The guests who came by threes and fives all looked like artists and poets, all mature ladies and gentlemen. My little daughter, whom I had also taken along, changed from jeans to a kimono and looked happily excited as everyone heaped compliments upon her.

@After a round of drinks, the poetry reading began. At request, I played the Shakuhachi, bamboo-flute. I chose a few classical numbers appropriate for the occasion and, aware of my technical shortcomings, played them the best I could. The Shakuhachi is simply a section of a bamboo with five air holes. Lacking any mechanical devises, it cannot make the clear diatonic distinctions of do-re-mi, but compensates for this inability by creating a smooth or, shall I say, ambiguous glissando. This ambiguous, unspecifiable flow is one characteristic of Japanese culture, and I hoped my listeners appreciated it.@@
gDirecth and gStraightforward,h antonym of gAmbiguous,h represent American culture, which continue to impress and surprise my family in daily life. Surely, US-Japan relations wonft improve much with people shouting, gJapan is different!h As with the sentiments expressed by Princess Shikishi 800 years ago, the point is to see the differences and try to understand them.

@I was glad to have learned that the title of Mr. OE Kenzaburo fs Nobel Literature Laureate acceptance speech (1994) was gJapan, the Ambiguous, and Myselfh, as to express the equivocal characteristics of Japan culture. (It followed KAWABATA Yasunarifs gJapan, the Beautiful, and Myselfh of 26 years before.) While ambiguity is considered a virtue by the Japanese, the point at the same time is that we should keep eyes on the possible disasters and tragedies which have occurred in the past as a result of such as ambiguity. World War Two was started with the ambiguous Commanding Authority. In this world of internationalization and globalization, while we maintain ambiguity, we should be, as Mr. Oe humbly pointed out, quoting George Orwell, ghumane,h hsane,h hcomely,h and gdecent.h


Institute for International Studies and Training (IIST)
2nd Floor, Toranomon Jitsugyo Kaikan
1-1-20 Toranomon, Minato-ku, Tokyo, Japan

TEL:(81-3) 3503-6621