A recent online discussion I was involved in centered on the somewhat strange fact that there seems to be no real agreement about how the Japanese name for Japan – 日本 – should properly be pronounced: nihon or nippon. I have my own fairly strong ideas on that, which I’ll spare you here, but what the discussion really got me thinking about more was another, more traditional name for the country: 大和, read as “Yamato” but comprised of the characters 大 dai, ō- – “great” – and 和 wa, nago-, nagi-… meaning “harmony, reconciliation”.
“Yamato” 大和 (left) and “Musashi” 武蔵 (right), by calligrapher Nagayama Taijun
The second character (in its original form 倭) was long used by the ancient Chinese and Korean dynasties to refer to the country of Japan, and the “newer” (but still very old) form is still used today as a shorthand for “Japanese”, particularly in regard to the traditional culture of Japan. Traditional Japanese cuisine is called 和食, or “harmonious food/meal”, for example, and the serene, minimal, tatami-matted room is known as a 和室 washitsu – “harmonious room”.
The concept of wa as it relates to interpersonal relationships in a group/collectively-oriented society is fairly familiar, I suspect; the sports writer Robert Whiting explored its relationship to baseball in his best-selling book You Gotta Have Wa, and the idea has been quite thoroughly analyzed in the corporate sphere since the days of Japan’s bubble, when it looked like Japanese corporations were set to take over the world and everyone was scrambling to figure out what they were doing differently. In its most basic form, the harmony of the group automatically takes precedence over any one individual’s wishes, leading to a strong desire to avoid most confrontation or open disagreement.
A deeper harmony
However, there is another, broader (or one might say deeper) aspect to the idea of wa, especially as it relates to traditional Japanese arts and culture, and one which I think is even more worthy of emulation, and that is the sense of wa as harmonization with the natural world: a “reconciliation”, if you will, with the world around us, which as a species we so often seek to dominate by bludgeoning it into submission.
Some similar ideas have relatively recently begun to take root (or re-emerge) in the West, as well, although not necessarily due to the influence of traditional Japanese culture: for example, there has been a move back towards local, seasonal foods. In the West, the impetus for this seems to be mainly economic and health-related; in traditional Japanese culture, on the other hand, it is primarily aesthetic and, one might say, spiritual. The traditional Japanese chef must feel “in tune” with the fluctuation of the seasons, and understand the unique periods of ripeness for each culinary element. There can be no forcing; the chef must work with what nature can be coaxed into providing, and tries to do as much as possible with the simple, basic flavors therein.
Japanese gardens, although carefully cultivated, are manipulated artfully in such a way as to harmonize with the natural features already present, and moreover, to maintain an appearance of thorough naturalness.
Although modern Japanese culture has to a large extent gotten away from a lot of these ideas, there still remains a great deal of attention to the rhythms of nature in the passing of the seasons; the equinoxes, for example, are national holidays, and a great deal is made of the seasonal blossoming of flowers (particularly the Japanese cherry, but also others) and other cyclical natural phenomena, as well as great fanfare over the arrival of seasonal delicacies.
This idea that the arts and culture should be harmonized with the fundamental principles of the of the natural world extends also to the martial arts. Musashi writes frequently about ri (理・利): the universal principles of nature. The rhythms of nature and the “rhythms of battle” are to him one and the same thing:
…in all things there is rhythm… The rhythms of the world are expressed in such things as the Way of Dance and the rhythms of wind and string musicians; in all these, there is a harmonized and peaceful rhythm. Moving over to the Ways of the Martial Arts, the shot of a bow, the firing of a gun, and the riding of a horse all have rhythms and timings. In all skills and abilities, rhythm is a thing that should not be ignored. Furthermore, there is also rhythm in that which is empty.
In the career of a warrior, there is a rhythm to rising in service to one’s master, and a rhythm to falling from favor, a rhythm to things going as expected and a rhythm to the unexpected happening. Or, in the Way of Business, there is a rhythm to becoming wealthy, and a rhythm to wealth disappearing; in every Way there are different rhythms. In all things, the rhythms in which they thrive, and the rhythms in which they decline – you should carefully discern these.
Flow, don’t force
A word in Japanese meaning “forced” (also used to mean “impossible”) is muri 無理 (“no principle”) – something that goes against the natural principles, or flow of things. The real key to our success – as individuals, as societies, as a species – lies in our ability to avoid this and instead go with nature and its principles, harmonizing with both the people and the natural world around us. This idea of “great harmony” intrinsic to the Zen-influenced traditional Japanese culture is the one that I think most of us around the world could benefit most from better understanding, and emulating.