“The Proper (Japanese) Way” is the manner by which this or that action is to be effectively carried out in Japanese social contexts. The prescribed method is most often an aesthetic etiquette that sometimes has practical applications in that it can facilitate the action being accomplished efficiently well or “lean” as they say in business environments.
As an American woman trained in the “proper ways” from the age of 17 by a rural elitist Japanese husband, I am more than acquainted with Japanese customs. A human horticulturist of sorts, he trimmed my uncouth roots and cut away bits of my free spirit until I became a rather hideous bonsai. Later as the mother of two “hafu” children raised by the same keeper of trees, I saw it play out from the sapling stage.
My “hafus,” the one-chan (older sister) and otooto (little brother) lovelies of my world, lived nearly every day of their lives in America, under a roof that just as well could have been constructed of black tile cornered with fierce gargoyles warding off evil. Their cookie cutter cape cod, nestled in a Detroit transplant community of Japanese engineers and their families sent here teach us (“under-educated”) Americans how to build quality cars, from the outside looked like any other home in Midwest suburbia– but inside, while one would not find paper doors nor tatami, the proper way was strictly taught and our output managed. The only correct answer to any barked command being a robotic, “Hai, wakarimashita” (“Yes, understood!”).
These beautiful, bi-cultural children, in a position to receive the best of both worlds, were in fact planted in vessels so small, that the elder became tightly bound– her tender roots knotted in an anxious ball underneath a lovely blanket of seedless moss; and the younger, refusing to bend in the prescribed direction, uprooted himself and found some semblance of peace living much like any Michigander his age…swaying freely in the breeze that blows from Lake Michigan to Lake Erie. These children, now adults grown, drive me to contemplate the dichotomy that defines the infamous Japanese national character.
And just what is this character? Ruth Benedict, an anthropologist known for her 1946 book, “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture” described it this way:
“(The Japanese are)…both aggressive and unaggressive, both militaristic and aesthetic, both insolent and polite, rigid and adaptable, submissive and resentful of being pushed around, loyal and treacherous, brave and timid, conservative and hospitable to new ways…”
Oblivious to these polarized traits when I first arrived in Japan in 1980– some 34 years after Benedict’s epic academic study was published, I thought I had discovered the most interesting place on the planet. Now in hindsight I think the exacting ways that drive the character we see are…to put it simply, tiring, and can have negative effects on anyone’s psyche…even that of a native Japanese.
This is not to say, a human bonsai, a person restrained and shaped by customs, is not a beautiful and interesting thing, but few would, if they had the choice, elect to live such a potted life. In fact, the Japanese don’t really chose it, but through various societal mechanisms are trained. Thus, they are at once polite, aesthetic, adaptable, submissive, conservative, hospitable, and loyal on the omote (surface); and insolent, rigid, and resentful on the ura/underside. They are both sides in order to strike a balance within themselves– and in the end preserve what is the proper Japanese way.
To learn more about this bonsai life, please follow this blog for related posts and information on the upcoming release of “The Six-Foot Bonsai: A Soul Lost in the Land of the Rising Sun.”