Himeji Castle

‘They are so dignified’, my neighbour remarked. ‘I watched a ten year old girl stepping forward to be checked for radiation, and she bowed. They both bowed.’  He was talking, of course, about the aftermath of the earthquake in Japan, and I was reminded, as I often have been in recent days, of my own experiences in that remarkable country. It is thirty years since I accepted a teaching post on the JET programme, an initiative which was set up to place young Westerners in grass-roots teaching positions so as to facilitate greater cross-cultural understanding between Japan and the English-speaking world.  I went to Himeji, the city famed for its magnificent Samurai castle, known as the ‘White Heron’, and lived for a year in a community whose white population could be counted on one hand.

It is instructive to step into another culture, on the other side of the world: it affords a new and different perspective on the customs and traditions of your home country as well as revealing intriguingly different ways of life. Perhaps one of the most pronounced differences for me was the Japanese sense of etiquette. That televised bow took me back to the formality there, and the sense of order and beauty that accompanies this: small squares of rice and bright slices of fish gleaming in dark lacquer lunch boxes; the way the tellers at banks fold open neat stacks of bank notes like fans; the extraordinary and welcome precision with which the buses and the trains come and go. Discipline is everywhere: if you don’t pay your electricity bill on time, the supply is simply cut off. No messing about with reminder letters.

Me with fellow JET teacher Dennis Davy and Japanese colleagues

I was certainly not entranced by all aspects of Japanese culture, but there was and is something about the Japanese expression of formality – ultimately, of form, the root meaning of which embodies beauty (from the Latin ‘forma’, which translates as both ‘shape’ and‘beauty’) – that seems to have value beyond form for form’s sake. In a crisis like this, it feels like form for life’s sake: the expression of an attitude which respects and accepts the other, and which by extension respects and accepts the unpredictable power of the natural world. For the Japanese, ‘shizen’ or nature, is not a noun but an adverb, a process that is constantly in movement and one in which we are all living, changing participants. To see the Japanese people rising to meet the challenges they face with the dignity and beauty that characterises so much of their way of life has highlighted to me the uncertainty in nature that is the undercurrent of all our lives and the value of acknowledging this and behaving accordingly.

The debate now, it seems, is not so much how we work to generate more power, nuclear or otherwise, but how we learn to rely on needing less.



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