Impulsive Generosity

One of the most attractive features of the Japanese character is a sudden, uncalculating impulse of generosity. Much of the kindness in Britain is based on religion or a feeling for social justice. They are part of a lifestyle: the individual case is just part of that plan of life. But in Japan these actions are not based on any grand principle: they are spontaneous. (Of course in Japan, there is also the organized charity of religion and social justice.)

To us, the sudden gesture of kindness seems to be somehow childlike. I do not mean ‘childish’; I mean that it has the straightforwardness and total commitment of a child. A famous psychologist has remarked, ‘It is only children who know how to give’. He explained that the adult people have always some anticipation or expectation of something in return for their gift. Or they give grudgingly, thinking of something else which they could have done with the money. ‘Such reservations may be unconscious’, he said, ‘but they are still there’. Only children can give without any reservations.

Looking back, I can find an example of this in my own life. When I was nine years old, a speaker came to our school and told us about the great Tokyo earthquake. He showed us some terrible pictures, and his talk had a big effect on many of us. After the talk, the headmaster distributed little cardboard savings boxes to each of us. We were told that if we handed them in after a month, what we had saved would be sent to help the victims of the earthquake. The headmaster explained that we should not just feel sorry but we should do something.

We children had no money of our own, except sixpence a week to buy sweets. If we did some job in the garden, father would give us a penny or two. So for the next month, I and my next brother, aged 10, undertook a number of jobs. We put every penny we had into the two little boxes. My mother told us that we should keep a little for ourselves, but we did not do so. We had no sweets for a month. My mother respected our decision and did not give us any herself. I think she was pleased to see a strong decision.

But my eldest brother, aged 12, did not put in more than a little. He was already saving towards buying a bicycle. There was a target: when he had reached that, the parents had promised to give the rest. Most of the bigger boys of 13 did not give anything. They were fully taken up with their own affairs. I heard them talking, and some of them said: ‘The little we could give will not make any difference in Tokyo. But it will make a difference to ourselves here’. They had already moved from the purehearted generosity of the child to the selfish calculations of the grown-up.

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