When I am asked how to tell the difference between Japanese and Chinese, I sometimes answer:
‘In general, Japanese are more self-controlled. They talk less excitedly, speak in lower tone, move their bodies less and do not use many gestures. They usually do not interrupt each other. They seem a rather placid people’.
‘But remember’, I add, ‘this applies to the exterior’. ‘Within, the Japanese may be irritable, nervous, quarrelsome and deeply emotional. It is only that at ordinary times they do not like to show it. Only at exceptional times, when they are really roused, they do show it’.
I sometimes explain that the ordinary word for ‘Excuse me’ in Japanese is shitsurei. Rei means something like a ceremony, orderly and harmonious; shitsu means losing it or breaking it. So the word shitsurei means: ‘I am doing something out of order, breaking the smooth surface conduct which is so important in Japan’.
Of course, such generalizations are made about all nations. It is a curious fact that though there is truth in them, they never seem to apply to the individuals whom the foreigner meets. For instance, before I went to live in Germany in 1935, I had read that Germans speak more loudly than most other nations. So I was prepared to meet verbally booming Germans. But in fact, most of the Germans whom I met in Frankfurt used to speak to me rather quietly. So I thought, ‘Oh, the book was wrong’. I had lived there a little time and noticed that when the Germans spoke to each other, they used a louder voice. At first I thought they were always angry with each other. Then I realized that this was their normal voice. When they spoke to me, they spoke gently and slowly, using simple German so that I could understand easily. I was a special case. The book had been right.
Similarly, we can read that French people are quick to understand. When you talk to a Frenchman, often he will grasp the point of what you are saying, before you have finished your sentence. French people (like Indians) love argument and debate. So he does not want to agree with what you are saying. And before you have finished your sentence, he has understood your meaning and disagrees. He interrupts: ‘Mais non, mais non!’ (But no, but no!) British and Japanese feel that this is rather rude, but other French people do not mind it at all. They enjoy it. Television watching is not so popular in France as in most countries. It is said that this is because one cannot interrupt the television by saying, ‘Mais non, mais non!’
The English too are seen by others as rather strange. A Spaniard once said to me:
‘Your English way of talking is like your English weather—dull with not much sunshine. You use exactly the same voice to talk about a football match as about a terrible earthquake or fire; it’s as though the earthquake or fire is no more important than a football match. Or perhaps a football match is as important to you as an earthquake or fire. You English talking together are like a full orchestra in which only the violas play!’
Similarly, to an Indian, the Japanese way of talking seems rather inexpressive, especially in Kyoto. On the surface at least, it is calm. A British poet, visiting Japan, remarked that the speech of Japanese women with children made him think of the song of small birds: it was so musical.
The outer calm, which so impresses visitors to Japan, is part of an external gloss, which may be no deeper than a thin layer. When we live in Japan with Japanese people, we discover how paper-thin it often is. Then some foreigners become disillusioned. In their first few weeks, they see only the outside—the ceremonial order and the happy matsuri (festival). Later, after having lived some time in Japan, they find out what happens after the matsuri is over. It can be something quite different: confusion and turmoil, bitter hatreds and infighting and even worse.
But suppose they stay still longer and are able to go much deeper into the Japanese spirit. Usually they can only do this through real skill in one of the traditional Japanese arts. (In the same way, foreigners can make real English friends by becoming skilful at a traditional English sport like golf. But they must be really good.) Through Budo especially, a foreigner can come into touch with a very deep calm, much deeper than the superficial dignity of ceremonies or social politeness. When we first find out about this level, it is a great surprise to us.
When I was in Japan in 1939, 1 was introduced to an old man who, when he was young, had been a friend of another old man, who when young had been a friend of Saigo Takamori. The old Japanese told me that even at the height of fame, Saigo lived a very simple life. Sometimes someone would come and ask to sit with Saigo. The man would be admitted to the room where Saigo was. But neither Saigo nor the visitor would say a word. After about 15 minutes, the visitor would bow deeply and go, still without a word being spoken. ‘It is known that if we come here and sit with Great Saigo for a few minutes, all the difficulties and indecisions in our heart will be solved’, he added. ‘We come here feeling anxious, and we go away calm and resolute’.
When I heard this, I found it almost incredible. I could not think of any similar case in Western history, except for a few saints. And even they generally said a word or two: blessings or something like that. The idea of just coming, sitting in silence and then going seems very strange to us. Of course, to most Japanese today, it would be a strange behaviour, but most of them have a vague understanding of it.
I was interested in the story and tried to read about Saigo. I asked my teacher of Japanese at the British embassy if he could find some short pieces about Saigo; He found a couple of books and selected a few fairly easy passages. I could improve my Japanese by studying them in advance and then with him. This was much more interesting than extracts from newspapers, which some other language students used.
I remember reading about three samurai who had approached Katsu Kaishu, asking for a letter of introduction to Saigo in Kyushu. Katsu suspected that these samurai intended to kill Saigo but wrote a note introducing them, in which he warned Saigo of what he suspected. He sealed it and gave it to their leader. Assuming that it was a mere introduction, they went to Kyushu, to Saigo’s small house. When he came out in his simple clothes, they assumed that he was a servant. They handed him the letter, saying: ‘Give this to your master*.
To their surprise, he opened it, read it and said: ‘So you’ve come to kill me? All the way from the capital—quite a journey*. And he laughed. They looked at each other in bewilderment and then left.
‘But why didn’t they kill him?’ I asked my teacher. He was an intellectual man and looked a bit embarrassed. I think he was afraid that I would find it incredible. Finally he said awkwardly: ‘Well, it is difficult to explain, but some of those Meiji heroes had a sort of… a sort of what we call spiritual strength’.
I felt I had met something deep in the Japanese character. Later I read something about the attack on Admiral Kantaro Suzuki in the February 26, 1936 attempt at a coup. The assassin, Captain Teruzo Ando, tried to explain his motives
to the Admiral, whom he admired. Suzuki cut him and said, ‘If that’s all you have to say, then shoot’. Ando then shot him, but not fatally. Suzuki’s wife rushed in and outfaced the assassins with her own courage. I was impressed by Suzuki’s calm indifference to death.
But the big surprise came soon after the war, when I met postal minister Hisatsune Sakomizu, who had been cabinet secretary at the end of the war under Suzuki, who was then prime minister. Sakomizu gave me a lunch in private and presented to me a copy of his book about the concluding stages of the war, adding some personal comments. He said that the old premier seemed to do nothing, just reading and signing the papers which Sakomizu as cabinet secretary had prepared. ‘I felt I was running the country’, said Sakomizu. The old man just sat there reading Tao-te Ching by Lao-tzu, occasionally saying, ‘Hot day, isn’t it?’
But then one morning, Suzuki did not appear. The cabinet secretary, generally so cool and efficient, suddenly found that he could hardly do any work. He could not decide things; he found his hands shaking. He suddenly realized the terrible dangers which they were all running. And then when Suzuki came back in the afternoon, the atmosphere again became calm and resolute.
I have sometimes told this to Western people; they agree that we have nothing quite like it. To the West, Budo has associations with films of what we call blood-and-thunder. I believe that the deeper tradition of Budo calm should be known also. Japanese should get to know some of the incidents where it has been shown both in historical and modern times.
© Trevor Leggett