World Culture and Budo12 min read

To a few foreigners, Japan is a second home. I am excluding the sentimentalists who are fascinated by* the polite surfaces of Japanese life. Most of them are living comfortably sheltered from its deeper realities. Usually they can neither read a Japanese magazine or book nor speak more than broken sentences. These people are not at home in Japan, though they sometimes think they are. They are more like guests.

Home is a place not only of security and affection, but of quarrels and struggles. Furthermore, it is a place where in the middle of the quarrels and struggles we give—and find—love. In spite of all the faults, we want to be there. A few foreigners can feel that about Japan. They know all the defects, but still want to be there: it is home.

For still fewer of us, it is a sort of third home. We are the ones who lived in Japan in 1940 and again in postwar

Japan. Britain has not changed so much: Japan has changed completely. Or so it seems, but has it?

I am often asked, ‘How much has Japan changed?’ If it is English people who are asking, I often say, ‘When you get home from work, what is the first thing you do?’ ‘I usually change’, they answer, meaning that they take off their working clothes, whether factory or office, and change into their comfortable home clothes. In English this is called ‘changing’. And I will tell them, ‘Well, that is how Japan changes’.

Different Patterns of Behaviour

This does not mean that Japan is insincere. But there are certain attitudes—ways of thinking, ways of behaving, which are appropriate in one environment. But in a different environment, others are more appropriate. The clothes, so to speak, change. The man or woman changes them, but the person remains the same underneath the changes.

To some extent, this is true of all nations. Talking to foreigners, a Frenchman feels that they expect him to say something witty or clever. (Some Frenchmen admit that they prepare a few witty remarks in advance.) An Italian is expected to be charming. (Some of them say it is very tiring.) These are the clothes which they wear. Sometimes they take coat off; then the foreigner gets a shock.

A political quarrel in France can descend to personal insults which would never be tolerated in Britain, and the Italian Mafia is not charming. But still, though the clothes are only clothes, they do in fact reflect something of the nature of those who wear them. The Italians charmed the world with music, as we see from all those Italian words like allegro, piano, sonata and hundreds of others.

Though an English Savile Row suit and a first-class Italian suit do have many points in common, they are not the same. A typical Englishman wearing a good Italian-made suit does look well-dressed. But somehow he lacks the dashing air which the suit seems to need. Similarly a typical Italian in a Savile Row suit somehow misses the unselfconscious dignity. The clothes in both cases are largely the same, but there is a difference of style, and the foreigner often is not fully at ease in that style.

I sometimes have the impression that Japanese are wearing foreign designs of behaviour. They wear them very well, but there is something not quite natural about them. And this is because those patterns of behaviour have not been developed from Japan itself. But there are one or two exceptions where Japan has been spectacularly successful in developing a new adaptation—a new style of an accepted behaviour pattern.

One such example is industrial capitalism. In the earlier days of Japan’s industrialization, it was as ruthless as the Western model: in 1940 a friend told me how the workmen in his father’s factory had worked all day and slept under the machine at night. Japan gradually changed such practices, but they did not simply reform. They introduced entirely new concepts of management relations, almost undreamt of in the West.

When I lecture on Japan, I can amaze the audience by quoting the president of one of the largest electrical companies, who announced an extra bonus with these words:

‘I am glad you are going to get this extra. I know some of you are short of money. But it will not make you happy, because soon you will increase your commitments, and you will be just as short of money as before. So you will be no happier. But what will make you happy is to know that you are making good-quality, reliable and cheap electrical appliances for the Japanese housewife. That will make you happy, and nothing else will’.

No Western company president would talk like that. He might talk of the good reputation of the company, which would make it successful and so benefit everyone in it. But he would not talk about happiness. That would be a private matter for each employee. A good management would make the company successful and give increasingly good wages and conditions for the staff. But how they use these advantages—whether they were happy or not—would be entirely for each individual and has nothing to do with management.

I once asked Shigeo Horie, then president of the Bank of Tokyo, whom I had known rather well for over 20 years, whether he felt responsible for the happiness of his staff. He replied: ‘Yes. Without any qualifications or reservations, yes’. I then asked Kiyoshi Hara, then president of Asahi Broadcasting Company, the same question. ‘Yes. I don’t expect that I shall always succeed’, said he, ‘but… yes, I do feel responsible’.

I must add also that both these two remarkable men expected their staff to be prepared to work very long hours, if necessary. They themselves did so during crises.

Once, when president Hara was having dinner with me,

I noticed that he was very tired. I expected that after dinner he would go home to bed. To my surprise, he remarked that afterwards he would go to the airport to greet one of their TV teams which had just achieved a big success in Beijing. A Western company president would never do such a thing. The TV team would be exhausted and should be given the chance to rest. The next day they would be given a big welcome at the broadcasting station. In this Japanese case, the president himself was also exhausted. Still both sides would recognize the value of this personal greeting. Their very tiredness would make it all the greater.

How Budo Contributes to World Culture

We recognize the Budo spirit of rising above the tiredness of body. We see it again, on a much deeper level, in the independence of money grabbing among many ordinary Japanese. In Britain we are used to giving tips for good service; we have always been surprised when Japanese refused them. (Perhaps recently we have begun to corrupt them.)

But it surprises us when we see that this same spirit of independence and honesty does not extend to politics. In Britain we have financial scandals, but they never involve politicians. In the fiercely fought election campaign of 1992, there were many personal attacks on politicians from the other side and from newspapers. But there was not one accusation of financial dishonesty. I would guess that this is one of the new fields where the Budo spirit will show itself.

The purification of politics is not at all impossible. In the last century, British politics was* hopelessly dishonest and corrupt. We can read vivid descriptions of it in Dickens.

In 1892 London was run by the Metropolitan Board, which was famous for dishonesty. When it was proved that a director of the Board had taken a large sum of money from a builder, he maintained that it had been just a friendly gift, and that he had done nothing in return. There was a famous cartoon which showed this director as a baby in the cradle with hard-faced businessmen dropping golden coins into the cradle. The caption said, ‘He never did anything for it: it was always just a friendly gift!’

In general the ruthless businessman was admired. It was he who built railways, roads, houses and great bridges all over the world like the huge one at Calcutta. He brought prosperity to the country. If he was dishonest, well….

Darwinian evolution, understood by nonscientists to be simply ‘survival of the fittest’, supported the idea that the weak and stupid and lazy must simply perish. The Church was defenceless against these ideals. Little girls of six were employed in factories for tiny wages: they soon died, but others took their place. The businessman felt he must be hard. In some offices, spectacles were forbidden; they were regarded as a sign of weakness. Some hard men refused the new anaesthetics before an amputation. (My own uncle, who was in the Royal Navy, had to have a toe cut off: he refused to have ether.)

These merciless entrepreneurs were not gentlemen. The gentlemanly ideals of fairness and compassion were preserved in the countryside among landowners. Some of them were not rich: but whether rich or poor, they would not talk to the newly rich businessmen. The latter felt slighted and began to desire to become gentlemen. So they sent their sons to the small country schools, where the old ideals of the gentleman were still cultivated. As these sons grew up, the ideas of the men of wealth began to change. The figure of the perfect gentleman—calm, brave, quiet, honest and kind—was struggling to public consciousness.

In the course of time, the public view of political corruption began to change. Up to the end of the 19th century, the successful businessman or politician was admired, even if he was dishonest. In the 20th century any suspicion of financial dishonesty is a bar to a career as a politician. We have big financial scandals but no big political ones.

As an outsider, I wonder how the Budo spirit of Japan will struggle to the surface of Japanese life. After all, many samurai—like British country gentlemen—were poor compared with the traders. It is not something which even a Japanese could consciously plan: it must rise from the depths of the spirit. But I hope it will not be the Budo of yang—swaggering, bullying, mindlessly aggressive and narrow. That would lead to isolation and ultimate ruin. I have faith in Japan and believe that it will be the Budo of yin—gentleness in strength, strength in gentleness, associated especially with culture. I believe this can be Japan’s contribution to world culture.

Britain gave the gentleman ideal to the world and we are proud of having done so. But there is a big gap in it. The gentleman, it has been remarked, can be a bit boring, if he has no sense of humour and no appreciation of art. Of course, many gentlemen have a good sense of humour and appreciation of art. But it is not formally part of the ideal. One can be a good gentleman without either.

The Japanese ideal of bunbu ryodo, or the pen and the sword, thus supplies something missing. Of course, Japan cannot simply revive this old slogan: it can, and must, take a new form. But I think this will be one of Japan’s real contributions to the advancement of world culture. Only when that contribution is made, will Japanese feel at peace within themselves.

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.

© Trevor Leggett