Thursday, February 26, 2009

A few words about rituals...because the Japanese do have a bunch of them

No, I'm not talking about your basic, everyday rituals like the one I have in the morning (wake up, go turn computer on, shuffle to kitchen and make coffee, shuffle back and check e-mail....). No, I'm talking about rituals that are hundreds of years old and observed pretty much as they were hundreds of years ago.

Coming from a relatively new culture, some of the ways of doing things here in Japan (which is waaaaaaaaay older than the U.S.) seem, well....tedious....old fashioned....and sometimes a complete pain in my butt...BUT....I do them, because, well...."when in Rome...." and...oh yeah...Lord knows I don't want to upset the "wa" of a situation. (Which will probably surprise people who have known me for years...yes, my friends, my rebel-rousing days are slowing down.) Actually, to be completely honest...I've come to like some of the rituals...they may be a bit of a pain, but...I've gotten used to them.

**Note: wa is the harmony, peace and balance of everyday life. Japanese work very hard to keep the wa. As I was once told by a Japanese friend, "You must respect the wa."

In the Japanese culture, rituals are very important. Take, for example, ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement), which has roots (!!) that date back to the 6th century.

The main idea of ikebana is to "respect the harmony between man and nature by using 3 stems ...representing heaven, earth and man."

There are many schools of ikebana, each having their own philosophy and way of doing things. Certain flowers only go with certain plants and colors and there is meaning to most everything that is done and personal philosophy of ikebana ("flowers....vase.....Voila!") doesn't even come close to what all is involved in this art. I know ladies who have studied ikebana for years and when I asked them if they were almost finished, one lady said that she "would probably never be finished...there is always something new to learn".

The Japanese tea ceremony....or chadō (茶道, "the way of tea") is another art that is steeped (!!) in rituals and exactness of doing things. In the tea ceremony, harmony (和 wa), respect (敬 kei), purity (清 sei), and tranquility (寂 jaku) - are important points to always remember.

Being a part of a tea ceremony is something quite wonderful and yet, very stressful at the same time. There are so many rules and things to to hold the cup, how many times to rotate the cup, what to say to the server/person before you/person after you, what words to use, to name just a few of the very important details....and knowing that one wrong move could insult everyone in the room, well...let's just say that it takes many times of attending this kind of event to feel even slightly relaxed.

Again, many people study tea ceremony for years...perfecting the way of the ceremony. A few weeks ago, in one of my classes, we actually had a mini-tea English. One of my students is preparing for when foreign tourists come and she needed to practice. It was good, not only for the English, but for all of us in the room...there were many things that some of us did not know or had forgotten

(Two of my students trying to figure out the correct way to use the chopsticks when picking up the sweet cakes we eat before drinking the green tea.)

(Are you asking yourself now where the heck it is that I am going with this? I do have a point..and I'm almost there....promise.)

The Japanese movie that won the "Best Foreign Film" at the Academy Awards is a movie that has, as it's core, another aspect of this culture that is full of rituals. The movie, Departures (おくりびと ,Okuribito, in Japanese--click on the link to go to Wikipedia for movie info) looks at the job of the okuribito, or mortician from the standpoint of an out-of-work cellist who takes the job because he is in dire need of work and initially, he thinks the position is in a travel company. In fact, he tells his wife that's what the job is, knowing she will not like what it is he is doing.

The most impressive part of this movie that my students talked about was the way the okuribito worked. The American drama Six Feet Under is on TV here and the differences between the two kinds of morticians is almost like night and day. The Japanese counterpart is more of a spiritual guide for the person who has passed away....the rituals involved in preparing the body of the deceased were, as one student remarked, "almost a dance" he learned to tie the obi (belt) of the kimono, for example, had one student almost in tears as she was talking about it.

In a world that is ever changing and where our rituals and ceremonies are slowly fading away, it's nice to know that some things don't change...even though this is not my own culture, it's the one in which I have chosen to live and sometimes, the tedious and old-fashioned way of doing things is good....almost comfortable.

And the wa.......lives on.

**Those pictures not belonging to me were borrowed from my friends at GoogleImages.


Anonymous said...

Deb, I watched the video clip and I wish I could have understood what was being said. I looks like a very inspirational movie...WOW.

smalltownmom said...

Wonderful post, Debbie. We all need more wa.

Janet said...

I think the US could use more rituals and less...well, Six Feet Under is a perfect example, vs the morticians in Japan. I think it's absolutely horrible the way funeral directors operate here.

And... "You must respect the wa" would make an AWESOME blog name!

The Girl Next Door said...

Wow I could never make it and they'd all cry waaaaaa which is kind of like wa?

I do like "respect the Wa" you need to make a bloggy button and pass it around. Just an idea.

Cheri @ Blog This Mom! said...

I love your posts about Japanese culture, traditions, and rituals.

I really want to see Departures.

And? The clip needed subtitles. LOL!

jan in nagasaki said...

"don't upset the wa" I say to my family when we visit making a huge circle with my arms....."we must preserve the wa"

as much as i find comfort in the ritual of life in Japan, the comfort in knowing what's next... the ongoing never changing "way things are done" I equally find frustration and exasperation in the never changing "way things are done"...

however, as you well know... accepting and respecting the wa is the only way that we can survive (happily) here.

phd in yogurtry said...

Ahh, finding that wa between the comfort and the tedium of ritual. Sounds like you are doing a good job of trying, Deb.

And such tricky wordplay, meese!

Paida said...

very interesting post.

Am I the only one who noticed how hot that guy was in the post!? Even with out subtitles I definately learned it is a movie we have to see.

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

We just finished reading Snow Country for my global lit class and I was wondering if you had read it. Much of the discussion was centered on ritual in the Japanese culture.

There was just a movie on HBO (Taking Chance) about how a fallen soldier is taken home that seems much like what you're talking about--the attention to detail of the smallest thing, down to the laces of the shoes, was tremendous.

Jason, as himself said...

Fascinating! Between you and Third Culture Kids R Mine, I know I'm going to become an expert in Japanese culture. Well, sort of.

Gina again said...

I think the US would be a better place if we made "respecting the wa" a priority.

Moxy Jane said...

This movie looks absolutely stunning. The preview alone completely choked me up.

I love the beauty of rituals and traditions. I miss not really having many in our family...and in our culture, too. Super Bowl Sunday does NOT count, people!

Thanks for sharing this with us, Debbie. I'm so glad that you are able to appreciate such an intricate part of the Japanese culture.