Text and photo by
Grigoris A. Miliaresis
In one of the classic Chinese texts, the 3rd century BC “Xunzi” there is a story attributed to Confucius and it involves a water vessel hanging from two chains: when empty the vessel is tilted at 45 degrees, when 80% full it stands straight and when filled a little more it overturns and the water spills. To the great Chinese philosopher this vessel was the best illustration of the biggest virtue a wise governor (and by extension any man) should possess, a sense of measure about everything –his descendants would expand on this idea to form what is now called the “Doctrine of the Mean”. In the Ashikaga Gakko, Japan’s first university (founded either in the 9th or the beginning of the 15th century depending on whom you believe) which specialized in the study and dissemination of the teachings of Chinese classics there are three such vessels; apparently the Japanese found the particular teaching impressive enough to make it a guideline for well-being: the phrase is “hara hachi bu” (腹八分) or “eat until your stomach is 8/10 full”.
All these are wonderfully philosophical –as is the “moderation is the best thing” of Cleobulus of Lindos, a contemporary of Confucius. But like the descendants of Cleobulus, those of the Chinese sage (be they physical or spiritual) confine their agreement with his principles in theory only: one of the greatest biases in favor of the Japanese is that their culture is characterized by a lack of exaggeration; especially after the Edo period (i.e. in the last 400 years) one would have to try very hard to find a sense of measure in any manifestation of Japanese life. And when it comes to post-war (which is the only one I can speak of with some confidence) lack of measure is perhaps the most prevailing characteristic of the Japanese. The reason it goes unnoticed by many visitors is 50% owed to their own misconceptions and 50% to it being counterbalanced by the deeply ingrained in the Japanese individual and collective subconscious principle of submission of the individual to the group (also a Confucian idea.)
Be it food, drink, work, their favorite recreational pastime, the creation of rules and their observance or fun and their breach –or anything else- the Japanese are characterized much more by the expression “issho-kenmei” (一生懸命) which can be loosely translated as “as if your life depends on it” than by Confucius “hara hachi bu” and this can cause (and often does indeed cause) great confusion to the observer or, even more, to those who will try to get involved with them. As I wrote a while back when referring to “kodawari” this attitude results to many of the amazing things that make Japan wonderful so those who aspire to seeing it from a closer distance should accept the exaggeration of its people as the unavoidable other side of the coin. The only price they’ll need to pay is the overturning of another stereotype; Japan is the ideal country for that.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.