The rich, colourful palette of tinkling bells, rhythmic drums, flags and little statues with which Japanese people tend to celebrate happiness — wrapped up in religion, life, and death — might be a lot to take in for an outsider. But, says Italian author and Japan expert Carmen Rucci, the Japanese perspective on the pursuit of happiness can show us there is space for everything. This is Carmen's story.
Breathing in the scents of my green tea, which carry a hint of Tokyo, I try to concentrate on the work in front of me: Writing some words for an old friend, Femke, and former boss at the London Voice Newspaper. Images of Tokyo come back to my mind, as I sit and watch how a beautiful sunrise in the distance colours a hill that is illuminated by the lights of a tiny village, near my own small town where I live in Italy, which make it all look like a nativity scene.
Christmas is only a few weeks away and my former boss, for some reason harbouring an inexplicable confidence in me, asked me to talk to her readers, about the pursuit of happiness for Oriental people and for the Japanese in particular. I must make a promise: I love the Japanese people in a visceral and extreme way, with all their horrible and wonderful contradictions and, therefore, whatever I write will be absolutely biased.
This will be, from now on: Japan, according to Carmen.
Having lived in Japan before, albeit for a short time (in truth though, even twenty years would not have seemed enough to me), among these splendid people, who already fascinated me before I went, gave me a chance to develop a deeper understanding of all the reasons why I love their way of thinking, living and being. There have been billions of practical examples, and I will attempt now to share some with you...
Let me start with the Japanese people, the concept of happiness, the Japanese belief system of Shinto, and all the other religions, beliefs, credences and demons, which together are all cheerfully dotted around the Japanese otherworldly universe.
Religions can be seen as instruments with which human beings try to explain the inexplicable: life, death and everything in between. They can be used as means, and weapons with which people can fight fear, in search of happiness. So it is with Shinto.
On one of my last trips to Japan, the family who had given me a lovely flat to stay in for three months, right in the centre of one of the most exclusive districts of Tokyo, took me on a visit to the Nikko temple complex.
Inside there is the Toshogu shrine, or temple.
There are many temples in the land of the Rising Sun, but this one is not just any old temple. It is, in fact, dedicated to the memory of one of the three founders of the nation, Ieyasu Tokugawa. But what is even more amazing to many of us Westerners, is that it blends effortlessly in itself, more than in other places, Shintoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. In addition, the structure shines exuberantly with shades of red, gold and turquoise.
The Toshugu shrine is not as popular among foreign tourists as it is with Japanese visitors, and the tour guides, themselves more drawn to the most widespread Zen purism, call its colours excessive. And, to tell the truth, I also felt the same way at first. But, the scenery I witnessed was astounding, I thought to myself while I was wandering around, all the while taking in the surrounding views of those colourful wooden houses, in themselves a UNESCO heritage.
A Shinto Amusement Park
But, let me try to paint you a picture. A stable for sacred horses; the famous three wise monkeys; colourful feathers and animals of all kinds carved in wood; rites for people to follow; statues to touch; greetings for the Gods inside the temples; bows, handclaps, bells to ring, coins to throw ... all for good health, luck and happiness.
In the West, going to church can be a serious and solemn experience. But, when Japanese people visit a temple, they are typically happy and in good spirits. So, each faithful person around me would cheerfully be on their tour, serenely standing in line, or in a crowd, waiting to take pictures of relics or national treasures, or to buy colourful amulets in the shape of a tea bag. We would all listen to the roar of the dragon, produced by a shaved monk intent on beating two pieces of wood together, standing in the centre of the sacred building, all among the wonder of each bystander.
How to put it into words. A circus, or better still a Shinto amusement park! A cheerful whirlwind of colours, sounds and emotions, like those that are given by passers-by to the statuettes of the Bodhisattva Jizo, the Saint who is there to merrily guide the souls of children who died too early to accumulate enough good deeds to be reincarnated.
How much tenderness even in explaining the pain.
Superstition! My old religion screamed inside me. So, the word came out of my mouth with sufficiency, and was laid bare unto the soul of my host and guide Kunio, while we watched his wife Yoshie and daughter Asuka joyfully walking around a pot-bellied and moss-covered statue, touching those parts of its body, like an arm or a leg, that they wanted to be taken care of on their own body, next to that little smiling stone God among the red autumn trees.
"No, Carmen, it's not superstition. This too is faith," my host said, and as he explained this was all about being carefree, it all felt so joyful to me, so simple, but equally and powerfully balsamic to the soul.
Us Italians or, more generally, Christians, or rather monotheists, and our spooky bigoted superiority!
“How to put it into words. A circus, or better still a Shinto amusement park, a cheerful whirlwind of colours, sounds and emotions"
The Japanese Soul
The Japanese soul, instead, is so vast that it can serenely welcome all the main religions and philosophies. And why not.
There is a Japanese saying that roughly goes like this: "The Japanese are born Shinto, marry as Christians and die as Buddhists." Shinto as a belief system is linked to births, and to the joy of growth in life; not only for human beings, but for all creatures and every element of nature. And that includes even a rice stem.
The Christian wedding, with its fluffy white dress, so indispensable for a princess who respects herself, and that Buddhist diligence that calmly explains the mystery of death and soothes hearts as it does so: It is all incorporated by the Japanese religious ways of being. Both Confucianism and Zen ways of living cross Japanese culture both horizontally and so deeply, that they are recognisable only at a not-so hasty glance.
The mystery of our existence is so incomprehensibly vast and frighteningly profound, that one religion alone cannot, with all its good will, embrace it. Why not follow the wise example of the Japanese perspective, then, is something I can't help but wonder since my visits to this magnificent country.
“The mystery of existence is so incomprehensibly vast and frighteningly profound, that one religion alone cannot, with all its good will, embrace it"
About the author
Carmen Rucci is an Italian writer, lawyer and television critic for NHK World-Japan. Carmen's annual expo 'Japan Unveiled' takes place every April at Expo Levante, in Bari, Italy: An exhibition 'dedicated to the discovery of the Land of the Rising Sun.' She is also the author of the novel 'Tutto in un Anno', also translated into English 'All in one year' and of various theatre plays performed in Bari.