The contradiction of Japan (Part 1)

I first learned about Japan when I watched a short film on cherry blossom (“sakura”), Japanese national flower. Different from other national flowers, the five-round-shaped-petal flower looked rather ordinary to me when I first saw it.

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However, a landscape of millions of blooming sakura all together immediately caught my attention. It was even more surprising to me that the sakura only blooms once a year and a full bloom (“mankai”) would last only about a week. A full bloom of cherry blossom can create a spectacularly beautiful scenery and can also fade away shortly after. With these characteristics, cherry blossom represents both the beauty and fragility of life in Japan. As a kid, the meaning of cherry blossom was difficult for me to understand. How can people be both optimistic and pessimistic at the same time? And why a nation chose such meaning to be its national flower? Nevertheless, I came up with the conclusion that I still loved cherry blossom, and of course, only when it was in full bloom.

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Then I learned about the haiku, a Japanese poetry form, in my literature class. Traditional haiku consist of 17 syllables (“on” in Japanese) in three phases of 5, 7, and 5. Seasonal or natural references are usually used in haiku as a form of metonymy. Haiku is also highlighted by its technique of cutting (“kiru”) to represent juxtaposition. It’s essential to choose the right cutting word (“kireji”) to emphasize the relation between the juxtaposed elements.

Composing a haiku is challenging since the poet has to meticulously choose only a few words and precisely put them into the phrases. In spite of its simplicity and succinctness, haiku can still evoke an entire image, story, or a specific feeling.

No one travels
Along this way but I, 
This autumn evening.
- Matsuo Bashō
I kill an ant
and realize my three children
have been watching.
- Kato Shuson

Not only in haiku, simplicity yet elegance and beauty are in Japan’s every design, from the gardens, interior decoration to packaging and household objects.

Source: Pinterest
Source: Pinterest
Source: Pinterest

I have always been optimistic about Japan. I believe that many other foreigners are also optimistic about Japan. But when coming to Japan for a summer internship, I was surprised how pessimistic the Japanese are about their country and its future.

Like “shibusa,” one of the Japanese aesthetic ideals, Japan appears to be simple overall but consists of subtle details and complexity that one needs to observe, learn, immerse, and think to be able to understand it thoroughly.

Like the meaning of cherry blossom, the optimism and pessimism co-exist in every aspect of Japan, and it’s a long journey ahead so that I can embrace the contradiction in this country.