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Why Japan Will Weather This Disaster

3/11/2011 12:00:00 AM

Tags: Shiho Kanzaki, wabi-sabi, tea, natural disaster

Robyn Griggs Lawrence thumbnailIn the wake of such mega-destruction, it’s human nature to think first of our own friends and loved ones. As the earthquake and tsunami ripped through Japan, my thoughts turned immediately to my friend, Buddhist priest Shiho Kanzaki, who makes exquisite wood-fired pottery in Shigaraki. He is fine, thank goodness, but devastated by what’s happened to his country.

Kanzaki-san taught me the true meaning of wabi-sabi, an ancient Japanese philosophy that finds beauty in things that are imperfect, impermanent and aged. He helped broaden my vision of this multi-faceted lens, showing me that it’s as much about accepting things as they are, right now, as it is about loving rusty, old stuff.

Kanzaki-san’s exquisite vases, pots, and bowls, fired in traditional wood-fired Anagama kilns, embody wabi-sabi’s very essence. A few years ago, over lunch with Kanzaki-san and his wife in a weathered Shigaraki teahouse, we stopped before each course to admire the pottery. The bowls and plates had been made by Kanzaki-san’s apprentices, and he quietly pointed out the color variations and the markings left by ash when the dishes were fired. We admired how the rustic acorn-colored bowls embraced lightly battered shrimp and soba noodles as steam rose from the thick dark cups holding our strong green tea. Then he turned the conversation to relationship. “Manner and behavior is most important,” Kanzaki-san told me. “You always have to think of other persons. If you are always thinking of other persons, you can understand the real wabi-sabi.”

In Japan, the same character used to write tsukaeau, “to be of service to one another,” can also be read as shiawase, or “happiness.” When I stayed in Tokyo’s Asakusa district, I constantly found myself lost in the crowded, twisted alleyways. Inevitably, a stranger would see my foreigner’s confusion and stop to help. Because I didn’t speak Japanese, most would walk me to my destination to make sure I got there. I began to understand the true heart of wabi-sabi every time I watched a store clerk carefully wrap a jar of pickles in pretty paper, turning it into a small moment of celebration. I felt it when my host or hostess would turn my shoes around to face the door, so they would be easier to slip into when I left.

Nicolas D. Kristof pointed out in a New York Times post today that the deep nobility, civility and resilience running through the Japanese culture will be on display in the coming days. “This will also be a time when the tight knit of Japan’s social fabric, its toughness and resilience, shine through,” he writes. “And my hunch is that the Japanese will, by and large, work together—something of a contrast to the polarization and bickering and dog-eat-dog model of politics now on display from Wisconsin to Washington. So maybe we can learn just a little bit from Japan. In short, our hearts go out to Japan, and we extend our deepest sympathy for the tragic quake. But also, our deepest admiration.”


In Japan, the same character used to write tsukaeau, “to be of service to one another,” can also be read as shiawase, or “happiness.” 

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