Turning Japanese

A family takes part in a tea ceremony at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, Japan. (Yuriko Nakao/Reuters)
The growing number of disaffected Westerners who seek the secret to a fulfilled life in other cultures are bound to be disappointed.

To judge by bookstore shelves, one path to a bestseller is to pitch the idea that people of some other culture have it all figured out, and that by following their example, we can live happier lives.

A few years ago there was a brief mania for hygge, the Danish concept of domestic comfort. The theory seemed to be that Danes, with their knitted slippers, tea-light candles, and fireplaces, had discovered the secret to a better way of life. Multiple books emerged trying to teach us about the wonders of a hygge-filled existence.

Of course, an idea like hygge, which prioritizes comfort and home, is easier to achieve when one has a home. The deracinated professional class that pursues greater happiness via the self-help shelves is most likely to be found in rented apartments in overpriced cities, so naturally anything that offers security and rootedness is very appealing to its members.

This year, the Japanese way of life seems to have replaced hygge as rootless Americans’ go-to aspiration, at least judging by the best-seller lists. And while there’s plenty worth learning about Japanese culture, anyone looking for the secret to a meaningful life is bound to be disappointed.

Beth Kempton’s Wabi Sabi is part self-help book, part memoir, and part travel guide. The wabi sabi of the title is an ambiguous phrase. Like the German sehnsucht, which describes an emotional longing, it is full of cultural resonance but hard to translate. As Kempton explains, few Japanese can even express in other words what wabi sabi means, but they all understand it.

“An acceptance and appreciation of the impermanent, imperfect and incomplete nature of everything,” is the closest Kempton comes to a concrete definition. As an example, she describes the Japanese tea ceremony: Simplicity is key to the setting. Fancy, decorated teapots and cups are shunned in favor of more humble — often handmade — cups. The austerity of the surroundings and the ritualized process allow participants to be in the moment.

Kempton has lived in Japan on and off since she was an undergraduate, and her book is full of anecdotes about learning the language and coming to grips with the culture. This is not one of those travelogues written by a clueless foreign dilletante; Kempton knows the culture she describes. But at times her anecdotes nevertheless seem like something from a fairy tale. She comes upon wise elders willing to teach their crafts to a curious foreigner. Monks in snowy temples appear, imparting wisdom.

Yutaka Yazawa’s How to Live Japanese, by contrast, combines history with very specific how-tos, explaining the correct way to pack a bento box and the development of Japanese culture over the centuries. His book is eclectic, with short entries on a range of Japanese things, from ninja to teppanyaki. He explains aspects of life in Japan from the typical mores of childbirth (a woman returns to stay with her parents before the delivery) to the history of the Japanese ski industry. The range of subjects is broad, but the bulk of the book couldn’t be said to teach anyone the secret of “living Japanese.”

In fact, the notion of “living Japanese” — the idea that the secret to happiness lies in adopting a culture other than one’s own — is in itself odd, even setting aside the dubious assertion that the Japanese have it all figured out. (Japan’s unusually high suicide rates would seem to suggest that the Japanese do not, in fact, have it all figured out.) Many of us in the West, raised to believe we could be anything, feel restless or unfulfilled by all our unreached goals. The forms of support and validation that our ancestors had (religion, community) are devalued. We live miles from where we grew up, and by and large don’t share our lives with those around us. And our alienation is unlikely to be alleviated by drinking tea from handmade cups or peacefully contemplating the beauty of a falling leaf.

By all means, read Kempton or Yazawa to bone up on Japanese culture if it interests you. But don’t expect to discover the meaning of life in the process.

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