Masters of Doing Nothing at All’

iyer_1-020713.jpg
Favrod Collection/Raccolte Museali Fratelli Alinari, Florence
Unknown artist: View of a Road with Wooden Houses on the Hill of Noge, Near Yokohama, circa 1900; from the book Japanese Dream, a collection of late-nineteenth-century hand-tinted photographs by Felice Beato and others. It has just been published by Hatje Cantz.

Japanese literature is often about nothing happening, because Japanese life is, too. There are few emphases in spoken Japanese—the aim is to remain as level, even as neutral, as possible—and in a classic work like The Tale of Genji, as one recent translator has it, “The more intense the emotion, the more regular the meter.” As in the old-fashioned England in which I grew up—though more unforgivingly so—an individual’s job in public Japan is to keep his private concerns and feelings to himself and to present a surface that gives little away. That the relation of surface to depth is uncertain is part of the point; it offers a degree of protection and lets you be yourself. The fewer words are spoken, the easier it is to believe you’re standing on common ground.

One effect of this careful evenness—a maintenance of the larger harmony, whatever is happening within—is that to live in Japan, to walk through its complex nets of unstatedness, is to receive a rigorous training in attention. You learn to read the small print of life—to notice how the flowers placed in front of the tokonoma scroll have just been changed, in response to a shift in the season, or to register how your visitor is talking about everything except the husband who’s just run out on her. It’s what’s not expressed that sits at the heart of a haiku; a classic sumi-e brush-and-ink drawing leaves as much open space as possible at its center so that it becomes not a statement but a suggestion, an invitation to a collaboration.

The viewer or reader has to supply much of the meaning to a scene, and so the colorless surfaces again advance a sense of collusion, which in turn leads to a kind of intimacy (“Kyoto is lovely, isn’t it?” is one of the central emotional sentences in the novel The Gate, written in 1910 by the much-admired novelist Natsume Soseki.1 The response of the other leading character, quintessence of Japan, is to think to himself, “Yes, Kyoto was lovely indeed”). For the visitor who has just arrived in the country of conflict avoidance, the innocent browser who’s just picked up a twentieth-century Japanese novel, it means that the first impression may be of scrupulous blandness, an evasion of all stress, self-erasure. For those who’ve begun to inhabit this world, it means living in a realm of detonations, under the surface and between the lines.

Soseki’s main characters are masters of doing nothing at all. They abhor action and decision as scrupulously as Bartleby the scrivener does with his “I prefer not to …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.

Letters

Japan: ‘Emotions Under the Surface’ July 11, 2013

  1. 1

    “Natsume” is in fact the writer’s family name, and “Soseki” a pen name he took on, derived from the Chinese term for “stubborn.” In Japan he is always and only known as “Natsume Soseki,” in the classic Japanese way of using the family name first. More modern writers—such as Yasunari Kawabata, Yukio Mishima, Junichiro Tanizaki, and Haruki Murakami—are more easily, as here, referred to in the Western order, with their family name last.