‘Masters of Doing Nothing at All’

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…

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