When I think of the boundless mercy of the emperor,
I feel I should give all of myself.
His mercy is deeper than the sea and higher than the mountains.
How sad, I cannot repay my debt to him.
This is an excerpt from a poem enclosed in a letter to General MacArthur during the Occupation, as quoted in the book Dear General MacArthur: Letters from the Japanese during the American Occupation by Sodei Rinjiro. It was one of many letters from the Japanese people pleading for the Emperor not to be tried as a war criminal. Some even wrote letters in blood, offering their lives in exchange for the emperor’s immunity.
The intense devotion of wartime Japanese to their Emperor–who was worshiped as a god–is well-known. What struck me about the letters, though, was what sort of god the Emperor was supposed to be. The Japanese seem to characterize the Emperor precisely as God as he is known to Christians. “His mercy is deeper than the sea and higher than the mountains”? The author could easily have been quoting a Psalm.
I find it interesting that the Japanese have a sense of gratitude to a benevolent father figure. But of course, they aren’t just thankful to the Emperor. I once had a heck of a time trying to teach an elementary school English class on the topic of “Thanksgiving.” The kids were thankful TO their houses, not FOR them–that’s pantheism for you.
Still, that may bring them closer to the Christian spirit than someone who doesn’t feel grateful at all, who thinks the world is “out to get them,” or at the very least owes them something, as we so often see in America these days.
The Japanese have reminded me that we can’t be too grateful for the simple blessings of each day. There is a sense of contentedness with what Providence has bestowed, even perhaps a pride in having just the things that were specially meant for oneself, instead of grasping for more.
Moreover, the Japanese take real delight in the smallest things. Recently I had the honor of attending a talk by Gil Garcetti about his new book of photographs, Japan: A Reverence for Beauty. My favorite was a photograph he took of an elderly woman with a radiant smile holding a leaf. He recounted how he had spotted this woman strolling along a path, bending down to pick up a leaf and hold it up to the sun to admire its beauty.
Where else other than Japan, he argued, could you observe someone take such delight in something so ordinary? In fact, I have been inspired by more than one elderly Japanese woman just like the one Mr. Garcetti described, who seem to find such bliss in the things that the rest of us take for granted.
I think the experience of living among people with this sense of gratitude is one of the real treasures I brought home with me from Japan.