If beauty makes you sad, what makes you happy?

A Japanese coworker once told me that he wasn’t happy.  He didn’t want more money or a better position.  He just couldn’t put his finger on what it was.

“You need a vacation,” I told him.  It was an objective fact–I’d never actually witnessed the man leave the office.

Knowing that he liked camping, I added, “Why don’t you go camping and think about the meaning of life or something?”

“No, then I would get depressed,” he said.

That broke my heart.  I’d always thought of spending time relaxing in nature as an uplifting and spiritual pursuit.

Then I remembered a T.V. show I’d caught a snippet of once in a Japanese dentist’s office.  On this show, a group visited different tourist attractions and restaurants in Japan, and gave a witty running commentary.  One joke, in particular, made an impression on me.

After a particular experience that everyone was raving about, one man quipped mournfully, “But this will fade into oblivion too someday!”  I felt it was a particularly revealing joke, as the sincere emotion that he was making fun of was that Japanese wistfulness at the transience of things.

And I wondered if sometimes Japanese people look at beautiful things and feel sad.

Fast-forward to today, when I visited a particularly beautiful garden.  It was one of those gardens that somehow feels like a map of the heart.  It felt like a place I’d longed for–remembered or dreamed about long ago–and I couldn’t believe it was real.  It occurred to me that maybe such a place is a spiritual symbol for Heaven.

Then my mind wandered back to that coworker, and I wondered if it would do him good to spend some time in such a garden.

Or would it make him sad?

Folding a kimono

Today, as I was packing for a move, I pulled a large, flat box out from under my bed.  As soon as I lifted the lid, it was as if another world wafted out.

The textured black fabric with purple chrysanthemums and cherry blossoms was familiar enough.  I think it was the meticulous way the kimono was folded that took me back.

I recalled the second-story practice room in my Japanese dance teacher’s house.  We sat on the hardwood floor; one wall was occupied by a huge rectangular mirror.

My teacher was a tiny woman who had been learning traditional Japanese dance since she was 3 and was now a grandmother.  Her mastery of the art would easily have merited her being the center of attention but she was very down-to-earth and seemed to naturally focus on other people.

That day she spread out my new kimono on the immaculate floor and demonstrated the proper way to fold it.  First smooth out all the wrinkles and pull on the seams so that it lies perfectly flat and rectangular.  Then fold it in half lengthwise–this required both hands and the whole body to execute as precisely as folding a giant piece of origami.  Smooth out the wrinkles again.  Then fold the first sleeve back, making sure that it bends just at the crease.  Fold the skirt up, carefully turn the neat bundle over, fold the other sleeve over.  It was a work of art.

Seeing my kimono folded just so in the box reminded me of the reverence with which my teacher treated the garment.  There was no pretension in it–the folding seemed to be an act of gratitude for owning this fine article of clothing.

Today, when I opened the box, the memory of that novel sensation of gratitude and humility stopped me in my tracks and made me wonder.

It was in the Japanese countryside that I first perceived the puffy layers of pride and ingratitude that cover my own heart.  The people I met seemed to have a clear view all the way to the bedrock.

Tea and Christianity – Crisis Magazine

The first time I lived in Japan, I took classes in flower arrangement and Japanese dance.  Upon hearing this, people would always ask me, “Are you going to take up tea ceremony, too?”  Apparently these are the three Traditional Japanese Things young women learn.

Since I never learned to sit with proper posture and make polite conversation, the highly regimented tea ceremony never appealed to me.  Then, after I returned to the Church, a Japanese Catholic friend asked me, “Did you know that the tea ceremony ritual was actually copied from the Consecration at Mass?”

“What?!” I said.  That was a pretty wild claim to make about one of the quintessential Japanese arts, so after I got home I looked it up.  Turns out, she was right, and you can read all about it here:

Francis Xavier’s feast day is December 3. For those of us who love our afternoon tea, it is a feast we should well note. For the world’s most civilized habit owes a huge debt of gratitude to Xavier and his Jesuit missionaries who traveled to Japan in 1549. Now, to properly appreciate this story, you …

Source: Tea and Christianity – Crisis Magazine

Japan, time capsule of Christian culture

The other day I wanted a little inspiration while I was folding laundry, so I put on a CD of my favorite Japanese cellist, Yoko Hasegawa.  They say that the sound of the cello is haunting because it is the closest to the voice of a man.  The song that particularly haunts me on this CD is Chopin’s Nocturne No. 20.  How elegantly yet tragically it soars and plummets, as if to express that it is nobler to suffer than to be loved.

As I was listening to the song, it occurred to me that it was familiar to me from someplace other than this CD.  Now where had I heard it?  Was it at one of the classical music concerts my cousin and I used to attend together?  Had I perhaps heard it while learning the cello in school?

Then I placed it.  I’d first heard this song in an episode of Sailor Moon.

There is something slightly embarrassing about having to learn one’s own culture from Japan, but it happens often.  I admit that I know the words to more jazz standards in Japanese than in English.  I first encountered reproductions of my favorite paintings of the Annunciation in Japan.  From Mont Blanc (a French dessert) to paso doble (a Spanish dance), from Rococo objets d’art to Victorian tea houses to big floppy hats, I would often find myself admiring something beautiful in Japan and then stop and say, “Wait a minute, they got that from us!”

It’s not that these things aren’t present in America.  They’re just not considered relevant.  (When was the last time you asked someone their favorite musician and got “Chopin”?)  They’re buried in history, appreciated as relics by historians, not young women hanging out with their friends.  The West has lost the thrill of the romance of Christian culture.  We’re embarrassed by it.  We mock it.

The Japanese treasure it.  It was through them that I was introduced to many of these works, not as dusty historical facts, but as living, relevant objects of beauty.  Japan, for me, has been a time capsule of Christian culture.

It’s true what they say about love and death

When I started this blog, I said that one of my aims was to answer the question, “What has Japan got to do with the Catholic Church?”  So far I’ve compared Japanese culture to Church teachings, finding that sometimes they’re quite similar, and sometimes quite different.  But today I want to introduce a third category:  the uncanny.

And where better to start than with death?

Specifically, a play about death.  A play in which Death is one of the main characters.  This play is called Elisabeth, and was originally written, I believe, in Austria.  However, what I want to talk about is the Japanese adaptation of the play, which, after the localization process, wound up being something astonishingly . . . well, you’ll see!

First of all, the plot.  This is a historical play about the life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, with just one twist:  Death is one of the main characters.  As the story goes, Elisabeth died as a girl and descended to the underworld, where she met Death.  However, Death fell in love with her, and rather than accept her life, he restored it to her, saying that he wouldn’t let her die until she fell in love with him.  The play goes on to tell the true story of the life of the Empress, with the addition of Death pursuing her throughout her life, and, in the end, winning her heart.

The original version, as I understand, depicts Death as an abusive beast, and is something of a morbid horror story (the historical Elisabeth did have something of a fascination with death).  The Japanese version I saw, however, changed the play to make Death a romantic gentleman.  The biggest change in the script was the addition of an entirely new song, a love song which Death sings to Elisabeth when they first meet, establishing this as a classic love story.  Except, you know, that she has to choose Death over her husband and, well, die, before the happy couple can be united.

It was a wildly popular play.  Something about the idea of Death as a romantic gentleman waiting to welcome you into his arms really struck a chord with Japanese women (and a fair number of Westerners, as well!)  And if you ask why . . .

. . . I’m sure the Catholics out there are saying, “Well, of course, because it’s a true story–including the part about Death!  The minute they changed Death into a romantic character, the character essentially became God.  God, who is all-powerful, has chosen to grant us free will that we may freely choose to love Him.  But He doesn’t stop there–He actively pursues us throughout our lives.  And, should we chose to love Him, we can spend forever with Him after we die.  He Himself even describes this relationship as a marriage that supersedes our earthly marriages.”

Yes, yes, you got it already, and I didn’t even have to say anything.  But here’s the real kicker:

How did the Japanese know that?!