Defining Culture


What word can capture the roar of every thunder­storm you might have heard, every avalanche and volcano and tsunami that you might have seen tear across the land, every city consumed by flames and waves and winds? Never find the language for such an agony of noise and the silence that followed.’

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding is set against the dramatic backdrop of Nagasaki both before and after the bomb. It is about regret, forgiveness and the exquisite pain of love. Each chapter is introduced with a dictionary definition that illuminates an aspect of the Japanese culture or character.

Here is a selection of our favourites.  

Yasegaman: The combination of yaseru (to become skinny) and gaman-suru (to endure) literally means to endure until one becomes emaciated, or endurance for the sake of pride. Anthropologist Ruth Benedict once said that Japanese culture is based on shame while American culture is based on a sense of sin or guilt. In a shame-oriented society, for persons to lose face is to have their ego destroyed. For example, in olden days, samurai warriors were proud people. When they were too poor to eat, they held a toothpick in their mouth to pretend they had just eaten a meal.

Ninjo: Japanese people believe that love, affection, compassion and sympathy are the most important feelings that all human beings should nurture. This assumption emanates from the fact that one of the virtues that Japanese society emphasises is cooperation among people. In daily life, Japanese people are bound by the code of ninjo in their attitudes toward others. Suppose that you are sent many apples by your relative. Then you will want to give some to your neighbours. This ‘give and take’ attitude is based on the belief in the wisdom of mutual reliance.

Wabi: A simple and austere type of beauty. The word is derived from the verb wabu (to lose strength) and the adjective wabishi (lonely). Originally, it meant the misery of living alone away from society. Later, it gained a positive aesthetic meaning: the enjoyment of a quiet, leisurely and carefree life.

En: The term is derived from the Buddhist belief that there is a cause to all things. The medium through which a cause brings about an effect is en. Any social relationship starts with and changes with en. It is en that realises the relationship between man and woman, and that between neighbours or business partners. Thus, en creates opportunities and occasions for forming relationships. It very often enables people to carry things on smoothly.

Mushi-no-ne: In autumn suzumushi (bell ring insect), matsumushi (a kind of cricket) and korogi (common cricket) start singing. This singing of the insects strikes the right chord in the heart of Japanese people. They find something sad and lonely in these chirpings, realising the end of the hot summer, the coming of the severe winter, the short lives of the insects, and by association the mutation of life.

Ai-ai-gasa: In feudal times, men and women in intimate relations were not supposed to be close together in public, to say nothing of linking arms or holding hands. One of the rare occasions this was permissible was a rainy day when they could enjoy intimacy by sharing an umbrella. Therefore, if a man offered one to a woman, it was often interpreted as an implicit expression of his love for her. Since then a man and a woman in love have been described as sharing an umbrella.

Iki: An aesthetic and moral ideal developed by urban commoners in the late Edo period (1603–1867). This idealises not only an urbane, chic or bourgeois beauty but also the sophisticated life of a person who enjoys sensual pleasure. A lady possessing iki is highly spirited and always willing to make sacrifices for her lover.

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