For a while now, I’ve been intrigued by Japanese culture. It was at a Thanksgiving dinner where I was a guest a number of years ago when somehow the conversation turned to the three distinct generations of the Japanese, specifically Japanese immigrants: issei, nissei and sansei.
Each generation is defined in relation to its grandparents, and to the exodus of the family from Japan, or to its entrance into the United States.
I was fascinated. I looked it up upon my arrival home from the meal.
My mother holds an appreciation for the Japanese aesthetic, which, even if subconsciously, must have swayed me. The simplicity of the black and white lines, the beauty and complexity of the writing, the rounded paper lanterns held together by thin bamboo, the modern and zen bamboo plant itself — all these encompass my mother’s sense of simplicity and symmetry in design.
Once I learned of the cohort of three generations as part of Japanese culture, from time to time I learned of another Japanese concept, and then another.
There is much wisdom, and I have barely scratched the surface. But the little I have picked up has been enriching.
At the bedrock of the culture is a certain kindness, a certain respect, known as “teini,” that cultivates a culture of putting others first, that makes speaking gossip or speaking ill of another unacceptable.
Hospitality is central as well. In fact, a special chair is reserved for a guest, “tokonoma.” A guest is seated where the wall is painted in beautiful scenery.
“Sensei,” for teacher, is of course a famous word. It is an honorific, a term of deference of sorts, to the “one who comes before,” to “a person born before another.” It is an apellative used for an elder, or for anyone who has taught someone something new.
“Shakkei” is “borrowed scenery,” highlighting the value of beautiful, ordered, calm scenes in nature; a constant awareness of nature that you “borrow” and recreate for yourself, replicating serenity wherever you go.
We all know the springtime beauty of the exquisitely delicate pink cherry blossoms that cloak the trees. When aligned into a grove of cherry blossoms, they create canopies of pale pink ethereal beauty, carpeted by the raining perfect petals. They become tunnels of swirled blush. The signature Japanese gardens, too, are a layered, ordered, series of gardens, consistently yielding a soothing emotional experience.
There’s the “uchi” of one’s inner circle, and many more interesting cultural concepts that truly are enlightening.
Certainly, Japanese culture is not all roses. It has its many challenges and problems, too.
But I found that many of their truly honorable cultural touchstones have much in common with our Jewish community’s values, or really any universal human values of kindness, respect and sensitivity.
While living in Israel, I was exposed to the Makuya community. Although their origin story is a fascinating one (do look it up) and they have been in existence since the creation of Israel in 1948, until then I hadn’t known of this faith community.
Since that introduction over 10 years ago, I learned more of the Makuya, literally meaning “Ohel Moed,” or Tent of Meeting (Tabernacle). I learned of their incredible friendship with the modern state of Israel and abiding love of Judaism and Jews.
But it was only this week that I had the opportunity to witness their connection with Jewish teachings and Jewish community in action. It was a video online, actually. Rabbi Benny Lau held a gathering with thousands of Makuya friends of Israel.
In great dignity and emotion, with a certain pureness of heart, thousands of Japanese Makuya were singing “Hishbati” as the culmination of a year-long course of study of Song of Songs. It truly is a melody full of pathos, composed by the Belzer chasid Avraham Pinchas Breier. The lyrics are but one verse from Song of Songs, 5:8: “I adjure you, O maidens of Jerusalem! If you meet my beloved, tell him this: That I am faint with love.”
Finding this Japanese force of love for the Jewish people, for the land of Israel, during the month of Elul was especially serendipitous and inspiring to me, since the Japanese teaching closest to my heart is one that permeates the Elul-Tishrei season.
It is known as “kintsukuroi.”
It means to repair with gold.
It is the most perfect, tangible expression of teshuva, of change and repentance.
It almost feels like a piece of chasidic Kotzker art.
Kintsukuroi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquered, dusted, powdered gold.
By picking up pieces of shattered shards that may have cut deep, the idea is to re-create and to re-build something new. But this time you rebuild the pottery by threading it with golden veins. This time, the pottery will be even more beautiful and perhaps even stronger than its original.
Instead of throwing out broken items, they are renewed and repaired — with gold.
A Japanese teaching with an illuminating facet of our poignant High Holiday prayer, “ka-chomer be-yad ha-yotzer, like raw material in the hand of the craftsman.”
For these are Golden Days of Awe.
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