Saturday, August 2, 2008

Being Japanese: Kakijun, Enryo and Iki

KAKIJUN is something that could have significance only in Japan.
Kakijun refers to the rules on properly writing kanji characters _ specifically the order in which each stroke (traditionally rendered in paintbrush sumi-ink) must be written.
If you mess up the order, then it's wrong _ even if it looks exactly the same as if it had been written in the correct order.
Kakijun highlights the essential importance of process _ as opposed to results.
If it's not done the right way, it's wrong.
Japanese society emphasizes the zenlike spiritual _ the virtue of what is happening within the individual _ form defining act _ not just Western-style pragmatism of getting things done, making money, winning status.
In another sense, kakijun is about fixating on regulations for the sake of appearances, not the substance of the action.
It penalizes deviations.
It discourages creativity.
It rewards conformity.
Still, kakijun can be a beautiful concept.
No wonder calligraphy looks a lot like abstract Western art.
It is forceful.
It is evidence of how the artist's individuality is expressed in form.
It is evidence of how Japanese art is defined as the beauty of the process.
Japanese rules of behavior _ how to enter a door, how to bow, how to drink tea _ are like Dance.
How you do something _ even everyday things _ is part of the definition of that person's value as a human being to all Japanese.
Pretty deep.
ENRYO is another super-Japanese concept.
Taken the bad way (let's start with that first this time), it's phony because it means: yup, you really want that second serving of cake but you don't want to look greedy so you act like you don't want it and say no, thanks, all the while hoping the host will realize you're just saying that and deep inside you want the cake and so will offer it again, no no no I insist, at which point you get to "give in" and eat the cake without feeling like a pig.
This is enryo.
And it's an everyday practice in Japan, even today.
This works only if the other party knows you are doing enryo.
It has been known to happen that if the other party for whatever reason fails to catch on and goes along with the preliminary refusal a la enryo-style, and doesn't persist in offering the cake, the originator of enryo can get quite resentful _ about not getting that cake after all _ and accuse the other person of all kinds of inadequacies, including not being a proper Japanese _ so delicate is this give-and-take interaction of enryo.
Enryo assumes that everyone is in the know.
Enryo evolved out of an insular small-village mindset.
But enryo is also soulful _ caring about the other person so much you're giving that person the chance to take his or her offer back, in case that person can't really afford to offer you that extra piece of cake.
Enryo is about self-sacrifice.
Enryo is about modesty.
It's about not being a totally egotistical and everyone-out-for-their-own kind of society.
It's about quiet graceful self-demeaning appearances taking precedence over who gets what and big egos and individualism.
Many other cultures besides Japan actually have enryo.
Americans may be a minority in not being hip to enryo at all, and in assuming that no one will be crazy enough to say, "No," to a desirable offer. Hey, why not? That's what a normal American would think.
And, well, why not?
If you have to ask, then forget about it.
That's what Enryo is.
IKI also sounds crazy if you try to explain it to a hard-core pragmatist.
Iki means you do the most cool things where people can't possibly notice.
That's what makes it totally cool.
It's adoration of the less obvious, all the while hoping that the hidden wonders will somehow accidentally be noticed, making them even more superlative like a secret gift.
One good example of iki is a plain dark coat that's the impeccable statement of understatement, which has as lining this ostentatious and intricate fabric.
The outer may be indigo but the innards would be an elaborate red and gold Hokusai-like manga design.
This is no joke, and some Edo Period "haori" coats are just like that.
Or a woman's kimono would be subdued but have this special lining at the collar that's only showing in a tiny, tiny bit.
It defies logic, and that's why it's so iki.
The goal of a labor-intensive item is not to show off.
It's in and of itself precious _ although the argument can be made that iki is showing off of the ultimate, perhaps most perverse, kind.
Even among Japanese, iki is supposed to be localized _ very Tokyo _ and some say down-home Osaka people don't value iki.
Iki means you never ask how much something costs.
Iki people would mix-and-match expensive items with weeds picked up off the road _ that kind of thing.
Like kakijun and enryo, iki is at once perception-oriented and arbitrary.
It's all about what people think but so specific it doesn't make any sense when you stop to think about it.
For those who swear by it, there are no gray areas.
And it is a good way to separate true Japanese from posers.

2 comments:

Joi Ito said...

Love this post. My sister linked it to me just now. Hope you're doing well...

YURI KAGEYAMA said...

Thanks, Joi.
You (and your sister) are the kind of people who would understand.