J a p a n e s e    C u l t u r e

Modern and Traditional Japanese Culture: The Psychology of Buddhism, Power Rangers, Masked Rider, Manga, Anime and Shinto. 在日イギリス人男性による日本文化論.

Thursday, March 19, 2015


Trapping Time: Taming Impermance

The Japanese have a fascination with and aesthetic appreciation - wabi - of the passing of time. They enjoy going to see cherry blossom, which marks the beginning of spring, and enjoy cherry blossom most when it is falling in clouds of pink snow; when it is at its most ephemeral. Thus it would seem that the Japanese enjoy an awareness of temporal flow and impermanence. SInce it is true that things are always changing, whereas there is a tendency to think that they are remaining the same, this makes the Japanese sound very Buddhist, very enlightened.

On other hand it might be argued that Britons who like to surround themselves with antiques, old cutlery and china, old houses, and relics of the past, are demonstrating a desire to stop time, and ignore impermanence and temporal flow.

But then it also occurred to me that, according to the central theory of this blog, Westerners are inclined to identify with their self narrative, which as Bruner (1987) emphasises usually has a temporal unfolding, a plot, a history, and are therefore quite happy to be aware of the the movement of time, and the awareness of their development and difference over time. The Japanese on the other hand might be happier to be aware of their changing "kyara" or visually cognised character, in each of several social spaces (Fujimura, 2015), but attempt to maintain temporal intransigence, very successfully often. The Japanese age really well.

And then it occurred to me that even when Japanese are being at their most impermanent, such as when they are enjoying the passing of the seasons and, quintessentially, cherry blossom, they do so situating these seasonal events within a yearly calendar that transforms the natural phenomena into a place within a series of symbols or icons. Cherry blossom are thus yanked out of the immediacy of temporal flow, and tamed to becomes the symbol of March and that spring has arrived again.

This transformation reminded me of the theory of Clifford Geertz (1973) on persons and time and Bali (I say the Trobriand Islands in the video). He argues that since the Balinese emphasise socio-temporal role names (infant, teenage, dad, granddad) as do the Japanese rather than individual names over the course of the lifespan, this de-emphasises the passing of time - except on the days when roles change - and gives the impression of a motionless present. One can gain this impression in Japan. For many years one remains the same until suddenly one because a "granddad," like the end of the Japanese myth "Urashima Taro." There is also something motionless about time in Japan.

Similarly by situating the flow of the seasons within a series of socio-temporal nature-roles, the flow of natural time is at once exposed and hidden. Cherry blossom become permanently flowing and yet not flowing at all, trapped within the expression of March-ness. This reminded me of cine-graph images like that below.

Into the same rivers we step and do not step, we are and are not? I am confused. The Japanese have a different appreciation of time.

Bruner, J. (1987). Life as narrative. Social research, 11-32.
Clifford, G. (1973). The interpretation of cultures. New York: Basic, 412-453.
Fujimura, M. (2015). キャラと視点 (Kyara and Perspective). Unpublished graduation thesis. Yamaguchi University, Department of Economics.

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This blog represents the opinions of the author, Timothy Takemoto, and not the opinions of his employer.