The Fourth JCSB-Canon Essay Competition
High School Division Best Essay Award
1st Place: Juliet deButts (Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School)
2nd Place: Jessica Joseph (Bronx High School of Science)
3rd Place: Christina Rombola (Longwood High School)
Special Award: Alessandra Ansbach (Lynbrook High School)
College Division Special Award
Special Award (A): Sandy Hernandez (Stony Brook University)
Special Award (B): Stephen Lanuto Jr. (City University of New York / City College of New York)
Consul General of Japan Special Award
Juliet deButts (Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School)
Skyla Budd (Plainview Old-Bethpage JFK High School)
Ashley Jones (Longwood High School)
Shelby Lin (Ward Melville High School)
Ashley Schreck (Longwood High School)
Frances Shi (Hunter College High School)
Priom Ahmed (Bronx High School of Science)
Peter Battifarano (West Babylon High School)
Nicole Goodwin (The City College of New York)
Wonmin Lee (Stuyvesant High School)
Melissa Lohmann (Barnard College of Columbia University)
Justine Perez (Norman Thomas High School)
Hatsumi Faith Yoshida (Preston High School)
“Close My Eyes and Count to Ten” by Juliet deButts (Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School)
The first time I ever heard the word “Japan,” I was six. I was in first grade, and along with the planetary system and basic grammar, we were being taught to count in foreign languages.
Ichi, ni, san, shi, go, roku, shichi, hachi, kyu, ju.
I didn’t think much more about Japan—about the country, about the language. I knew there was Japanese food, I knew there was a Japan, but I was nonchalant about the entire business. My mother did tell me stories about it, but she told me stories about other places too—about Thailand, and Hawaii, and London and Paris—so I never attached particular importance to the stories of the Japanese doctors that came to study with my grandfather and who wouldn’t let anyone else pay for dinner, of their daughters who visited but spoke very little English and were married in my grandmother’s wedding dress, of an aunt who worked as a Japanese aerobics teacher for an entire summer without learning to say more than “inhale, exhale,” and how to count to ten.
Ichi, ni, san, shi, go, roku, shichi, hachi, kyu, ju.
As I grew older, my limited store of knowledge expanded to children’s books set in Tokugawa-era Japan, to “kimono” and “katana,” “karate” and “karaoke,” and the fact that I loved Japanese food.
In seventh grade I walked into my first Japanese class, interested but nervous. It was the first day of school, a new classroom, a new building, a new teacher and a new language, but the first thing we learned was to count to ten—and I recognized the numbers.
Ichi, ni, san, shi, go, roku, shichi, hachi, kyu, ju.
I was fascinated by the way the characters curved and fell apart and came together again, by hiragana and katakana and kanji and calligraphy. I devoured words that I’d never heard before, held them up and weighed them by the scale of words I already knew. I rarely found them wanting—all the words and patterns I learned, simple and basic, somehow matched the numbers I’d been carrying around in my head for years: the smooth sounds and the slanted black lines in my notes and my textbook.
Ichi, ni, san, shi, go, roku, shichi, hachi, kyu, ju.
Japanese was fascinating and endlessly new—I was enthralled by every tidbit I learned. Manga, anime, chopsticks, radicals, Chinese influences, rice farming, mountains, hot-springs, snow monkeys, octopus muffins, obon festivals: I couldn’t get enough of it. So I stuck with Japanese, even after the sounds stopped making quite so much sense, even after I needed to study harder and longer. Though the words I learned and the characters I drew (over and over and over again on tracing paper, desperate to get them just right) and the sounds I shaped with a reluctant tongue grew more and more complicated, farther and farther away from the simple basics that had enchanted me as a child, I kept going, and I could hear an echo of counting to ten.
Ichi, ni, san, shi, go, roku, shichi, hachi, kyu, ju.
It seemed that the more Japanese I learned, the less I knew. There are female samurai, of a kind—the ama, who dive for pearls in icy waters, and follow a different code of honor from the men who lived and died by the sword—and there’s a shortage of men to work modern Japanese farms, and the newest publishing sensation in Japan is the cell-phone novel. Everything I learned only reinforced my earlier impressions of a country and a culture that had grace bred into its very bones; a place that effortlessly and elegantly mingled the old and the new, the traditional and the innovative. It was a country of contradictions—in everything from its geography to its history to its politics. The more I learned, the less I knew; the less I knew, the more I wanted to discover.
I watched Miyazaki movies, and loved them—always in Japanese, with English subtitles, because the dubbed versions didn’t sound right—and I struggled through a few manga in Japanese before surrendering and reading them in English. I still study, I still listen and read and ask innumerable questions, and I still count, when I'm bored or tired or angry, and the numbers are still as soothing as they ever have been, and they are still, for me, the essence of Japan.
Ichi, ni, san, shi, go, roku, shichi, hachi, kyu, ju.
“Respect for the Pigeons” by Jessica Joseph (Bronx High School of Science)
My next door neighbor was afraid for the pigeons. He had heard the stories we exchanged and the plans we made as my friends and I lazed around on my porch on a dull summer day. Someone had mentioned the luck of a pigeon feather, someone else had complained about the birds themselves, and I had brought both thoughts together in an idea that promised to be fun; ambushing the birds on my roof for a few laughs and luck.
Mr. Ikeda had been close by, listening to our sleepy voices and hazy musings. He was always outside with his faithful straw broom, keeping his slice of cement spotless. My younger brother and I secretly mocked him. A modest Asian man thinking that he would be able to keep his area free from the debris that plagued the rest of the Bronx was laughable. He however, did not find it as absurd and was perpetually shuffling around with his broom.
On that muggy day he overheard our plan. I remember Mr. Ikeda walking the few feet over to my house, politely pardoning himself as he navigated the mesh of teenage limbs to get to the front door. He rang the doorbell and left the broom outside when my father invited him in. I was puzzled, thinking that he had never spoken to us before, so what would make him do so now?
A few minutes later, my father told my friends to go back home and ordered me to come in. In the living room was Mr. Ikeda, sipping tea. My father began to explain that Mr. Ikeda was concerned. It seemed that the neighborhood kids were bent on terrorizing the pigeons. Mr. Ikeda was afraid for them, worried that we would hurt them if we went to their territory on the roof. I explained that he was overreacting. After all, they were only pigeons, and we only wanted their feathers. As long as we didn’t hurt them, what was the problem?
Mr. Ikeda shook his head and explained that we should respect the birds, their feathers, and everything around us. He explained his belief that we do not own the world around us, that we are not above it in any way, that we do not control it whatsoever. We are merely a part of it. We are participants and observers but never, ever owners of nature. He believed in the Golden Rule of treating others as we wish to be treated. He applied it not only to the people around him, but also to the things he interacted with. I can distinctly hear him telling me that “everything has a soul.” Mr. Ikeda saw my raising my eyebrows and repeated himself. “Everything has a soul, even this pot of sugar.” He was motioning to the sugar on the table. My father nodded and said that he would keep me from harming the pigeons, and then gently let Mr. Ikeda out of our house. I sat still on my couch, thinking about the idea that everything has a soul.
Mr. Ikeda left and my dad went back to his laptop. I went to the kitchen to make myself some tea, keeping this idea in my mind all the while. I pretended that everything I touched, from the teacup to the teabag, to the sugar and the milk, had a soul. I was slow in my preparations, taking time and care with every step of the simple recipe.
My tea was ready and I began to drink it slowly. Something about this cup of tea was different, something about it was better. The change was dim and elusive, but it was there. In my hands I held physical proof of the benefits of reverence.
The concept of respect that saturates Japanese culture was delivered to me through Mr. Ikeda. With his concern for birds and meticulous care for his property, he exemplified the respect that our world needs to survive. This extensive application of the Golden Rule by the Japanese inspires me to be a better person. Beginning with that cup of tea, I started to have greater respect for the things and people around me. I began to communicate Mr. Ikeda’s beliefs through my daily actions. Though small, my actions with the inanimate souls around me may affect the actions of the human souls around me, as Mr. Ikeda affected me.
“Sakura” by Christina Rombola (Longwood High School)
Ever since I was twelve years old I was mesmerized by music. When I was in seventh grade, I started attending voice lessons. My teacher’s name was Mrs. Beckers. She was a six foot tall German opera singer with stocky shoulders, a soft smile and an angelic soprano voice. We typically studied music by classical composers and explored literature in the romantic languages. However last May, Mrs. Beckers introduced me to something radically different than I was accustomed to. She handed me a copy of a Japanese folksong titled “Sakura.” Surprisingly, my native-born German teacher properly taught me the pronunciation and meaning of every word. Together we sang the folksong even though I was unaware of the symbolism it entailed.
Mrs. Beckers was incredibly inspired by this artistic representation of eastern culture. It was strange to see a German woman be so knowledgeable of and fascinated by a culture completely opposite of her own. She explained that the title of the song, “Sakura”, meant cherry blossom in Japanese. The song was about the celebration of blooming Japanese cherry blossoms. She continued to tell me that the Japanese people believe the flower is a symbol of the transience of life because the delicate petals fall only days after they bloom. Japanese people are not afraid of death. Instead, they value life and live every day by the morals they were raised upon. The cherry blossom is also a symbol of the samurai. The samurai were a group of fierce warriors who lived by the Bushido code. This code of conduct encompassed the importance of duty and loyalty, justice and morality, sincerity, courtesy, compassion, heroic courage and honor. They also lived by the value of gaman, or the belief in forbearance and self-sacrifice. Although they may not have wanted to go to battle, they did because they were committed to serving their people. Even though the samurai class diminished in Japan, the people still live by a similar conduct. As time passed, I realized why Mrs. Beckers was so enthralled by Japanese culture. It was because she encompassed everything that the cherry blossom, gaman and the Bushido Code stood for.
After four years of study with Mrs. Becker, she informed me that she was diagnosed with cancer. I was devastated that my longtime friend was struck by a disorder that crippled her by the minute. However, when she relayed the news, she said it with a smile and told me not to worry. She explained she was not afraid of the road ahead of her and that our lessons were to continue as usual. Although I was distraught, Mrs. Beckers seemed completely comfortable with her tragic fate. I did not understand why this terrible thing happened to such a wonderful person. She had compassion for every person that crossed her path, and went out of her way to help others. Mrs. Beckers believed in her students’ capabilities and pushed them to achieve their highest dreams. She spoke with a sincere voice, and was never disloyal to anybody. Mrs. Beckers epitomized the Bushido Code. She loved her life, her students and music so much, that she was okay with the startling news. This woman was not afraid of death, but mesmerized by life. She enjoyed her life so much that her sickness was inconsequential. Mrs. Beckers continued to teach music until she could no longer play the piano. Although she was weak and feeble, Mrs. Becker believed in gaman and put her suffering aside to teach young people beautiful music.
The cherry blossom symbolizes the evanescent nature of life. Japanese people never walk by a cherry blossom tree without stopping because they know that the flowers may be gone the next day. Both Mrs. Beckers and the Japanese people believe in valuing everything, even if it only exists momentarily. Life, like the cherry blossom, is not eternal. Every individual follows the course of life until their inevitable fall. Therefore, we must pass time with something that we love unconditionally. Mrs. Beckers found her passion of teaching music. However, like Mrs. Beckers, the Japanese believe more in the whole rather than the individual. Although it is important to live life to personal standards, it is also important to have a positive effect on surrounding others. I admire Mrs. Beckers for her love of life, her altruistic nature and her remarkable impact on young people. Although my friend was a product of the western world, she conveyed everything Japanese culture stood for.
“The Precious Crane” by Alessandra Faith Ansbach (Lynbrook High School)
In the year it seemed a life would come crashing to an end, I was acquainted with the ancient Japanese art of origami. My sister, Nina, was in the hospital, suffering from seizures that medicine wasn’t adequately controlling. New medicines were being tried. Mom had to be with her through this painful process. I was at home, 29.3 miles away yearning for both of them. I remember being so scared it was all I could do to show that I was strong for my Dad and Nana.
Knowing that I would either burst into screams or sobs I had to find something to ease my mind. I took out an old origami book my mom had presented to me as a surprise one day. I never really considered origami, because I couldn’t fold the special papers correctly at the time. I began to separate all the paper that came inside the book; along with the paper mom had bought me. My bed was covered in different size papers. The papers surrounded me on my bed, some folded and some not. I cautiously chose one of the multicolored sheets and began to fold. I ended up with a very uneven crane. I looked down at it, disgusted and threw it at the door. I folded again and again until finally I came up with a beautiful bird perched in my hands. Delighted with what I had accomplished, I started to create more and more until I had a whole chain of cranes. I looked through the rest of the book and made almost all of the designs that were depicted. I was delighted with my work.
My father appeared then and told me it was time to visit my sister and mom. I gathered up all of my creations and put them in a bag. When we arrived at my sister’s room I walked slowly inside, afraid of what I would see. My sister was sitting up in bed watching television and mom was sitting in the chair eating lunch. My mom burst into tears when she spotted me. I ran over and gave her a huge hug. I said not to cry and that I had presents. I emptied the entire contents of my sack onto Nina’s bed. Each of them picked up a crane and asked what it was. I demonstrated by picking one up and teaching them how to move its wings.
Mom could barely form words she was so astonished. She asked me if I had made them all and I could only nod. She hugged me and said that I was amazing. All of a sudden the waterfalls broke free and I hid my face in her shirt. “Please mommy, come home tonight.”
“I would if I could, Sweetheart; but I have to stay here and make sure Nina’s okay. I promise you, I will sleep with a crane next to me every night and think of you every day.” As I pulled away from her embrace I saw there were tears streaking her face too. I gave her a final squeeze and gave my sister one too. Then, dad took my hand and led me out of the room. I stole a final glance back and saw Nina admiring the baby blue crane I had made especially for her. I left the hospital with a smile on my face knowing I had made her happy.
A month later my sister came home happy and lively again. The first thing she said when she walked in the room was “Look! I still have my crane!” She opened her hand and handed me the precious blue crane. It was a little worn from all the times she had made it fly. She also handed me a bunch of cards from the kids at the hospital thanking me for the gifts of cranes and animals.
The crane is truly a sacred bird in Japan and in my eyes. The Japanese believe by folding a thousand cranes a wish will be granted.
My wish came true without folding a thousand. Sharing my love of origami with my sister and the hospitalized children made many wishes come true, for a lot of those children went home shortly after receiving the crane.
I continue to this day in sharing my love of origami with the people around me. I give the gift of a crane and the tale of its legend knowing that wishes do come true.
“The essence of life through Japanese culture” by Sandy Hernandez (Stony Brook University)
The essence and beauty of life are two elements that are exceptionally difficult to grasp. For my entire young adult life, I have been seeking a way of life, or a set of values, that would provide me with the insight and perseverance necessary for success and peace of mind. I believe that the Japanese people have been able to capture this elusive essence of life though their well-structured culture. Japanese culture is founded on the three main religions of Japan; Zen Buddhism, Confucianism, and Shintoism, which work together in harmony to provide the skeleton that holds Japanese society together.
Before going into the impact Japanese culture has had on me, I would like to speak about the aspect of Japan that first caught my attention; its language. The Japanese language has held my interest captive since my high school years when I was introduced to it by watching Japanese animation (anime). I was originally attracted by its simple and elegant rhythmic style, and by its beautifully structured writing styles; Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. Upon entering college, I immediately enrolled in a Japanese language course, from which my appreciation for Japanese grew even more. Although I acknowledge that I lack the proficiency of a native speaker, I am able to see clear fundamental differences between the Japanese language and Western languages such as English and Spanish. These fundamental differences stem from the difference between Eastern and Western cultures. More specifically, Japanese culture values the simplicity and the concept of intuitive thinking (as opposed to logical thinking). These two ideals can be seen in Japanese colloquial dialogue and in the sentence structure that provides the reader with the information necessary to deliver the intended message, while simultaneously using as few words as possible to avoid redundancy. These attributes in the Japanese language cannot be attributed to pure coincidence because they can be explained by the cultural beliefs and ideals held in Japan.
Zen Buddhism is a school of Buddhism that is centered on the idea of achieving satori (enlightenment) through zazen (quiet meditation). Buddhism provides a way of life that detaches us from our egos and from the rest of the world, thus, allowing us to carry on with daily activities without over-analyzing our actions. This notion of the intuitive mind ties in with the concept of Mushin no Shin (“mind of no mind”), which advices us not to think about our actions in an analytical way, but rather to act intuitively in order to lose the duality between us and the rest of the world. The idea of Mushin no Shin has been critical in my pursuit of knowledge wherever I seek it, whether it be in the sciences or life itself, because it allows me to reach the underlying truth of things, no matter how painful the truth may be.
Although I acknowledge that I have not mastered the skill of detachment, I feel that adopting that sort of mentality has allowed me to attain the insight and intuition necessary to excel in my engineering courses. Practicing these ideals has allowed me to avoid stressing over minor details in tasks delegated to me in school and at work, thus, allowing me to focus on the fundamentals of the task at hand. Essentially, one has to become one with the task to avoid duality, clear one’s mind, and to react naturally to one’s surroundings. This concept of detachment and loss of duality can be seen with the samurai, who have to go beyond the level of skillfulness to truly master the art of swordsmanship. Avoiding duality and becoming one with his opponent allows the samurai to clear his mind and to act only on instinct. This “intuitive mind” approach has helped me improve several areas of my life, including my academic success, physical fitness, and relationship with others.
Another element of Zen Buddhism that has provided me with crucial insight is the idea that only by humbling ourselves can we continue to grow in any type of discipline. Humbling ourselves is an important step in gaining more knowledge, insight, and experience because we need to empty our tea cup in order to allow our teachers to pour more tea into it. I am able to apply this principle in my practice of Shotokan Karate because no matter how strong and skillful I become, I know that I can still learn much more from my Sensei. Alternatively, by holding on to our egos and our accomplishments, we limit ourselves from growing further because our tea cup is essentially filled to the top and our teachers cannot provide us with more tea. The concept of reverence to our superiors has helped me acknowledge the fact that humbling myself can help me improve in any area of my life. Once we let go of our egos we also lose the fear of failure, in effect, allowing us to knock down the barriers that often impede us from achieving our maximum potential. This way of thinking connects to the way the samurai viewed their lives because they needed to be ready to die at any moment (in other words; accept that death might come), and at the same time they needed to continue fighting to protect others. The resolve to continue to hone my skills, no matter how skillful I become without the fear of failing, is the source of my academic success and my peace of mind.
Another aspect of Japanese culture that has made a great impression in my view of life is the importance of kokoro (heart and soul). After having read the influential Japanese novel Kokoro, by Natsume Soseki, I have learned that no one can see within the true heart of another person. Therefore, one should follow the feelings and intentions that lie deep within one’s heart regardless of the opinions of others. Confucianism teaches us that a big person follows their heart. In the past, I was reluctant to try out new and foreign activities because people around me discouraged me from initiating them, claiming that they were too difficult and impractical. However, in my heart, I felt that practicing these activities would build my character and would bring enjoyment to me. Such activities included studying Japanese, and practicing Karate, among others. However, it was not until I was introduced to the fundamentals of Japanese culture and way of viewing life that I realized that I needed to follow my heart, and that my actions and ideals should not be mandated by the opinions of others, but instead by what I consider important.
I have gained great inspiration from the way the Japanese people appreciate nature and all things that are beautiful and simple. The ideas of wabi and sabi (poverty and loneliness) come together with the Japanese respect toward nature because one must learn to humble oneself in order to achieve a deep connection with nature. Things in nature are much more beautiful than manmade materials because they possess the element of simplicity. Simplicity in art and in nature is seen as beautiful in Japanese culture because it allows for a more intimate and intuitive connection as compared to intricate art pieces that tend to remove the sense of wonder and awe that goes hand in hand with simplicity. Harmony with nature plays a crucial role in providing us with tranquility and peace of mind that helps us detach from ourselves; the only road to enlightenment.
I believe that learning about Japanese culture has helped me become a more disciplined and focused person in all aspects of my life. Regardless of my current success, I acknowledge that I need to continue improving and humbling myself with the same resolve and zeal in order to attain higher levels of achievement. These higher levels of achievement include becoming a successful professional engineer, and continuing to improve my proficiency in the Japanese language.
“Stillness Of The Lake: Embracing Bushido and Finding Clarity” by Stephen Lanuto Jr. (City University of New York/City College of New York)
“In any case, as human beings, it is essential for each of us to cultivate and polish our individual path.” – Musashi Miyamoto1
There are so many things any person could be drawn to when they think of Japan: the beauty of the cherry blossoms in full bloom, the Shinto and Buddhist temples that permeate across the spanning landscapes, even the neon lights and intense rush of Tokyo night life. For me, it was the image of the samurai that made Japan the focus of my passion; the Samurai were great warriors who lived by the code of Bushido, principles that guided them on the battlefield and nourished their minds, bodies and spirits. The Samurai image provided me with a beacon to help me find my way toward a regained sense of clarity and the burning spirit to work diligently as I pursue my goals.
In my youth, I endured several hardships, including a battle with Leukemia; as I grew into my teens, I found coping with the pain of those events too much to do on my own and felt hopelessly lost; emotionally as well as spiritually. For a time, I trudged through a state of perpetual blindness; my heart weighed down with sorrow, frustration, resentment and a deep seeded longing to find a piece of serenity, however small, to call my own. It was when I began to read of the Way of the Samurai and read Yoshikawa Eiji’s Musashi that I became more interested in the legendary samurai warrior and the code of Bushido. Even in the face of adversity, battling against one opponent or one hundred opponents, knowing that their death could be one breath away; Samurai faced death with stillness, like the untouched surface of a lake. Musashi Miyamoto was famous for fighting over sixty duels in his lifetime and after retiring from dueling, he became a poet, painter, calligrapher, writer, and even a gardener and carpenter. Here was a man who faced death on numerous occasions and was still able to create great and beautiful things.
Studying Bushido further, there were principles and ideals that resonated, giving me a renewed sense of strength and hope. It was not enough that a samurai become one with his sword but he also must view all things with clarity and honesty “You cannot judge whether one is good or evil by noting whether he is prosperous or not. Rise and fall is a matter of the Way of Heaven. Good and evil is the Way of Man.”2. To see a person beyond how much wealth they posses, is a skill that can steer one from making ill-conceived misapprehensions and can even protect one from danger.
In the Hagakure, or The Book of the Samurai, there is an adage that states “The essentials of speaking are in not speaking at all. If you think that you can finish something without speaking, finish it without saying a single word.”3. Each of us have had personal experiences such as this in form or another; how often do we meet people in our lives who do nothing but talk about the things they will do yet end up doing nothing? Whatever the task may be, simply doing the task is what gains results.
In the same vein of propriety of speech, the Ideals of the Samurai states “One should not tell a lie, no matter to whom he is speaking or how little is said…If one tells a lie, it will become a habit, and in the end he will be forsaken by others.”4 This is a well conceived example of the Samurai’s mind; to focus on the task at hand and to be aware of the possible end result, both negative and positive.
“Although there are a hundred kinds of stances, they all exist for the same purpose: to defeat the opponent.”5 These words are attributed to Munenori Yagyu, a supposed rival of Musashi Miyamoto; while written in a martial context, it has a beauty that comes from the ability to transcend its original intention. Just as there are one hundred stances to defeat an opponent, there are one hundred ways to complete any given task, the point is to complete the task. One could also find that while only one way is needed to defeat an opponent, whose to say that one can not choose a stance that is best suited to claim victory. Furthermore, using the same stance or method continuously leads to predictability and laziness.
Throughout my life, I have encountered a consistent stream of inconsistency when it comes to how a person interacts with their family, friends, co-workers and even lovers; each individual has their own ideas of what constitutes friendship and honesty. Within the Samurai code I found ethics that remain uncompromising and at times they did not sit well with people who were once close to me, but my conscience remains clear. One such principle comes from the samurai Ryoshun Imagawa “It is forbidden to have contempt for wise retainers and prefer flatters, and to have one’s actions be influenced by these conditions.”6. Those who are true to you will tell you what needs to be heard, not what makes you happy at the moment; when any person can tell you what you want to hear, you are in compromised position. Such an ideal is not meant for the faint-hearted, one must be disciplined enough to accept the assessment given, whether in favor or not in favor of what we want to hear; this must also extend to every person we come across, not just master and retainer. Honesty and sincerity are hallmarks not only of the Samurai, but of other Asian cultures as well, to speak honestly and sincerely is a sign that one cares. Honesty, perseverance, discipline, and loyalty are intertwined virtues that the Samurai embrace and yet are dismissed by the popularized image of the Tate and the act of Seppuku.
Now, one could argue that these texts and my vision of the Samurai are highly idealized and for all intents and purposes that could be true but why should it matter? The fact is, is that all works that deal with human interaction, from both the east or the west, is highly idealized, no treatise ever created can deal with every personality on an individual basis. When it comes to Bushido, however, it demands the very best of the
person: physically, spiritually, mentally and socially, and it will not except anything less; we live in a age and society where any kind of decision is made on a whim: judging a person on their appearance, getting married, having an affair, fathering children irresponsibly, neglecting the duties we are responsible for, even making friendships and getting involved in romances for immediate gratification.
It would be great if people could take such principles into their heart and make better decisions, to not cheat on a spouse because things are not rosy, to not bring a child into the world and leave it uncared for, and to not let “I don’t feel like it” be the response to every request, a cyclical mantra. However, I do recognize that not everyone is built with strong constitutions and are either unable or unwilling to remove their egos from any given situation; but such a code of ethics can also strengthen the areas where a person is deficient. For the Samurai, this clarity is often attributed to the incorporation of Zen Buddhism into their lives, taking Buddhism into one’s heart is not a requirement, any strong instillment of faith can produce the same effect; the essential foundation of Bushido is a careful fusing of martial training and spiritual development.
There are no Samurai in this world as we know them, they do not fight for their Daimyo and die in the name of their lords. All we have are films, pictures and books of how the Samurai supposedly lived. But I believe the Samurai spirit is eternal, though it changes and goes by different names in different languages and yet its essence remains unaltered; like the ripples on the surface of a lake, each ripple is different but beneath the ripples, the still waters are the same.
If a person could do these things in one lifetime: show loyalty and devotion to their friends and loved ones, endure hardship and pain with perseverance and courage, perform their duties well, pursue self-improvement through honest critique and serve others with care; then when they come to the end of their lives, they would have lived closest to the way of the Samurai and are worthy of remembrance and honor. That is the
life I aspire to achieve and when my time in this world is at its end, I will have no shame when I leave.
1. Musashi, Miyamoto, The Book of Five Rings; Boston, Shambhala, 2000, p.13
2. Tsunetomo,Yamamoto,. Stone, Justin (Editor), Bushido The Way of the Samurai; Garden City Park, NY, Square One Publishers, 2002, p.29
3. Tsunetomo, Yamamoto, Wilson, William Scott (Translator), Hagakure The Book of the Samurai, New York, Kodansha International, 1983, p.162
4. Wilson, William Scott, Ideals of the Samurai: Writings of Japanese Warriors, Santa Clarita CA, Ohara Publications Inc, 1982, p.78-79
5. Yagyu, Munenori, The Life-Giving Sword: Secret Teachings from the House of the Shogun, New York, Kodansha International, 2003, p.97
6. Wilson, William Scott, Ideals of the Samurai, p.60
Musashi, Miyamoto, Cleary, Thomas (Editor), The Book of Five Rings, Boston,
Shambhala Publications, 2000
Tsunetomo,Yamamoto,. Stone, Justin (Editor), Bushido The Way of the Samurai;
Garden City Park, NY, Square One Publishers, 2002
Tsunetomo, Yamamoto, Wilson, William Scott (Translator), Hagakure The Book
of the Samurai, New York, Kodansha International, 1983
Wilson, William Scott, Ideals of the Samurai: Writings of Japanese Warriors, Santa Clarita CA, Ohara Publications Inc, 1982
Yagyu, Munenori, The Life-Giving Sword: Secret Teachings from the House of the Shogun, New York, Kodansha International, 2003
My mother lived only the first years of her life in Japan before her parents moved to Hawaii, and she and her brothers spent their childhood in the United States. Years later, when their children had children of their own, my grandparents moved back to the same wooden house in Tokyo that they had built decades before. They had gone to sell that house but months became years, and they never left.
We visited them there two summers ago. It was my first time in Japan and the breath of culture and heritage we encountered shocked me. We arrived the week of Tanabata, the Japanese star festival, and the sidewalks of their Sugamo neighborhood were adorned with colored strips of paper and folded cranes. My grandmother met us at Tokyo International Airport and as we walked along crowded sidewalks she explained the meaning behind the tanzaku that hung from bamboo stalks.
“You write wishes on the backs of the paper, then hang them on the trees,” she said, laughing a little as I stopped to read one before realizing it was written in beautiful little characters I could not understand. My grandmother had always been healthy for her age, but it had been a couple of years since I had last seen her and I’d not noticed before how slowly we had to walk for her to keep up. I was taller than her now as well, by a combination of my growth and her rounded back.
“Wishes?” I asked, fingering them and wishing I could know what these people hoped for. We passed modern apartments and tiny white houses set along straight narrow streets in precise lines. The feeling was so orderly that when we came upon their house it was a shock. The lawn was an overgrown mess of grass and bushes, adding a wild feeling to the beautiful wooden house.
My grandfather, eighty years old at the time, was sitting outside on a wooden stool when we arrived. I could barely remember the last time I had seen him, which was about a decade before. He leaned over a cane when he walked, and spent much of his time gazing off in silence. My mother treated him like a fragile object and we followed his example. I wasn’t sure what to say to him then, though I wish now that I had asked him what his Tanabata wish was.
We spent ten days in Japan, during which I spent each day with my grandparents and saw more of the half of my heritage that I had been missing. I felt regret in my chest each time I heard Japanese being spoken, but most especially when it came from my mother’s mouth. She’d never tried to teach it to us and after that visit I wished she had. Japan was so different, so exciting and beautiful, that I decided that I would return in the future.
That day in Tokyo, I looked at those tanzaku slips and wished that I could read them and write my own in those beautiful little characters. I began taking Japanese lessons the month after we came home. The next year, my grandfather passed away in his house with my grandmother seated beside him. She moved to California to live with one of her sons, and their house in Tokyo eventually burned down, but I have the feeling that a part of her still lives there.
I still plan to live in Japan one day, hopefully for a year after college to teach English or work as an interpreter. Japan, the homeland of my mother and my ancestors, represents an unknown part of who I am, a part that I will one day explore.
© The Japan Center at Stony Brook
Photos (under construction)