Choosing gifts

In two days we leave for Japan. Of course our minds have really been focused on Japan for two weeks, now as the news of our newest grandson’s birth and the joys of following his first few days have meant daily contact with our daughter. Our relationship with Japan, however, is more complex and wonderful than just the story of one daughter and her husband and son. There is another daughter and a whole family with whom we feel deeply connected. In 1998, we hosted an exchange daughter from Japan for an entire year. Masami lived in our home and shared our family life, including a family vacation to the West Coast that included visits to Seattle and Whidby Island, very close to where we currently are visiting. Last year, twenty years after that year, we were able to reconnect with her and visit her family home, meet her parents and sister and her sister’s family and renew our relationship. Because of the travel time and the time zones involved, the days get slightly confused, but when we arrive on Monday afternoon, we will get to our hotel and then meet Masami and her mother. Our connection with her parents is deep even though we have only met face to face once. After all, we have shared the same daughter for two decades.

With our hearts and minds set on Japan and in eager anticipation of our reunion with Masami and her mother, we’ve been trying to select a few gifts to mark the occasion. Gifts are an important part of Japanese culture and they function slightly differently in Japan than they do in our traditions and place. To understand, one needs to know a bit about the story of Japan and how that story has shaped its people.

There are certain periods of time that exert heavy influence on who we are in the present. For those of us who speak the English language, the mid-sixteenth century is one of those times. Shakespeare was penning plays that would be used in the education of our language for centuries, including the present time. The King James Version of the Bible began to take shape and exert more influence on the shape of the Christian Church than any other version of that book. da Vinci’s Mona Lisa was a new painting. Michelangelo’s David was a new sculpture, just a few decades since its creation.

Over in China, the Ming dynasty was leading the technological advancements of the age. Chinese officials penned poetry and practiced calligraphy between official meetings.

In Japan, however, at that same time, a century of warfare and destruction was upon the people. Famines, fires and natural disasters marked the century. Taxation was high. Poverty was rampant. Society was torn apart. Ordinary people sought solace in Buddhism while the emperor and court were merely puppets of the shogun military possessed all the real power. Feudal lords, called the daimyo, ruled over local areas, lived in lavish castles and installed samurai warriors in the towns. The samurai were educated and powerful and were extremely loyal to the daimyo. The great temple, one of many in the capital, Kyoto, had lavish gardens perfectly established and adorned with expensive ornaments. The cities were growing, and a merchant class was beginning to develop because the samurai needed the services of money lenders to support their lavish lifestyles. Moneylending, however, was on the edge of the law, so merchants were always at risk of having their wealth taken away while most of the people hovered on the edge of poverty. There was little certainty and much anxiety.

In the midsts of all of these contrasts, Zen Buddhism was on the rise among all classes. The rich could afford lavish tea rooms and ceremonies with expensive Chinese tea bowls and utensils. The poor could still enjoy the ceremony and aroma of tea with simple utensils such as a plain bamboo tea scoop. It became popular among the wealthy to practice a form of asceticism. Smaller and less lavish tea rooms were built and a focus on the sensual nature of simple tea, especially green Matcha tea, originally from China, but now thriving in several locations in Japan. This new approach was known as Wabi. Wabi tea ceremonies became popular among all classes of people. Great tea masters began to shape the focus of Japanese culture from the worship of wealth to the worship of simplicity. Poets crafted new word combinations to express this new way of stillness and appreciation of the simple things of life. A new appreciation of humility along with an acceptance of the fact that the true needs of humans are very simple became the focus of an emerging unity among Japanese people and the reversal of the dominance of the wealth of a very few at the expense of the masses. If everyone aspires to live simply - to live wabi - then all are equal. Peace begins to descend upon the people. This peace, along with the knowledge that we all share a common history and a past and the awareness of the natural cycle of life and death is sabi. Thus wabi sabi became an important principle in Japanese life.

A simple gift, given with out lavish expense or as a show of wealth, became a gesture of equality and appreciation of the joys of friendship. An item of everyday use such as a handkerchief or a pen or a teacup can convey great beauty. Appreciation of that beauty and of the joy of giving something unadorned and austere is an expression of the connectedness between people. Choosing a gift for a Japanese friend requires an investment of time over an investment of money. Thoughtfulness for simplicity and beauty are treasures that have shaped Japanese culture for centuries. A moment of appreciation in the midst of a busy live is a lesson in what is most important.

So we are searching for a few simple, inexpensive gifts that convey beauty and appreciation. A book, a cap, a scarf, or even a simple photograph might be selected. It needs to be right and that requires thoughtfulness.

The process is very good for us. It incorporates the wisdom of the centuries. It is a gift for all of us.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!