Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 6 : 1 January 2006

Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Associate Editors: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.
         Sam Mohanlal, Ph.D.
         B. A. Sharada, Ph.D.
         A. R. Fatihi, Ph.D.
         Lakhan Gusain, Ph.D.




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Copyright © 2004
M. S. Thirumalai


Vijay K. Sunwani, Ph.D.

Death in Tsunami,Nagapattinam, Tamilnadu


The recent tsunami on Boxing Day 2004 generated waves of all kinds. Primarily the wave of destruction taking into its wall and wake nearly 300,000 lives in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and India and other countries. A phenomenon such as this happens only once in a lifetime. And if you survive it you are lucky, indeed very lucky. That is enough to send people scaffolding for support for whatever they are able to find - literally clinging on to life with a straw.

Twelve months after the sea entered into various landmass, habitat and areas of human population, the effects are still felt in the shape of after shocks, which have been making tsunamaic presence felt, scurrying people for shelter and support. These after shocks have been realized in different terms, different forms, and different areas.

This tragedy will be remembered with sadness for many years to come. I pray that the people affected by the trauma of tsunami will soon be healed, and that they will be provided with their basic necessities. The world at large has responded sympathetically to the people affected by this devastating tragedy.


In this paper we concentrate on the after shocks in language, particularly English. The English language has been known for its give and take from different languages that have resulted in its huge and rich corpus, its rich vocabulary to which it is adding new words everyday thereby contributing to its fecundity and lucidity.

It will not be out of place to remind ourselves of what we owe to the Japanese in the shape of words the English language has taken from it and made them its own. Tsunami reminded us of the word as a wall of water, sometimes 15 metres high, at times rising to the height of a three storey building. Things had been quiet till then. We were familiar with high and low tide, rough sea, calm sea, the deep blue, the wonderful continent which had yet to be discovered.

A place that is still being occasionally visited for the treasures and memorabilia associated with the Titanic that struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage from Southampton on 12 April 1912.

Cyclones, depressions in the Bay of Bengal causing extensive rainfall in the coastal regions of India were not uncommon, but one of these turned into the super cyclone of Orissa on 29 October 1999.

Came the end of December 2004 and the world caught up with the word, tsunami, everyone was talking about it, it was on everyone's lips.

Death in Tsunami, Nagapattinam, Tamilnadu

Tsunami is a huge tidal wave generally associated with earthquakes on the ocean bed, a slight shift in the tectonic plates, and other reasons spark off these tidal waves with which Japan is not unfamiliar and has faced many such tsunamis and the man made mushroom of 6 August 1945.


This led me to think of other Japanese words that the English language has welcomed. The tsunami of 26 Dec 2004 is a fact, many of us have seen at least on TV. Some of us have actually been involved in it and as reports say the sea suddenly withdrew a couple of kilometres enchanting and luring the beach people, the revelers who were at Chennai, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Thailand in its mighty embrace. Excited people with a sense of adventure rushed on their motorbikes on the sea bed, only to discover that while they were on their way back to the beach the sea came back to its original position, this time with a speed of nearly 500 to 800 nautical kilometres an hour. Gone were the two brothers on the motorbike. Many hours later one of them found himself atop a coconut tree, hanging on for dear life, for the sea, so far away a couple of minutes ago as it were, brushing his feet with death for company.


Tsunami comes from the Japanese language meaning harbour ("tsu") and wave ("nami"). This exquisitely beautiful word was created by fishermen who returned to port to find the area surrounding the harbour devastated, although they had not been aware of any wave in the open waters. A tsunami is not a sub-surface event in the deep ocean; it simply has a much smaller amplitude (wave heights) offshore, and a very long wavelength (often hundreds of kilometres long), which is why they generally pass unnoticed at sea, forming only a passing "hump" in the ocean.

Tsunamis were historically referred to as tidal waves because as they approach land they take on the characteristics of a violent onrushing tide rather than the sort of cresting waves that are formed by wind action upon the ocean (with which people are more familiar). It is a natural phenomenon consisting of a series of ocean surface waves generated when water in the sea is rapidly displaced on a massive scale. Earthquakes, landslides, volcanic eruptions and large meteorite impacts all have the potential to generate a tsunami. The effects of a tsunami can range from unnoticeable to complete devastation. A tsunami can strip coast of sand, uproot trees, wipe out towns. Travelling hundreds of metres inland it can flood coastal towns. Throughout recorded histotry tsunamis have caused significant damage to coastal habitations all over the world.


After bonsai and harakiri, tsunami has now become the most well known Japanese word in the English language. The wall of water that can challenge a jet plane in speed, rival a tall building in height and pack enough force to destroy hundreds of miles of coastline has emerged as a colourful figure of speech in contemporary English usage. But for the Japanese who have lived with the threat of tsunamis from the Pacific - the area is known as the 'ring of fire' for being the world's most geologically active region - the word has been part of common parlance in art, poetry and literature.

Tsunami is now being used world wide to describe any powerful current. Tony Blair is said to have faced a tsunami of criticism for his handling of the sexed-up Iraq dossier. Or Bush, who according to american poll commentators was suddenly swept into the blue oval office for a second term last November by a tsunami of conservatism - led by Republicans from middle America.


A moment's thought and some Japanese words which strike you may be harakiri - a method of suicide in which a man cuts his own stomach open. Harakiri was traditionally regarded in Japan as the honourable way to avoid disgrace.

origami - art of paper work by folding the paper
ikebana - flower arrangement
rickshaw - three wheeled cycle, with seats for passengers, pedalled by the puller
geisha - a woman who is specially trained in music, dancing and the art of conversation and whose job is to entertain men.
mikado - A title for the emperor of Japan, made up of mi (honourable) and kodo (gate of the imperial palace)
sushi - healthy and delicious food, packing and pickling sea food with rice, thought to be mostly non vegetarian, but now available in its vegetarian version also, eaten raw (sashimi) or cooked. Japanese is the flavour of the moment. Nigiri - rice balls topped with fish, sushi rolls - maki, miso soup, teppenyaki
samurai - a member of a powerful class of warriors in former times
karate - a sport in which people fight without weapons, using only their hands, elbows, feet, and legs; originally a method of self defence in Japan
kimono - traditional dress worn by women, something like a housecoat
yum yum : a girls' name, described thus: "The full moon of delight which sheds her remarkable beams over a sea of infinite loveliness, thus indicating a glittering path by which she may be approached by those who are willing to brave the perils which necessarily await the daring adventurers who seek to reach her by those mean." The Japanese language is exceptionally compact!
peep-bo: This is not only the reverse of Bo-Peep, but also what English people say instead of "Peekaboo!"

For better or worse, English has become the most global of languages, the lingua franca of business, science, education, politics and pop music. Languages, all over the world have started appropriating words and phrases from English. Italians programme their computers with il software, French motorists going away for a weekend break pause of les refueling stops, Poles watch teewizja, Spaniards have a flirt, Austrians eat Big Macs, and the Japanese go on a pikunikku.


I would now like to pay some attention to words which the English language has borrowed from Japanese in recent years, i.e., 1980s onward. The choice will necessarily be selective and subjective. However, the thoughts these words conjure up have been made use by us all, some time or other, in this fast changing world - geographically, politically, economically and linguistically.


Tsunami-affected children in Miracle Home for Children, near Coimbatore

kyoikumama, a recent word referring to a mother who pushes her children into academic achievement.

Education is serious business for young people in Japan, because performance in the primary school determines whether or not a student will get into one of the better schools. Middle school performance leads either to one of the best senior or to a less prestigious high school. The best high schools are the ones that train their students to pass the grueling entrance examinations for the best universities. If a student is not admitted to a prestigious university, that student's life and career are, in some sense, "ruined", for the calibre of one's university determines the kind of job one gets after college. Since the firm one joins after college is often one's employer for life, this is serious indeed. The pressure on Japanese students is intense, and it begins at home. In most cases, the young person's life is directed toward academic achievement by the kind of mother who is referred to as a kyoikumama (key-OH-ee-koo-mama).

From childhood, the kyoikumama ("education mama") aims her child's life at the college entrance exams, with exhortations, special treats for achievement, pressure, and tutoring. The word is particularly well suited to contemporary times, for a large section of the upscale childbearing population is already entrenched in this way of thinking. Some parents attempt to pre register children for prestigious private schools even before they are born, and the notion that children can be crammed with facts via flash cards and drills even before they can walk has found a following. The next time therefore when you see a pregnant (Japanese) woman playing Bach to her fetus by means of earphones on her abdomen, be sure she is tutoring her child for the exams.


haragei refers to visceral, indirect, largely nonverbal communication.

In the West, with different cultural backgrounds but the same language, communication is equated with clear, concise, logical, explicit, direct verbalization. Generally, we "speak what is on our minds." On occasion, we "speak from the heart." In Japan, where the culture is racially, socially, and culturally homogeneous and people share so many different unspoken values, direct verbal communication, the way it is used in the West is generally shunned. Words are mistrusted. Nuances, silences, gestures, facial expressions are much more important. To a surprising degree, the Japanese rely on a kind of visceral communication known as haragei (ha-ra-GUY, where the "r" is pronounced something like "d"). One Japanese can understand what another is trying to communicate by closely observing posture, facial expressions, the length and timing of silences and the various "meaningless" sounds uttered by the other person.

Indeed meaningless sounds pay a large part in haragei. Just as Westerners mutter "yes" or "uh-huh" from time to time to indicate intent listening, Japanese tend to say hai (hi!). The surface meaning is simply "Yes I am listening and I hear what you are saying." On a deeper level, haragei draws indirect attention to certain nuances of the speaker's words.

Although the Japanese raise it to a high art, haragei is part of every culture's communication system. In the West, we understand that a sharply raised eyebrow can indicate disapproval, that crossed arms and a grin can indicate aggressive skepticism, that a wink means there are hidden meanings in the speaker's words. But we practice haragei far more than we acknowledge it or try to understand it, which means that we sometimes end up with ambiguous understanding.


amaeru to presume upon another's love, to act like a baby in order to be treated as a dependent.

This word is intimately connected with the meek, dependent role of women in Japanese culture, and particularly the traditions\al role of women in marital relationships. In Western society, such an ideal is considered beneficial; others consider it demeaning. For a woman to be amaeru (AH-may-roo) is to be dependent upon the man who loves her, to be protected and cherished. The way to achieve this state is to pretend that one is less mature, more dependent, more spoiled than one really is. In this sense, the adverb amae can refer to various behaviours intended to achieve the state of amaeru; as in a tone of voice that is something like a coo, perhaps something like a purr.

The word transcends male-female relationships and can refer to the behaviour of a spoiled child or a pet. In this context a person may say with pride that a woman is speaking in an amae tone, or a child is ingratiating himself to his father. A more general meaning extends this concept to the idea of taking advantage of another's kindness or availing oneself of the hospitality or offer of help proffered by a friend. "I will let myself amae of your kind offer" means"I will avail myself of your kind offer."


wabi, a flawed detail that creates an elegant whole!

If you were to introduce an average European to one of Japan's treasured objects - a teacup made by an old tea-master, for instance - very few untrained observers would recognize the wabi (rhymes with "bobby") that, to the Japanese eye, distinguishes a museum-quality piece from something a seven-year old might bring home from an art class. Beauty might be in the eye of the beholder, but the eye itself is trained and constrained by the beholder's cultural perspective - everything a person's family, language, and society says explicitly and in many tacit ways about what beauty is and is not. The way individuals perceive "beauty" in other people, the natural world, or human artifacts is profoundly influenced by conscious and unconscious beliefs peculiar to the individual's culture.

To many people who see the world through modern sensibilities, beauty is represented by the kind of technological sleekness, smoothness, symmetry, and mass-produced perfection that is usually associated with a sports car or a skyscraper. A highly prized Japanese teacup, which might fetch many dollars from a collector, might be very simple, roughly fashioned, asymmetrical, and plainly coloured. It would not be uncommon to find a crack. The crack - the beautiful, distinctive, aesthetic flaw that distinguishes the spirit of the moment in which this object was created from all other moments in eternity - might indeed be the very feature that would cause a connoisseur to remark; "This pot has wabi."

To say that we don't have a word for wabi in English is not to say that we are incapable of appreciating this kind of beauty. Perhaps more than any other major cultural belief system, aesthetics is learnable; that is, people can be trained to recognize beauty where they used to see only flaws. Indeed, the ideas of deliberately introducing flaws into works of art are deeply rooted in Western traditions. Because of the biblical injunctions against graven images, all depictions of humans in ancient Jewish sculpture were deliberately flawed. When mechanical weaving machines came along, the distinctive imperfections of Persian hand-woven rugs became hallmarks of quality.

As the economic conditions that created the "consumer society" change, we seem to be changing our buying habits. One such change is the shift from the goal of owning or consuming a large quantity of possessions or experiences to the goal of owning or consuming a smaller number of higher quality possessions or experiences. One of the consequences of this change in what we perceive as valuable is the return of what used to be called craftsmanship. That's where wabi comes in. One-of-a-kind items will grow increasingly more valuable than their mass-produced counterparts. If you want to ride the leading edge of the next inevitable aesthetic wave, look for slightly flawed, wobbly, rustic object. And when someone remarks about your old piece of pottery or slightly funky wall-hanging, just smile knowingly and say, "Yes, it has wabi, don't you think?"

You already know something about wabi, but because we didn't have a word for it, you probably didn't think it was important. What about those old shoes or that broken-in, weather-beaten briefcase that seems just perfect to you, even though your spouse is always trying to throw them away? Learning to see the wabi in our lives could become an enriching exercise. Everyday life can be art. Living rooms can be art museums. If you learn how to look.


sabi, beautiful patina.

Wabi pinpoints a cultural difference of opinion about the relationship between perfection and beauty. Similarly, sabi (rhymes with bobby) draws attention to a cultural divergence of opinion about the relationship between age and beauty. Western consumer society fosters a strong reverence for youth - in appliances and objets d'art as well as people. In Japan, where reverence for one's ancestors is a tenet of the Shinto and Buddhist religions, the situation is reversed: To a Japanese master of rock gardening, an otherwise ordinary rock might be beautiful just because centuries of moss and lichens have overgrown it in a visually pleasing way. Such a rock would then be said to possess the quality of sabi.

It isn't reasonable to expect Americans to have developed much of an appreciation for the kind of beautiful patina that takes hundreds of years to achieve. But they have developed their own sense of aesthetic history, suitable to the pace of life there. They do look back over the decades. One manifestation of this sense of temporal compression is the conversion of fashion into nostalgia. It started in the mid 1970s, when the still-popular aesthetic and cultural nostalgia for the 1960s took hold. In the early 1980s, furnishings and items of clothing from the 1950s became collector's items. As the late 1980s moved into the 1990s, nostalgia for the 1970s undoubtedly had its heyday. So when somebody admires your vintage hand lawn mower or your slightly rusted '52 Chevrolet car, you can say, "Yes, it has a lot of sabi." In Japan they probably would have decided not to clean the Statue of Liberty.


Tsunami-affected boy in Miracle Home for Children, near Coimbatore

aware the feelings engendered by ephemeral beauty

Something of the sweetness and brevity of life is conveyed wordlessly in the fall of a petal. This inspires a kind of awareness known as aware (ah-WAH-ray), brought on by that ephemeral, fragile beauty of, say a cherry blossom as it floats to the ground. Would cherry blossoms be as beautiful if they bloomed all year round? Or if they were as tough as walnuts? Would our worldview be enriched if our notion of beautiful objects expanded to include things that remind us of our mortality?

Whenever somebody sighs because a rainstorm has washed all the petals from a tree, or when the beautiful flower arrangement begins to shed, or whenever something that is beautiful because of its fragility is destroyed by the inevitable passage of time, it is time to meditate on aware. Because aware refers not to the external world but to the human quality of recognizing and feeling these ephemeral, aesthetic aspects of the world.

Falling cherry blossoms make a beautiful image, but they strike a Japanese much more than anybody else, because of the aware. In any case, one who has polished the car all Sunday afternoon only to watch it rain on Monday knows something about aware. Similarly, any man with a magnificent mane who has watched himself getting bald is intimately acquainted with this feeling. Instead of getting angry at rainstorms or creeping baldness, learn to cultivate the bittersweet aesthetic emotion that can arise from contemplation of such phenomena.


shibui, beauty of aging

Shibui (shin-BOO-ee), like wabi, sabi and aware, connotes a certain kind of beauty. Like sabi, but unlike aware, shibui refers to a kind of beauty that only time can reveal. One of the reasons language has such immense emotional power is the way people use symbols to link together several sensory symbols to make an emotionally evocative image. Shibui can be used to describe the taste of a certain kind of tea, scenery of a gray, brown or moss green colour, or the impression a person gets from looking at the face of a certain kind of older person. In Japanese culture and language, these different sensory associations triangulate a distinct but ineffable sensation. Perhaps an analogy with Katharine Hepburn's or Nargis's or Madhubala's face may help. She was beautiful as a very young woman. And she grew into a different kind of beauty which revealed the grain of her character that was hidden beneath the smoothness of her youthful face.

The senses of taste and smell seem to have a strong connection, in all human beings, with memory and time (Proust's Remembrance of Things Past was triggered by the taste of a biscuit dipped in tea.) By linking together the taste of an aged tea, the subdued earth tones of a winter landscape, and the laugh lines revealed in a human face, shibui provokes an emotional as well as a rational reaction. An aged person's face conveys shibui to the degree that it reflects the person's personality and his / her experiences in life; thus the remembrance of life's flavours, the reflection of nature's largest cycles of growth and decay, and the psychologically revealing portrait presented by physiognomy are combined into one potent descriptive symbol.

In a world wide consumer culture where starlets, cosmetics and plastic surgery are industries and social institutions based on the worship of youth, the kind of face that reflects a lot of living is not always valued as it might be in a less youth oriented realm. Perhaps, those in their fifties, when the invisible sculpture of time carves their true face from the relatively smooth material of youth, a renewed appreciation of this kind of beauty will lead to new attitudes. Next time anybody complains about the ravages of time upon her complexion, just tell her that she is beginning to exhibit a delightful shibui.


yugen, an awareness of the universe that triggers feelings too deep and mysterious for words.

To watch the sun sink behind a flower-clad hill, to wander on and on in a huge forest without thought of return, to stand upon the shore and gaze after a boat that disappears behind distant islands, to contemplate the flight of wild geese seen and lost among the clouds.

American philosopher Alan Watts used the words of a Japanese poet to describe a sensation that, by its nature, lies beyond the power of words. "All these are yugen." Watts notes, "but what have they in common?"

Yugen (YOO-gehn) is an extension of aware, an opening of aesthetic perceptions to include the vastness and ultimate fragility of the universe itself. Whereas aware is a sensation triggered by confrontation with evidence of the brevity of life, yugen carries the sensation into the realm of mystery, for the essence of Zen is awareness that "all form is void", that the universe itself is an ephemeral object. Such an awareness is too deep for the kind of aesthetic categories that govern ordinary art. It cannot be depicted, only suggested. Aware is a pleasant sensation, triggered by the generally unpleasant thought of mortality. Yugen springs from an awareness that even aware is ephemeral. It is the sense of unutterable depth and profundity.


nemawashi, informal feeling-out and consensus gathering

American business people have been trying to adopt Japanese management techniques and to read books about them ever since Japanese industries nearly put Detroit automobile manufacturers out of busines. Now that Japanese computer companies and microchip makers are putting the pressure on Silicon Valley, a number of American firms have attempted to put some of the Japanese management practices into action. Unfortunately, many of the Japanese management techniques are actually their communication techniques that are intertwined with the Japanese way of life.

One of the communication techniques that western managers have tried to introduce, with mixed results, is the Japanese custom of feeling out all the people involved with an issue before taking a decision. By the time such a decision is made, all parties have subtly made their positions clear and have adjusted their stands in an effort to make them compatible with the positions taken by others. The process is subtler than simple consensus gathering and presupposes a shared distaste for confrontation. The Japanese name for this decision making approach is nemawashi (neh-mah-WAH-shee) "root binding" - a term borrowed from the art of bonsai, in which miniature trees are created by careful pruning of limbs and roots.

The bonsai metaphor compares the way the careful pruning and repositioning of roots (people's feelings about an issue) can determine the tree's future growth (the actual decision making and implementation of policy). The Japanese feel this approach is better than hashing it all out in a meeting because it avoids open conflict, a social situation Japanese seek to avoid in all areas of life. For this reason, Japanese are comfortable with the nuances of indirect negotiation. Nemawashi might be difficult to transplant, but it might work as an enhancement of management practices of "signing people up" for a proposal before it is formally argued - the practice of "getting everyone on board." The catchword in organizational development is "alignment" - that is, an effort to make sure all participants in a company project are pulling with one another, rather than against one another.


yoin, experiential reverberation that continues to move you long after the initial external stimulus has ceased.

The literal definition of yoin refers to the reverberations that continue for a long time after a well-cast bell is struck. The more interesting colloquial definition refers to a bell that is made of human feelings rather than metal. Have you ever felt a pang of pure, sweet sadness when you heard a song on the radio that reminded you of your youth and then you realized that you might someday look back upon this moment in the same way? Does a certain poem or a sculpture touch something deep inside your heart? Has a painting ever leapt from the eyes and hands of a painter, or a character jumped from the mind of a playwright, instantaneously traversed the centuries and rang your emotions like a bell?

Yoin (yoh-EEN) is the Japanese word for any kind of moving experience that causes profound emotional reverberations. In Japan, the act of looking out a window at the garden, the moon, or the countryside is considered to be an aesthetic and emotional act, much like the experience of viewing a work of art; therefore, yoin can be applied to the feeling that wells up when one drinks sake while looking at the freshly fallen snow, or when one takes a sharp breath at the sight of the moon through a blossoming cherry tree.

Nostalgia is the English word for an experience that is somewhat less profound, because nostalgia evokes the feeling of a fond remembrance and a bittersweet yearning for old times. Yoin is closer to a re-experiencing of an eternal moment, which is triggered by memory but exists in the present as well as the past. Yoin is an existential act of resonance with something that is not an active task of recapturing something that was.


zanshin, a state of relaxed mental alertness in the face of danger.

The martial arts of Japan, from karate ('empty-hand combat') to the kind of swordsmanship shown in samurai films, have been glorified in books and movies. The rigours of the physical training necessary to become a martial artist are also well known. And the element of a profound mental discipline has been popularized, if not always well understood. If you were to ask a master martial artist what his or her most important weapon might be, the answer received would be more along the lines of a state of mind rather than a severe fighting technique. If you ever watch a karate match or see a reasonably authentic samurai film, you have witnessed the exhibition of this most important mental component, known as zanshin (zon-SHEEN).

Many karate matches and almost all sword battles, begin with both opponents poised in a state of relaxed alertness. This is in contrast to the Western mental component of combat, as in boxing, where both opponents seem to be building themselves up into a frenzy, hopping and jogging in place, seemingly unable to contain their energy. In true sword battles, however, the combatant who betrays this kind of nervous energy is usually the one who finds his head or other limbs rolling on the ground a moment later. As any aikido master can demonstrate, a tensed muscle is unable to react as swiftly and surely as a relaxed muscle.

Zanshin is not easy to attain. Many years of mental and physical discipline are required before a martial artist can face an opponent without anxiety or tension. The martial artist must learn to set aside that part of himself that cares about winning or losing, fear or bravery. The perfectly trained warrior faces his opponent, adopts a relaxed posture, and concentrates on his own energy centre, the hara or tanden in the centre of his body. The first opponent to break concentration is the one who loses. We no longer face the prospect of hand-to-hand combat on the streets, except when we find ourselves in the wrong neighbourhood, at the wrong time of day. But to many, business is warfare, and there are many instances when we must face opponents in boardrooms, conferences or courtrooms. In those instances the breathing, meditation, and physical exercises that lead to the mental state of zanshin can make the difference between victory and defeat. That's a kind of zanshin. Simply reminding yourself that such a state of mind exists, and that you can attain it by calming your emotions and focusing your attention, can carry you a long way toward your goal.


mu, No-thing, no-mind

To those who do not understand it, the Zen tradition can seem more like a Japanese version of vaudeville than a serious religion. This impression comes from the sometimes illogical, sometimes humourous questions and answers known as koans, which help to define the practice by illustrating the interactions between students and masters. Perhaps the most well known koan is, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Like a joke, which loses much of its flavour when it is explained, this koan, is truly untranslatable, even into words of the native language. The answer is not meant to be a set of words but a state of mind. Less famous but perhaps even more quintessentially Zen is the koan and its answer that has come to be known as "Joshu's mu."

"Does the dog have the Buddha nature?" asked a student of Joshu's . To which Joshu replied, "Mu!" The word mu (MOO) is variously translated as "not" or "no-thing", and in this context, the meaning is not that dogs lack the Buddha nature, but that the very question itself indicates that the student is wrongfully thinking in terms of distinctions. And when a Zen student becomes enlightened, all such distinctions disappear. Which is why Joshu once answered "mu!" when he was asked if he meant that the dog did not have the Buddha nature.

This word can be useful in those rare but important times when somebody is asking you a question that cannot be answered because the person is thinking in the wrong terms, looking in the wrong place. Just make your eyes very wide, compose your features into an authoritative expression and shout, "Mu!" Like Joshu, you will startle them into an entirely different state of mind!


tashinamu, to privately devote oneself to a cause or project.

Politics is the basic example of a human activity that has the highest goals and perhaps the basest methods of achieving them. While most people would agree that certain projects require a kind of cooperative institution in order to attain the highest good for the community - education, health and welfare, caring for widows and orphans, - most people would agree that the process of seeking, exercising and holding the power to accomplish these ends has been known to engender some of the lowest, sneakiest, behaviour known to humankind. As the saying goes, one should never watch legislation being made. In order to do good, it seems, one must often do some not-so-good things. Part of the problem is that politicians must spend more time publicizing their good works than they spend doing their community-minded good deeds. That's where the Japanese penchant for self-effacement and deference of individual achievement to group goals comes into play.

The Japanese word tashinamu (tah-she-NAH-mu), especially favoured in its culture, means to privately devote yourself to some project or goal, whether or not it will succeed, and whether or not you will be recognized for the effort. In a spiritual sense, it is close to the Christian idea of a ministry. But the goals can be as simple as adopting a favourite park; and visiting it once a week to clean up the trash that others leave. Or baking bread and giving it away, or making telephone calls on behalf of a political candidate. This word can be used as an answer to several questions that were previously regarded as rhetorical. To the query, "What can one person do?" you can reply, "Tashinamu." "Why should I bother if I won't be recognized or rewarded?" you can say, " Do it for the sake of tashinamu." A speaker of Japanese has to wend his way through a series of linguistic levels appropriate to the social position of the participants.


hari kuyo, shrine for broken sewing needles.

Is the world a sacred vessel of wonder, in which even a stone or a pin is one of the visible faces of godhead for those who have eyes to see it? Or is the world a repository of inert resources to be used for the pleasure and aggrandizement of humans, a kind of cosmic supply depot? Is the purpose of a tool to extend human creative power or to dominate nature? In an important sense, our attitudes toward our tools reflect our spiritual attitudes. The Japanese value a tool as if it were inspirited, not for its monetary value but for its beauty and partnership in craft.

In the modern era, we as have shared a largely unspoken agreement that 'inanimate' nature, lacking flesh and spirit, can be regarded only instrumentally, as something to be used. In many non-industrial cultures, however, a reverence for all existence, down to the humblest tool, is sometimes honoured, an attitude that is often dismissed as a form of animism or pantheism. Is such a worldview 'primitive"? Or is the merciless instrumentality of industrial civilization truly the more spiritually primitive belief? And does an undercurrent of native animism or pantheism run deep in our own society?


In Japan's Wakayama province, every village has a special shrine where an internment service is performed for broken sewing needles. The basis for this unique kind of temple is the belief that since the sewing needles died in the service of their owners and worked hard all their "lives", it is only fair that when they break they should be put to rest in a bed of soft tofu.

Such a ceremony could be dismissed as a superstition. But every Japanese master craftsman has a certain reverence for tools as worthy friends. Japanese temple carpenters spend much more time sharpening a tool than they spend making the cuts. The spirit of fine Japanese carpentry dictates that the planning and contemplation of a construction project should take much longer than the execution. In some cases, the carpenter lives on the site of a house or temple for at least a year, paying attention to the geography and the light, sharpening his tools visualizing each cut, each piece of joinery, in his head, over and over again.

The concept of hari kuyo indicates an attitude. At one point, when the mass production era was in full swing, it seemed that such attitudes were obsolete. The renewed concern for "excellence" in the business community, however, signals an attempt to reawaken such an attitude on all levels of labour and management. With corporate leaders being in a rush to emulate Japanese business management theories, perhaps someone will pay more attention to the less codifiable aspects of reverence for one's work. What else but a hari kuyo is the Baseball Hall of Fame or the Smithsonian Institution, where historical objects from Babe Ruth's bath to Wright brothers' plane, to our own Ambassador car are consigned to immortal storage?

How about that pair of beloved, well-worn slippers or that flannel shirt you can't bring yourself to throw away, even though it's falling apart? Certain objects of clothing, through faithful and memorable use, earn the right not to be thrown away. In this sense, many an attic is a kind of hari kuyo, filled with objects that are too meaning-laden for garbage cans. The next time somebody catches you in the attic, wading through your memorabilia, and someone asks what you are doing, say, "I'm looking through the hari kuyo."


And so as every language, the Japanese language also is a mystery. Although its system of writing and some of its vocabulary have been taken from Chinese, it is otherwise quite unrelated to any other known language.

There are two ways of rendering speech into writing. One is with an alphabet, such as in the English language or a pictographic-ideographic system as the Chinese use. Since every word requires its own symbol, Chinese script is highly complicated. There are 50000 characters of which only about 4000 are in common uses. However, Chinese writing possesses one great advantage: it can be read everywhere. The ideographs are pronounced differently in different areas but read the same. Another advantage of written Chinese is that people can read the literature of 2500 years ago as easily as yesterday's newspaper, even though the spoken language has changed.

The same is true of Japanese which is a blend of three systems: a pictographic system of 7000 characters called kanji and two separate syllabic alphabets each consisting of 487 characters. One of these alphabets, katakana is used to render words and names that the ancient devisers of kanji failed to foresee. Many of the kanji characters have several pronunciations and meanings - the word ka alone has 214 separate meanings - therefore, a second syllabic alphabet was devised. Called hiragana and written as small symbols above the main text, it tells the reader which of the many possible interpretations of the kanji characters is intended.

Because its traditional writing system, kanji, is based on Chinese syllable-based characters, a new alphabet, called katakana, was created to handle foreign words and place names and concepts that were untranslatable into kanji. Katakana thus became the alphabet of foreign loan words. These words superficially retain their foreignness. In the 20th century the pace of borrowing picked up considerably and Japan has now become one of the most avid borrowers of foreign words. A 1964 study estimated that 10% of Japanese dictionary entries were loan words. Tuttle's New Dictionary of Loanwords in Japanese (1994) includes almost 4,000 of these foreign loan words, which are known as gairaigo.


English words, seem to carry a lot of prestige. This is seen in the enthusiasm of young Japanese for using as many foreign words as possible in their colloquial speech, and in the way these words are used in advertising in Japan. In these borrowings, the Japanese have mastered the art of seizing a foreign loan word and alternatively beating it and aerating it until it sounds something like a native product. These are then adapted to Japanese spelling and pronunciation. Once you get used to the adaptations it may be fairly easy to recognise them (though perhaps not their meaning). Hence, Christmas becomes kurisumasu, and hotdog becomes hottodoggu. Thus sumato (smart) and nyuu ritchi (newly rich) Japanese person seasons his or her conversation with upatodatu expressions like gurama foto (glamour photo), hai-kuraso (high class), kyapitaru gein (capital gain) and rushawa (rush hour). Sebiro, for a suit of clothes, looks convincingly native until you realize that it is a corruption of Savile Row, the London street where the finest suits are made.


Japanese people have a penchant for miniaturization be it cameras, televisions, videos and other gizmos, including words from other languages, in particular English. So, modern girl comes out as moga, word processor becomes wa-pro, mass communications becomes masu-komi and touch and game have been fused to make tatchi geimu, a euphemism for sexual petting. Some other English words the Japanese have made their own are erebata - elevator, nekutai - necktie, bata - butter, sarada - salad, remon - lemon, chizu - cheese, hamu - ham and shyanpu setto - shampoo and set, spa means supermarket; depto means department store; ado means advertisement; nto means note but also means notebook, and misu means miss, but also error, or mistake. One researcher listed seven meanings of the shortening con: conditioner, condenser, control, computer, complex, converter, and concrete.


There was a time when the Japanese had to learn English, now with the change in scenario in various sectors, it is the other way round. And though the Japanese have made many advances in simplifying their language, it still remains a language difficult to learn, and yet must be learnt. Whereas western letters can be represented on computer screens by just 35 dots of light, Japanese characters can require up to 576 dots to be clearly distinguishable.

Translation from Japanese into English and vice versa is not only a big problem but also very expensive (in all senses) considering the various nuances the language carries. Maybe the World War II was inadvertently prolonged when the official government information service rendered the word mokusatsu as 'ignore' when the sense intended was that of "reserving a reply until we have had time to consider the matter more carefully.'

The Japanese language is at once so dense and complex and yet so full of subtlety. It is probably not possible to give accurate simultaneous Japanese-English translations because of the disparity between the functioning of the two languages. For instance, in Japanese it is considered impolite to end a sentence with an unexpected flourish, in English it is a sign of oratorical dexterity. English speakers, in a way are straightforward, blunt if you prefer it that way. The Japanese have a cultural aversion to directness and are often reluctant to give a simple yes or no answer. When a Japanese says "Kangae sasete kudasai" (let me think about it) or "Zensho shimasu" (I will do my best) he actually means "no". This has led many Europeans to go away thinking they had an agreement or understanding that did not actually exist. But then English is also not free from such obfuscations. An airline referred to an 'involuntary conversion of a 747", meaning that the aircraft had crashed, or a London hospital described death as a "negative patient-care outcome."


To conclude, English is increasingly taking the place of a global language, as hinted at in the beginning of this paper. In the city of Sarajevo (Yugoslavia) every door of a hotel carries the message: "Guests should announce the abandonment of their rooms before 12 0'clock, emptying the room at the latest until 14 0'clock, for the use of the room before 5 at the arrival or after the 16 0'clock at the departure, will be billed as one night more." Clear? In the same country they speak five languages. In not one of them does the word stop exist, yet every stop sign in the country says just that. Difficulty level - English or Japanese? Try this. A Japanese eraser announces "Mr. Friendly Quality Eraser. Mr. Friendly Arrived! He always stay near you, and steals in your mind to lead you a good situation. we are ecologically minded. This package will self-destruct in Mother earth." Is that clear again?

Picked up some Japanese? Through English - the global language? There has been much give and take between the two languages, so different from each other.

The horrendous 26 December 2004 was just a brief but a terrible natural and linguistic reminder in the timelessness of time. May the Creator spare us such tsunami reminders now and forever. May the desolation of thousands of children, men and women be turned into a sense of hope and expectation! Hope, which was left in Pandora's box.


Bryson, Bill (1990). The Mother Tongue - English & How It Got That Way. William Morrow and Company, Inc. New York.

Nicholls, Diane. English Loan Words in Japanese, MED Magazine, Issue 6, April 2003.

Rheingold, Howard (1988). There's a word for it... but it's untranslatable!. Severn House Publishers Ltd. London.

India Today, 15 January 2005.

Edutracks, January 2005. Vol 4. No. 5

Ranjan Roy. Times News Network. 26 Dec. 2004.



Vijay K. Sunwani, Ph.D.
Regional Insitute of Education
Bhubaneswar 751022, Orissa
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