On a winter Friday in the mountains of southern Japan, a small school takes an afternoon to gather in the lunchroom. Inverted L-shaped stations of newspaper are laid all over the floor with only narrow paths between, pairs of school shoes neatly arranged along the way. About 45 students kneel on the newspaper, large white sheets in front of them and brush in hand; some are hesitant as they dip their brushes into wells of ink, twisting to coat the hairs thoroughly, then touch the brush to paper. It seems all unease is left behind when they begin to write, bold strokes sweeping across their pages, but they will practice several times before they’re satisfied with their work. To me, even the mistakes look like masterpieces.
Every January, my school holds a “first writing” competition (書き初め大会) for the 5th through 9th graders. From my perspective it just seems like calligraphy, but from the Japanese teacher’s presentation I can infer it’s more like a reflection of traditional high society. Starting in the Heian Period (794-1185) and continuing even today, nobles would gather on January 2nd to hold “first writing parties,” showing off their yearly goals, their composition skills, and their handwriting. …So, calligraphy…? They don’t call it calligraphy, but whatever it is I always find that my kids impress me with how good they are at it. For the competition this year, instead of picking their own writing material the students were given a list of phrases to choose from, all of them yojijukugo (四字熟語), or four-character combination words. Some of these sayings are idiomatic, others proverbial, others quite literal, but all of them are formal literary expressions composed of four kanji, which is what gives them their name (four-letter-mature/skillful-word). An example we have an equivalent to in English would be issekinichou (一石二鳥), “two birds one stone”; others that are easy to translate include ichinichiippo (一日一歩), “one step each day (steady progress),” or akuin’akka (悪因悪果), “sow evil, reap evil (karma).” Not all yojijukugo are so simple understand in other languages, but many are related to universal truths or to ways of living and understanding the world.
I participated in this writing competition with my students, and as such I too had to choose a yojijukugo to write. From those on the list there weren’t many I had heard before, some I didn’t care much for the meaning…and then I saw a phrase I had studied in college: ichi-go ichi-e (一期一会). I hadn’t thought about ichi-go ichi-e in quite some time; in comparison, I think a lot more about two of its cousin phrases, mono-no-aware (物の哀れ) and wabi-sabi (わびさび), but seeing it there reminded me of how much it resonated with me. Like the other two, this idea comes from Zen Buddhism and is intertwined with the cultural roots of Japan; it specifically plays a role in traditional tea ceremony, though its influence spreads far beyond.
So what does ichi-go ichi-e mean?
Well, in a word, you could say it’s Japanese YOLO. Sort of. The literal translation of ichi-go ichi-e is “one life, one meeting,” and it’s used to express the fact that every event, particularly each gathering of people, is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, the exact same of which will never happen again. This is where it relates to tea ceremony; even if the tea master and customers remain the same time after time, always meeting in the same room of the same teahouse, the conversations will never be the same as in that one moment. The situation of each person, too, will never be the same; the experience in the teahouse may create change in each life that could affect how they act or converse the next time. For these reasons, and also because there always comes a time when a meeting is the last, ichi-go ichi-e is a reminder to cherish each moment in one’s life as unique, because it is the only one you will ever have.
Ah yes, Buddhist impermanence at its finest.
Transience is a huge theme in Zen Buddhism as a whole; if you have been reading this blog for a while you’ve heard me talk about mono-no-aware, which is the concept of things being beautiful because they are temporary. Roughly translated it can mean “the sadness of things” or “the pathos of things.” While I believe that there are things that can be beautiful in their immortality, I do like how Buddhism shows that special appreciation to things that are not—if the cherry blossoms were in bloom year-round in Japan I’m sure we’d all tire of them eventually, if there was no winter we may never appreciate the spring, if you don’t know sadness you may never understand happiness, if you always have something, you’ll never know what you had until it’s gone…that kind of concept is something I can get behind. Since I’ve been living abroad such a sentiment has only increased, as it’s easier to recognize how beautiful the presence of family and friends can be when you only have a narrow window to see them each year or two. Family is wonderful because it will always be family, but time with family is even more wonderful when you value every moment of it.
I could go on and on about mono-no-aware, but as I’ve already explained it thoroughly I suppose I should move to the third of the phrases I mentioned: wabi-sabi. Wabi-sabi might be my favorite of these ideas even over mono-no-aware, hence why it’s in the name of my blog. Wabi-sabi, literally “austerity and loneliness,” is a Japanese aesthetic principle that means, as best I can summarize, “finding the beauty in the simple, the broken, and the ephemeral.” The refined style of wabi-sabi may be appreciating a wooden chair, not because it’s made with any embellishments or fancy twirls, but because it’s skillfully carved into an unpretentious but practical form. Or perhaps wabi-sabi can be seen in a perfectly manicured Japanese garden, only made of rocks and small pine shrubs but well-kept and evenly balanced. Perhaps my favorite example of wabi-sabi is on full display in the Japanese art of kintsugi (金継ぎ), or “golden repair.” This is a method of mending broken pottery and glassware by sealing the seams with gold to make the new piece even more beautiful and sturdy than the original, despite its flaws. Or perhaps because of them. I adore this idea, that beauty is not reliant on perfection. Of course, an unbroken piece of pottery is magnificent to behold, and its wholeness certainly doesn’t detract from that. But to think beauty can be found in imperfection gives me comfort—perhaps not all the world must be perfect for us to see and understand its inherent splendor. Where people are concerned, maybe it is because of our faults and fractures that we have become more lovely; just as diamonds are created under unbearable pressure and heat, to be broken may mean to emerge stronger and more glorious. Technically this is me interpreting wabi-sabi a little too far, as it more applies to interior décor than to one’s innermost being, but I like the sentiment regardless. Hence why I put it in my blog title: wabi-sabi is something Japan taught me that now feels like a part of myself, just as Japan has challenged me to grow in ways I never could have imagined.
But back to writing competitions and ichi-go ichi-e. While ichi-go ichi-e hasn’t always struck me enough to be featured in my blog name, seeing it on my list of competition options made me remember how much I appreciated it, too. In a way I try to live by such a concept; in my life I want to cherish every opportunity I am given, if only because each second is a chance I may only have once. I want to live a life I can be proud of—a life where I can look back and feel that I made the most out of each adventure I seized. Recently I came across the quote by Mark Twain, “Let us live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry,” and while I don’t believe life is over when we die I think that those can be wonderful words to inspire. Just as it’s important to remember the irreplaceability of each time in our lives, I have found it fulfilling to seek out those experiences where that will be worth treasuring. That will look different for everyone, but to live a life without feeling like you lived it well, is that not as regretful as failing to appreciate life itself while you had it? These are the kinds of things I thought about when I saw those four simple characters on the handwriting competition handout, which may say something about either how little work I had to do that day or how much my brain reads into things.
Jokes aside, I’m glad that something so simple jogged my memory. I ended up choosing ichi-go ichi-e for the competition—which also had the unintended but appreciated effect of making two of my four characters pretty simple—and while I didn’t do a great job at writing with a brush I hope that some of my students, seeing past my childlike scrawl, realized how important its meaning is. After all, me being placed in this school in this city in this prefecture on this Japanese island, that was all one chance out of thousands, right? My meeting these kids day after day is the lifeblood of ichi-go ichi-e, and I hope they treasure our time together as much as I do. One day, I won’t be their teacher anymore. We will have our last class, last lunch, last event, last conversation, and as sad as that is it makes me value all the more the time we have. One life, one meeting. We can only hope that from these moments we will become better people for the time we have yet to live.