How to Think of Life. As Something Cyclical or Linear?
A Happy and Prosperous New Year to all our readers! It would be nice if the economic situation began to pick up this year for Canadian society in general and for us in the Nikkei/Ijusha community in particular. I wonder if the Winter Olympic Games being held here next month will help trigger a resurgence of the local economy. At a time when cross-border tourism has slowed down around the globe, there is no room for optimism. In my hatsuyume (“first dream of the year”), Canadian and Japanese athletes perform spectacularly on the snowy slopes and on ice to garner gold and silver medals, and the residual “Olympics effect” activates the tourism, hotel, food and beverage, retail and other sectors to give us residents of the world’s favourite environmentally-friendly urban area a boost . . .
Christmas and O-shogatsu, festivities where we pray for the peace and happiness for our family and the world, have just passed. These events are cyclical. So are the winter and summer solstices and all things related to the four seasons, as the earth goes around the sun. As an individual human being, however, one feels the passage of time, noticing how much bigger one’s children have grown compared to a few Christmases ago, or how tall a cherry tree in one’s garden has grown, or even “how much hair I’ve lost” looking at one’s old photos—things that can be measured objectively. The passage of time from the year 19 whatever to January 2010 feels linear.
In Europe, people’s feel for, and attitudes toward, punctuality are different between the north and south. In Germany or Scandinavia, if one is invited to someone’s home for dinner at 7pm, the proper etiquette is to knock on his or her front door at 7pm. If they are visiting for the first time, many people would go a little early to check the location, and then kill time strolling around the neighborhood until the time of appointment.
But in countries like Italy and Greece, nobody seems to mind if one is half an hour late to a social appointment. Many years ago, I lived in Italy and have made return visits since, while I’ve been to Finland and Denmark several times, and I have visited Germany and Greece too. Incidentally, the UK, where I’ve also lived, felt to be somewhere in between (One can be late by up to 15 minutes?) and maybe it’s similar in North America in general.
There is one popular belief that attributes the difference in time sensitivity between northern and southern Europe to peoples who sense time linearly and those who sense time cyclically. In the north, people have always tended to conceive of time linearly, so that a social appointment at, say, “7pm on January 12th, 2010” means there is but one moment in time for that social appointment. So if one missed it, it’ll never come back. But in the south, time is felt to be more cyclical, so “if a guest misses a dinner appointment, one can arrange another dinner for tomorrow.” With everyone being magnanimous with time, being late by half an hour means little.
In the cities and towns of mediaeval Europe, people used to tell time by the ringing of church bells, until a new invention called the pocket watch enabled each individual to manage time on his own. As exemplified by the Swiss, who perfected that technology, efficiency and accurate time-keeping are the order of the day in the north. In the sun-drenched south, I came across the traditional way of telling time while visiting Lecce, an ancient city near the “heel” of the Italy’s boot-like shape. People used to look at the shadow of a giant obelisk standing in the middle of the main plaza, and tell time by on which street corner the shadow’s tip fell on, I was told. The ethos of the city dating back to pre-Roman Greek times was such that the people were still using the obelisk as a giant sun dial.
It is well-established that people living toward the equator are more relaxed than those living to the north. Generally speaking, people in urban areas of advanced industrialized nations live lives controlled by the clock, so they are naturally sensitive to the hours and minutes. And these countries are mostly in the northern hemisphere.
Tairikuteki (literally, continental) refers to the expansive ethos of people living in wide-open spaces as seen from people living in an island nation. One of the dictionary definitions of tairikuteki is “a take-it-easy (nonbiri) disposition.” Generally fastidious and steeped in a sense of collective responsibility, the Japanese, along with Germans, have a reputation for being punctual (e.g. “We run the most punctual trains in the world.”). So when Japanese people go to countries further south, from the middle east to south Asia, South America, Southeast Asia and even Chinese provinces inland, they would feel that “the local are lax about time.”
In the summer of 1981 I moved to Singapore from Tokyo to work as a journalist, hired by a new English-language daily that was starting up. One day, we reporters had to attend an important briefing by a government agency in the afternoon. Two younger colleagues and I decided to go to a famous Chinese seafood restaurant nearby for lunch beforehand. Having just arrived in the tropical city state, I assumed that my colleagues, who were locals and moreover journalists by profession, would take into account the amount of time needed to walk over to the meeting. But by the time we finished eating, settled the bill and walked over, perspiring heavily, to that office, alas, we were late. “Reporters arriving late for an appointment? That’s not good.” The information officer’s sneer was enough to make me break out in sweat all over again in front of my other colleagues.
Because of my assumption that “they as locals would know,” I lost a lot of face as I was just starting out in my new job. Although that was almost 30 years ago, I still remember my colleagues’ faces and names. How risky it is to assume that “such-and-such should be so” and not check! I learned my lesson in Singapore and tried to be as careful as possible thereafter. (But I have not been able to completely avoid mistakes arising from “assumptions” even after we moved to Canada 12 years ago.)
Differences in people’s sense of time exist within Japan as well. Some time ago, I wrote here about Hokkaido being like the “Canada of Japan” in terms of its people’s culture and sentiments. What is today Okinawa Prefecture and used to be Ryukyu Islands is also a valuable entity for today’s Japan. There are a series of websites featuring Japan’s provincial peoples making fun of their own cultures in good jest, including one called “Okinawa-jin Check.” Among the dozens of points cited like “We think it’s perfectly normal to eat rice topped with butter,” one says “We think it odd to get upset about a small thing like tardiness” and “If we have an appointment at 10 o’clock, we think it’s normal to leave home at 10 o’clock .” This is of course but one aspect of their native culture, but the pride of a people who were once an independent nation is also discernable.
The Okinawan people might feel the “mainlanders” to the north restless and hasty, as sense of time differs somewhat even between the peoples of Tokyo and Osaka. The Osaka people seem to be in more of a hurry. There was a study done many years comparing the average walking speeds of people in major central stations in Tokyo and Osaka, and the latter were faster according to the data. All in all, we human beings must be quite sensitive to time one way or the other.
Supposing 40 years of age to be around the half way point in one’s life, many older readers may have the experience of being engaged in something professionally or in living conditions that feels like a repeat of something they were doing decades ago. Do we not feel like some big cycle is at work? I used to make a living as a translator/interpreter back in Tokyo in the late 1970s . . . and have once again started doing more translations and interpreting since we came to Vancouver 12 years ago. I was quite keen on the guitar when I was a student but for many years thereafter, I barely kept it up, playing only when I felt like it. But since coming to Canada, thanks to the encouragement and enthusiasm of new friends, I’ve been able to practice much more and even play in front of audiences.
I also feel cycles in human relations. A few years ago, I was able to re-connect with a good friend from high school from over 40 years ago. It turned out he was living only blocks away from us right here in Vancouver. I can only thank the “turn of events” that lets me enjoy his warm personality again after all these years.
Things one cannot foresee and things that are regular, they both seem to come in cycles, I believe. Things that can be quantitatively measured, from one’s income to physical strength to one’s metabolic rate inevitably decline linearly. Such is life. Having accepted that, why not continue to reach for seemingly attainable possibilities? That would be my “reminder” for the new year 2010.
The cyclical spiral might be going around in a long and wide orbit, but the spiral ascends little by little…that’s how I see it. The first time this spiral idea “flashed” in my mind decades ago, I thought I’d made a great discovery, and have since mentioned it to others more than a few times.
Just a few weeks ago, my favorite essayist Shegesato Itoi wrote about the very same thing on his daily website Hobo Nikkan Itoi Shimbun and a few days later, my teenaged daughter suddenly started talking about “the spiral.” In short, it must be something everyone thinks about more or less.
I am rambling already as the new year starts. I am however resolved to ganbaru with you all this year with a renewed spirit of challenge. I hope you will continue to bear with me.