By Pico Iyer, from A Beginner’s Guide to Japan, out this month from Knopf. Iyer, a British-American essayist and novelist, has lived in Nara, Japan, since 1992.
Japan is the Land of Must, I decided as soon as I set foot in Tokyo, as surely as America is the Land of Can. It’s the difference between an arranged marriage, a practical affair in which, it’s hoped, affection can grow and grow, and an affair of the heart, in which, too often, passions burn wildly and then peter out.
“Nothing sets you (or at least me) free creatively,” says the untamed film director and Monty Pythonite, Terry Gilliam, “like having a set of limitations to explore.”
Even modest restaurants in Japan often present you with a prix fixe menu. Freedom doesn’t mean an abundance of choice so much as liberation from the burden of too much choice.
At a very elegant restaurant in Kyoto, there are only five set menus on offer, ranging in price from $125 to $300 each. Every person in a party of five must choose the same set, so each has to learn, as Tolstoy had it, how “freedom consists in my not having made the laws.”
As soon as prostitution was banned in postwar Japan, the number of prostitutes (said to be roughly eighty thousand in Tokyo alone) rose sharply.
It took me a long time, after meeting my wife, to see that the kindest and most thoughtful thing to do in many situations was not to ask her where she wanted to eat or go. To take the decision myself was to free her from both the burden of choice and the responsibility that follows (knowing that, when it came to what to wear or what to eat at home, she’d extend the same kindness by making the decisions for me).
“To know that you are a sparrow and not a swan; or, on the contrary, a swan and not a sparrow . . . gives a great security, stability and quality of harmony and peace to the psyche,” Joseph Campbell wrote in Kyoto in 1955, drafting a convocation address for his students back at Sarah Lawrence.
If you’re always wondering what you will become, he went on, “you will soon become so profoundly implicated in your own psychological agony that you will have little time or energy for anything else, and certainly no sense whatsoever of the bliss and wonder of being alive.”
In Japan a son traditionally follows his father into his profession, even if that’s the profession of monk or musician. Rather than choosing what he’ll be good at, he aims to be good at what’s chosen for him.
“We only escape limitation,” wrote Simone Weil, “by rising up toward unity or going down toward the limitless.”
Soon after I came to know her, my wife-to-be said, “I can’t change you, so I have to change myself, since you’re in many ways not so easy.” I was so disarmed by this spirit of accommodation that I tried to do the same with her, changing myself to adapt to everything in her that was difficult. Thus the history of Japan.