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The Harmony Of Japanese People With Secondary Nature

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There have long been debate on the belief of Japanese people in harmony with nature. On one hand, this belief is popular in all periods in Japan history, which can be traced back to the Heian period. As Ki no Tsurayuki puts in his preface to the Kokinshu, he sees the essence of Japanese poetry to be rooted from the connection of human heart with nature (Callahan, lecture slides on Sep. 16). The same belief can also be found popular even in the modern period.

Kawabata Yasunari, in his speech after awarded the Nobel Prize, also emphasize the Japanese tradition of beauty in those “myriad manifestations of nature” (Kawabata, 1968, p3). However, it is also noticeable that Japanese people are also, at the same time, trying to change the nature instead of simply obeying and describing it. In the Japanese tradition, cucumber is a preferred food for summer, as it can help people cool down from the hot temperature. But this effort is effectively counteracting the hot weather in Japan. As Haruo Shirane points out in his book

Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature, and the Arts, such “harmony” with nature is not a relation with the wild and primitive nature, rather, it is a harmony with the “secondary nature” (Shirane, 2012, p18). Secondary nature, as Shirane defines, is a re-created nature, often in the form of painting, poetry, and gardening. Shirane then argues for this point in three ways: first, such harmony with nature is essentially an idea mostly shared by aristocratic classes in cities; second, the waka poetry, which is a popular form to express such closeness to nature, has some obvious divergence from the facts about the environment in Japan; third, a specific example of secondary nature in rural regions – satoyama, was examined to show the harmony in the traditional belief relies more on the connection with this secondary nature. Shirane’s argument is true, and the term secondary nature has different interpretation under different conditions. Nature is just a base for Japanese people to build their society and philosophy on, through the creation of “secondary nature”, because the connection with nature in rural regions is essentially a reliance on the exploitation of natural resources, and the one in cities shows an emphasis on order in the Japanese philosophy. In any case, the harmony with nature is mostly a belief connected to the secondary nature, not one with the primitive, untamed nature.

Japan is an island country. This limits the resources available to it. There are not many indigenous fruit and vegetable growing on the Japan islands. Additionally, there are frequency typhoons and earthquakes attacking Japan, which makes the cultivation of corps more difficult. Under that circumstance, it is reasonable that Japan would largely rely on nature and thus form a belief about nature in times before the industrialization. According to archeological evidence, the Shinto religion formed in the Yayoi period, and it is believed that its invention is largely connected to the cultivation of rice (Earhart, 2014, p35). Compared to China, Egypt, Europe, or any other ancient civilization, Japan is amongst the ones with the most limited natural resources. Thus, the existence of satoyama is not a coincidence. Satoyama is paradigm of farming villages, which depends on cultivation of rice, but at the same time harvesting surrounding woods for fuel, fertilizer, or construction material (Shirane, 2012, p15). All of these activities are essentially trying to modify the nature environment for economic purpose.

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The result is creating an environment which is more suitable for human living, and this is believed to be the expression of “harmony with secondary nature” under a countryside background. The term “secondary nature”, when put under a rural region situation, is simply a dependence on the exploitation of natural resources for development of the community. Also, in historical chronicles and setsuwa collections, the focus animals of the work are mainly concentrating on animals hunted for food or used in farming, such as dogs, sheep, cows etc. (Shirane, 2012, p16). All these animals are chosen to reflect the countryside lifestyle. It is not human that is following and obeying the laws of the primitive nature. Rather, it is human deciding what part of nature is going to be connected with them. Human hold the dominating role in this relation with nature, capable of turning primary nature into secondary nature. Thus, the harmony with nature, from a social and economic perspective, is truly a harmony with the secondary nature, and nature, in this case, is utilized by human for the development of the society.

Another important way to investigate the term “secondary nature” is through the literature and art works in cities, especially waka poems. The climate in Japan is not as ideal as it is depicted in waka poems in the Heian period. Though spring and autumn are mild and comfortable, but they are relatively short compared to the other two seasons (Shirane, 2012, p11). The summer is hot for most time, and for other time, it rains a lot. The winter is also harsh.

Japan is probably one of the countries that suffer the most snow during a year. The widely believed “harmony” is obviously not one that is directly connected to the primary and indiscriminate nature. Instead, as Shirane puts, it is not focusing on presenting what nature is, but on what nature is expected to be (Shirane, 2012, p81). In other words, the cultural and literature value of nature is viewed to be of higher importance than nature itself. According to Fujiwara no Shunzei, one cannot recognize the beauty of the scene without Japanese poetry (Shirane, 2012, p7). There is a regular fashion to interpret all kinds of seasonal scenes. For example, cherry blossom would represent a sense of evanescence. This fashion is so prevalent that the object in most poems can directly tell what kind of feeling the author is trying to express.

Such fashion is an expression of the emphasis on order and rules in the Japanese culture. From the aristocratic literature in the Heian period, to the stratified society in the Confucianism ideas in the Edo period, the society in Japan has long been closely related to the idea of stratification, and thus, orders and rules. Thus, in the aristocratic literature works, the secondary nature is a nature that is viewed, interpreted, and tamed in a way that follows the philosophy of ordering and rules in the Japanese culture. Shirane’s argument that the harmony of Japanese people with secondary nature is true, and under the background of aristocratic class literature works, secondary nature is a media for Japanese people to express their ideology through literature and arts.

In Haruo Shirane’s book Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature, and the Arts, he points out that the “harmony” of Japanese people with nature is truly one that is connected to the “secondary nature”, as oppose to the primary nature. The term “secondary nature” should be interpreted in two different ways. One is in the rural region, where people’s focus is mainly on economic and social development, “secondary nature” is simply an exploitation of the nature resource. The other is in urban region, where the aristocracies are focusing more on literature and philosophy, the term should be viewed as a nature that is viewed and adapted to the ordering and rules of the Japanese philosophy. In any case, nature is a base that the Japanese society is built on, and the product is the so-called “secondary nature”.

Reference

  1. Shirane, H. (2012). Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature, and the Arts. Columbia University Press.
  2. Kawabata, Y. (1968). Japan, the Beautiful and Myself. Nobel Lecture.
  3. Callahan, C. (2019). Lecture Slides.

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