Tuesday, August 16, 2022

“Honne to Tatemae”

Sónia Ito, Archaeologist and Lecturer 

My name is Sónia, and I live in a small coastal town near Tokyo, on the 377,900 square kilometres of Japan (Nippon), the third largest economy in the world.

The 126 million Japanese population live in 30% of the inhabitable coastal area of the four main volcanic islands, whose culture we all should become more familiar with this year when the Olympic Games will be hosted in the Empire of the Rising Sun.

To present a little of this unique culture through the eyes of a citizen of Portuguese origin in half a dozen characters is an impossible task.

I’m both Portuguese and Japanese. And proud of it! I was born and I lived 5 years in Angola, I left Portugal for Japan at the age of 13 and I have been living here for 30 years now. Now you can see that I am also Japanese. I will never forget the departure and how I hosted my farewell “funeral” together with my friends. We were still young and inexperienced and we feared we would never see each other again.

Japan is culturally a clear antipode to the West. Upon my arrival in 1982 and ever since then I realise that this is a country where you learn every day. But, thanks to my family, my Portuguese face remained. Anyone with the same path in life as me feels like a coin: two co-dependent faces, which complete each other, without losing their personality.

Or not? Those who move to Japan always remember the adventure of their lives. It’s as if we were part of those Portuguese sail ships that in the 16th century brought the first westerners and brought with them new things they offered the local people such as the first firearms and also words that would remain: pumpkin, socks, bread, castile (sponge cake), confectionery, piripiri, glass, cape, letter, shoulder, “Pin kara Kiri made” with possible translation “running the whole gamut” and many others.

The Portuguese stayed here for fifty years only (from 1640 to 1854 the ports were closed to foreigners), but these roots remain firm and deep. In Japan, being Portuguese is synonymous of respect and unconditional consideration. At least apparently.

But now my career is different, I have a degree in Anthropology and Archaeology, activities that continue to help and fascinate me.

The great cultural wealth of Japanese customs and traditions includes two different coexisting philosophies: Shinto (translation: course of the Gods), derived from animism, and Buddhism, adapted in the 19th century. VI (via Korea and China), but which is the basis of Japanese culture.

Each step, each act, sometimes each gesture, invariably has a double meaning: an obvious and another, more discreet but with a profound raison d’être. In Japanese it is called “Honne To Tatemae” (the true and the apparent intention)”. It is amazing how many years of daily life we need to truly understand what “Honne to Tatemae” is.

I appreciate the enigma of life in Japan and I live with enthusiasm this absence of absolute certainties. It is often said that “Mai Nitchi ga Benkyou” (you learn every day). Utchi and Soto: inside and outside, they tell the difference between the private and the social. Each house, aside from being small, is considered a sacred and private space. We are seldom invited to someone’s home and when that happens it’s a great honour. It means the guest was accepted in the “Utchi” nucleus, goes beyond the extreme reserve and creates a strong and true bond. It is rare for a Japanese person to repeat “I love you”. Once it’s said it’s forever, it’s decisive, it’s true and for life.

Even as regards the act of taking off your shoes, the detail is fantastic. Before entering a house, some restaurants and, of course, temples and pagodas we don’t take what is impure inside. In addition to being highly hygienic, it’s a symbol of respect, veneration for what is considered sacred. I have read, and people say that here too that it was the same in the West and that the first thing that God said to Moses is: “take off your shoes and enter sacred ground”.

And so that you may know a bit more of Japan before booking your trip to visit this country, which is also my country, leave you the description of a divine New Year tradition. Days before the end of the year, preparations begin. Home, companies, schools, everything that is “inside” (Utchi), goes through the great year-end cleanings: floors, windows, walls, curtains, furniture, the impurities of the old year are cleaned up for the new power to “enter” neutral loaded with happiness. Cleaning (in Japan there is no maid) ends on the 30th, leaving it for the last day of the year is not lucky. Each family cooks Osetchi Ryori, a variety of more than 20 snacks with 2000 years of tradition. Each with its special meaning; sweet beans: wisdom; sweet chestnuts: fortune; gambas: longevity. Health, prosperity, happiness, luck, peace, harmony correspond to other foods.

The table is set for the first three days of the year, ready for the celebration and to snack with the visiting family. And this year, without the usual visits, the value and message of this beautiful tradition is even bigger.

I hope that during the Olympic Games you will be able to visit us freely and I finish this text wishing everyone a Happy Year.

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