Dressing Up to Look Plain

A few days ago, I took part in a flower arrangement festival 勉強会 (benkyoukai) once again. In Japanese tradition, practices such as, the Tea Ceremony, or the Ikebana (the local term for flower arrangement), refer to formal sessions during which advanced practitioners showcase their craft under the guidance of their school’s leader.

A benkyoukai differs from a normal lesson in several ways. For one, it is typically much harder and often involves a time limit as well as other formal constraints. If a lesson with one’s master is focused strictly on learning, a benkyoukai is closer to an examination.

Closer, yet not exactly the same, a benkyoukai is wider than your garden variety exam in that it tests not only the practitioner’s skill, but also, and perhaps more fundamentally, the whole of his or her persona.

This is particularly apparent in the way the exams focus on manners. As you may know, good manners are integral to Japanese society in general, but during a benkyoukai, things jump to a whole new level. To uphold the spirit of elegant vulgarity of this blog, I would even say that they get totally anal about it.

But don’t worry, I won’t bore you to death with detailed descriptions of all the rules of the event. As any writer should, I have a fucking angle. What the hell is that, you ask? An angle is the way writers like myself put a hopefully interesting spin on an otherwise common subject. Here, mine will simply be to compare what manners mean to the Japanese to what they mean (or used to at least) to us Westerners.

Mutual and hierarchical forms of respect

As I wore my freshly dry-cleaned, pale blue Canali dress-shirt and a pair of Briglia 1949 matching silky chinos on the morning of the benkyoukai, I remembered purchasing them after my mistress’ dress-code recommendations.

She had told me, with great emphasis, how benkyoukai clothes should be of the highest quality – hence the 300 dollars Italian made shirt – but also as muted as possible. This mirage of false simplicity also exists in the world of Tea, where the cups used for practice often look old and full of imperfections, but are, in fact, crafted by the most skilled pottery masters in the country, and cost small fortunes.

Now, why the fuck would people want to own pricey clothing and crockery and not let the world know how precious they are? The superficial answer is obvious enough: to achieve a more distinguished form of luxury. One that is, but doesn’t show.

Also, in the setting of a benkyoukai, it is expected of every attending member to be erudite enough to appreciate the innate value of things and not their logos, branding, or other such absurdities. I mean, seriously, what kind of Tea Master wouldn’t know the difference between industrial and handmade pottery?

However, this expectation also speaks volumes of one of the key tenets of Japanese culture: the notion of respect. Of course, respect in itself isn’t a uniquely Japanese trademark in manners, but its connotation completely differs from what the term generally implies in the West.

As opposed to respect being a mutual quality, in Japanese culture, respect is highly hierarchical in nature. In the West, one might define this notion as something one has to give in order to receive. In other words, respect is a way of establishing a channel between two or more people, so that communication between them may be pleasant.

The focus in Japan, however, is totally different. Respect exists not so much as a way to establish a link between you and others, but mainly as a way to emphasize the social rank of others in relation to yours.

Getting back to my Italian shirt example (yes, I do love Canali, and yes, I do recommend their merchandise to one and all), the reason it should be as expensive as possible is to express the student’s deference to the Ikebana school leaders and other senior members present at the benkyoukai. However, the reason it should also be completely inconspicuous is because of the wearer’s duty to not only elevate others, but to simultaneously relegate themselves to their proper social position.

Therefore, while harmony is the main goal of respect in the West, it is merely its byproduct in Japanese culture. Respect, in Japan, comprises a twofold mechanism aimed at elevating the status of others while relegating your own just enough to make you fit in the hierarchy of the society. That’s the premise, at least.

For an outside observer, the whole business may seem paradoxical, if not completely inefficient or even stupid. How the fuck can proper social hierarchy ever be achieved if everyone only keeps relegating themselves while also elevating others?

In reality, social hierarchy isn’t really the point at all. This apparent paradox is easily explained by the incredible practicality of Japanese methods. Manners in the West are literal and idealistic, which means that they do not consider human nature at all. Much like the fucking Ten Commandments of the Bible, which are only guidelines to be emulated as best as one can, and are not strict, and absolute rules.

The Japanese have a much cleverer approach to exalt good conduct. Knowing how people naturally tend to show off, and all-too-soon forget lofty principles, they have established this manners double pinch I was talking about: elevate others, relegate yourself.

Such a conception ensnares the mind more than any abstract talk of harmony, or social equality through good manners ever could. It also subtly shifts the focus of manners from being just a way to connect oneself to others to being a way to fit oneself into the larger web of society, thus also somewhat negating the self.

Social hierarchy, although theoretically central, is also used as an excuse in Japanese culture to wean people away from their naturally individualistic tendencies. In a way, it tricks them into forgetting their own bullshit.

On the contrary, Western etiquette appeals only to people’s reason. This is probably why it has eroded in our age: people simply forgot the reason over time. And, they never got past their own bullshit in the first place anyway.

So, remember that Japanese people aren’t more considerate than us because of grand principles or better discipline, but only because they tricked themselves into it more effectively.

I realized this truth with sparkling clarity as I was bending the branches of my own arrangement, watching my teacher do the same with a strange and mysterious smile on her face. Like with flower arrangement, life is all about tricks, hacks, fixes, and deception.

Life is a fucking mess, and forever more it needs to be sorted.

So, leave principles and ideologies to assholes, angels, and gods, and get busy with the tweaking.