Saigo’s silence

Saigo’s silence

The outer calm, which so impresses visitors to Japan, is part of an external gloss, which may be no deeper than a thin layer. When we live in Japan with Japanese people, we discover how paper-thin it often is. Then some foreigners become disillusioned. In their first few weeks, they see only the outside—the ceremonial order and the happy matsuri (festival). Later, after having lived some time in Japan, they find out what happens after the matsuri is over. It can be something quite different: confusion and turmoil, bitter hatreds and infighting and even worse.

But suppose they stay still longer and are able to go much deeper into the Japanese spirit. Usually they can only do this through real skill in one of the traditional Japanese arts. (In the same way, foreigners can make real English friends by becoming skilful at a traditional English sport like golf. But they must be really good.) Through Budo especially, a foreigner can come into touch with a very deep calm, much deeper than the superficial dignity of ceremonies or social politeness. When we first find out about this level, it is a great surprise to us.

When I was in Japan in 1939, 1 was introduced to an old man who, when he was young, had been a friend of another old man, who when young had been a friend of Saigo Takamori. The old Japanese told me that even at the height of fame, Saigo lived a very simple life. Sometimes someone would come and ask to sit with Saigo. The man would be admitted to the room where Saigo was. But neither Saigo nor the visitor would say a word. After about 15 minutes, the visitor would bow deeply and go, still without a word being spoken. ‘It is known that if we come here and sit with Great Saigo for a few minutes, all the difficulties and indecisions in our heart will be solved’, he added. ‘We come here feeling anxious, and we go away calm and resolute’.

When I heard this, I found it almost incredible. I could not think of any similar case in Western history, except for a few saints. And even they generally said a word or two: blessings or something like that. The idea of just coming, sitting in silence and then going seems very strange to us. Of course, to most Japanese today, it would be a strange behaviour, but most of them have a vague understanding of it.

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