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Traditional thinking of Japanese about happiness

Updated on June 10, 2014
happiness
happiness | Source

The Japanese rarely use the word “happiness”

The Japanese rarely use the word “happiness”. Especially, in the daily conversation, if a person uses an expression like “I am happy”, he sounds either insipid or affected. Although they write in letters phrases such as “I shall be very happy”, or “I deem it a favor”, these words are formal after all. No matter how you interpret them, they never convey true feelings. It seems that feelings about happiness in life are for some reason diluted among the Japanese. The reason that the word “happiness” is not used daily is not only because the Japanese masses are not blessed with happiness in daily life but because they have cultivated a habit of hesitation toward happiness.


The ideas about the causes of the lack of a feeling of happiness that it is dangerous to be happy, that joy is transient, and that it is a virtue to bear unhappiness have been emphasized for centuries. Three were many books and scholars wrote about Japanese way of thinking around feeling of happiness in the Tokugawa period.

happiness
happiness | Source

One of the most dominant thinking in that period was “Near Satisfaction is unsatisfactory but complete satisfaction is hazardous”. This is expressed in many literary works such as “An Account of My Hut” of Kamo no Chōmmei, “Essays in Idleness” of Priest Kenkō, “treatise on five virtues” of Hayashi Razan and in the “Book of changes” etc... Chōmmei and Kenkō, two famous scholars in that time, were influenced by the teaching of Lao-tze and Chung-tze and Buddhism. The philosophy of Lao-tze and Chung-tze, self-contentment derived from minimum desire, are the source of this proverb. Lao-tze’s words, “he who knows his lot is not humiliated. He who knows where to stop does not endanger himself. He will thus live longer.”

Kenkō professes that since the present life is temporary and transient, it is not worth clinging to, even in a mansion, “well, indeed, none can live forever, and a single glance tells me that all this will pass away like a puff of smoke.” Because “from all this we may learn how vain it is to make plans for the unknown future,” we know that both our present life and our fame among posterity is all in vain and not worth seeking after.

In a text of Shingaku contains the sentences “you must be aware that the coming of great happiness is the beginning of great misfortune” or “Ease is the beginning of sorrow”, “Ease is the beginning of pain”. This attitude seems to be a denial of happiness.

One more the dominant thinking was “Nothing can be carried with you into death”. It is derived from the notion of impermanency salient in Buddhism, long the underlying philosophy of Japanese life. The notion of impermanency was highly esteemed among warriors as the basis for a disregard for death and restraint from avarice. It means that the warriors would be very ready to die without regret too much.

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Everyday Life in Japan

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    • Anne Harrison profile image

      Anne Harrison 3 years ago from Australia

      A really interesting hub - thank you for sharing