I read a book on Japanese proverbs this past week to get some inspiration and more insight into Japanese culture for the novel I’m working on. It’s called Even Monkeys Fall From Trees, which is, of course, one of the proverbs.
Many of them have easy parallels with Western proverbs, such as one favorite of mine, which was, “The child of a frog is a frog.” This clearly has the same meaning as, “Like father, like son,” but is just so much more colorful and visually entertaining.
The one I liked the most was, “Even a one-inch insect has a half-inch soul.”
That spoke to me so much about Buddhist ideals and the respect of all life, even the tiniest of insects. It also captures the Shinto philosophy that everything has a soul, even plants, rocks and waterfalls. These are concepts that many Westerners with their hierarchical Christian sense of the world can’t understand. God is on top, and then there are humans, who possess souls, and then there is everything else, which apparently only exists for our enjoyment.
And that’s probably why there is no satisfying equivalent in Western culture. The idea that nothing is more important than anything else is a pretty baffling concept for most of us Occidentals.
The back of the book has a list of English versions for each of the Japanese proverbs, but by the author’s own admission, some of them do not translate well and have no clear-cut equivalent. I found this to be true of many of them, but probably mostly so with, “Even a one-inch insect has a half-inch soul.”
What the list gives is “Everything has its place.” While I can see a distant similarity, this concept really cheapens the meaning of the Japanese proverb. It’s so utilitarian and empty. Well, this goes there. And that goes over there. It’s all very well-ordered and satisfying to anyone with OCD.
No. Everything has a soul.
That’s infinitely more profound.
So, I will be keeping this in mind as I continue writing and editing my book-to-be. Although Japan has been very Westernized in some senses, there is still that underlying history and spirituality that is very deeply ingrained.
In the same way that Americans can’t seem to get over their Puritan tendencies, whether they know its origins or not, I think that even the most rebellious of Japanese youth must have an undercurrent of this spirit, this intrinsic honor of all things, that will push him or her in one direction or the other.
Even though my story isn’t directly about any of this, I hope that it will shine through on some level. Surely, characters dealing with a head-severing maniac will have to reflect on life and death at some point, right?
Until next week… May you be surrounded by happy souls, be they half-inch or otherwise.