For many the Japanese psyche has been an enigma. Descriptions of the inscrutable Japanese have been used ever since the West came in contact. Outwardly there is little sign of emotion on the Japanese face, but inwardly and secretly they are a highly emotional people.
Japanese is rich in its descriptions of this essential distinction. There are words denoting what is outside and inside, public and private, the spoken and authentic versions of the truth. One pair of these terms will be useful. Omote and ura mean the explicit and the implicit, the outer and the inner, the front and the back, or, more broadly, the revealed and the hidden. In old Japanese they meant “face” and “mind.”
Common to the various terms for inside and outside are the values of belonging versus exclusion, revelation versus concealment. What is public has always been the higher social value in Japan. And what is public is associated with order and the group, while what is private is individual and therefore secretive, selfish, and corrupting. One may belong to a group, and that group to a larger group, but the price of belonging is the subjugation of the individual to the group, the private to the public, the authentic to the represented.
It is true that the Japanese reserve a special place for what is concealed. They are dedicated diarists for the simple reason that so much of life must be hidden. One of Japan’s aesthetic traditions, famously displayed in a temple garden in Kyoto, is called mie gakure, the seen and unseen. In the garden, fifteen stones protrude from a sea of combed gravel. But from no vantage point are all of the stones visible; wherever you stand, one is always hidden. In a friend’s office in Japan a foreigner once saw an ink drawing of two peasants pulling a harness. The harness trailed off at the edge of the picture; nothing else was depicted. When he mentioned the drawing his Japanese friend smiled. “Yes,” he said. “Can you see the cart?”
Mie gakure, applied to people, also means “to appear and disappear,” or “to hide oneself.” And there is nothing the Japanese are more accustomed to hiding than themselves, their inner beings. True heart, called kokoro, and ninjo, human feelings, are rarely manifest but all the more precious for it. Emotions are unsullied and innocent, which is why, when the Japanese expose them, they appear childishly sentimental — as, for example, when they are drunk, or singing in a karaoke bar. Emotions are part of the “ura of the ura,” the inside of the inside, and it is because they are withheld that each Japanese lives with a certain sense of crisis in his relations with the outer world.
“What is concealed is the flower,” wrote Ze-ami, the fourteenth-century Noh master. “What is not concealed cannot be the flower.” The thought survives in many contexts and is not irrelevant in this one. It is cited by the psychiatrist Takeo Doi in his explorations of the Japanese personality. Doi was a deeply traditional man. He believed that to live amid elaborate concealments was a normal, healthy thing. And he saw no tension between the security of belonging, which is undeniable among the Japanese, and the individual desire to break free of the group — which, though traditionally unacknowledged, is also undeniable. “The ideal condition of the mind, the condition from which mental health derives,” Doi wrote in 1985, “is one in which we can feel comfortable having secrets.”