At the edge of the horizon

At the edge of the horizon
At the edge of Japan

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Nuchi du Takara

I've been thinking about life lately, specifically what it means to be alive.  I've been reading essays by Montaigne and poems by Mary Oliver, among others.  I also started reading a book on Okinawan literature and performance given to me by a teacher at my school.  In it there is a large amount of work on a concept called "Nuchi du Takara."   Have you ever heard of the phrase, "Nuchi du Takara?"  It's an Okinawan phrase that means "life is a treasure."  The meaning of this phrase can be interpreted more aptly in the idea of life itself being precious, fleeting, and limited.  Recently, one of my co-workers mentioned the phrase in relation to the Okinawan philosophy of peace.  She said that the tragically ironic thing regarding Okinawa is that its people are, at heart, a peaceful group that were never warlike and never embraced a warrior mentality.  Instead, they cultivated an agrarian lifestyle on a small island in the middle of the Pacific ocean; a lifestyle that enabled their people to achieve long life spans and close-knit communities.  These communities supported each other despite overwhelming poverty and subservience to other cultures.  Because of this pacifist philosophy though, Okinawa was and is still considered "weak" by those that insist on military might.

Throughout its history Okinawa has been repeatedly exposed to cultures that embrace a different philosophy towards life, one in which defending an idea, cause, or country to the death or dying for an emperor or president or a religious figure is respected.  At heart, these are very different, conflicting perspectives on human behavior, humanity and ultimately life itself.  My co-worker went on to say that if only other cultures could understand "nuchi du takara" as a philosophy and embrace it, then Okinawa would finally be free and independent in a world that was not driven by the mechanisms of war.

View from the Okinawa Peace Memorial Park
(at southern tip of Okinawa)

It's very easy to dismiss this kind of perspective as bleeding heart, especially if you've been raised in a culture that does not view life through this lens.  In this era, it's almost impossible to imagine a world that isn't dependent on an military-industrial complex.  If you've grown up in a culture where the ideas of peace and freedom need to be vigilantly defended from enemies, it's hard to consider a world where there are no enemies, no potential "bad guys," who we need a police force or an army to defend us from.  Yet, there are cultures where the concept of an organized military and police never existed, or they existed but not were not a constant presence.    

View from Tokashiki Island
Nuchi du Takara though is not a phrase that should be interpreted as anti-military or anti-police, though it is often spoken about in relation to the Battle of Okinawa.  In fact, that battle may have strengthened the sentiment behind this phrase, because of the extreme sorrow and loss the people on this island had to endure. Because the Okinawans had tried hard to become loyal Japanese citizens, they gave their lives to defend the Emperor, who was at that time revered as a god.   The Okinawan people lost almost everything during the Pacific War, being caught between two highly militaristic cultures -- Imperial Japan and the USA --  on an island that became a large battlefield which they couldn't escape from.

If you live on Okinawa Island, it's hard not to think about this Battle on a daily basis. It happened so long ago, yet its aftershocks can still be felt.  I feel like it's always in the background, always either being mentioned or alluded to, always understood in the landscape of this island. Maybe it's because the military bases are constant reminders to the people here that perhaps another war may come to Okinawa, or perhaps it's because the trauma of the war was so vast and so deep that it still echoes throughout the collective consciousness of the people here.  Maybe it's a combination of these things, plus something else within the Okinawan collective psyche. 

It's hard to imagine living within the shadow of a war, especially as an American, because I've never experienced war and I haven't grown up in a country that has experienced war recently.  It takes centuries for a culture to recover from a war.  Instant recovery is not something that happens after the battlefields are cleared or the infrastructure and cities are rebuilt.  It's not something that those who have lived through war get over within their lifetime.  The people who experience war, both the civilians and the soldiers must deal with its effects -- the physical, mental and spiritual -- for the rest of their lives.  If they've experienced war, they carry it with them.   In a place where war has occurred, a profound scar is created in the psyche of the people.  This "scar tissue" is then passed along to future generations, both on a collective and individual level.  This is called trauma.  The trauma isn't something one recovers from easily either.  If only humanity could recognize what the Okinawan people mean when they say "Nuchi du Takara."  This philosophy recognizes the inherent value of life. It acknowledges that everyone's life matters, and that life is precious and not to be taken for granted.  The voids created by the destructiveness of war represent the loss of that treasure.  Gone forever, what's left in its place is only emptiness and shadows were there was once abundance and light.  This unnecessary suffering is enabled because life is taken for granted.  The ability to take life for granted happens at all levels within a culture though, it's not just a top down decision.  It happens at the level of the individual, the value the individual has in society, the value of others outside of that society (ie, placing one group's life value over anothers), the value that a culture has towards life itself.  

Tokashiki Island
While "Nuchi du Takara can be pinned to this particular issue of the Battle of Okinawa, it should be understood as a potential alternative to the current dominant perspective in this world.  If only the hegemonic powers could value and respect peaceful cultures for their alternative perspectives on life, instead of seeing them as weak, then we might be able to move forward to create a world that isn't dangerous and war torn.  If we could only learn and shift our views ever so slightly to embrace this philosophy...

Since it's not going to happen top down and as individuals we can't control the Zeitgeist or the larger socio-economic movements, change has to come from the ground up.  As individuals, we can learn to understand the tenants of "nuchi du takara" by expressing gratitude for everything that is given to us on a daily basis. Basic things such as: waking up; feeling good; enjoying delicious food; having friends and loved ones in our life; being able to express our love to them in whatever ways we can; enjoying peaceful, reflective moments; the beautiful, infinite sky; friendly smiles; laughter; being able to take long walks; dancing; experiencing beautiful music; the feeling of rain as it hits your body;  the colors, soft texture and fragrance of flowers; the ephemeral, renewing processes in nature; relaxing in the environment; being able to see, taste, hear, and touch everything we encounter on a daily basis.   Recognizing these amazing abilities, we can be grateful for them instead of ignoring these simple, yet magical things. These are things that one can do on everyday, even if life isn't going the way we had planned and we feel frustrated with it.  

An abundance of  delicious food
I don't mean to preach or sound like a new age guru.  I don't speak from a podium here.  I myself have faltered often and taken life for granted while I have struggled to steer my life in the direction I wanted it to go.  I've often forgotten to look at all of the things that are beautiful and magical in my life.  Perhaps that's why I write this today.   Thinking about the Battle of Okinawa and the way the people here struggled to survive in comparison to my rather peaceful, easy life gives me a perspective necessary to understand the meaning of "Nuchi du Takara."   Looking out at the gorgeousness of this island, it's hard to imagine that it was once leveled to nothing by the destructive power of warfare technology.  I want to remember that it takes only the habit of expressing gratitude to understand how precious life is when you recognize how much you should be grateful for.  I guess that's what the poet Mary Oliver was attempting to get at when she wrote her poem The Summer Day.  Maybe she understands what the Okinawan people mean when they say "Nuchi du Takara". 

Life is fleeting.
How about you?  What will you do to try to understand and live by this phrase?


1 comment:

  1. "Nuchi du takara". To me the phrase is a message about the value of life, and the resulting reluctance we should have in spending it cheaply. For one, you can't know the value of a person's life. You can't know what they've gone through, the experiences they've had, the secrets they've shared. We, as a society (that intangible rascal) are quick to devalue others when it suits us. We don't think of the things that make them who they are, the role they play in the lives of others. We only think of what they do to our own lives. So to me "Nuchi du takara" is a call to search out the value in others, a call to empathy.

    Over two and a half years after you asked... lol. Okinawa is a great place, hope you're getting by alright without it.