Delving into the Intangibles


The ability of an animal to sense instinctively the slightest “signs” of danger is far beyond the ken of human beings.

We humans, however, have our own ways of detecting "signs," that are not available to animals, because of our "intelligence." Not missing "faint signs" is the intangible ability of a person with a sensibility delicate enough to capture the “something” not only of danger but also of beauty “carried on the air.”

In daily life, have you not experienced the various "signs" that often crop up in human relations, health, work, accident, or incident? They are a very important “intangible” force in every aspect of living. You must have sometimes found yourself saying, with a sense of relief, "I thought so" or "I was quick to notice."

What we are talking could also be called a "social risk signal." Some people are sufficiently insensitive, but there are others who feel it all too painfully. According to a psychologist's research, 25% of us fit the category of a SSP (super-sensitive person). Such hypersensitive persons are easily injured and can fall prey to harassment. By your own self-analysis, which type are you? If you are someone who never crosses the street against a red light, you are the type of person who sensibly avoids risks; you should take a positive view of your character and live a strong life.

Speaking of signs, the Japanese way of thinking about nature has given birth to our unique culture. Until recently, people kept the beauty of the four seasons at the center of their lives: myriad flowers blooming rampantly in spring; trees dazzling in deep green with a blue sky and white clouds above; leaves turning that beautiful red; snow-clad distant mountains coming into view. The Japanese have marveled at such “tangible” natural landscapes for however long.

Besides which there are the preludes to the four seasons, the heralding signs of early spring, summer, autumn, winter, et cetera. Feeling these subtle changes, even the more minute mutations in the air, Japanese have, in creating their unique culture, acquired an ability to see beyond the “tangible” to the “intangible” aspects of nature.

We find this, for example, in the “seasonal words” of haiku and waka poetry. During the distant Asuka Period, Empress Jito wore the following: 

    Spring has passed
    and summer, it seems, has come
    garments of white cloth
    are spread to dry,
    the clouds are cloaking
    heavenly Mount Kagu.

It would be sad if such a sense of beauty were only to be found in the literature of poets and writers of the past: Makura no Soshi (The Pillow Book) of Sei Shonagon, Matsuo Basho's haiku, or the traditional card-game poems of Hyakunin Isshu, et cetera. For people living in a concrete jungle, it is becoming harder and harder to feel the “mono no aware,” the pathos of things felt through the subtle changes of beautiful nature. Whether it’s because we have become insensitive, or we are moving at too great a speed, or it has been destroyed by natural or human disasters, the very idea of "signs" is itself losing weight nowadays.

Amid the recent string of typhoons or downpours in all seasons, am I the only person worried enough to think, "Is this not a sign of the collapse of the world?" Oh no, it is not a black joke.

   HOME  Archive