JOK Notebook

Guiding Us Out of Anxiety: Part II

As I look at shots of the immense wreckage that Superstorm Sandy left behind on the Eastern Seaboard, I wonder how anyone knows where to start putting things right. I haven't the slightest idea where I would begin. I asked myself the same thing when I saw images of the mayhem in Tohoku last year. So many immediate needs, but which one should come first? And how can mere mortals tackle such immense challenges? We're no match for nature.

Then I look at photos of our leaders as they survey the Sandy damage, and their expressions suggest that they have at least a few ideas. If so, how do they know the right steps to take? Where does one learn these things?

A word from the newest essay raised similar questions for me:

帝王学 (ていおうがく: study of how to be a good leader)     emperor (1st 2 kanji) + study

This term is a relic from Japan's imperial era, but my proofreader says that people still use it today to refer to the elite education that children from old, wealthy families are believed to receive. This training supposedly prepares them to be leaders.

I'm further intrigued. It's as if such people pass through special gates where they gain access to the answers. Perhaps it's written on an aged scroll.

In the thick of election season, I'm crossing my fingers that the people who win have a "scroll" of some sort. Actually, I'm part of the post-Watergate generation, and as such I spent years without the slightest bit of confidence in any elected leaders. However, as we slide deeper and deeper into problems such as environmental catastrophes, I find myself hoping that someone knows what to do.

What we most often see are politicians who can't make a difference one way or another (and who quickly lose the will to try, as far as I can tell). In Japan they would call such a person a "scarecrow," except of course they would use a Japanese word for that! Here it is:

案山子 (かかし: scarecrow; figurehead) 

We saw this term last week in a wonderful haiku by Yoshikazu Kunugi that featured 案山子 with its literal meaning, "scarecrow." 

Photo Credit: 関西画像創庫

The metaphorical meaning of "figurehead" is quite wonderful. English speakers have the terms "puppet" and "lame duck" for various sorts of rulers without power. But a scarecrow! How perfect! A scarecrow certainly looks human. And it's upright, as if it's alive. But it's merely propped up by structures that aren't immediately apparent, and it has no life force or any ability to move or act.

You can use 案山子 as an insult for politicians:

That politician seems vigorous but cannot do anything. He’s a scarecrow of Nagata-cho.

政治家 (せいじか: politician); 威勢が良い (いせいがよい: vigorous);
何も ... ない (なにも ... ない: none; not any); 永田町 (ながたちょう: Japan's political center, where the Diet building is located)

Unfortunately, it's hard to make sense of 案山子 if you break it down, as I always feel tempted to do. The word is ateji, so we're out of luck if we try to connect the overall meaning with the definitions of each kanji. According to the etymology site Gogen, a Chinese Buddhist priest originally used 案山子. When he did so, 案山 apparently meant “where it’s level in the mountains," and 子 meant "person." According to this theory, 案山子 should mean something like “a person standing where it’s level in the mountains.”

That's no help at all!

It's likely that the Japanese used the spoken word かかし before having a written rendition of it, and the spoken word has a different history. My proofreader's sources say that this term evolved from かがし (嗅がし: letting somebody smell). That is, the Japanese used to place something malodorous in their fields to keep harmful animals or birds away from the crops.

And how did they know to do that? How did ancient humans even know which plants to eat or not eat? I know there are all kinds of anthrolopological explanations about such matters, including ways in which humans have learned from animal behavior, as well as countless references to "animal instinct" and our "collective unconscious," but I still feel mystified.

Humans seem to know so much and so little, all at once.

As it happens, I find that the first kanji in 案山子 embodies this sort of contradiction. That is, it mainly means "proposal." And I primarily associate this kanji with 案内 (あんない: information; guidance; leading). A guide is calm and collected, someone who already knows where to go and what to say.

I'm surprised, then, to find 案 fraught with anxiety. Consider this word:

案じる (あんじる: to be anxious or concerned about; ponder (anxiously); to fear; investigate; consider; plan; devise)

This verb contains only one kanji—案. In 案じる, every bit of anxiety stems from this one character, not from anywhere else.

Nevertheless, doesn't 案 usually lend a sense of calm to situations? After all, the man with a 案 is a man with a plan:

提案 (ていあん: proposal, suggestion)

Or should I say "a woman with a plan," given that one finds 女 inside 案? Henshall says that 案 actually breaks down into two units of meaning: 木 (tree) and 安 (restful), with the latter component also acting phonetically in . He says nothing about women in terms of 案.

He further notes that 案 originally referred to utensils set on a table but later came to mean "something put carefully on a table." Finding similarities in the English phrase "to table a proposal," Henshall says that the meaning of 案 later extended to "proposal" or "plan."

He ends his etymology with this key part: "Concern is an associated idea, i.e., something obliging consideration."

Oh, I see. Just because someone has a plan doesn't mean that it will actually work or will go into effect at all. It's just an idea, and it may have little correspondence to reality.

With 案, then, we find both the anxiety and the illusion of calm leadership. That seems appropriate, actually. Those who claim to have the answers must feel all the same anxiety as the rest of us. They're just better at hiding it.

Hearing a 提案 during election season shouldn't give us any hope at all. And yet we 案じる intensely and have almost a childlike need to believe that someone will guide us out of trouble and anxiety. Thus, we put our concerns aside and vote. Down the road, we all too often find out that we've placed our hopes in a 案山子!

This week I've published essay 1616 on 帝 (emperor). Among many other issues, the essay touches on the oscillating power that the Japanese emperor has had over the centuries. Here's a sneak preview:

Have a great weekend! 


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