JOK Notebook

Shadow Side

Let's start with a quiz. What do you think the following terms could mean? Match each numbered term to one lettered option.

1. 光陰 (こういん)    light + shadow
2. 不作 (ふさく)     no, not + to make

a. black-and-white photo
b. crop failure
c. lack of inspiration
d. time

I'll block the answers with a preview of the newest essay:

Before I reveal the answers, let me provide a little background. I came across the first word after wishing a Japanese friend a happy birthday. He thanked me and added this comment:

I feel like time is more than flying.

光陰矢の如し (こういんやのごとし: time flies like an arrow; time and tide wait for no man; life is short); 以上 (いじょう: more than); 感がある (かんがある: to have the feeling of)

Such a short response, but so much to explore! For the first time in awhile, I felt a stirring of curiosity. The juicy part of course was 光陰矢の如し, which breaks down as follows:

光陰 (こういん: time)
矢 (や: arrow)
如し (ごとし: like, as if)

That matches Breen's definitions of the whole phrase ("time flies like an arrow," etc.), but how can light + shadow = time?

Japanese dictionaries say that 光 refers to the "sun" or "day," 陰 to the "moon" or "night." Thus, days + nights = time.

So the answer, as you must have surmised, is this:

1.d. 光陰 (こういん: days + nights) means "time."

I was a little sad to see that "shadow" isn't a relevant part of this beautiful word, both because light and shadow create such an intriguing contrast and because I've had shadows on my mind of late, as well as time—particularly the lack of it in the span of a human life.

Specifically, I can't seem to stop thinking about Robin Williams. I shared this with you last week, and now seven more days have passed, and the feelings aren't letting up at all. I'm going through a full-scale grieving process that I've never experienced for a celebrity. He knew nothing of my existence. Before he died, I didn't have an inkling that he meant so much to me. And now both his life and death have consumed me.

I keep thinking about the two extremes of his personality. Right after the news of his suicide broke, someone mentioned that he had a "real shadow side," and I thought, yes, that's exactly right. And something about his shadow side is more than compelling. I feel pulled beyond all reason toward his dark, sad side. I think I didn't take him seriously before, but there's nothing more serious than suicide, so the shadow side stands out in bold relief, demanding to be noticed.

I've been trying to integrate everything about him in my mind, piecing together each little scrap of information, every image he left behind (and there are an infinite number, or so it seems). With Joy o' Kanji I often feel like a bird building a nest, scavenging twigs from here, leaves from there, assembling it all to create structure out of chaos. Now I've turned that obsessiveness to Robin Williams, and I'm building the most useless of nests in that arena, trying to solve some problem that my psyche has commanded me to solve.

This is a depressing place to dwell. I've been feeling dragged down by the heaviness of his final days, dragged into his psychic muck, or what I imagine it to have been.

For weeks before I heard the news, I'd sensed a strong fire burning inside me, one that created almost a manic energy when it came to my work. And then with his suicide, it was as if one of those ALS ice buckets doused out my inner fire.

This brings me to a false answer that I provided above: lack of inspiration. Oh, I've been feeling that lately, just as I suspect Robin Williams did in his last months.

I therefore had a curious reaction a few days ago when I encountered something that I'd seen a few times in the past. I wrote essay 1252 on 洪 (flood), which will come out next week, and it prompted my proofreader to share an old riddle with me. It includes the keyword 洪水 (こうずい: flood):

What has a flood on a top and a big fire on the bottom?

上 (うえ: top); 下 (した: bottom); 大火事 (おおかじ: big fire)

The answer:

五右衛門風呂 (ごえもんぶろ: type of bath heated directly from beneath)

As I said, I've come across this term before, but this time I saw pictures of the bathtub design that this gruesome death inspired.

From this I had two realizations:

1. The Japanese are obsessed with bathing! There's the pursuit of the perfect onsen. There's the nightly ritual of a long bath, as one of my proofreaders frequently mentions. And as I know from a wonderful book that my publisher produced years ago, the Japanese have insanely creative locations for baths that I've never seen in any other culture. One senses that a bath in Japan is about much more than getting clean. If I lived in watery Japan (rather than in drought-plagued California), would bathing become my new obsession? Would I cease to have the repetitive thoughts and concerns that currently nibble away at my productivity and sanity? Could I wash all my troubles away, as they say?!

2. If you were being boiled to death, having a fire under you would be suboptimal, but some people saw that scenario in the best possible light and used it as a model for a bath set-up! After seeing those bathtub images, I kept returning to them in my mind, and they filled me with a joy that seemed inexplicable. I then realized that having a fire lit under you is usually just a figurative expression, but those bathtub arrangements have made it real!

As I've been lacking in fire, I wished for a 五右衛門風呂 in some form—literal or figurative. To my surprise, one Japanese expression for bouncing back from sadness or despair involves fire (火):

She is trying to inspire herself.

彼女* (かのじょ: she); 自分 (じぶん: herself); 心 (こころ: heart, mind; spirit); 火を点ける (ひをつける: to set fire to)

Some similar expressions don't have any fire, even if their English translations do:

He is trying to fire himself up.

彼* (かれ: he); 気持ち (きもち: feeling); 奮い立つ (ふるいたつ: to cheer up)

She is trying to bounce back.

悲しみ (かなしみ: sadness); 絶望 (ぜつぼう: despair; hopelessness); 立ち直る (たちなおる: to regain one's footing; get back on one's feet; recover)

He is trying to motivate himself.

やる気 (やるき: motivation); 起こす (おこす: to make something happen)

A final version is quite unexpected:

She is now squatting deeply before jumping higher.

今 (いま: now); しゃがみ込む (しゃがみこむ: to squat); 高い (たかい: high)

The higher we want to jump, the lower we have to squat down first, explains my proofreader. During bad times, we should store up our energy and build up our strength as much as we can.

Ah, that brings us back to essay 1327 on 滋, which has quite a bit about building up strength, though 滋 relates to physical fortitude, not the emotional kind.

Oh, dear. In all my talk of water and fire, I seem to have doused out any kind of fiery need to give you the second quiz answer! Sorry about that. Here it is:

2.b. 不作 (ふさく: no, not + to make) means "crop failure." I never would have guessed that!

Similarly, this word always takes me by surprise:

不動産 (ふどうさん: real estate)     not + moving + property

The idea is that property and buildings literally don't move. By contrast, 動産 (どうさん) means "personal property" or "personal effects" and represents mobile property.

Playing with kanji as I've done here has made me feel infinitely better, and putting my thoughts down on the page has certainly helped, as well. To hell with the shadow side. I'm moving back toward the light!

Have a great weekend!


青い車's picture
Hope the light shines brightly for you and hope also you don't mind if I wish/pray for The Light to shine on/for you. All the best. PatrickS
eve's picture
Thank you so much! I'm so sorry--I didn't see this comment until now.

Add comment

Log in or register to post comments