Character Values

December 13, 2011   By KUMIKO MAKIHARA
The International Herald Tribune/The New York Times

The letters on my nails have nearly grown out, but I can still read them.

One is the Chinese character for the first syllable of my son’s name, and the other means perseverance. I had asked a manicurist in Tokyo to write one on each thumb a few months ago, just before I was sending my 12-year-old son off to boarding school in America. I anticipated loneliness and hoped they would remind me to endure for the sake of the boy.

They have fulfilled that purpose and also prompted reflections on Japanese aesthetic values, cultural differences and hopes for my son.

The manicurist did a skillful job of eight strokes on the left thumb and seven on the right with a tiny brush and acrylic paint, all under my watchful gaze. She paused and swept with the brush at the right places, to the correct degree, to create the balanced letters. The art on my thumbs is an oasis of excellence amid the sad penmanship of so many Chinese characters tattooed on the arms and legs of Manhattanites. That letter for “star” on a woman’s thigh I see on the subway looks like a kid wrote it with a thick magic marker.

Having one character speak volumes is a beloved Japanese art form. In my apartment sits a rendition of the letter for “dream,” written by my son’s former calligraphy teacher. The final, bold stroke rushes forth as if to spur us on in our new life in the United States. On my windowsill is a fan that says “wind.” The script’s playfully simple style reminds us of the casual fun of summer festivals.

At Kyoto’s Kiyomizu Temple this month, the head priest inked a robust rendition nearly his size of the character “kizuna.” The one-letter word means bonds or ties and had been voted character of the year in a poll conducted by an association known as Kanken that promotes character writing. The word kizuna went viral on Japanese lips after the earthquake and tsunami in March prompted people to appreciate family and friends. Numerous volunteer and aid organizations that sprung up around the country named themselves that word.

But when Japan’s TV Asahi asked people in the nuclear disaster areas of Fukushima Prefecture for their choice of a sole-character word, the replies were less hopeful. One woman replied “hardship” for her year of suffering and another man said “lies,” referring to the persistent false information that circulated on the extent of nuclear contamination.

Coming from a country that values such verbal minimalism, the plain-spoken and loud exchanges I encounter in the United States have been jarring.

I was sitting at a snack bar counter in New York City recently when I heard a man yelling, “Miss, why did you punch me?” at a woman passing him on her way out. He came over and asked me if I had witnessed the woman hitting him. (I had not.)

I ride a bus every day that is often delayed and crowded with annoyed passengers loudly voicing their complaints. Even the driver sometimes joins in with his or her interpretation on what’s wrong with the transport system. And there are the panhandlers jangling their paper cups of coins.

Of course in the bigger picture, making noise to promote change is better than staring at your nails in self-pity. Part of the reason I am sending my son to school in the United States is that the culture grooms people to articulate their opinions. I was excited to see a photo of him recently giving a tour of his new school to a prospective student from Japan. He was explaining to a Japanese boy — someone just like himself a few months ago — the huge concept of life and education in a different country.