‘Nobody knows all the Japanese characters,” says Irith Freedman with a smile.
“Currently, there are four letter systems used in Japanese written texts: kanji, which is a Japanese version of Chinese characters; hiragana, or simple Japanese usually used to help children to read and for grammatical purposes; katakana, used to write foreign words in Japanese letters; and Romaji, used to transcribe Japanese names in Roman letters, like road signs or train stations.”
Freedman is an Israeli who is an artist in Japanese calligraphy, “which is done only in kanji and hiragana,” she says, “but if you open a Japanese newspaper, all four systems of writing will be used all over the broadsheet.”
“Even native-born Japanese people don’t know all the kanji letters,” says Dr. Ilana Singer Blaine, chief curator of Haifa’s Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art. “After high school the average Japanese person would know around 2,000 letters, 3,000 after she completes a BA, and 5,000 if she gets a doctorate.”
This process of learning new letters never ends, as each profession has specific terms and expressions.
So, for example, the letters a heart surgeon would know are different from those a painter would know.
Freedman became a Japanese calligraphy artist under the guidance of Israel-based Japanese artist Kazou Ishii.
“One of the most important things in writing kanji is the order of the brush strokes,” she says, “so even when a Japanese person sees a new letter, she would know how to write it even if she may not know what it means exactly.”
She quickly adds that while Japanese calligraphy is also used for Zen practice, it is a common hobby in Japan enjoyed by laypeople and even schoolchildren.
This different way of experiencing time – that it matters to write the letter in a specific order, and there is time to do it properly – is perhaps both a cause of inspiration to Israelis as well as a huge cultural gap.
“Unlike us Israelis, the Japanese are very comfortable with silence and with keeping the old next to the new,” says Singer Blaine. “When Buddhism came to Japan, nobody said ‘We need to get rid of the Shinto shrines.’ When Christianity came to Japan, nobody said: ‘Oh, we must tear down the Buddhist temples.’ Everybody accepts that the old has its proper place in the world.”
Even the sacred mirror Yata no Kagami, said to have been created by the god Ishikori-dome no Mikoto and used to lure the sun back into the world, is said to still be in the Ise Grand Shrine. As in the case of the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Ethiopia, which claims to contain the Ark of the Covenant, they don’t allow people to see it. Naturally, Ishikori-dome no Mikoto is the deity in charge of mirrors in Japanese mythology.
“The Japanese also have a saying – “The eagle doesn’t show its talons” – which means that people that know don’t usually talk to show how much they know,” Singer Blaine explains. “When Israelis and Japanese meet, this often creates a situation where the Israeli partner just babbles more and more to fill the silence, which in our culture can be very awkward, as we’re used to a constant flow of words.”
Yet the different writing systems or attitude to time and modernity, and even how to act when silence is experienced, only generate interest among Israelis, as they do in other cultures around the world.
“JAPAN ENJOYS a great deal of soft power,” says the head of educational programs at Tikotin, Jeni Katzner.
“We sometimes have teenagers who come here to learn Japanese, and they already speak it from watching a great deal of anime (Japanese animation), not to mention Japanese martial arts like judo, aikido and karate.”
Judo in particular became very popular in Israel after Yael Arad won the Olympic silver medal in 1992, making judo and the Japanese values it embodies an Israeli household name.
“We want to have something for everybody,” explains Katzner. “We have people from the Japanese Embassy who very happily come here to help teach children how to wear a kimono, for example, and we have classes in ikebana, Japanese flower arrangement, and Japanese basket weaving.”
Another event is going to be an aikido and Japanese swordsmanship demonstration with Ze’ev Erlich, an Israeli practitioner and teacher of that martial art, in which a few children from the audience will be invited to practice the art on stage.
In a phone interview with The Jerusalem Post, Erlich said: “The first thing I want to show people is the character of aikido, which is not about selfdefense as much as it is about mutual defense, because we protect not only our own body but also the body of the attacker, which can open a path toward a peaceful resolution later. We also seek to demonstrate how this fairly modern martial art is connected to the traditional martial arts of the samurai warriors in feudal Japan. Lastly, when we go on stage, we put the art before our own egos.”
Erlich also stated that he began his practice in Kyoto over 30 years ago.
“As Japan does not have a cultural center in Israel, we are honored to fill that space,” said Singer Blaine.
“Every year, more and more Israelis, children and adults alike attend the events, and in this way, we hope, learn more about the unique culture of Japan.”July 13, in the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art, 89 Hanassi Boulevard, Haifa, 10:30 a.m-3:30 p.m. Admission is free.