On Japanese Ambiguity – (Not) Talking Like a Yamabushi 

Ambiguity is the essence of Japan. Ask anything to a Japanese, and the answer will never be a certain “yes” or “no”, black or white, but rather a tonality of grey, something imprecise, non-resolutive. Which doesn’t mean that the Japanese isn’t resolute – everything in this country is precise, definitive, driven straight and unquestionably towards its destination and its univocal purpose. Nor is Japanese ambiguity a means towards deceit for some personal gain or simple fear of displeasing one’s interlocutor. Honesty and unassailable honour are lodged deep within the ethics of the country of samurais and bushido. What lies behind Japanese ambiguity is something much deeper: a profound sense of respect – towards one’s counterpart, and towards the universe more broadly. Even more than that – a sense of honesty, an escape, as far as any one person is able to, from contradiction, hyperbole, self-indulgence in speech; a realisation that, when words cannot capture reality in its thousandfold complexities, silence is the most honest and meaningful utterance.

I learned to really heed and listen carefully to the many silences and nuances that lie behind the words of my Japanese interlocutors during a trip to the Shonai region of Yamagata Prefecture in winter 2023. One bitterly cold, snowy winter day in the foothills of the sacred mountains of Dewa I had the opportunity to listen to one of the greatest spiritual masters in contemporary Japan: Master Hoshino, of Mount Haguro. This energetic old man, with a long beard and lush eyebrows as white as the snow that surrounded us, is the most important voice within Shugendo, an ancient ascetic practice of mountain worship originating for the medieval syncretism of esoteric Buddhism and Shinto animism in the Land of the Rising Sun. 

Mountain Worshipper

In a pithy, almost aphoristic style – taking care to utter all necessary words in precisely the necessary order, tone and depth of meaning needed to express his wisdom to the degree he felt accessible to us (a foreign audience unaccustomed to the millenary spiritual traditions of the East) – Master Hoshino was explaining, in great lines, the history of the emergence of Japanese civilisation, from hunter gatherers to settled agriculturalists. At the centre of this great journey, the Master explained, man turned from hito to ningen. Hoshino drew our attention to these two words, both used in Japanese to indicate the English “person” or “human being”. According to the great Yamabushi (or ‘mountain worshipper’) Master, the word “hito” stands to represent the “person and its soul” – that is, personhood as experienced through emotiveness and instinct, devoid of society-dervied sublimation, or what Freud would call the id. “Ningen”, on the other hand, becomes the predominant form of personhood following the establishment of settled civilisation – with its doctrines, norms, rules, and writing systems. “Ningen” stands to indicate the human being with her calculating, measuring, planning mind – the rational man. With the establishment of rice farming and thes settlment of Japanese civilisation, Master Hoshino explained, Japanese people became fundamentally “ningen”, though some portions of their “hito” essence remains within them. Children, for instance, are entirely “hito” upon their birth and become “ningen” through socialisation, particularly during puberty. Men, furthermore, display a higher portion of “ningen”, according to the Master, whilst the “hito”, animic essence within women remains more active due to the purification of blood that occurs with menstruation: blood (or ‘bodily water’), is, in fact, according to Shugendo, the site of the soul.

Like the ever spinning Tomoe, each season is eternally dying and transmuting into the next. Names, labels, are an illusion, attempting to exhaust the vital energy of this eternal cosmic movement for the sake of our mind’s control. As our lifetime is articulated by the cherry blossom, the Japanese live in observation of the ever-changing seasons, and they allow the elements to give shape to their thoughts and speech, endowing them with powerful ambiguity.

What really hit me, as someone who has never studied Japanese in his life, is that Master Hoshino put particular emphasis on the fact that both “hito” and “ningen” – these two concepts, to which, though indicating the same object, Hoshino was attributing such contrasting denotations – are represented in Japanese by one single kanji character: , the graphic representation of a human being. How can two opposites be contained in the same symbol, I thought? So used to the Western philosophical tradition, used to dissecting concepts split into neat particles of meaning and etymologies, visually represented by clusters of univocal letters, I wondered – isn’t this brutally… ambiguous?! As if reading our thoughts, Master Hoshino laid back in his chair, smiled at us the way a grandfather smiles at his curious grandchild, and changed topic suddenly: “you see the frost and snow outside? In a couple of months or so this snow will melt and the sakura blossoms will bloom, and then before we know it it’ll be summer again, and then autumn, and then the cold season. But how can we know when exactly the spring will begin?”

Fish Drum

Master Hoshino


At this point, the Master looked at the garden, beyond the thin glass doors of the corridors of his house, of which we could only get a partial glance through the semi-open, paper-lined shoji. The wind and snow had ceased, the sun had come out, and the light tapping of melting ice made its way distinctly into the room. Was it spring already? Hadn’t it been New Year’s Eve just two days before? Suddenly, I felt disoriented in time. Then the Master’s voice gently reassembled my wits: “Like the ever spinning Tomoe, each season is eternally dying and transmuting into the next. Names, labels, are an illusion, attempting to exhaust the vital energy of this eternal cosmic movement for the sake of our mind’s control. As our lifetime is articulated by the cherry blossom, the Japanese live in observation of the ever-changing seasons, and they allow the elements to give shape to their thoughts and speech, endowing them with powerful ambiguity.” “It takes 20 years of life in Japan”, Hoshino added, hiding a youthful smile under his white beard, “to be able to understand the thick layers of meaning lodged in all that my countrymen leave unsaid. And if we still understand each amongst ourselves here in Japan, is because every single human being still conserves, deep within their subconscious, a good, healthy portion of “hito” – soul-understanding.

It suddenly made sense: “ningen”, “hito”, the same and the opposite, both contained within one sign. No matter what, a person could only ever be understood as a mix of the two, of soul and of mind, just like the two oblique lines of the kanji character that inevitably intertwine at the head. Ambiguity does not only shape Japanese characters, it shapes the material world to its very core. “In Europe”, Hoshino explained, “you build your churches at the centre of the city. At the very centre of profanity, next to the brothels, and markets, and slums, there stand the cathedral’s mighty marble walls and its thick wooden gate. Across that gate, suddenly, you enter the sacred space, a universe apart from what surrounds you beyond the walls.” “In Japan it is very different”, he continues. “Here the temples are found in the mountains and the forests. Between them and the city there lies many great gates, like the ones that lead to the summit of Haguro-san. As you cross each gate, you enter an ever more sacred space, and yet the altar where the divinity lives remains always off-bounds. Whether in the sanctuary or at the market, no place is ever fully sacred or fully profane, and where life is actually carried out is the much greater space that lies in the middle, scattered amongst endless degrees of sacredness and profanity. Think of Japanese houses, for instance: little in common do they have with your tightly insulated, centrally heated fortresses. Japanese dwellings have thin wooden walls with drifty windows. In winter, we heat the rooms we use when we use them exclusively, separating them from other rooms only with thin layers of translucent paper, beyond which are ice-cold corridors – spaces that are neither ‘indoor’ nor ‘outdoor’. Heat, humidity, light are free to flow across these hybrid spaces like our life through the years.”

Essence of Haiku

The essence Japanese ambiguity is therefore not vagueness, but exhaustiveness, fullness. Ambiguity is the essence of haiku, the nature of poetic language itself, which aims to echo with the constant flow of life, rather than capture the fixedness of sterile concepts. Japanese ambiguity is the genuineness of freedom: the freedom to interpret as one finds true, according to the experience of a life with thousandfold manifestations, capable of rendering the unrepeatable intimacy of individual existence. Japanese ambiguity is respect and syntony with nature, its lack of judgement, its unconditional love. “Nature is the only mantra, the only sutra, the only doctrine a man needs”, Master Hoshino added. “Are you ill? Confused? Depressed? Go to the mountains! That is the only piece of advice an old Yamabushi can give you. And when you are out in the mountains, be silent.” The utter silence of nature, in which the whole universe is expressed to those who allow themselves to feel, is the ultimate source of Japanese ambiguity, enshrined in the only word that Yamabushi ascetics are allowed to utter during their long pilgrimages through the mountains: “uketamo”, “I accept”.

1 Comment

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