The Tenei Carrier Japanese Geishas

This article originally appeared in The Carrier, a monthly newspaper founded in 2012 as a way to send news to the people in our lives. 

I love living London with all it’s hustle and bustle. It can feel like the centre of the world and that all the world’s important moments are happening, just minutes away, in the streets, pubs and parks of the city.

But it’s good to get out of the London bubble and see a different part of the world. To be reminded that to everyone else some other place is the centre of the world, and to reflect on how it differs from home.

I was lucky enough to visit Japan for two weeks earlier this year and felt it had lots of resemblances to the UK. The size of the countries are similar, are both island nations and lucky enough to have high standards of living and life expectancies.

Japan has a much higher population – around twice that of the UK at 127 million people – but they live on a smaller space of land. The country is about the size of UK, but only half of it is habitable due to the mountainous regions. So they’re squeezing twice as many people into half the space

You might then think that Japan would have similar problems to England, maybe even more concentrated due to their dense urban environments. But this is not the case: Japan has lower crime rates and higher community cohesion than the UK.

Having observed life in Japan for myself, and noted these similarities and differences, there was a way of Japanese life that struck a chord. The Japanese enjoy a sense of flow in all they do. They carry a certain elegance through their busy city lives that we would do well to learn from. An elegance I have tried to take back with me to my life in London.

Take for example Japanese aesthetics, a set of ancient ideals that include wabi (transient and stark beauty), sabi (the beauty of natural aging), and yūgen (profound grace and subtlety). These ideals, and others, underpin much of Japanese cultural and aesthetic norms on what is considered tasteful or beautiful. These aesthetics are seen as an integral part of daily life in Japan.

Wabi sabi is the Japanese ideal of beauty that values impermanence and imperfection. I felt this when seeing the Japanese cherry blossom-viewing celebrations. Cherry trees across the country burst into bloom in spring. The spectacle lasts only for a few short weeks, but the Japanese enjoy the beauty of this season even more so for its transience. It wouldn’t have the same effect if the blossom was there all year round.

There are of course two sides to Japan. The elegant way of life I’m talking about here and the modern, dazzling neon lights of Tokyo: the electric towns, harajuku girls, crazy anime and weird maid cafes. The blossom-viewings often do turn into long drunken afternoons for Japanese businessmen, but this is for only 2 to 3 weeks a year, not the year-round drink fuelled delights of an English pub.

Or on the underground for example. When Japanese people ride an escalator everyone knows that the right side should be clear so people in a hurry can pass by. This is the same in London, but all-too often it’s accompanied with impatience and irate anger for the person who doesn’t realise quickly enough that they are standing on the wrong side.

Even in the packed Japanese underground, there is a sense of calm as commuters wait in specially marked areas to the sides of doors. I never witnessed anyone getting angry for being squashed in, even in rush hour and one of the busiest undergrounds.

Catching a group of geishas rushing through the street in Kyoto, it was the tourists struggling to catch up to take photos that were causing the commotion. I don’t know how the geishas strode through with such elegance, but it must have been difficult in the heavy silk kimonos and tall shoes.

The Japanese are even more polite than the British. Take the word “teinei”. Teinei goes beyond the English word “polite” because it applies to more than just people and their actions. In Japanese, you can treat a fragile item “politely” meaning “with care”. A birthday present can be wrapped “politely”.

Teinei extends to putting other people first: giving them the biggest piece of cake, the best seat in the restaurant, or the center position in the photo, are all part of everyday politeness. The traditional Japanese house even has a dedicated seat for guests so they are framed in a background of beautiful Japanese art.

These are just small examples, but they add up to something special that I feel is missing from modern life in London. The small accumulation of tenei in Japanese life seems to have larger societal benefits.

Since coming back from Japan, I’ve tried to be more “tenei” in my life. It can be easy to forget on the swelteringly hot and jam packed tube in the Monday morning rush hour, but I’m trying.

This is my first article for The Carrier. I’m writing about trying to be a carrier of elegance. I hope that by reading this article a few more of you will try to be more tenei too.

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