Episode 10: Hinkaku – Dignity and Grace

In the 1880s only a few years after the fall of the Japanese last feudal dynasty a Japanese businessman went to London to study the English banking system.

While there, a British banker treated him kindly and help him accomplish his mission. During the course of the relationship, the banker was introduced to, and developed a keen interest in, the tea ceremony.

When the Japanese businessman return to Tokyo, he made arrangements at his companies expense for a Japanese carpenter to go to London and build a teahouse for his newfound British friend.

When the carpenter presented himself at the British bankers home, the English man could not believe that this man a mere carpenter behaves like such a gentleman.

His behaviour and demeanour in general were so meticulous, and refined, that the banker mistook him for an affluent member of the Japanese upper class. 

More than 100 years later when an American Hawaiian Chad Rowan wrestling in Japan semi sacred sport of  sumo as Akebono won his second tournament and achieve the rank of Oozeki, or champion, talk to his being elevated to the exalted position of yokozuna, grand champion, began almost immediately.

However, key members of the sumo association, which control the sport with iron discipline, opposed   Akebono’s promotion to the sports highest rank, claiming that he did not exhibit a satisfactory level of dignity, which is so valued in Japanese society.

The English word “ dignity“ does not do justice to the full cultural connotation of hinkaku in this Japanese context.

Dignified behaviour in American society – much more so than Europe to be sure – leaves one with a fairly broad range of acceptable conduct, and does not necessarily signify any particular cultural achievement. 

Hinkaku on the other hand, incorporated a degree of character, spirit, and cultural propriety that raises the individual well above the ordinary person.

In the Japanese context, hinkaku is directly equated with virtue and morality. A hinkaku ga takai hito or “person with great dignity” is humble, totally honest, trustworthy and can be depended on to always do the right thing –albeit the right thing in the Japanese context of right and wrong. 

The Japanese have been conditioned for centuries to be sensitive to hinkaku and to expect it of people in responsible positions.

The higher and more important the position, the stronger are the expectations for the person to exemplify hinkaku.

This makes sense to me, and in these extremely interesting time when I see the representative of the United States, I always am reminded of the importance of hinkaku in the people in important position of power.

A significant reason why the Japanese have tended to look down on Westerners, particularly prominent businessmen and political leaders, was that they did not demonstrate the qualities of hinkaku the Japanese had come to expect. 

Even today, the foreign businessman or politician who fails to behave with an acceptable level of hinkaku (except in settings of drinking parties at geisha houses, nightclubs, and other private places), suffers a serious loss of face that reinforces the general Japanese belief that the Japanese way is a culturally superior. 

Foreigners who want to be accepted by the Japanese as sincere, virtuous, dependable, and worthy as friends, allies or partners, advice to make sure they exude a healthy degree of hinkaku.

To complete our Akebono story, the American sumo wrestler won the January 1993 sumo tournament, and so impressed the Sumo Association judges with his behaviour, that shortly there after he was unanimously confirmed as Japan’s first foreign sumo grand champion, an event which is comparably as auspicious as the marriage of Emeritus emperor Akihito, who was then the crown prince, to the commoner, Michiko Showda, in 1959.

Who, by the way has excelled at the art of hinaku throughout her time as the empress in the cloistered and insular halls  of the Imperial Household Agency. 

Hinkaku - Dignity and Grace - Land Of The Rising Son