Everyone knows the Earth is an orb. Here's a riddle: What is the farthest thing in the world you can see with your own eyes? The answer is your own back. Since the Earth's circumference is about 40,000 kilometers, that's how far away your back would appear.
This is a silly joke, of course, but there is an element of truth here. After all, nothing is harder to see than one's own back, literally as well as metaphorically.
The back is an intriguing part of the human body; one where the person's subconscious can be glimpsed.
Novelist Eiji Yoshikawa (1892-1962), who died 50 years ago on Sept. 7, wrote an essay titled "Senaka Tetsugaku" (Philosophy of the back).
"No matter how heartily someone laughs or how free and easy he appears, I think I can tell if it's for real by studying his back," Yoshikawa wrote.
He went on to note that there are people whose face and back don't match, as if they are wearing two masks. And the "front mask" is apparently easier to maintain than the "back mask."
Yoshikawa certainly understood human nature. The author of "Miyamoto Musashi" and "Shin Heike Monogatari" (The Heike Story) was credited with elevating the popular novel to the level of national literature.
"Every man over 40 is responsible for his face," said U.S. President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865). Perhaps here we can also substitute "back" for "face."
"Ko wa oya no senaka o mite sodatsu" is a Japanese adage that translates literally as "the child grows up looking at his parent's back." This is another way of saying that parents should be role models for their children. In the workplace, young workers are lucky if they have an older worker whose "back" represents a fine example to follow.
Children search their parents' faces for approval or disapproval, but they also silently study their parents' backs.
Three years ago, The Asahi Shimbun ran a comment by an attendant at a "sento" public bathhouse in a working-class district of Tokyo. Having scrubbed the backs of patrons for half a century, the attendant noted, "I've come across people whose backs tell wordless stories of their hard lives. They make me want to wish them all the best."
Things are heating up in the political community with parties looking for the right "faces" to represent them in the upcoming Lower House election.
We voters need to be as discerning as Yoshikawa, one of the foremost literary greats of the Showa Era (1926-1989), in determining which "faces" are only good-looking masks and which "backs" can be trusted.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 7
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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.
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