Being a frog in a well

Count the number of times I’ve included Japan in my blog posts and you’d think I was in love with the place. Japan appears every few weeks – here on regrets, here on career advice, this on the power of words, one on having a calling and here on the strength of letting go. I use the word “appearing” as I’m not doing this intentionally. Japan seems to be conjuring itself up before my eyes.  Whilst Japan has just 1.6% of the world’s population, it’s expanding and filling my mind. 

I’m turning Japanese, I think I’m turning Japanese, I really think so.”
The Vapours, 1980

I haven’t written about Iceland, Argentina or Romania or probably 230 of the 239 countries in the world. So why are 10% of my posts about Japan? I like Japanese food and I studied Karate for a while, but those are slim pickings. I think Japanese blossom in the spring and their autumn foliage look beautiful, but I’ve never visited the country at either time. In fact, I’ve never visited at all. So, why this apparent love affair? Either the Japanese Tourist Board is channelling itself through me or something else is at play. 

Perhaps it’s because I’m interested in a number of Japanese ideas; for example “ma” which I wrote about in February 2020. Ma doesn’t translate exactly but it’s something like a gap, or a space or a pause. The picture below is ma in garden form. The spaces in between make it feel simple and uncluttered. It has moments for the eyes to rest. Like pauses between breaths. In English we call it “negative space” – the place with nothing. But a Japanese person will see it as vital – ‘empty’ and ‘full’ need each other for balance. 

Photo by Hu Chen on Unsplash

Or maybe it’s because I’m drawn to the idea of “wabi-sabi”- the style of art and aesthetic that emphasizes simplicity and restraint. It’s the beauty of the imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. Of course, this whole idea is in stark contrast to our Western ideal of attractiveness. It has to be perfect, symmetrical, flawless or it’s ugly. 

Wabi-sabi has been taken up by artists and poets and even made it into software development. It’s said that it encouraged the idea of agile programming – comfort with software imperfections, knowing there will always need to be reiteration. Marcel Theroux even presented a programme on the topic: “In Search of Wabi-Sabi” on BBC Four as part of the Hidden Japan series. Perhaps the Japanese tourist board are targeting me through TV? 

I was on a coaching training session in December and met a coach and author. Originally from Canada, he lived in Australia and is now based in Japan. With his planetary wanderings he has an interest in comparing beliefs and principles in different cultures. 

Winter’s cityside, crystal bits of snowflakes
All around my head and in the wind
I had no illusions that I’d ever find
A glimpse of summer’s heatwaves in your eyes”
Big in Japan, Alphaville, 1984

When I caught up with him later on Zoom, the coach spoke about the Japanese idea of “miknsei” – the power of incompleteness. It’s the space we offer people to fill themselves – not jumping in and giving solutions, not rescuing, not filling the pauses with chatter. It means holding the silence so the other person can discover things on their own. My husband will say I’m a work in progress on this. 

The coach I spoke to said he finds Japanese people pause for longer than Australians. He talked about an “Australian silence” – the longer the silence, the more the disagreement. A Japanese silence, on the other hand, is enjoyment and a happy escape from words. These are generalisations of course, but it’s clear that silence and time aren’t constant across cultures. They are also different across personality types. Introverts (my husband) will tell you that silence is golden. Extroverts (me) will say that silence is there to be filled. 

“When all the world’s a stage, oh where are you? Tokyo Rose on the radio.”
Tokyo Joe, Bryan Ferry 1977

The coach also mentioned a book called In Praise of Shadows, written by Junichiro Tanizaki, one of Japan’s greatest novelists. It’s about how shadows are built into buildings by Japanese architects because they represent spirit. A sense of spirit brings a place alive. No shadows, no spirit and who wants to sit in a building that’s dead? It’s another form of opposites – the light and the dark, which I covered here.

Another Japanese idea that’s really interesting is “Ikigai.” The word is made up of “ikiru” meaning “to live,” and “gai” which is “reason.” Our ikigai is our reason for living, our core purpose in life. A few years ago when I was uncertain of my own direction, I attended a workshop on ikigai and rediscovering our purpose. The session was based on this book: Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life which is short and easy to digest. I’d recommend it to anyone who is lost or looking for more meaning. 

Thinking of lost, here’s a favourite film of mine: Lost in Translation. It’s set in Tokyo with Bill Murray and Scarlet Johansson and is excellent. I’d suggest watching it if you haven’t, particularly if you’re a Japanophile, like me. 

I loved Japan. I used to read a lot about it when I was a child. And I always wanted
to go. And it was delightful. I absolutely loved it. What a smashing place
Scottish comedian and musician, Billy Connolly

With all these meanderings, I’ve only gone and written about Japan again. I think the course of action needs to be a visit Japan, otherwise I’m just a frog in a well. The Japanese saying “a frog in a well doesn’t know the great sea” means someone who judges life by their own narrow experience, never knowing the wider world. I’m going to follow in Billy’s footsteps and actually go to Japan… once we can travel again. 


This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan (except Japanese garden)

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