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Leisure • Culture

The Beauty of Komorebi

It is one of the most charming aspects of Japanese culture that it offers up a specific word for what we would in most languages have to try to express with a whole clumsy sentence: komorebi denotes the way that sunlight filters through the leaves of a tree, and is formed from a compound of the words for tree 木, leak 漏れ, and sun 日.

The joy at coming upon such a term isn’t just about being able to describe a specific natural phenomenon with newfound nimbleness, it is – more broadly – about encountering a culture that has noticed, and given prominence, to something remarkably fine grained and subtle in the world that we might have expected never to be identified, except by a few rare, sensitive and perhaps solitary souls. It’s proof that others have walked alongside the more apparently unpeopled tracks of our minds; that we may not be as isolated as we fear.

A word can’t – by definition – enter a language until lots of people find a regular need for it. The presence of komorebi in the Japanese vocabulary therefore signals a remarkable notion: that huge numbers of citizens across the archipelago will constantly be registering and then wanting to communicate a bubble of joy connected to a wholly modest, globally ignored and yet delightfully tender and moving natural occurrence. The irate senior lawyer from Tswunao, the busy nurse from Tonosho, the fashionable furniture designer from Yokohama, the traffic warden from Fukuoka – all will have been helped by their language to identify and then be revived by an interplay of shadows thrown up by shifting patterns of leaves.

A culture that notices one such thing can also be expected to spot other minor moments of existence: Japanese has a word for the red of the sky at sunset (yūyake), the mixture of sadness and joy at the fall of cherry blossom leaves (hanafubuki) and the habit of buying more books than one can read and letting them accumulate in precarious piles by the bed (tsundoku).

The joy of these focused words wouldn’t be so intense if our experience of misunderstanding and miscommunication was not so broad. There is still too much in us that lacks words – and behind this, an audience that reliably cares. We are at the mercy of the language we use because we typically only notice, or take seriously, in ourselves what we are granted words to describe by others. We rely, in order to explore our minds, on the general intelligence of a culture. There are a raft of words still waiting to be born; waiting for us to work up the courage to attend more closely to our experiences and the accompanying faith that what is in us will, and must, exist in the deep selves of strangers. 

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