Written by

Andrew Millar


January 16, 2008

When you approach a Shinto shrine in Japan, and there are a couple of them to be seen, you’ll notice that you are always greeted by two Korean stone dogs. You’ll find them on stone pillars, one either side of the entrance path. Sometimes they’ll sit on the roof of the entrance gate. Sometimes they’ll be foxes which signify an Inari Shrine if it is dedicated to protecting the harvest. I’ve seen pigs and monkeys as well. But you’ll notice one always has its mouth open and the other always closed.

Their names, regardless of species are respectively ‘Ah’ and ‘Nn’. Ah being the first noise you make when you enter this earthly existence, and Nn being the last when you leave it. (Ah also being the first letter of the Japanese alphabet and Nn being the last…. Neat really.)

So, between these two dogs lies your existence. Your beginning and your end. Your A to Z. Your Alpha and Omega. Your Life and death.

And so you are reminded each time you enter a shrine or temple that your life on this earth is transient. You are but a wave on the sand, the sound of which the Japanese describe as Ah/Nn.

But that is not the only place these words appear. Together these two sounds give deeper meaning to many Japanese words. When two people agree on something one will utter Ah, the other replies with Nn. And when two people play a duet and are perfectly in tune with each other they are said to be ‘Ah/Nn no kokyu’ or ‘breathing as one’. Which I think is the perfect expression of the core thought of individual Japanese life – striving to live in perfect harmony.

In the West we selfishly struggle for ‘Freedom’. This is the buzzword. Freedom is the thing we value above all else. In Japan, the word for freedom is jiyu and it is seen as selfish and irresponsible.

Take their attitude to the mobile phone as just one example of harmony in practice.

As we boarded a bus to travel the 2 hours from Japan’s major international airport to the main domestic one, the pre-recorded announcement asked that during the journey all mobile phones be switched to silent mode and the pleasant female voice requested strongly that you should not answer calls because…, and don’t you long to hear this,… it annoys other passengers. It is the same on the train. Do not make calls within the seating areas of the train or even in the station. Switch your phone to silent mode.

Well thank god someone has sorted that out.

Everyone here has a phone and if it was anything like home, the noise of people endlessly prattling about ‘what she said’ and ‘what he did’ would drive everyone insane. We’d all be candidates for axe murder documentaries.

In a country with this many people packed into a small area, a few ‘civil liberties’ need to go by the wayside. Sorry. A benevolent dictatorship is needed to preserve order and harmony.

Otherwise we’d all be at each others throats and the sound of Nn would be heard more often than Ah.