Work in Japan Advice Board
Robert Frost said that, Poetry is what gets lost in translation. He meant that the essence, the gist is lost. And to a poet, the poetry is everything. Let’s see how much is lost in translation when you trust the dictionary of common usage.
The word shumi (趣味) in Japanese is generally translated as hobby, taste, or preference.
This is a functional translation, that is, it is not wrong. But does it really convey the original meaning?
First consider the origin and associations of the English word hobby. Apparently it derives from the Middle English, hobi or hobyn, meaning a small horse, also suggesting the source of the word hobby horse, or rocking horse, a toy horse that doesn’t go anywhere. Hence the associations we still hold with the word hobby, as an amusement, a diversion, a pastime. A hobby is something you pursue for pleasure, not something serious like your work or occupation.
Of course it is possible to be passionate about a hobby, but the underlying implication is that it is a leisure pursuit.
Modern Japanese may use the word shumi in a somewhat similar sense. Ask a Japanese person what is their shumi, and they may well answer something like golf, reading, or manga. But the origins of the word shumi (趣味) suggest something deeper.
The first character is 趣 (shu), which means gist, tendency, or refinement, something that the poet can sense. This character is made of two radicals, 走 (to run), and 取 (to take), suggesting to run and take something nice and important. The second character is 味 (taste), the most immediate and direct of our senses.
In combination, the word shumi (趣味) then could be translated as run and taste it. That translation is too literal to sound natural in English, but perhaps you already sense how different the meaning is from the common interpretation of hobby, as a leisure pursuit.
I first came to Japan in 1972, and still remember my first encounter with the word shumi. I was struck by how the Japanese seemed to take shumi much more seriously, even spiritually, than what you would call a hobby.
The person who brought this to my attention was Edwin O. Reischauer, former U.S. Ambassador to Japan, Harvard Professor Emeritus, and the mentor of my college professor of Japanese history at Earlham College, Jackson Bailey. I heard Reischauer speak on this subject, and he also wrote about the differences in the Japanese view of shumi in his book, The Japanese Today. Reischauer’s writes in the chapter on The Individual, that shumi help the Japanese establish their identity, and that “the ardent pursuit of a hobby is almost necessary for self-respect in Japan.” He admitted to feeling embarrassed to admit in interviews that he had no hobbies other than his work, feeling as if he was “making a damaging admission of spiritual incompleteness.”
Perhaps it was that same feeling which inspired me to pursue Aikido and Shodo at that level, not as a means of making a living, but as a path (d, 道) or Way of Life. One reason that Japanese tend to take shumi more seriously as they get older is that the richness of the path becomes clearer with experience. There is no graduation from this path, because mastery is an ongoing process.
Many people at that time selected traditional Japanese arts for their shumi, and often more than one. The traditional arts typically end with the character for path (d, 道), such as the the martial arts of Aikido (Way of Harmony with Ki), Kendo (Way of the Sword, Kyudo (Way of the Bow), and the traditional aesthetic arts of Shodo (Way of the Brush) or Sado (Way of the Tea Ceremony). In every case, it is impossible to make progress by dabbling.
These arts typically take decades of dedicated study with a master teacher to achieve any degree of what might be considered progress. Indeed, this fits with the growing awareness in the west, introduced by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, that any serious degree of mastery requires around 10,000 hours of deep and dedicated practice. That is the equivalent of practicing nearly 3 hours a day everyday, 365 days a year, for 10 years. No wonder it takes decades, and no wonder so few people pursue their craft at that level.
But even without aspiring to mastery, the pursuit of a shumi that deeply interests you can be a lifelong source of inspiration, energy, and self-development. Select something traditional or modern that is rewarding in itself, something you can stick with. Follow the Japanese proverb that says what you love, you’ll do well in (suki koso, mono no jōzu nare).
Run and taste it! Stay with it long enough so that you leave tangible traces of your progress. Otherwise, you may find yourself like Hansel and Gretel, having lightly tossed breadcrumbs along your path, only to find yourself lost in the woods, because the birds have eaten every one.
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William Reed is a renowned author-speaker who coaches physical finesse and flexible focus for a creative career path. A certified Master Trainer in Guerrilla Marketing and 7th-dan in Aikido, he combines practical wisdom of East and West to help you learn personal branding at the Entrepreneurs Creative Edge.