Fact#3. Mastery? Multiple talents?

blog #3-2

JinK:  Bishop-san, my daughter in 6th grade of elementary school recently started

learning the saxophone.

Bishop:  Oh, that’s great.

JinK:  The elementary school she goes to in America has band, chorus and orchestra

classes, and the kids can choose whichever they like.

Bishop:  Music, I remember those days.

JinK:  It’s quite a common thing isn’t it. I was talking to a co-worker the other day,

and it seems that a lot of Americans learn to play instruments.

They also learn ballet and all sorts of other things.

Bishop:  Well, one reason is that in the U.S., being a Renaissance Man

is considered a good thing.

JinK:  What’s a Renaissance Man? A relative of Spider Man?

Bishop:  No, no. It refers to someone that can do anything. Someone who knows

a lot about art, sports, and other things, who is good at horse riding, football

and other sports, who can play multiple instruments, and can cook, and excels

in the workplace. It’s considered ideal to be a person like that.

JinK:  Oh, you mean Super Man.

Bishop:  Well… close, but I’ve never seen Super Man playing an instrument…

it’s actually someone more like Leonardo DaVinci. Someone who is good at


JinK:  Hmmm, that’s quite different from Japan. In Japan it’s seen as more

important to excel at one particular talent. It’s considered bad to be

a jack of all trades and a master of none.

We have a saying called “abu hachi torazu,” or “to let both the horsefly

and the bee get away.”

(It comes from the story of a spider who caught a horsefly in its web, but while crawling over to eat it a bee landed on the other side of its web, so the spider went to get the bee instead. The horsefly began to struggle and looked as though it would escape, so the spider went back in that direction, then the bee began to struggle as well, and in the end both the horsefly and the bee escaped and flew away, leaving the spider hungry.)

The moral is that if you get greedy and try to do too many things,

you’ll end up with nothing substantial.

Bishop:  But isn’t it more fun to do a lot of different things?

When I ask Japanese people their hobbies,

they usually only mention one hobby. Ask an American,

and they’ll give you a full list of things they enjoy.

JinK:  You’re right. In America, it’s seen as important to do all sort of things

starting from elementary school, from sports to learning musical instruments

to studying. It sounds like fun.

My daughter really seems to like playing the sax. At first, she was upset

when she couldn’t get it to sound right.

But, that all changed when her school had a band concert. I never thought

she’d be ready in time after just 4 months, but her teacher told her that

she could do it if she believed in herself.

Although she was nervous, she played in the concert, and had a lot of fun.

Actually, I was probably a lot more nervous than she was!

Playing in front of an audience is a great source of motivation to learn and

perform well. Now, she says that band is her favorite subject.

 In Japan, though, the approach used to learn new talents is called Shu-Ha-Ri;

you start by learning proper form, then practice repeatedly until

you attain a high level of proficiency. It’s a rather stoic process,

like a monk training. I personally like that method, though it’s not easy.

Bishop:  Shu-Ha-Ri? What’s that?

JinK:  In Japan, the relationship between disciple and master is regarded as

very important. The first step in such a relationship is “Shu,”

which means to follow. Once you have mastered the fundamentals,

the next step is “Ha,” which means to break. At this stage, you are

expected to “break the mold” and come up with a new form which

is slightly different and more suited to you personally.

The final step is “Ri” which means to detach or depart. At this stage,

you have attained complete mastery and are able to break free from

the mold to create your own new form. This whole process is called

“Shu-Ha-Ri.” It’s an important process for gaining mastery of any of

Japan’s traditional arts, including tea ceremony, martial arts, kabuki, etc.

Bishop:  That all sounds pretty difficult.

I’ve seen this “Yes, master” type of learning style though.

But isn’t it better to try out a lot of different things and then dedicate

yourself to whatever you end up liking the best?

JinK:  In a way. The good thing about the U.S. is that there is a low hurdle

when it comes to learning new things. I feel like there are all sorts of programs

in place to help you try out whatever you want.

In Japan, it’s said that mastering one art makes you good at other things as well,

so the first step is to master one thing.

It’s thought that if you master one art, you’ll learn a lot of other things

along the way, and as a result you’ll be good at a lot of things.

It’s just a difference in approach. Personally, I think that the best way

is probably a combination of the American and Japanese methods.

Bishop:  That makes sense. Now that you mention it, I remember seeing

a documentary about an American tea master in Kyoto.

He came to Japan to learn martial arts, but along the way became

infatuated with tea ceremony, and eventually shifted his focus to

become a tea master. Today, he runs his own tea ceremony school,

which doubles as a cafe in which young people can come to enjoy

tea ceremony in a more casual setting. So it’s true that dedicating

yourself to one thing can open up a lot of other doors.

By the way, JinK-san, do you play any instruments?

JinK:  Well… do you, Bishop-san?

Bishop: No, no…

JinK:  Bishop-san, what’s gotten into you, acting Japanese all of a sudden.

Well, why don’t we both try an American-Japanese hybrid approach

– becoming a “Renaissance person”!

Fact#3: Americans put importance on learning multiple talents,

whereas Japanese put importance on mastering a single art.

By Bishop & JinK.


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