Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Doin' the "Why Not?" dance

The year 1867 was a tumultuous time in Japan. The shogunate, the feudal government that had ruled the country for centuries, was collapsing. (The film The Last Samurai is based loosely--very loosely--on events that occurred in that period.) The samurai were losing ground to a patriotic movement that sought to overthrow the Shogun and modernize Japan. The movement's goal was to give the nation a modern government capable of defending the land from a world outside of Japan that had advanced by leaps and bounds while Japan had stagnated technologically under the seclusionist policies of the Shogunate. For the average Japanese, this was a time of great confusion and unease: They knew their very way of life would be transformed. Not only that, they realized how vulnerable Japan was to the European powers. They had to modernize, and nothing would ever be the same again.

How did the people react? Did they run around in a panic? Did they riot? No. They simply kicked up their heels, waved their hands in the air, and chanted as they danced: Eejanaika, eijanaika, which can be translated as "Why not?" or "What's wrong with that?" (A possible translation in Australian English would be "No worries, mate." Another equivalent is "Everything's gonna be all right.")

"Eejanaika," repeated over and over, was the chorus to patriotic songs sung by crowds at festivals and political rallies. Such events must have been quite a spectacle: Throngs of kimono-clad men and women singing in unison as they paraded through city streets. The dancing and celebrating started in one city but eventually spread throughout the land. From a modern point of view, we would say the phenomenon was probably part celebration, part mass hysteria. It was also a show of support for the political changes that were happening (and against the samurai who were scheming to hold onto power). Even today, the phrase "Eejanaika" is widely associated in Japan with that period in history. There was even a movie made about that period titled Eejanaika.)

Sure, change is scary. But sometime, in this crazy world, you just have to stand up, wave your hands in the air, and do the "Why Not?" dance.

—Mellow Monk

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