Exit, Exit, Enter

On the Meaning of Life: A Japanese Lesson
August 3, 2012, 10:26 am
Filed under: Misc Thoughts

Aru (ある) and Iru (いる) are two verbs that most foreign Japanese-learners learn relatively early on. They are seemingly simple verbs: both are either (depending on which Iru you are using) conjugated like one of the 2 main groups of verbs. So, no problem there. They are also easily learned because they are frequently used early on to help the beginner formulate simple Japanese sentences. Grammatically these words are predictable and mean, quite roughly:

  • Aru (godan/consant-stem verb): (of an inanimate object) to exist; to have; to happen
  • Iru (ichidan/vowel-stem verb): (of an animate object) to exist; to stay; used to indicate continuing state of action when affixed to the -te form of a verb

So again, like most Japanese verbs, Aru and Iru have multiple meanings and can be used differently depending on context. Also, Iru has another meaning (roughly: to need) and can be conjugated like Aru. Two suggestively normal verbs and meanings.

However, I believe that the first meaning of each verb shares with us a unique, quintessentially Nihongo perspective on the meaning of life.

In the United States (in English), the definition of life is typically (and quite rambunctiously) argued over in the political sphere by way of abortion policy, but the dialogue is regularly complemented by philosophical and scientific musing about the tenets that compose the meaning of life. This analytic approach to defining life is useful. However, such reductionist applications to something as heralded as the definition of life are bound to turn some people off. Indeed, this approach to defining life regularly scoffs at those who believe that life is defined by the Spirit, which imbues the life-form in an obligatorily undefined point after conception. Spirit will, safe to say, never be considered in the Western scientist’s definition.

As a Western scientist myself, and regardless of whether or not I sound unnecessarily tolerant(ha), I feel that the definition of life will forever be elusive. Biologists have come up with 7 characteristics which have to be exhibited for life to be declared. These 7 characteristics will no doubt change (and that is something that I am proud!), but is the value of life of any real importance when defined in such biological terms? The life-form must exhibit homeostasis and response to stimuli. So what? Will this one day make me intolerant of the indiscriminate obliteration Human papillomavirus when someone freezes a wart? I dare say nay.

I believe that the Japanese and other Asian cultures have something to offer to the discourse – even if their affront to confrontation will in the near future prevent any attempt of inclusion. I feel that Aru and Iru are words that come from a society (one from whom we can learn) whose approach to a definition of life is more inclusive, more productive and less belligerent.

I do not mean to say in this post that biological definition of life is unimportant or that the inclusion of a Spirit be obligatory, but what I do wish to insist is that we be more aware of the effects that our actions have on other things. What is the importance of defining life biologically? It surely won’t provide any insight medicinally. Whether they be living or inanimate, the  treatment of our planet – and all of ITS animals, plants, resources, people, and things.. because those are all ITS things – is more important than the definition of what is deemed worthy of living. We should more often treat with kindness and understanding and not be so quick to hate and indiscriminately discriminate.

The Japanese understand the importance of conservation. They have words specifically for the regret of wasting. They are constantly, regardless of whether or not that recognition is due to unfortunate means, irrevocably and appreciably aware of their environment. We Americans and Westerners are constantly looking for efficiency rather than saving something because it is prudent or morally or sentimentally valuable.

To me, the existence of ある and いる are indicators of an appreciation for nature and life which is engrained into the Japanese language and culture. We can learn a lot about life — and our definitions of it — from this.


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