Recently my husband and I have been watching “The Crown” on Netflix。As anyone who has followed the history of Britain in the 20th and 21st centuries knows, the story of the Royal Family is largely a tale of the conundrum of when to follow tradition and when to break with it, and how this decision affects people who have to make it.
I have followed various family and village traditions for almost half a century, so I live with this conundrum from day to day. Basically, it is a tug-of-war between respecting things as they have “always” been done and following one’s individual inclinations. Mostly life is a mixture of the two, and how it is resolved depends on the family and the occasion.
As an example, my mother-in-law had a “traditional” funeral. We followed the ways as we were told, by older people who “knew”. As the daughter-in-law, I wore a pure white kimono. People who have been to Japanese funerals know that the dress code is pretty rigid. Black, black, black is the norm. For various reasons, pure white was not something I wanted to wear that day. But this kimono was passed around among the houses of our family as needed, and it was the traditional funeral dress of the daughter-in-law in our family, so I wore it. I also did things like stepping over a burning bundle of straw when I left the house. Huh? …it was the tradition.
What is tradition? Most dictionary definitions emphasize the transmission of various customs or beliefs from generation to generation among a group of people. In Japanese, “tradition” is dento, “transmitting the lineage”. “Custom” is either shukan “learning and getting used to” or fushu “learning what is current”. When customs are transmitted to the next generation, and accepted by them as worth continuing, they become tradition. Is this too simplistic a view?
Many customs and traditions started off as logical or common-sense measures, which then graduated to proverbs or sayings. In Japan, for example, it is “traditionally” considered bad luck to trim your fingernails after nightfall. In the old days, when lights in homes after dark were dim, and implements used for trimming one’s nails probably rather dangerous, this made sense; less so today. In contrast, at some point in history, it became the custom to use red and white as celebratory colors. (This is still observed, though it seems arbitrary.) A Japanese person would not think of using a red and white envelope to take money gifts to a funeral, or to wear these colors to attend a funeral. In contrast, I had to wear an all-white kimono at my mother-in-law’s funeral. Is tradition more arbitrary or divorced from real life compared to custom?
Customs change rapidly; tradition is slower, but it still changes. We don’t live as our ancestors did; we have flush toilets and electricity and cars. But no one would say “It’s wonderful that you are following the tradition” if we still used the old earth toilets, built wood fires for cooking and heating, and walked everywhere. It would be regarded as needlessly complex and uncomfortable. Why are some things dropped without the least regret, and others kept on and on?
And what of “traditions” that seemingly come from nowhere? What gravitas do they have? For example, twenty years ago I started an activity on New Year’s Eve, that we would each write a letter to ourselves as we would be on the following New Year’s Eve. We also opened and read the letter from the previous year. I thought it was a good thing to do, and my husband and I still do it, but probably this will die out with us. Some cultural traditions which we followed for years, such as the Christmas tree, have now been dropped in our house, because they are too much trouble. Yet Japanese New Year traditions are still meticulously followed. Is it time to let some of these go as well? What will happen if we do? Do the ancestors really keep track of these things? Do we on the other hand have a responsibility to our children to make these things easier by not passing them on?
Some traditions have lasting effects on the personalities and psyches of the people who perform them. (Things we saw in “The Crown” comes to mind.) But most would agree that some endurance, discipline, and structure, in moderation, are good things. This is why people train for marathons and play sports and spend hours perfecting scales on the piano. To work until you have achieved something difficult is immensely satisfying.
I worked until I had achieved the knowledge of our household traditions. It was satisfying -- but these traditions will probably not survive the change to the new generation. Still, when I think of all the traditions around the world that have succumbed to the pressure of newness, it starts to seem like not so much an individual tragedy as just what happens in each generation. Do I actually grieve for the loss of these traditions, or is this simply a reaction that I learned along with them?
Recently, a Facebook meme I saw said in part, “It’s more important to make your children proud than your parents proud.” Should I try to make my children proud, rather than the family ancestors? That’s kind of tricky. Children don’t generally feel proud of their parents until they themselves have grown up enough to know what their parents have done and why. In the world of the future, who knows what our children will choose to think about what we did? On the other hand, what exactly is the point of living in order to make our ancestors, who are after all dead, proud? How do we know we are even doing so, though we may follow all the traditions to the letter?
Perhaps the answer is to live in a way that makes us proud of ourselves. I’m not talking about hubris, I’m talking about integrity. What have we ourselves become, in the course of our lives? We will certainly have some winceworthy memories, but in the balance, it comes down to whether we feel we can live with the people we have become.
I myself don’t feel that observing the traditions of our family, and keeping up our old house, have been a waste of my life. It’s what I did, and I did it to the best of my ability. I have felt that many of the traditions I observed have supported me in my life. But things will probably change, and change drastically, in the next generation. It’s already happening. Young people, buckle up! Which traditions will survive to support you? Maybe you won’t need any. Who knows?