Ninomiya Sontoku: The Power of Curiosity & Passion

The power of passion and curiosity, a subject I always wanted to write about. Incidentally, the desire to do so, first emerged during my stint in Japan, quite some time ago. But having months of transition behind me and needing to lay out my future anew now, it resurfaced and I suddenly felt the urge to finally write it down. Long enough it has been sitting in the back of my head …

Book Country.JPG
Sontoku’s classic image emerging during the Meiji period. Him using every opportunity to read in the Teachings of Confucius (論語;ろんご and 大学;だいがく) while carrying firewood or working the fields. Although a sort of romanticized depiction of his and not an actuality, it is that image which remains in the hearts of the people.

When I first looked around for an image to use with the article, the fortunate incident brought me to cross path with Ninomyo Sontoku. It was the picture above that captivated me. Getting to know his story, he became my impersonation of passion and curiosity. Both were enhancing my life greatly at the time in Japan. So it was any easy to make him the article’s protagonist around whom the subject topic should revolve – I felt that there was some common ground. Writing everything down in context though, is a much different story 😅

Seeing his walking figure reading with a bulky bundle of firewood on his back, it eminently remembered me on myself, when there was a time I liked to read in every moment I could. Was it on the way to and from work on the train, when waiting for someone to meet or my travels in Asia, particular so in Korea. My firewood, a large backpack. My life fitted in it. It was before I ever heard of Sontoku, less so had I set foot on the Japanese archipelago then. It was probably when I developed most profoundly and directed me on the life path, where I am now heading off on. It was perhaps the birth hour of my passion and when my personal world finally started illuminating 🌟 

 

Meeting Sontoku

Ninomiya Sontoku (二宮尊徳・にのみやそんとく; 1787-1856), a pioneer agronomist and economical thinker, holds therefore a special place for me for various reasons. It must have been around fall of 2014, when I have been gathering first materials and ideas for this blog. My stay in Japan was in the last of breaths, when we met. Shortly after I was to become a farmer myself for a few years. This experience brought me even closer to relate with Sontoku. I always think back to it with fond memories and a feeling of deep gratitude, has it told me so many valuable lessons about life. For example, nature, slow and steady, always achieves something beautiful, then that what one will saw 🌱, one will reap 🌾 (in a positive way), further that one has to deal with weeds and he who sorts it out, will have good things grow his way 🌿 and not at least so that with passion, everything is possible, despite your own background and social status. Have you ever harvested homegrown veggies? It’s savoring your very fruits of effort in the most direct of ways – well first hand, aptly said. Call it passion fruits, divine fruits!

And while I’m on it to refresh my memory, I can only recommend to everyone to do growing at least one summer just for the experience. The gardens we erect, are to be understood as our hearts inner wish to manifest paradise around us. They provide us with everything we need, nourishing our stomachs and spirits alike … I was all but a farmer from origin 👨‍🌾, so was Sontoku all but a samurai, administrator, a government official when he started out. But unwavering in the principles deeply rooted in the Gojou (五常・ごじょう; the five cardinal Confucian virtues of justice, politeness, wisdom, fidelity, benevolence) and spurred by passion, he made an impact to his communities and country unlike many. A shining example

 

A shining example for all of us

So who is this Ninomiya Sontoku I’m talking about here?

I’m happy that to expand on my personal development series with this article and at the same time get the opportunity to present yet another figure from the Edo Period of Japan (江戸時代・えどじだい; 1603-1868). Ninomiya Sontoku or Kinjirou, as he is also referred to by his birth name, is a historic figure and inspiring story. Japanese are well intimate with his, especially with the above depiction. He has been the material of children songs and elementary school textbooks. If you stepped on a school or shrine ground in Japan, the chance is that you bump into his. Statues of a youth Sontoku, shouldering firewood and brooding over a book while on the way from and to his duties is found not a few around the country. Filial to his parents, diligent in his studies, hardworking on the fields, solidary to his farming communities, his been a role model for many in Japan. Exceptionally large not only in stature, but just as much in personality and heart. A person larger than life with a lasting impact to the present day. 

But the story of his has more to it. It’s a story against all odds and upsetting rigid social hierarchies. It was when farmers knew their place behind nobles, samurais and merchants. Although from a social classes point of view, they were regarded higher as merchants and artisans, the farmers were usually the hard-pressed ones. It was a life of great ordeals, with farmers often squeezed out to the very last of drop, or I shall say crop. Making your way out of the social strata was only possible in utmost rare cases, through extraordinary deeds. But then, he who wants can, he who can wants! Every era, every society brings forth a few individuals, we are blessed to learn and to be inspired from. Their ideas and their deeds are passed down the generations, transcend cultures. Ninomiya Sontoku was one of them few and exceptional individuals we should take good example from, no matter the times and place we are in. His is a timeless classic that converts easily into modern days. He should inspire the boys and girls around the country for diligent learning, but there is plenty for adults to reflect on, too. Students, politicians, business people, managers, parents, all alike can learn from him in manifold ways.

Because it is that Sontoku can stand for so many things. Be it a shining example in times of crisis to his fellow humans, a Lichtgestalt of humanity. He experienced two out of the Three Great Famines in Edo (三大飢饉・さんだいききん), first the aftermath of the Tenmei Famine (天明の飢饉・てんめいのききん) as a child, then the Tenpou Famine (天保の飢饉・てんぽうのききん)and thanks to his doings and foresight in the latter, the populace in the domains he was responsible for had not to suffer like elsewhere. He could also easily be Japan’s first democrat. A forerunner of gender equality, with women having equal voting rights within his farming communities. All too well he observed that men with full stomach lie idly, while women went on with their domestic duties. The Americans took him for this in WWII, portraying him up there together with the statue of liberty 🗽 and Abraham Lincoln. Or a peasant saint to restore hundreds of ailing farming villages to new vigor and prosperity. By nature a peasant himself, he understood more than anybody else, how to revitalize the spirits of discouraged and unmotivated villagers with a participatory approach – self-help and self-responsibility is the most sustainable. Seeing that one could take destiny into own hands, peasants regained their work ethics and spirits that they neglected culpably before.

He matches all of this different personas, but for me personally, he speaks most as a symbol of what passion can do, once unleashed!

 

Unlocking passion (情熱・じょうねつ) through curiosity (好奇心・こうきしん)

Passion we carry all within us, we just need to find it! 好奇心は猫を殺す (こうきしんはねこを殺す) or curiosity kills the cat they say, but developing a genuine interest in things and people is learnable and can enrich our lives a great deal. I found it to be the key 🔑 to unlock the first because it makes us explore things, we would maybe not consider, giving our natural tendencies. How otherwise could we find passion if not through curiosity?! – I think I would never have come to writing or the topics I have been writing about or less so my other fields of interest, if not for curiosity. Always be curious and ask why something is, the way it is. Curiosity might just lead us to find our sacred tasks and bundled with passion to our meant destiny 💫

Then, once passion is unshackled, we can reach the heights of our true individual potentials. Goals will then manifest naturally therein pointing the further way at all stages in life. At first he was burning for learning also out of necessity to making a livelihood – make a virtue out of necessity – but later his wish to improve the good of communities came as a matter of course. Because passion means meaning to our lives, something very strong that inhabits us deep inside, just waiting to be discovered. Maybe passion is what brings us to the true source of our creativity, our own godness? – Passion then leads to love for the very act of doing something ❤️ Love what you do, they say for a reason! Passion can make us achieve things, we would never have dared to dream of, but all is possible! Passion is the key for a fulfilled existence …

… and the best of it is that it is never too late to start searching and understanding it. No matter in what situation of life you are in right now! It might be frightening at first, but do what you fear and success will be certain – passion will give you the wink 🌠

We are beautifully born into this world – each one of us – all with uniqueness and talents. Some might deny themselves, but every human has specialties to her and him own, they just need to be kindled by curiosity and passion. We are all useful in this world, can make our own contributions. That spark can change everything! Talents can bring us to a certain level, but can also lead to self-complacency (why should I do more?). A gift at birth, so are our hidden passions, but they in contrast will launch us into action and let us take initiative – if you want to succeed, don’t sit, but sweat and work your hardest, a saying goes. A third indispensable ingredient, knowledge is not given, but is available to us all by curiosity we apply in our personal development. Isn’t this a elating a thought? There aren’t any intelligent people born into this world, but it lies all in our own hands what we make out of our lives!

So like our farmer’s son Sontoku, anybody can gain knowledge, giving us wings to flying high. Also handicaps at the start, of which he had not a few to shoulder in young years, mustn’t necessarily be of evil. The bundle firewood he hauled on his back, then symbolizes for me somehow the load he carried for himself, his family and his community. Handicaps are a blessing, when we accept them, because they make us working harder, where others could never reach. Overcoming obstacles is an important puzzle piece in the process. Nothing comes easy. As one will also learn from farming, one mustn’t haste. Nature takes its time, so should we. Nothing can be forced, things will come to us when ready. Go slow, but steady and we will never go backwards. It’s unplugged, slow processing and digesting. An analogy found in growing, foods and literature alike.

Then, when we have ignited passion, we should do everything in our strength to create the environment to live it out to the fullest. This is exactly what Sontoku has done for himself. Fixing workers’ sandals or planting redundant seedlings of crop in every unworked lots of land he could find to later sell the yield for buying lamp oil, so he could read during nights. 

First you might not even know what drives you and where all that creativity sprouts from, but time will tell. She always does. It‘s when you can free boundless energy, even after a long working day, when your early morning hours are your best friend and you immerse late into the nights, as if there was no morning. You burn of passion – fire and flame 💥🔥!

And sometimes this may mean, we have to be hermits in life. When nobody understands us and we have to go our own track, dark and bright hours alike. Nobody can take it from us. It doesn’t matter though because the journey we have to go by ourselves and once we will have finished this part, we will be a different person on the other end. The more we go, the clearer the road will get over time, spreading out before us. The direction is known. Sontaku was like this in different stages of his life, I think. First and foremost, when he was reading on books long into the nights under the candle lights, literally burning the midnight oil …

The pleasantest of all diversions is to sit alone under the lamp, a book spread out before you …

a phrase goes in the Tsurezuregusa. One Sontoku could have related to all too well, I think. Wisdom, biographies, ages, believes, sciences, inventions, discoveries, all available in the form of books 📚 Among the covers we can find our own passions …

Studies of the Confucian classics, usually reserved for the upper classes and frowned upon as a waste of time by others of his own occupation, considered not an essential for farmers besides the learning of the Soroban (算盤・そろばん; abacus) and accounting basics.

For instance, Manbe, Sontoku’s uncle, didn’t manage to understand the earnestness behind Sontoku’s industry for learning, just rebuked him for using up the precious lamp oil. All he was concerned of was that the youngster would do his intended work the next day – pottering about the property, plowing fields and bringing in the firewood. Although his uncle’s intentions were not bad per se, wanting to make Sontoku a full-fledge farmer as soon as possible, he failed to see the greater picture. He could not see what drove the young man. But be it as it may, despite of not receiving the blessing of his uncle and others, Sontoku managed to go his way. Eventually he received his chance to prove himself in the service of the Odawara daimyo. Sometimes we need a someone giving us that chance to unfold our passions, who doesn’t care our social and educational backgrounds, but believes in our potentials, our passions. This assignment gave Ninomiya Sontoku a major bust in his personal development. This is what happens once seized by the force of passion, energies and ingenuity set alight! Investing into your passions means investing into yourself 💫

Again, he who wants can, he who can wants ☝️ One day he would achieve his goals. He regained the own household, bought back his parents lands, expanding them even, fulfilled his father’s dream of a uniform crop measure container for a fair annual rice tax tribute and improving the lives of many in the district and farming communities he was in charge of. In the end he made it to become one of Edo’s agricultural administrators, going as far up as what would be someone from the ministry of land infrastructure transport in modern times. First helping is own family to later be responsible for planning national land projects in his prime. It’s one of the beauties this story has to tell 💕 A farmer rising to status of samurai and readjusting samurai household finances per se was an outrageous thing at the time and he met with alienation and envy as he rose, but steadfast in his concepts and philosophies, nothing could throw down this down-to-earth stump of a man. Knowing the way he came, the gratitude he owed to others and a farmer at heart, he always kept his feet on the ground. 

 

A practical approach

Most of us are caught up in the grind of daily duties. So was Sontoku first occupied from early morning into the nights with his errands. But he found ways to stick to his passions even during his chores. One such method, he passionately practiced and brought him in the nickname of Gururi-Ippen (ぐるり一遍ぐるりいっぺん; lit. “go-around-verse”), was that he put the Confucian texts next to the mortar, where he went around with the mallet pounding the rice. So he read a verse, then recited and reflected it while making a circle around the mortar. Then a next passage followed and so forth. He literally pounded his knowledge into his memory by this practice. One circle at the time. A circle, the symbol of endless turns of beginning and ending. Ichen (一円・いちえん; one circle), a monistic concept he would later develop himself. Sontoku’s learning methods, as simple as effective: read, learn, reflect, practical application of the same and it becomes part of you 🤓

For me, hikes did this effect or when making my jogging rounds. I then naturally reflected on all what I have read and over time it really changed something in me. It was an unconscious process with hindsight – transforming. Like Ninomiya Sontoku, take a book wherever you go. No matter if you are too early to a meeting or so, these times of reading can easily become your most valuable moments of your day. Bring you closer to your passions. No time, no opportunity wasted. By doing so myself, I also suddenly could step out of my own shadowy existence and do things I’d never imagined. I have never thought of becoming a writer or maintaining a blog, but I discovered it is something I really like to do. This finding may seem not all too significant from an outsiders view, but it has been very much so for my personal evolution. It’s not about fame, this is not to be mine, but knowing oneself that one can get ahead in life and have the power to create something beautiful on our own despite where we started out from is somewhat encouraging.

 

Closing word

Thanks for reading along till the end. If you haven’t found your own key already, I hope Ninomiya Sontoku’s story encourages you in the search of your own passions. If you see Sontoku coming your way with his book in the hand and firewood on his back, he may remind you on all what life can have in store for us, if we pursue with curiosity and passion. For me personally, it has been a gem and passionate affair. I haven’t fully unlocked my passion just yet, also due to economic reasons, but one step after the other will lead to my goal – constant drops wear away the stone or 石の上にも三年 (いしのうえにもさんねん). In the situation I have been in with transiting life for the last couple months, I really wanted to get this off my chest. I think that I now finally found the words to express myself, long it has taken. It had to ripen first. Maybe this article is also the inducement I needed to embark now on my next challenges and to recall what is really important to me in life 💫

In the end, a satisfactory feeling going through the reading, researching, writing and editing process. It is always again a feeling of revitalization to have completed such a task. It’s now part of me and I have Sontoku a companion along the way. Remains to set a wish for my upcoming projects into a spring wind and send it off. May come what comes. Cause – Time – Effect ✨✨

 

You might also be interested in the following article(s)/page(s)💡:

Article Guide:

  • Words in sea green color link🔗 to other articles/pages on MyLittle Dejima
  • Words in teal color link🔗 to external references/pages
  • Words in simple bold, titles and article relevant information without external reference

For Japanese related words Hiragana (ひらがな), Katakana (カタカナ) and Kanji (漢字) are added for those interested in Japanese terminology.

Edition History:

  • First published: May 24th, 2020
  • Posted on Google+ & Twitter: May 24th, 2020
  • Minor revisions & additions: Jun. 1st, 2020

©MyLittle Dejima 2014 – 2020

2 thoughts on “Ninomiya Sontoku: The Power of Curiosity & Passion

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s