Josetsu and Art: Relations between China and Japan are based on “Catching a Catfish with a Gourd”

Josetsu and Art: Relations between China and Japan are based on “Catching a Catfish with a Gourd”

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times


China and Japan have so much in common based on the richness of Buddhism, Confucianism, the arts, culture, gardens, Zen, and a plethora of areas related to high culture. Yet, relations in recent history have been rocky to say the least. Of course, many bright periods since the post War period of 1945 based on economic factors have happened. However, despite the positives, both nations distrust each other and petty nationalism often breaks out over minor issues that suddenly become blown up out of all proportion.

Josetsu was a Chinese immigrant to Japan but this didn’t stop him from progressing rapidly within his adopted land. Yet, while his legacy is based on art and culture, it should also be based on the reality of relations between China and Japan throughout much of history. This applies to both nations having favorable relations and learning from each other – after all, great teachers went both ways and gained greatly from this cultural interaction.

The art piece titled Catching a Catfish with a Gourd by Josetsu sums up the usual spats between China and Japan in the modern period. In other words, it is an utter illusion based on enormous distortions. This isn’t meant to cover-up the enormous brutal deeds of Japanese Imperialism against the people of China. However, paradoxically, China appears to have memory loss about the tens of millions who died based on the enormous excesses of the Cultural Revolution and other periods of mass political upheavals during the period of Chairman Mao Zedong.

Another tragic reality is that China and Japan were equal victims of European Imperial powers and the growing power of America. Prior to the menace of Western powers it is clear that for thousands of years both China and Japan had extremely cordial relations on the whole. Unlike England (United Kingdom) and France who were often at war between each other and embroiled in negative geopolitical games towards each other; this never applied to China and Japan to any great extent prior to Western encroachment. Therefore, while China was being swallowed up by Western Imperial powers the nation of Japan decided to modernize and base its logic on Western concepts of imperialism, war and exploitation.

Catching a Catfish with a Gourd by Josetsu is clearly impossible. The same applies to the distortions of relations in modern day China and Japan, whereby both nations focus on the forced reality that they are giving to their equal illusions. Therefore, China and Japan should focus on the whole picture of relations between China and Japan throughout history and then refocus on “catching a catfish with the proper equipment and then letting it go to reside in peace.”

On the Kyoto National Museum website it says: Is it really possible to catch a catfish with a gourd? Of course not! There is no way that one could catch a slick and slippery catfish with a smooth gourd! Perhaps the creator of the riddle Yoshimochi wasn’t hoping for a correct answer… Instead Yoshimochi’s purpose in providing such a difficult question was probably to have fun thinking together about the answer with the wise and witty high priests!”

Therefore, the Catching a Catfish with a Gourd is an illusion and individuals can hazard a guess to the real meaning, if indeed any “real meaning” exists? This is in line with the rhetoric emanating from nationalist feelings within China and Japan. After all, look at the real history based on thousands of years between both nations and then look at the bigger picture. In other words, did both nations split away naturally from understanding each other – or did Western encroachment upset the applecart?

It is time for China and Japan to “put their respective apples on the cart together” and in a courteous way that befits both nations.” The lesson of Josetsu is that he was born in China but he was welcomed with open arms in Japan. Not only this, he rose to prominence and was widely respected by the upper echelons of Japanese society in the early period of the fifteenth century. Therefore, if modernity means anything then surely China and Japan should grasp the future together. Likewise, if the past means anything, then surely both nations must acknowledge that “a common home” once existed – therefore, why not again?

Until this time exists once more then clearly both nations are trying to “Catch a Catfish with a Gourd!” – Kyoto National Museum

Some Japanese art, cultural and geopolitical articles are republished in order to highlight the unique nature of Japan.


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