Master of Architecture candidate at the University of Washington. Spending October 2010 - March 2012 as a researcher at Kobe University on a Monbusho Fellowship, sponsored by the Japanese government. Researching the cultural and practical relationships between water and public space. Documenting research and reflections.

13 January 2011

Of Dogs and Demons

            In Dogs and Demons, Alex Kerr considers aspects of the paradoxical dualities that continue to mystify Western interpreters. By examining the construction industry, Kerr is able to tease out the pithy and disturbing issue of Japan’s relationship to modernization. Contemporary interpretations of ancient Japan often rest on the monk Kamo no Chomei’s Record of the Ten-foot Square Hut (1153-1216) (Kerr 38) and its image of the hermit living in a minimal dwelling, barely sheltered from inevitable waves of natural disasters. Kamo no Chomei’s response to the flimsiness of his dwelling is a philosophy of impermanence. People and their architecture fleet and fade but nature lives on. 
concrete reinforcing preventing potential erosion, Shodoshima

            Kerr’s perspective is that Japanese bureaucracy is sacrificing Japan’s traditional built environment as a way of spending allocated funds. “After the war, with the army and the zaibatsu discredited, politicians, the press, and the public consigned their fate to bureaucrats, allowing them near-dictatorial powers and asking no questions. For a while, the system worked reasonably well. But in the 1970s, things started to get out of hand…Agencies started multiplying…all dedicated to building more dams, more roads, more museums, more harbor landfill…” (Kerr 159).
            Regarding that philosophy of impermanence, Kerr asks, what are we to make of the systematic and pointless paving of all of modern Japan? Kerr points out that bureaucratic policy has supplied funds for the construction of roads, dams, erosion control, and land reclamation on a national scale. The funds must be spent or they will not only be lost but excluded from next year’s budget. So a project of modernization begun in a pre-industrial state has statistically continued for the last 5 decades, responding not to today’s demand but to the demands of the era in which the policy was written.
            How can a culture that eschews and celebrates impermanence, asymmetry, delicately composed raw materials and the like simultaneously fix in place the very landscape they cultrally acknowledge as shifting and changing via the Shinto belief system? How can they be so inflexible?
            Donald Richie, in his novel The Inland Sea, writes near the beginning of this damaging policy’s implementation. His goal as he wanders among the quiet islands between Honshu and Shikoku is not only to seek out what remains of pre-modern Japanese culture but also to find situations where he can escape the outsider’s sensation of “I” and “they.” Instead of comparing Japan as “was” vs “is”, he compares “East” vs “West.” He points out that Western mentality understands the individual as masked. We wear masks, our public persona. Aristotle would add that these masks conceal our ego and our daemon: our rational and irrational selves. But in Japan, sometimes people talk about a perspective in which things are more superficial: the known world is the visible, physical world and the un-plumed depths of the psyche do not figure into the worldview. Things pass and change, they can combine and recombine without a rational logic. They merely are.
            For example, in Western literature, a comparison between two dissimilar things needs a poetic device: metaphor, simile, synecdoche, hyperbole, et cetera. In Japanese literature, the device may be the haiku. Richie writes, “I do not know why. But it seems I am seeing two aspects of the same thing. A connection, hidden but certain, is there. As in haiku, two observations ordinarily thought incongruous join to reveal their single unity. Perhaps this is why the Japanese invented the haiku, simply to record this apprehension of similarity that I sense but cannot explain” (Richie 124). The way we relate dissimilar concepts belies our worldview. Richie is surmising that in the Japanese worldview, the two concepts are simply laid side by side.
            Since Japan’s debut on the world stage, philosophies and concepts have passed east and west, and noticeably hybridized into new and challenging ways of seeing the world. If Japan is the unique author of the haiku as a device for refusing to discretely relate dissimilar concepts (a strategy which elegantly allows the unstated, the unseen to swish for an instant between the hands before escaping below the surface) then perhaps it is the Japanese worldview that sometimes echoes through contemporary Western philosophy, such as when aesthetic philosopher Elizabeth Scarry argues for the supremacy of the simile over the metaphor. In The Body in Pain, she uses her preference for the simile to underscore her greater argument for a flexible worldview that fails to harden into unchanging arrangements. Using a simile, we can say “x is like y” rather than the more defining and strong metaphorical statement “x is y.” With a simile, two dissimilar things are pinned together, but needn’t replace one another.
             Deleuze and Guattari riff on perceptions of impermanence in A Thousand Plateaus. In the chapter “Treatise on Nomadology: The War Machine,” they explore two views of space: striated space and smooth space. The shifting, floating, superficial world of the haiku and the simile belong to smooth space. Returning to the original question of this essay, how can we then understand Japan’s demand to convert its entire nation into the literally striated space of rivers plugged by dams and hillsides held in place by concrete grids, and sandy beaches fixed against the pull and sway of the tides?
            Kerr offers two interpretations. First, the haiku: Japan has divorced herself from her pre-modern past. This past only emerges in support of national identity and tourism. Then, the metaphor: today’s Japan is the result of a campaign stretching back to the beginning of modernization in the Meiji era.
            With Commodore Perry’s arrival in 1868, Japan was wrenched from a private dream into the globalizing world. In the face of the shock, Kerr writes, “the slogan of Meiji-period modernizers was Wakon Yosai, ‘Japanese spirit, Western technology’” (Kerr 40). Kerr argues that what we see now in Japan is indeed Japanese spirit, quoting Donal Richie’s quip “what’s the difference between torturing a bonsai and torturing the landscape?” (Richie 37). The problem, Kerr implies, is that the ‘Japanese spirit’—really Japanese bureaucracy—drives too hard at a goal without reconsidering along the way. Acceptance of impermanence thus eludes even the mystical Japanese: in fact the idea of impermanence was an obsession barring a more stable and desireable state of Wa or peace; stasis. Comparing the environmental movements of Japan versus the U.S. further undermines Wakon Yosai because the influence of community groups in the U.S. over the last century have effectively recharted environmental policy while Japan charges ahead, Kerr says, a post-industrial state using pre-industrial strategy, failing to realize its mistakes.
            Inevitably, when you seek for something it isn’t there. Try and find the heart of the avant-garde in New York, the most experimental music in San Francisco, the best party in town: it isn’t there. It either just ended or it hasn’t begun, or else you simply aren’t invited. It’s only through an unsuspecting ramble through the rain shining streets of the great city does Harry Haller find the magical night café and the invitation to the underground party in Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf. So it is that a seeker must be more humble and flexible, open to chance and opportunity.
            Certainly, there is a building machine on auto-pilot at work in Japan. The projects cited by Kerr and visible to a naïve visitor like myself often fly in the face of sensitivity to tradition, context, environment and material choice. Kerr repeats, and it is true, when you visit a famous old place in Japan, you must carefully frame your shot to avoid the concrete culvert just to the side. At the same time, I love that people actually visit these old things on their weekends, and that some modes of Japanese life are very much alive and well. Also, as someone like photographer Toshio Shibata shows, there is a strange unsettling beauty in all that infrastructure.
Toshio Shibata,

            Is it fair to hold Japan to the same qualities of “modernity” that distinguish the West? Or is it fair to allow Japanese bureaucracy to wreck beautiful things without listening to citizens or foreigners? Is the wrecking and rebuilding something that’s deeply part of Japanese culture, embedded in Shintoism? Or is it a recently adopted strategy? And if its deeply embedded, does that make it admissible if it puts people and the environment in danger through pollution?
            Perhaps it is more fair to study individuals, their products, their relationship with the West and with modernity. Perhaps Kerr’s thesis is too generalizing and too much from a Western perspective. Or perhaps we can advance a more beautiful, careful, and respectful way to relate tradition to modernity, by looking closely at some successful cases.

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