Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Alex Kerr's Lost Japan

Excerpts and insights from the book, LOST JAPAN by Alex Kerr.

"Why can't the Japanese preserve what is valuable at the same time as they modernize?"

For Japan as a nation, the old world has become irrelevant; it all seems as useless as the straw raincoats and bamboo baskets abandoned by the villagers of Iya (central Shikoku).

In the West, contemporary clothing, architecture and so on have developed naturally out of European culture, so thee are fewer discrepancies between 'modern culture' and ancient culture'. The industrial revolution in Europe advanced gradually, taking place during the course of hundreds of years. This is why it was possible for thecountryside of England and France to be relatively unspoiled, why numerous medieval towns still remain, and why the residents of these historical areas still treat them with care and respect...

In contrast change came to China, Japan and Asia in a truly precipitous fashion. What's more, these changes were introduced from a completely alien culture. Consequently, modern clothing and architecture in China and Japan have nothing to do with traditional Asian culture. Although the Japanese may admire the ancient cities of Kyoto and Nara...these places have no connection with their own modern lives...these places have become cities of illusion, historical theme parks.
In East Asia there is no equivalents of Paris or Rome - Kyoto, Beijing and Bangkok have been turned into concrete jungles. Meanwhile the countryside is filled to overflowing with billboards, power lines and aluminium houses.

The use of space has everything to do with lighting. Junichiro Tanizaki's book 'Inei Raisan' (In Praise of Shadows) has become a modern classic...it points out that Japan's traditional art arose from the darkness in which people lived. For example, gold screens, which look garish in modern interiors, were designed to pick up the last struggling rays of light making their way into the dim interior of a Japanese house.

Tanizaki laments that the beauty of shadows is no longer understood in modern Japan. Anyone who has lived in an old Japanese house will know how one always feels starved of light, as if one were swimming underwater. It was the constant pressure of this darkness which drove the Japanese to create cities of neon and fluorescent lights. Brightness is a fundamental desire in modern Japan, as can be seen in its uniformly lit hotel lobbies and flashing Pachinko parlors...

Kabuki seems to have the perfect balance between the sensuality and ritual which are the two poles of Japanese culture. On one hand there is Japan's freewheeling sexuality, out of which was born the riotous 'ukioe' (floating world) of Edo: courtesans, colorful woodblock prints, cross-dressed men and women, 'naked festivals', brilliantly decorated Kimono's, etc.,

On the other hand , there is a tendency in Japan towards over-decoration, towards cheap sensuality too overt to be art. Recognising this the Japanese turn against the sensual. They polish, refine, slow down, trying to reduce art and life to its pure essentials. From this reaction were born the rituals of tea ceremony, Noh drama and Zen.

In the history of Japanese art you can see these two tendencies warring against each other. In the late Muromachi period (1333-1576), gorgeous gold screens were on the ascendant; along came the tea masters, and suddenly the aesthetic was misshapen brown tea bowls. By late Edo (1600-1867) the emphasis had swung back to courtesans and the pleasure quarters.

...Why did stagecraft develop to such a level in Japan? At the risk of oversimplification, I would say that it is because Japan is a country where the exterior is more often valued over the interior. One may see negative effects of this in many aspects of Japanese life. For instance, the fruits and vegetables in a Japanese supermarket are all flawless in color and shape as if made from wax, but they are flavourless. The importance of exterior may be seen in the conflict between 'tatemae' (officially stated position) and 'honne' (real intent), which is a staple of books written about Japan....Nevertheless, the emphasis on the surface is not without its positive side, for kabuki's unparallelled stagecraft is a direct result of such prizing of the outward.

...Focus on the 'instant' is characteristic of Japanese culture as a whole. In Chinese poetry, the poet's imagination may begin with flowers and rivers, and then leap on to the Nine Heavens to ride a dragon to Mt Kun-lun and frolic with the immortals. Japanese haiku focus of the mundane moment, as in Basho's well-known poem: 'The old pond, a frog leaps in, the sound of water'. The frog leaps into the pond, not up to heaven. There are no immortals, just 'the sound of water'...

...I am not partial to Kabuki's historical plays such as Chushingura (The Forty-seven Samurai); most of them involve tales of 'giri-ninjo', and for me there are more interesting themes. For an earlier audience, trained frantically to obey their superiors, these plays about sacrificing oneself for one's lord were truly heart-rending; it was what all Japanese did everyday of their lives, at the office or in the army. There is a moment in Chushingura when the lord has committed harakiri and is dying, but his favourite retainer, Yuranosuke, is late. Finally Yuranosuke arrives, only to see his Master expire with the words, "You were late, Yuranosuke."

Yuranosuke looks silently into his master's eyes and silently understands that he is to wreak vengeance for his lord's martyrdom. I have seen older audiences cry uncontrollably at this scene. But for people who have grown up in soft, affluent, modern Japan...resonances of personal sacrifices are growing faint.

Other Tidbits:

  • Jordan was a path-breaking textbook of Japanese language grounded in linguistic analysis. It was originally used by Diplomats and has since become known as the 'Mother of Japanese language textbooks'.
  • Nihonjinron (theories of Japaneseness) is perhaps the most extensive literatture by any country in praise of itself!
  • Hapax legomenon: characters that occur once in ancient literatureand never again. Eg., Chi for 'flute'.
  • Well Field System: A system of taxes instituted by the Sung Dynasty in China, based on the character for 'well' (#). This represented a plot of land with nine portions: the outlying portions were for peasants to cultivate by themselves and the innermost squqre was to to be cultivated communally and the proceeds given as tax to the government. The social turmoil caused by this resulted in the collaps of the Sung Dynasty afte a century.
  • Clutter & Emptyness: Living in a pile of unorganised things is a typical pattern of Japanese life...In the Muromachi Period (1333-1576), tea-masters grew weary of a life crowded with junk, and created the tearoom: one pure space with absolutely nothing in it was where they escaped the clutter. The culture of the Japanese is bracketed by the two extermes of 'clutter' and 'emptiness'. But when it comes to the middle ground of 'organised space', that is, space with objects organised for daily life, their tradition fails them.
  • Decline to Paralysis: The fall of the Japanese stock market was the biggest loss of wealth in the history of the world...the root of decline of their economy lies in the word 'cozy'. Cozy non-public bidding awards mega-projects to a few companies (Rokko island to Sumitomo Trust); cozy press-clubs hide the truth from the newspapers (the main paper, NKS aka Nikkei failed to report the truth about the crash); the fashion industry blocked out foreign competition (CFD case); film industry is dominated by two giants, Shochiku and Toho, which also own most of the movie theatres...so 'peace in the marketplace' is maintained by supporting cartels which set high prices.The net result? - the Japanese public makes do with just eight TV channels and overpriced goods in the supermarket.As with other over-regulated systems, in time the conflicts with reality multiply, and the cracks begin to show. To prevent collapse, further restrictions become necessary. In the end, it becomes harder and harder to move - hence the present paralysis.
  • Bubuzuke: In the ultra-refined workd of Kyoto etiquette, if your host asks you, "Won't you stay and have some bubuzuke (tea on rice)?", this means that it is time to go!
  • Theme Parks: The new cultural attraction in Japan is European Theme Parks - Shima Spain Village in Mie prefecture; Huis ten Bosch, the Dutch town near Nagasaki. A pseudo-traditional is coming up near the gates of the Grand Shrine of Ise.
  • High-school students in Japan still wear black military uniformswith high collars and brass buttons, a style imported from Prussia in the nineteenth century.
  • Vermilion was the color of Chinese Taoism, and since the Sung Dynasty is has been revered as being sacred to the gods. In the Analects, vermilion signifies noble qualities. Confucius said, 'How regrettable when purple usurps the place of vermilion' - meaning, 'when the vulgar usurps the place of the noble'.

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