As I mentioned several posts ago, Alex Kerr spoke this Monday at Japan Society. Did anyone who attended tonight learn of the lecture as the result of reading it here? I wonder.
I apologize if the following is rambling. There’s so much I want to say, so much I want to make sure I get in, and I just can’t organize it neatly. Alex inspires that kind of thought process & writing style in me.
Alex can be depressing; he can take a very pessimistic view of Japan, and he can lead others to have a pessimistic, dark view about it as well. It is for that reason that I have been advised against reading Dogs & Demons. But after tonight’s talk, I am quite curious to read it. Because you can’t fix problems you don’t recognize, let alone understand, and because this issue of preserving Japan’s cultural and natural beauty is very important, and intriguing, to me.
I was taken in by the talk most of all because, more than anyone else I have read or met, Alex can be incredibly inspirational about what a wonderful place Japan can be. It is only through his eyes that I can appreciate what he calls 何でもないの魅力, the charm of nothing special. Read “Lost Japan”, and you’ll know what I mean. Alex appreciates the beauty of so many things the Japanese no longer do; sunsets and sunrises, the mist rolling over the mountains, the flickering shadows in candlelight, the elegance of wooden roof beams and basic black ink calligraphy. And he inspires others to see the beauty in the simple as well. The work he does, promoting traditional culture and preserving traditional architecture, is extremely important, not with the aim of freezing Japan in the past, like a city in a bottle, but with the aim of modernizing elegantly, gracefully, in a manner that is true to the country’s rich and beautiful heritage. Alex has not only a deep understanding of all the things that are wrong, but also a vision of what it should be, and what it can be again. I have myself rarely been as inspired to appreciate simple beauty, natural vistas, and certain aspects of traditional culture as I have when reading, listening to, or talking with Alex.
Alex is also an inspiration to be because he is, in some ways, an incredible example of what can be accomplished with hard work, a never give up attitude, and a shitload of luck. Alex is a modern day literati. He doesn’t play by the rules, doesn’t work inside the box of the standard scholar, but makes his own successes. He basically does whatever he wants, whatever grabs his interest, pursues it, and is successful at it. He lives the life of the literati, hosting parties in his machiya art space, where people gather to drink sake, do calligraphy, and perhaps perform a little kyōgen, enjoying a modern version of the life 99% of Japanese have forgotten about and wouldn’t know how to appreciate today. He makes me want to drop everything – grad school, my safe and sure career path here in the US – to pursue the adventure of the literati life in Japan. He makes me feel like I am seriously missing out by not doing this. I want so badly to fall into the right opportunity, the right chance meeting, that will lead me to living a life like his: beautiful traditional style homes, an art collection, a strong involvement with very actively promoting traditional arts and culture, and being immersed in it. But, taking a chance is exactly what it is, a lark, a risk, giving up whatever guarantees I might have from sticking to the path, and relying on pure luck to see me through. I don’t think I can do that.
I’ll admit, I do feel strange about Alex’s take on the natural and traditional beauty of Japan, and its importance. The way he speaks, it sounds like traditional and natural beauty is not only the goal unto itself, the only goal worth working towards, but he speaks as if everyone should or already does agree with him; as if traditional style is inherently better than modern style and there’s no need to argue his point. Granted, I agree with him completely; I love traditional, cultural, Japanese Japan, and I never signed up for this concrete jungle that “modern” Japan has become. But, while intentionally avoiding the “O” word, is it not true that this is still very much a foreigner’s view? After all these years living in the Far East, isn’t Alex still bringing a very foreign attitude to this? After all, that’s the same thing most of us gaijin Japanophiles want – to have Japan maintain its traditional culture; if we wanted concrete, we’d stay home in the West.
Actually, though, Alex is far from a dumb, naive, or uninformed guy. He does not oppose progress or modernity at all, but rather posits that Japan has gone about it in the wrong way. He has shown, through his machiya renovation projects, his lectures, and his writing, that it is very doable to make an old home livable, with modern appliances and conveniences. He points out that millions and millions of people in the US alone, not to mention Europe, do just that – my own home that I grew up in is over 100 years old and it’s perfectly livable, because it’s been modified over the years to incorporate heating, AC, electricity, modern plumbing, etc.
Hanamikoji, Gion, Kyoto. The atmosphere of a quaint, quiet street in the most famous geisha district in the world is ruined by power lines and a telephone pole.
Cities throughout the world, from London to New York, have learned to place electric wires underground, thus preserving the view of the facades and atmosphere of the streets. Japan has not. Cities outside Japan have learned to build bridges, roads, stations, and other public works projects in such a way as to preserve and fit into the character of a place, while Japanese cities have not (see for example, Tower Bridge. For the wrong way to do it, see Kyoto Station). Cities around the world have learned to build the projects you need and not the ones you don’t. To preserve and protect those things that your community should be proud of, that distinguish it, that attract tourists, and to not sink that money into the excessively large, extravagant, and totally out of place cultural halls, etc that can be found today in all the wrong places in Japan.
I do worry a little about Alex’s renovation projects, in the sense that it is easy to fall into the trap of creating a sort of theme park, a false reproduction of traditional life, rather than actually supporting the traditional life in a given place. Alex talks about revamping a number of homes on the island of Ojika, to make them livable rentable spaces for tourists, and about how he’s going to use the 8th century harbor as the arrival point, transforming one particular structure into, not a “welcome center” per se, but a space for restaurants and the like catering specifically to these tourists… and it all sounds just a little too planned. Still, that said, listening to Alex more, and reading more about the project(s) online, etc, one comes to realize that he does in fact know what he’s doing, and that he will not allow this to become a theme park. In fact, he is the last person I’d expect to have any taste for tacky souveniers or the tacky false-traditional-architecture shops that sell them.
Minato Mirai (“Port of the Future”) in Yokohama. Manga-chiku, or just ultramodern?
I have only two major protests against what Alex had to say yesterday. One, he has little affection for anything related to the manga/anime-aesthetic, and accuses essentially everything post- or ultra-modern in Japan, i.e. the current building boom design trend, of being manga-chiku. I think his hatred of Kyoto Station is well-founded, as is his assertion that Kyoto hates Kyoto (京都は京都が嫌いどいす) – the city hates being seen as traditional, cultural and historical and strives to be modern but, as I have myself argued on numerous occasions, it fails to modernize gracefully or beautifully or even effectively; it refuses to maintain or cultivate its image as a cultural & historical center, instead building the ultra-hideous Kyoto Tower, and Kyoto Station which is essentially a denial in every way possible of Kyoto’s character and identity. But, returning to the point, Kerr accuses everything from Kameoka Station to the proposed highways over the historical bay at Tamanoura, the last remaining Edo-period-style port in the country, of being manga-inspired, and thus anathema to his tastes. This despite the fact that they are not all that manga-esque in style, and that the world of anime, manga, and Japanese pop culture more widely is not something to be reviled; it’s actually quite interesting, exciting, colorful, intriguing in its own way.
Rooftops in Shanghai. Courtesy of the Silk Road Collection.
My second quibble has to do with the way he represented China in tonight’s presentation. He showed the rooftops of a Chinese city, traditional tile roofs as far as the eye could see, no concrete 1960s style towers or even powerlines obscuring the view, a view not too different from what Kyoto would have looked like only a few decades ago. He showed a gorgeous Shanghai street, lined with trees with full, bushy green boughs, and talked about how the Japanese chop off the branches of their trees so they won’t drop leaves all over and mess up the streets. As a representation of what Japan once was, what it should be, and what it could be again, I think it a beautiful and powerful comparison. However, the implication is that he thinks that China is doing something right when it comes to development and modernization; I sincerely hope that Alex does not believe this, because he is dead wrong. I believe that the only reason those traditional style buildings are still there is because the machine of Chinese “modernization” hasn’t reached them yet. A nation which prides itself on its steel production and other such outdated (and filthy, polluting) notions of “modernity”, where cities grow at an incredible, amazing rate, their old traditional, historical, cultural character disappearing overnight, is not where you will find an enlightened post-modernist philosophy of protection or rejuvenation of tradition. In fact, given China’s history when it comes to Cultural Revolutions, the express rejection of tradition, the rewriting and twisting of history, and the borderline maniacal drive to modernize, it is the last place one should expect to find respect for tradition. In many ways, China’s path of progress and attitude regarding it are little different from where Japan was 30-50 years ago. China is behind the curve; not ahead of it.
Moving on, I should like to mention Alex’s newest project before I forget about it. The town of Ojika, which consists of two tiny islands in Nagasaki Prefecture, has apparently approached Alex’s organization to help them organize the rejuvenation and maintenance of their traditional town, in order to bring healthy, sustainable tourism, and to essentially save the town. Ojika is hardly famous, but it is of great historical significance as the home for many centuries of the kakure Christians, or “hidden Christians”, who fled from mainland Japan when Christianity was banned in the 1630s, and continued practicing in secret until the 1870s, when it was legalized again. A beautiful church still remains on the island, and for those willing and able to make the trip (this isn’t exactly a day trip from Kyoto; more like a train to a bus to a ferry or something like that from even Nagasaki City itself), it seems an incredible place to visit. The best news? Unlike the machiya Alex’s organization manages in Kyoto and rents out for upwards of $300/night, there are intentions to make homes in Ojika available for backpacker prices, whatever that means. I definitely look forward to making it out there.
Most photos my own. Thanks to Matsumoto-sensei for the Sankeien interior photo, and to The Silk Road Collection for their Shanghai photo. Portait of Kerr also not taken by me.
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