Archive for the ‘建築’ Category

In my last post, I talked about visiting the Yonashiro History Museum, where they had on display some Roman coins uncovered in archaeological excavations at Katsuren castle.

After leaving the museum, I made my way to the castle itself, but first had to go find some lunch. This was my first time up to that part of the island, and walking around that section of Uruma City, I don’t know if I just was in the wrong part of town, or if I should have turned left when I instead turned right, but the stretch of road I ended up walking on was just amazingly devoid of any kind of café or restaurant that looked inviting at all. The local Uruma City tourist guide pamphlet I picked up at the castle listed all kinds of wonderful-looking vegetarian cafés and ice cream shops… looked very appealing. But these guides expected you to have a car. And while I certainly could have just taken another bus (still for free), I thought I’d just grab something quick, nearby. I found lots of “snack” bars – which might be just a sleazy townie dive bar, or might be a front for more illicit activities – and a few super-run-down-looking cafés or diners (shokudô), but nothing that looked at all welcoming or appealing. Finally, finally, after walking many blocks, I settled on eating at a Hotto Motto, a chain store selling premade bento boxes. *smh* One of the few days I’m off-campus, and out in a different town, really having the potential to be on vacation (kind of) for a day, to experience a nice local restaurant and maybe try some different foods, and instead I end up at a Hotto Motto.

Anyway, it was an interesting and valuable experience to see this one more corner, one more bit, of the kaleidoscope that is the “real” Okinawa. Really makes me wonder what the experience of everyday life is like there, and what it’s like to grow up there. And just how much of Okinawa prefecture (or even just of Uruma City) looks like this. Certainly, riding on the bus, looking out the window, things didn’t look so different from one city to the next. As we drove up into Okinawa City (formerly Koza), and then Uruma, I definitely had a feeling of excitement at visiting a different part of the island that I hadn’t been to before, and genuinely retained that excitement even despite the fact that everything looked pretty much the same…

The castle site itself was quite interesting, when considered in comparison to Nakagusuku, another major World-Heritage-Site-designated gusuku ruin from the same period, which I had just visited a couple weeks earlier. I was surprised at how small Katsuren was. I don’t know how big it is in terms of square hectares or whatever, or how tall; I have no doubt that it was a sizable and imposing compound in its time. But, while it may have simply been a result of entering via a side gate instead of a main gate, or something like that, Nakagusuku felt as though one had to double-back numerous times in order to make sure one had explored the entire compound. There were a lot of different areas, to put it quite simply. At Katsuren, by contrast, one simply entered at the fourth enclosure (or kuruwa), and walked up some stairs to a small area that constituted the third enclosure, then up a few more steps to the second enclosure, then up a few more steps to the first enclosure, and that was it. Done. You’ve seen the whole castle. And, each of the individual enclosures was also much larger at Nakagusuku.

That said, Katsuren provides I think a more direct, clearer understanding of the structure of a “standard” or “classic” gusuku, both in terms of the experience of the actual site, and because of the very nice model on display in the rest station across the street (right). I’m quite curious to visit Nakijin castle, as that’s the one that seems to get most often cited as emblematic of the standard form. But, this is seen at Katsuren as well.

A small first enclosure was the innermost part of the castle, the most well-protected by virtue of its location atop the hill, surrounded on all sides by either the second enclosure, or steep drop-offs. This would have contained the castle’s treasure houses, and at least one major sacred site. The second enclosure, a bit lower down the hill but still very well protected, was larger, and contained the main administrative buildings and lord’s residence. A narrow set of stairs connected the first and second enclosures, hindering invaders. The third enclosure, by contrast, is separated from the second by a series of very accessible, wide, steps, connecting the palace buildings in the second enclosure to plaza areas in the third, which would have been used for ceremonies and perhaps for other more “public” court events.

Stone foundations suggest the shape and scale of the structures that once stood in the second enclosure.

The third enclosure also included a number of water cisterns, and sacred sites. Following the fall of the castle in 1458, the third enclosure came to be frequented by noro and other local priestesses, who transformed the space into their own – a space for offerings, prayers, and rituals. The third enclosure is the last (or, I suppose the first, depending on how we’re counting) to be well above ground level and to have access protected by twisting and narrow stairways. The fourth is the “ground floor,” so to speak, of the castle compound, a wide extensive area, albeit still surrounded with stone walls, and guarded by heavy wooden gates which are no longer extant today. It was in this area, somewhere, that the Roman and Ottoman coins were found. Sections just outside the fourth enclosure would have included rice paddies and other farmland and swampland; as signs on-site explain, this not only helped supply the castle with food, but also served as a further defense against invaders, who would have had to plod through deep, wet, muddy ground.

Interestingly, unlike many Japanese castles we might visit, most of which took their well-known “Japanese castle” forms towards the very end, or even after, the period of warfare (Sengoku period, 1467-1600), and thus never actually saw serious siege or attack, Katsuren absolutely did. With all of these structural, geographical defenses, one can only imagine how the battle actually went, as the forces of the Ryukyu Kingdom took the castle in 1458.

The main gate of Jingû-ji, as it appears from within the temple grounds, looking out.

After taking a second look around to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, I called my visit to Katsuren done and successful. I then took the bus down to Futenma, so I could quickly pay a visit to Jingû-ji, the temple immediately next door to Futenma Shrine, which I missed when I went to visit the shrine. Not too much to say about the temple, I suppose. But, I do love and am still not tired of seeing the distinctive Okinawan architectural style – lighter wood than in mainland Japan, and the distinctive red roof tiles. When we remind ourselves that Ryukyu was once an independent kingdom, and we start to think not simply about regional variation within Japan, but about the ways in which different schools of Buddhism took on different forms in different places all across Asia – when we start to think of Okinawan architecture not as a variation within Japanese styles but as something to be compared against Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Vietnamese styles, there’s something very interesting and powerful there, I think.

Anyway, with that checked off my list, I then started to make my way home, and ended up walking quite some ways, maybe about half the length of the main center of Ginowan Town, along the outsides of the fences of the Futenma Air Base. An interesting contrast with that one neighborhood near Katsuren – for all its problems, and I’m not saying Ginowan is the most happening and exciting city either, Ginowan felt more lively, more welcoming/appealing, and more upscale (though it would hard to not be more upscale than what I saw in Katsuren). Despite the length of the walk, it was surprisingly enjoyable, easy, and refreshing. I passed by lots of shops that looked kind of appealing… many of them quite clearly aimed at military folks as their market. Second-hand shops for clothes and for furniture (specifically American-style furniture), some nice-looking bars, some nice restaurants… closer to campus, further from the base, I found a cute little bakery with scones in all sorts of flavors (banana, green tea, earl grey). I’m really tempted, though it’s maybe a little embarrassing to admit, to try out the California-style Diner. Though maybe try to figure out some time to go when there’s no military around? Actually, that particular moment as I passed by that night, the place was empty…

And once I got my bike back – oh yeah, I locked my bike to a barrier on the side of the sidewalk in Ginowan all day while I rode the bus up to Katsuren. Thankfully, the police or someone didn’t confiscate it, and it was still right where I’d left it :) – I got my bike back, and was thinking of going to BookOff, but was already most of the way back to campus and didn’t feel like backtracking… but I found a great little soba shop on the side of the road! Sometimes you really can’t tell from the outside how nice a place might be on the inside. And by nice, to be clear, I don’t mean fancy – I just mean, it had a pleasant atmosphere. Brightly lit, colorfully decorated, with very friendly staff…

So, yeah, all in all, a rather successful day, I would say.

All photos my own.

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One of the many (possibly) historic buildings in Sakura. I kind of like this as an image for the top of this post, as it sort of represents the atmosphere or aesthetic of Sakura – a mix of the age of samurai, and the aesthetic of the early postwar. I don’t know how old this building is – might be only 50-60 years. Today, it houses a hardware store.

I’ve been hanging out in the town of Sakura1, out in Chiba, for more than a week now, and a few days ago, I finally took a day to run around and see the sights. As it turns out, there’s just perfectly enough sights to fill out one day of sightseeing – sure, there were a few things I haven’t seen just yet, but I hit just about everything I planned to, and a few things I hadn’t planned on, and managed to finish it all up right around 5pm, just as anything with a closing time was doing so.

One of the main streets of Sakura, as seen from the fourth floor of the city art museum.

I’m tempted to try to say something about the size or character of the town, especially since this really is my first time spending so long in any town in Japan outside of a major city. Prior to this, I’d only been to Naha, Kanazawa, Hiroshima, and Fukuoka, for a day or two or three (each, of course), and I’d only ever spent any more time than that in Yokohama, Tokyo, or Kyoto. Wow, that’s a distressing thought – so many of my peers have spent years in various parts of the country, whether on JET or otherwise, and while I’ve been fortunate to do a bit of traveling, as I type this out I realize my experiences really have been rather severely limited. I haven’t even lived in a provincial city, like Kôchi or Kanazawa or Kagoshima, nor in a sort of historically significant but smaller, off-to-the-side city like Nara or Kamakura, much as I think I’d love to.

The entrance to Keisei Sakura Station, and its immediate surroundings, on the north side of town. The city is also served by a JR station, on the south side of town.

In any case, I’m really not sure what to say about Sakura. I’m not sure what I can say, especially given how I’ve been thinking about generalities and essentialization lately. Maybe the best I can do is to say what it’s not. It’s not a big city by any means – less than an hour walk from one end to the other – but neither did I see any fields or rice paddies or anything of the sort within the core of the city. Much of the town is very much the kind of density and nice residential streets (one- or two-family houses, not apartment buildings) I associate with suburbia – reminds me actually of where I grew up in the suburbs of New York City, with of course the various differences in architectural style, and certain other aesthetic elements. The town has pretty much no big-name or chain stores – no Starbucks2, no Mister Donut, no BookOff, no McDs, no Yoshinoya, no Jonathan’s. Not that I like eating at chain stores, but, at least it would make me feel comfortable as to the level of quality, lack of sketchiness, degree of whether or not I (as a non-regular customer, and as a foreigner3) am welcome… There are a couple of 7-11s and Lawson’s, though. But, then, it’s not as if it’s the cutest, quaintest little town either – the JR station is surrounded with parking lots, pachinko parlors, and the like, and not too much else. I’ve seen neighborhoods in the middle of Tokyo much quainter, where a small three-car train stops at a station that consists of basically nothing more than a platform, right in the middle of the neighborhood, directly adjacent to a cute, local, shopping street (shôtengai). Which isn’t to criticize, but merely to attempt to describe.

Models of the three samurai houses, on display inside one of the them.

In any case, let’s move on to talking about the historical sites I visited on my one-day wandering exploration adventure. One thing I read somewhere claimed that Sakura has more intact samurai houses than any other town in Japan. I’m not sure whether or not I believe this, but, over the course of the day, I certainly did see a lot of old-looking buildings, scattered across town, and quite a few of them had little wooden placards identifying them as historical structures. Three of these samurai homes (buke yashiki) are open to the public, as historical homes or whatever you want to call it, and they’re relatively close to where I’m staying, so that’s where I started.

Along Kaburaki-kôji, a nice, quiet, residential street below the castle, these three houses are lined up one after the other. The pamphlets and such say that this street looks much as it did in the Edo period, though given that the road has been asphalted over, and pretty much the only other thing to see is tall hedges lining both sides of the street, obstructing the view of any traditional architecture that may exist, I’m not really sure what it’s worth to make such a statement.

Right: The entrance to one of the three samurai residences open to the public.

In any case, it would seem that quite a number of the houses along this street are extant, surviving, samurai houses from the Edo period, though the majority of them remain privately-owned property, and are therefore off-limits to the likes of myself. As for the ones I did get to visit, frankly, I’m not sure what there is much to say about them. Wooden construction, tatami floors, tiled, thatched, or shingled roofs, like so many others I’ve seen… I hate that I should be so jaded about this. When I first came to Japan, such things would have been amazing to see, and to get to go inside and walk around in.

I’d be curious more precisely the rank, or income in koku, of the samurai families who lived in these homes, because they just seem rather small and sparse for a member of such an elite class as the samurai. That is, of course, we also get a skewed impression because we aren’t seeing much of the material culture that would have been used in these homes – how fancy were their clothes, dishware, and other objects? I’ve seen commoners’ townhouses (machiya), and they definitely don’t seem any smaller, or any worse apportioned, than these samurai homes, and that I think is where it really gets me. From what little we do see of material culture here in these samurai homes – a few chests of drawers, buckets, mirrors, books piled on a desk, the lifestyle does seem pretty simple. Which, if this is the life of an elite family, even if they’re only a very low-ranking elite family, it just makes me wonder how much simpler, how much more “wanting” the lives of the lower classes – the so-called peasants – must have been. I’m not sure I want to know. Then again, I’ve also seen peasants’ houses, and, I don’t know, maybe those were the homes of well-to-do village headmen or something, but they were pretty large, and almost just as well apportioned as these samurai homes, in terms of cushions and desks and buckets and stoves and whatever. Sure, the villager might not have a heirloom suit of samurai armor sitting in the tokonoma, but… all in all, these samurai homes had a lot more in common with peasants’ homes (minka), or commoners’ townhouses (machiya), than with the samurai lord’s mansion I was to see later in the day.

The view straight through from one side of the house to the other. Each house has only a handful of rooms, in wood and tatami – with a minimum of decorative elements, e.g. carvings on the ranma, or any kind of byôbu or fusuma paintings – plus a rather basic-looking kitchen with a dirt floor.

It was certainly a nice wake-up call, to see the scale and style of more typical or average samurai homes. Being more used to seeing samurai residences on the scale of the lord’s mansion – since structures like those stand out a lot more as famous historical sites and tourist destinations, and are more typically preserved because of their association with more prominent figures – one can easily get the mistaken impression, as I did, that that was indicative of a samurai home, even for lower-ranking samurai. So, to see these homes was certainly a valuable experience, a valuable correction to my previous assumptions. We have this image in our minds of the samurai as “elites,” but, then again, if every samurai had a grand palace, where would you have room for all of them? Besides, even though we aren’t told precisely what rank the samurai families of these homes were, they are outside of the castle, indicating them to be of a lower rank than those living within the castle walls; the top-ranking retainers had residences close within the second or third bailey (ni- or san-no-maru) of the castle.

I took tons of pictures of plaques and labels and explanations, and haven’t gotten around to reading them. But, hopefully, eventually, I do hope to read them and write up Wiki articles on the Samurai Archives Wiki based on what I find. So, my apologies that these blog posts may be a little superficial, but, I thought it perhaps better to post something, rather than putting it off indefinitely until I got around to doing a more thorough, detailed job of it (something that, quite frankly, what with school and other projects, and such, might not come around for months and months). But, keep your eyes on the Wiki, and, hopefully before too long I’ll be putting something at least up there. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.

This neighborhood also includes a house once occupied by Kodama Gentarô, a general who was involved in basically every major war of the Meiji period (on the side of the Imperial Japanese Army), from the Boshin War through the Russo-Japanese War. So, that’s pretty cool, even though a high wall and hedges and such all but prevented me from seeing the house itself at all.

At the end of the street is a narrow pedestrian-only path called Hiyodori-zaka, flanked by bamboo, which is said to (even moreso than the residential street itself) be pretty much preserved from how it was during the time of the samurai. This, actually, I can believe. Certainly looks plausible – not that I know that much about Edo period roads in precise detail, but certainly nothing stands out and screams anachronism. It’s a simple sloped path, which I can imagine people walking up and down to get in and out of this samurai neighborhood.

Next time, temples! And the cemetery of the Hotta clan, lords of Sakura domain in the second half of the Edo period.

(1)That’s 佐倉, literally something like “assistant warehouse,” not 桜 (“cherry blossoms” or “cherry tree”).
(2) There is reportedly a Starbuck’s attached to one of the big-box stores over on the other side of the train station, but I’m not counting that. I’m talking about things in town, that have a storefront on the street, rather than being in a strip mall or parking lot adjacent to nothing but highway…
(3) Not that I’ve ever come across too many “normal” restaurants that explicitly don’t welcome foreigners, but rather because I feel like the more “local” you get in Japan, the more “snack” and “pub” places there are, that aren’t really meant for anyone at all except for regulars, and/or are involved with or associated with, well, not-so-above-board activities.

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The blog Heritage of Japan shares with us today a Japan Times article summarizing the history and importance of Hôryû-ji.

When UNESCO cast its beady, critical eye on Japan 18 years ago to assess the country’s cultural and natural merits with a view — in the agency’s ponderous prose — to “inscription on the World Heritage List,” it settled on four places that became the nation’s first entries to those ranks so adored by tourism associations.

It may have come as rather a surprise to some that Horyuji, located 14 km southwest of the city of Nara, should have been selected ahead of obviously much more famous Kyoto — and indeed Nara itself. But Horyuji really is exceptional. As well as being a landmark in Japanese history and the oldest existing Buddhist temple in the land, the complex of Horyuji contains the world’s oldest wooden buildings.

For those interested, you can read the rest at the original post on Heritage of Japan, or at the Japan Times.

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I don’t know when I’ll get around to reading any of these – it may be quite some time – but so long as I am in Japan and have access to cheap used books on Japanese history and the like, I just can’t help myself.

Oh, geez. Putting all my newly acquired books into a pile in order to write this post, I realize just how much I’ve bought. I’m going to have a lot of things to ship home.

*名城を歩く mook (magazine-book) series, volumes on Matsue and Matsuyama Castles

I quite enjoyed the Kanazawa Castle volume from this series and so was happy to come across two more volumes on castles I am interested in. Granted, I don’t know much about, for example, Osaka or Himeji Castles, and haven’t been to them, but for whatever reason I am much more interested in the slightly more obscure and more out of the way ones. Matsue (in Shimane) is one of only a few castles remaining today not reconstructed after the end of the Edo period; Iyo-Matsuyama (on Shikoku) is just interesting for being on Shikoku…

In addition to providing details about the individual buildings and distinguishing features of each castle, as well as map/pictures of the castle at its height and fairly solid narrative overviews of the history of the castle’s lords, one feature I quite enjoy is that each book in this series includes very brief descriptions of other castles in the area (generally ruins or even empty sites without even ruins). Where else would you learn anything about Uwajima castle (宇和島城) and Ôzu castle (大洲城)?

(Purchased at a used book store 井上書店 across the street from Kyôdai, for 200 yen each.)

*「琉球と日本・中国」 (Ryukyu and Japan & China) & 「琉球の王権とグスク」 (The Ryukyuan Royalty and Gusuku Fortresses)

Two books from the 日本史リブレット (Japanese History Libretto) series. I haven’t yet read anything from this series, but upon a quick glance, these seem to be relatively easy to read (i.e. not formal, dense academic prose), and at only 100 pages each, they’re not too intimidating, and won’t take too long to read (though it’ll still take some time). They’re published by Yamakawa Shuppansha, a publishing company which specializes in history books, which I think can be taken as a good indication that these are of a certain level of quality and reliability. Each has notes in the margins explaining names of people and places, and other terms one might not be familiar with, and both address topics very directly related to my interests and my research, meaning I’m not wasting my time by reading these, looking for, hoping for, elements that might be relevant. Both should prove to be useful additions to my foundational knowledge of these subjects.

(Purchased new in the Dôshisha Fusôkan bookstore for 800 yen each)

*Three volumes of 再現日本史 mook series, specifically on the years 1863-64; 1867; and 1877-1880

These magazine-books seem quite scattered, devoting only a single page at most to any given topic, but a quick glance would seem to indicate that they cover a fairly broad range of topics, thus providing a good overview of the events of each year; and of course since each volume covers such a short period, the topics addresses are not too general, but actually delve into some degree of detail and to some extent the more obscure events. The last volume devotes a whole page (and a whole other page of just image) to the subject of Shô Tai, last king of Ryûkyû, and to the overthrow and annexation of his kingdom. I am particularly curious to read this section, as well as whatever little bits there may be on Pres. Grant’s visit to Japan in 1879.

(Purchased at a BookOff for 105 yen each)

*Power of Okinawa

Presumably the only book out there in English on Okinawan music (especially on more contemporary music, not just traditional/classical music), the book, I must admit (sorry, sir) seems less academic, less dense than I might have hoped (Academic language is good in English; not good for my Japanese language level). Just judging from the size of the text, the feel and look of it, I get this impression. And, yes, I know I’m jumping to conclusions, but I am very much hoping that the content of the text proves me wrong.

I grew interested in Okinawa largely through the music, and am particularly eager and interested to read this, and learn more about this wonderful phenomenon that creates lively, contemporary, fun, entrancing music that incorporates traditional instruments (sanshin), themes and lyrics, and conveys the feel, the atmosphere of the islands. Perhaps I am too quick to use the word “perfect,” but I feel that much of the Okinawan popular music I have heard is an excellent combination of traditional elements and new, contemporary influences, conveying the traditional culture, identity, and atmosphere/feel, not tossing it away, while remaining quite current.

I am also eager to start learning sanshin myself, and so, reading up on Okinawan music is essentially a must. Can’t play the music without a fuller appreciation and understanding of the background, the culture, etc.

(Purchased directly from the author, through his website, for 2300 yen incl. shipping within Japan)

*Three volumes of 別冊太陽 (“The Sun”) from the 1970s, each a sort of mini-encyclopedia, 100 Merchants, 100 Daimyo Houses, and 100 House Elders (karô) respectively

This seems an amazingly good series. They’re still putting them out, and if you look at the website, you’ll see they cover a wide range of topics, one topic per volume, presumably in amazing detail. Each of the volumes I bought is a nice solid 200 pages, and sold originally, in the 1970s, for 1500-1600 yen.

They don’t devote a particularly great amount of text to any one topic – most get only a paragraph, sadly. But there are lots of pictures, and I am hoping these will prove quite useful for my exploits in compiling encyclopedia entries for the Samurai-Archives Wiki of Japanese History. I’ve never seen any book in English that devoted more than a passing reference to Suminokura Ryôi, one of the most prominent merchants of Edo period Kyoto, let alone to any of the 90+ lesser-known merchants included in this volume.

(Purchased for 500 yen each at the Kitano Tenmangû Flea Market)

*Four volumes of 古寺をゆく mook series, on Eiheiji; Kanzeonji; Byôdôin; and Kenchôji & Engakuji respectively.

Like the castles series listed at the top of this post, I think that these volumes could be quite interesting, and useful for the Samurai Wiki. Each focuses on a single temple (or two), providing good details on the history of the temple, its individual buildings, and famous or important Buddhist sculptures and other artifacts and art objects in the collection, as well as (like the castle mooks) providing smaller, brief descriptions of other major temples in the area.

The shop had an entire box of them, quite possibly the whole series. I wish I might have bought them all, especially at this price, since they go for 560 cover price, but I had to stick to picking just a few. As with the castles, I could have picked up volumes on Kiyomizudera, Honganji, Sensôji, Daitokuji, Hôryûji, but I decided to go with slightly less major temples of particular interest to me. Eiheiji is a Zen temple founded by Dôgen, whose story is told in the 2009 film ZEN, which I quite enjoyed. Byôdôin, of course, is the former villa of Fujiwara no Michinaga, one of the few surviving examples of something hinting at a fuller shinden-zukuri compound, and related therefore, though today a temple, to the exciting political intrigues of the late Heian period. Kenchôji and Engakuji, of course, are major Zen temples in Kamakura, a bit off the beaten path when it comes to the Kinkakuji/Ginkakuji-going masses. I’ve always liked Kamakura, and though I’ve only visited a handful of times and never lived there, I do feel something of a special connection to the place, and a desire to expound upon its temples, informing others who might only be aware of the big name ones in Kyoto and Tokyo. Kanzeonji, finally, was once the chief temple in Kyushu, and is connected to the history of the Dazaifu, and to that period and atmosphere. Despite its ancient importance, the temple is today quite obscure and largely unknown. Even a friend specializing in that period who once lived in Fukuoka told me he’d never heard of it.

(Purchased from a used book store across the street from Kyôdai, for 100 yen each.)

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The Heritage of Japan blog shares with us today interesting news about CG recreations of what the famous Byôdô-in at Uji, just outside Kyoto, may have originally looked like.

I’m not sure how often or how recently the Byôdô-in may have been repainted or renovated, but to some extent it is Japanese practice (unlike the practice in many parts of mainland Asia) to allow temple buildings, Buddhist sculptures, and the like to show their age. Thus, while a great many temples, statues, etc throughout Japan have a wonderfully aged, romantically historic look to them, at the same time, the original appearance is lost. These CG images are one way to regain that old look, and to share it with the public, without actually repainting or renovating (which some might argue to be a form of defacing, perhaps) the actual object or structure.

Thanks much to Heritage of Japan for this info!

Photo my own. Taken May 2008.

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I have finally finished reading Alex Kerr’s “Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan.” Though in the course of reading the book I was constantly coming across concepts, arguments, assertions, or quotes I wanted to share and discuss, I put off writing about it until I completed the whole text. After all, you never know what is going to come up next, and how that might complement or detract from one’s impression or understanding.

I had been eager for quite some time to read this book, as I have heard Kerr speak, and read elsewhere about his ideas on the construction state in Japan, the country’s failure to appreciate or protect its traditional architecture, and the traditional character of its cities. These topics form the core of the book, though only two chapters are explicitly directly related to “Old Cities” and “New Cities”; only about half the book is really devoted to these topics at all, the rest describing the social, educational, political, economic, and financial structures which enable and perpetuate what Kerr identifies as systemic problems in Japan.

Alternatively, one can see the book as one which addresses a wide range of systemic issues, issues of construction, architecture, and the character of cities being just one of them.

In any case, it is an excellent, informative, and sobering read, scary and depressing at times. Is this really the Japan I fell in love with? Is that really what’s going on behind the scenes? I always knew that the multitude of writers on how wonderful Japan’s corporate culture is (or other similar topics) were not getting the whole picture – finance/business experts, they wouldn’t know Ashikaga from Minamoto, Hiroshige from Hokusai, or Gainax from Madhouse – in short, they don’t really know Japan, but only one small sliver, one aspect, of modern Japanese “culture”. But Kerr really drives it home that these writers, who extol Japanese corporate culture, robotics technologies, bureaucratic efficiency, or what have you, really have no idea what is going on behind the scenes (or know but are choosing to not represent the darker sides), and thus present to the Western world, either intentionally or unknowingly, an extremely distorted view of Japan, which cultivates an ignorance of Japan’s systemic problems so complete that Kerr’s own arguments teeter on the edge of credibility.

*Think of Kyoto. What do you see? What do you imagine Kyoto to be like? Perhaps you picture cherry blossoms or red maple leaves, geisha walking along cobblestone paths lined with traditional-style wooden buildings with tiled roofs and tatami floors. A city frozen, in some ways, in the 18th century or earlier – a place where, unlike in, for example, New York, there is a long tradition to look back upon, to appreciate, protect, and preserve.

*Think of Tokyo. What do you see? What do you imagine Tokyo to be like? Perhaps you imagine sleek, white, ultramodern architecture, the kind of beautiful, futuristic structures you normally associate with sci-fi movies. A city not frozen at all, but forward-looking, progressing beyond anything we see in the West, as if arriving in Tokyo means stepping into the future.

*Those who have lived in Japan, however, will tell you that, in fact, sadly, both cities, like most cities throughout Japan, are composed primarily of a jumble of boxy concrete apartment buildings, electrical wires running every which way. These are cities frozen, not in a quaint, beautiful traditional past, nor progressing as the heralds of the future, but frozen in the 1950s or ’60s, when Japan was very much a developing country, still struggling to recover from the devastation of World War II; a time when so-called “modern” architecture stressed function over form, and yielded truly hideous, grey, depressing concrete cubes.

Kerr relates an anecdote in which a German publisher, visiting Japan on business, “looked out at a neighborhood on the outskirts of the city, a typical jumble of concrete boxes and electric wires, and asked innocently,

‘So this is where the poor people live?’ … No, this is where everyone lives.”

(p207) This is the result, as Kerr explains, of Japan’s refusal or inability to acknowledge itself as a developed country, to put aside the idea of the people suffering and enduring for the sake of the country, and the misguided idea that concrete, steel, and this kind of cramped (semai) lifestyle are essential parts of what it means to be “modern.” This is also the result of a complex web of political and economic forces which prevent the bureaucracy, construction industry, banks, and other industries from having any motivation whatsoever to allow change, let alone to advocate for it; finally, the educational system and cultural attitudes against speaking out, against thinking idependently, prevent the populace from standing up to the bureaucracy and industry to demand change.

Granted, all of this was written several years ago, before the fateful 2009 election, in which the LDP lost power for only the second time in about 50 years, an election which was surrounded with chatter about dissatisfaction with LDP governance, with bureaucracy, and overall with the way government and bureaucracy operated. I’m not sure if all that much has changed in the last six months, since the DPJ took charge, or whether this cry for change from the masses truly represents a breakthrough in the power of the public, or at least the desire of the public, to actually effect change. Only time will tell whether the Japan of post-2009 truly becomes a different creature from the one Alex Kerr describes so pessimistically in 2001.

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I guess it’s not so forbidden anymore. After years of restoration and conservation efforts, parts of the Forbidden City will be opened to the public sometime next year.

Meanwhile, an exhibition of recreated interiors from the Imperial Palace will go on tour, starting with an exhibition at the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem MA, entitled “Hidden Treasures from the Forbidden City: Unlocking an Emperor’s Private Paradise.”

The exhibition website includes a link to a video with NBC’s Matt Lauer, and Nancy Berliner, PEM curator of Chinese art, sharing with us some of these exquisite spaces.

The exhibit runs at the Peabody Essex from September 11, 2010 to January 9, 2011. I regret I won’t be able to see it myself, but hopefully there will be more treats on the website in months to come. Perhaps we will be able to learn the touring schedule soon…

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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