In this third in a series exploring Japanese aesthetics, The Diplomat looks into the popular notion that the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ is also a land of opposites.
What is it that makes Japan’s landscape so visually distinctive? And is the answer to this question the key to defining the ‘Japanese aesthetic’?
Drawing on insights from scholars, authors and architects on Japan’s contemporary landscape, this series aims to answer these questions. So far, to better understand the concept of Japanese aesthetics, I’ve zeroed in on two specific, common landscapes in the country—its streets and gardens—and looked at the historical modernism and eclectic nature of its unique urban landscape. Today I’m going to take a look at the well-worn idea that Japan’s landscape is comprised of numerous conflicting elements. Is this really the case? Or is there actually harmony rather than conflict in the diversity?Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Land of Opposites?
The idea that Japan is a country made up of opposing characteristics is a popular one. Even online travel resource Wikitravel introduces Japan as, ‘a study in contrasts and contradictions.’ The popular travel database goes on to say it’s a land where ‘the past meets the future,’ and describes the landscape as one where ‘cities are as modern and high tech as anywhere else, but tumbledown wooden shacks can still be spotted next to glass fronted designer condominiums,’ and ‘beautiful temples and gardens which are often surrounded by garish signs and ugly buildings.’
Architect Julian Worrall too, in his book, 21st Century Tokyo: A Guide to Contemporary Architecture, calls Tokyo ‘at this moment’ a city that’s ‘advanced yet modest, tightly ordered yet insouciant, complete yet ever new, strange yet comfortably familiar.’ Worrall and co-author Erez Golani Solomon’s description of Japan’s capital appear to lend weight to the notion that contrasting forces define the nation.
And according to Gordon Kanki-Knight, author of several Wallpaper* guides to Japanese cities, old vs. new is a theme played out across all of Japan’s urban centres. ‘The tension between the effort to modernize and the desire to retain something of the older, pre-war Japan that was very sure of itself is played out in every city,’ he told me. ‘Japan’s cities are…while appearing “modern,” actually full of contradictions, fortuitous mistakes, and successful new concepts.’
But while this idea of contrasting forces could imply a kind of chaotic, urban mess, there is another perspective.
Battling Forces or Perfect Harmony?
Yoichi Kubota, a professor at Saitama University, veteran engineer and the chairman of the design committee of a major (still to be named) bridge currently under construction in Tokyo Bay, told me that diversity doesn’t have to mean conflict.
Kubota told me that in his view, while man and nature are pressed together in Japan, there’s a distinct lack of the man vs. nature concept so prevalent in the West. ‘Modern technology propagated in the Western world has sustained a basic idea of human versus nature,’ he explained. Pointing to Europe as an example, he said: ‘Italian cities and gardens are artefacts derived from the idea of humanizing the environment by controlling nature, (an idea) which has been handed down for many centuries in the Western world.’ Kubota suggests that the visual environment that was formed in the West ‘according to rational reasoning,’ is very different from Japan, where ‘some part of human action’ has always been ‘open to nature, welcoming the effects coming out as the interaction between artefact and nature.’
He explained to me also that the huge bridge he had a hand in creating, which will have a major impact on Tokyo’s landscape, was designed with this harmonization in mind: ‘(The bridge) is on the sea with the sky in the background, thus the viewer will experience the interaction among (the man-made and nature) through undulating colour and light.’
Kanki-Knight, now based in Australia, recalls certain experiences from years living and writing in Japan, that also point to contrasting forces coming together in a uniquely positive way: ‘I once asked design great Naoto Fukasawa how he dreamt up his ideas. I had imagined he would sit before a wide-screen Mac in a pristine white office. But he told me that he trekked to a mountain cabin without electricity to ponder his next pared-down kettle or toaster—I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that he incorporates asceticism in his quest to find answers to his design quandaries.’
In 2009, Kanki-Knight also met young, creative designer Hiranao Tsuboi, who happens to be a Buddhist monk who also designs ‘cell phones, furniture and electrical goods.’ He explained to me that while ‘that combination might seem odd in the West, in Japan the old and new, tradition and modernism are entirely compatible—indeed they are virtually one.’
Kanki-Knight pointed out certain examples of well-known Japanese structures that successfully ‘incorporate elements of modernism but retain something of the pre-Meiji era,’ such as the works in Tokyo of Kenzo Tange—the Yoyogi National Gymnasium in Shibuya, or the late Kisho Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower in Ginza—through which he dares you to try passing ‘without pausing to give it a second and third look.' He also mentions ‘Japanese design greats’ like Ikko Tanaka, Kenya Hara, Rikki Watanabe and Sori Yanagi, who have all in his opinion an ‘ability to drawn on and improve on Japan’s modern yet traditional design history.’
‘Old and new coexist in Japan, this is what sets design apart in the country,’ he added.
Worrall told me he believes there’s something else at play in Japan—the large numbers of people that subscribe to a unique way of thinking that he calls naïve naturalism: ‘a child’s world of harmonious environment where man and nature are not at war with each other.’ Citing the worlds created by animation legend Hayao Miyazaki as an example of this aesthetic, he explained that this sort of ideal is reflected in Japan’s contemporary visual landscape thanks to renowned architect Teranobu Fujimori and others like him.
Worrall explained that contrary to ‘the stuff that sells very well to a foreign audience of a cool contemporary Japan—that kind of pristine white clean look,’ the Fujimori look is something quite different: ‘It’s basically like gingerbread houses made out of wood and plaster and tree branches that haven’t been touched in any way, that kind of thing. Fujimori’s kind of naturalism references a Japanese tradition…the tradition of the teahouse, for example.’
He went on to suggest that through his architecture, Fujimori not only takes traditional Japanese elements that themselves contrast, like inside a teahouse where ‘it’s about the contrast between sharp and smooth, between natural and artificial, between dark and light…bitter and sweet,’ but combines that with his own contemporary ideas, putting all these contrasting elements in. And it works.
For Japan, diversity is a strength of its landscape, not a weakness. Friday, I’ll continue to explore the concept of ‘Japaneseness’ and the Japanese aesthetic, before finishing off the series next week, with a look into the possible future for Japan’s landscape.
Images: Marunouchi business district by Shiny Things / Flickr (top), Terunobu Fujimori's Takasugi-an Teahouse by japanese_craft_construction / Flickr (bottom).