New Emissary

One-of-a-Kind Japan

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New Emissary

One-of-a-Kind Japan

What makes Japan’s landscape unique? The answer may lie in its centuries-old traditions and eccentric cities.

In this second in a series exploring Japanese aesthetics, The Diplomat examines what sets the country’s modern urban landscape apart from the rest of the world.

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’?

Gathering the insights of scholars, authors and architects on Japan’s contemporary landscape, this series aims to answer these questions. Last week, to better understand the concept of Japanese aesthetics, we zeroed in on two specific, common landscapes in the country—its streets and gardens—and what deeper meanings might be found in them. Now I’m going to take a closer look at Japan’s modern urban landscape, and a couple of qualities that make it stand out.

Made-in-Japan Modernism

‘It took me a long time to realize that Japan has a totally different relationship to modernism than the West,’ writer Gordon Kanki-Knight told me when asked what he thinks constitutes a modern and uniquely Japanese ‘look.’ Kanki-Knight, who’s the author of the just-released Wallpaper* City guide: Sapporo, says that in fact, the kind of good contemporary design defined by Western modernism—‘simple, clean lines and a preference for the abstract over the natural’—is an idea that already existed in Japan 200 years ago, and which still remains influential and highly visible today.

He explained that as a result, the Japanese tradition of ‘pared-down, modular, clean design,’ is exactly what ‘really sets the country apart,’ even when it comes to the way things look now. (He’s thus glad that ‘the nation’s culture-makers never had much time for ostentation, save for a few embellishments on robes and sword handles.’)

Kanki-Knight cites Katsura Rikyū (Katsura Imperial Villa)in Kyoto as an example of traditional Japan already incorporating major aspects of Western modernism in its landscape centuries ago: ‘Completed in the 1690s, the Enshu Kobori-designed Imperial residence was visited by one of the fathers of modernism, Bruno Taut, in the 1930s. He was blown away—shocked to discover that Japan had “modernism” at least two centuries before modernism began in the West. And modernists through the years such as Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and Antonin Raymond have all made the pilgrimage to Katsura Riyku to marvel at its simple, modular rooms.’ Kanki-Knight went on to explain that the influential residence has ‘played an important role in shaping Western design principles.’

Julian Worrall, a Tokyo-based architect and a professor of Architecture and Urban Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study at Waseda University, has a similar take on Japanese and Western modernism in architecture, and sees the Japanese ‘version’ of Western modernism going back even further. He told me that ‘the traditional idea of modernism that was invented in Europe in the period just after World War I, has a lot of similarities with traditional Japanese architecture going back 500 years.’

He cites as a major example of this ‘wooden architecture, of Japanese houses for example,’ alongside ‘modular structures like tatami mats and timber elements, and also simplicity, the lack of excessive ornamentation, the attention to the beauty of the material itself, without painting it for example—all of those are modernist ideas.’ He explained that as a result, while for Europeans and Westerners in the earlier stages of modernism these key aspects were revolutionary, ‘for Japan it wasn’t anything new.’

What this all means is that traditions seen in the modern landscape of Japan today actually date back centuries, in styles that likely predated Western modernism by hundreds of years in many cases, and may have influenced it. This idea of opposing elements of past and present is something I’ll touch on in more depth tomorrow.

Japan’s Cities: Eclectic and Eccentric

Worrall also told me that in his opinion, a unique aspect of Japanese society, directly related to its urban landscape, is that people in urban cores ‘don’t care about buildings much—they don’t really see them.’ He explained that this is because ‘the general society doesn’t really see buildings as an aspect of culture, more as an infrastructure that just gets worn out that you just replace—like old clothes, for example.’

There are various reasons for this mindset, different from Europe and the US, such as the religiously-influenced belief in impermanence or the dangers posed by earthquakes that frequently hit the island nation. But whatever the reasons, Worrall thinks that this makes for a ‘funny situation for a professional like an architect because you want people to care about what you do, but at the same time, the fact that they don’t care means that you can do anything you want.’ He told me that as a result, while there’s a sort of ‘tremendous indifference,’ amongst the general public in how they see their immediate urban settings, that for architects and designers here there’s also ‘a tremendous freedom to explore things.’ Cities have become something like large exhibition halls, where professionals can look at each others’ work and be inspired by it.

 ‘What is so exciting about contemporary Japan is that there’s that sort of underlying (traditional) basis but then there’s also this—well, in the 80s—it was this economically vital place. And there was this kind of playing and experimentation with different images and different references to styles from all over the world so it’s all mixed up.’

For Worrall, Japan’s capital city in particular is one ‘filled with new ideas—because it’s easy to build a new idea in Tokyo.’

An example of the eccentric and eclectic Tokyo he describes is the famous and always-busy intersection just outside Shibuya station, ‘a great example of what Tokyo does best when it’s not trying.’ It’s been 20 years since Worrall first saw the famous and always busy intersection just outside Shibuya station, and he still finds the spot both amazing and inspiring. ‘With its kind of mad signs and the trains going overhead and just the people everywhere…it’s completely unplanned, just a natural outgrowth, like a beehive. But that kind of thing is very inspirational for many visitors to Tokyo.’


Kanki-Knight also reminded me of a story going back to 1974, when one of Japan’s most renowned architects, Terunobu Fujimori, formed ‘the wonderfully named Tokyo Architectural Detective Agency.’ The agency’s goal was to catalogue all of the most interesting Western-inspired architecture in Tokyo. But overwhelmed by all of the amazing findings, it couldn’t publish a report until 1986—over a decade later. Fujimori might be faced with an even more challenging project if he tried to undertake the same task today. After all, according to Kanki-Knight, in Japan, ‘The fascinating buildings full of contradiction and conceptual brilliance just keep on coming.’

Japan’s centuries-old elements of design and architecture still influence its unique landscape today and are tied to the West’s more recent version of modernism. Meanwhile, its eccentric and eclectic urban cores may make for an architect’s paradise. These are just two things that set Japan’s urban landscapes apart, and which to help define a unique Japanese aesthetic. Tomorrow, I’ll touch on the principle of contrast in Japan’s contemporary landscape.

Shibuya Crossing 1952


Images: Katsura Imperial Villa by Wiiii / Wikimedia Commons (top), Shibuya by Jon Åslund (middle), Shibuya Crossing in 1952 (bottom).