New Emissary

What is ‘Japaneseness’?

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New Emissary

What is ‘Japaneseness’?

What does it mean to say that a building or a piece of culture is Japanese? Defining ‘Japaneseness’ is no easy feat.

In this fourth in a series exploring Japanese aesthetics, The Diplomat examines the concept of ‘Japaneseness.’

What makes Japan’s landscape so visually distinctive? And is the answer to this question the key to defining the ‘Japanese aesthetic’?

So far, to better understand these questions, we’ve zeroed in on the country’s streets and gardens, looked at the historical modernism and eclectic nature of its unique urban landscape and questioned whether Japan is really a land of clashing opposites. Today, I'm going to look at the idea of ‘Japaneseness,’ drawing on insights from scholars, authors and architects on Japan’s contemporary landscape.

What is Japaneseness?

Architect and author Julian Worrall, one of my main sources for this series, told me that one of the things that has ‘exercised’ him for the decade he has lived and worked in the country is, ‘What is Japaneseness, and what does it mean to say that a building or a piece of culture is Japanese?’

Indeed, in trying to define what a uniquely Japanese aesthetic is, drawing out at least a few characteristics that can describe the country’s visual landscape is essential. But with Worrall still struggling with the concept after 10 years, it’s clearly no easy thing to master.

One thing’s for sure, though, is that part of 'Japaneseness' is the way an incredible diversity of concepts come together in an unexpected way. Sometimes it fails, but often it works (depending on who you ask!) Take for example what author and photojournalist Stephen Mansfield told me about the 20 kinds (or more) of moss that are a notable feature in Japan’s traditional gardens, something you don’t find used anywhere else in the world in this way. Mansfield also mentioned that Japanese gardens are serene places where, ‘tea houses, Buddhist statuary, stones inscribed with verse, flowers and plants with strong literary or mythological associations, are placed into the scheme…without creating the least dissonance.’ For Mansfield, who visited 150 gardens from Tokyo down to Okinawa to research his 2009 book, Japanese Stone Gardens, the eclecticism found in Japanese gardenscapes works in the observer’s favour.

Japan and the City

Moving away from gardens and into the modern urban landscapes of Japan, Yoichi Kubota, the chairman of the design committee responsible for the new major bridge being built in Tokyo Bay, explained to me a reason why, in his opinion, there's a noticeable scattering of ideas in the contemporary urban areas of the country: ‘Japan started to be modernized from the Meji Restoration in 1868, aiming at Europeanizing this country. And until today, people created an intermingling of many different ideas without paying so much attention to what kind of landscape of places they have been making as a result.’

Kubota went on to suggest that looking to the future, a major challenge will be for Japanese to start considering the landscape before them ‘as a whole, not in a partial way.’ I'll be looking at his ideas on why it will be important to see Japan’s urban landscape as unified rather than something scattered in more depth next week in the conclusion to this series.

Author Gordon Kanki-Knight, another great source for this topic, and a real expert on many aspects of urban Japan (having authored most of the Wallpaper* Japan city guides), mentioned the same sort of fragmentation in Japan’s urban cores when I spoke to him. He said that this is also the very quality that sets the design of the country apart: ‘Tokyo and Osaka are powerful and imposing cities, yet both are meandering and impossible to really understand; Kyoto and Nara are full of contradictions; Kobe tries its hand at any style—the Western area of Kitano-chō being a prime example. Japan’s cities are not rational (the lack of street names quickly alerts the newcomer to this fact), and while appearing “modern” are actually full of contradictions, fortuitous mistakes, and successful new concepts.’

What is Japaneseness? (Tadao Ando)

To further understand the variety of structures that exist in urban Japan, I found helpful what Julian Worrall described to me as, in his opinion, the three main styles of architecture we can pick out in Japanese cities today:

1. ‘That kind of pristine white clean look. I think the architects who are most associated with that are Ryue Nishizawa and Kazuyo Sejima who founded the SANAA firm in 1995. They’re very influential both in and outside Japan and a lot of people copy them or are inspired by them.’

2. 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 a good way to visualize this aesthetic, Worrall explained that this sort of ideal is reflected in Japan’s contemporary visual landscape including in the works of such renowned architects as Fujimori Teranobu.

3. And a newer style exemplified by architects like Atelier Bow Wow: ‘Shapes are much more complex, not smooth…a little bit deliberately ugly…They’re not trying to make a purified environment, and they’re not trying to go back to some kind of imagined past, they’re very much of the present day and of Tokyo and of Japan’s weird hybrid ugliness…they’re not referencing some mythology of Japan, this idea of the tea ceremony or purity, or any of these things you’d typically get in a touristic image of Japan promoted by the government.’

Japaneseness: An Endangered Concept?

But Worrall added that he believes the new generation of architects and others in Japan's creative fields are no longer paying attention to the question of Japaneseness.

Citing the example of Tadao Ando, as a member of the previous generation who approached things differently, Worrall reminded me that the world-renowned architect ‘makes a big point about how he’s Japanese and how he’s inspired by Japanese things and that is a big part of his appeal.’

But, said Worrall, ‘these younger guys are more cosmopolitan and at ease being in Europe or America, or here or China or Korea. What they’re interested in is things like urban settings, what makes a good city, how the buildings respond to that—some kind of universal notion. So it isn’t about referencing the traditional past like the teahouse or whatever.’

He went on to conclude that this whole rising cosmopolitan generation of architects and artists in Japan are not looking to ‘dress up and perform some purified image of Japaneseness.’

So, is it possible that going into the future, Japaneseness, at least in Japan’s urban settings, will cease to exist and simply take on a universal quality? Or will there always be that new wave of ‘retro’ artists who will work into their style a way to bring the past back to the present?

What is Japaneseness?

And what might the future really hold for the Japanese landscape overall? There’s no question that with environmental issues becoming more critical globally, the way Japan incorporates sustainable practices and design into its urban areas will significantly change its appearance over the upcoming decades. I'll be discuss this topic, as I wrap up this series, next week.


Images: Atelier Bow Wow by yusunkwon / Flickr (top), Tadao Ando by yisris / Flickr (middle), by OiMax / Flickr (bottom).