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  • John Barr

In Search of Japan-ness : Part 1 (Putting Lipstick on the Gorilla)

After over two hundred years of self-imposed isolation during which Japan fell behind the West in science and technology the predominant issue for Japanese politicians, thinkers and artists in the late 19th and 20th centuries was how to assimilate Western advances whilst retaining a distinctive Japanese culture, and how to identify and define the distinctive elements of that culture in the first place.

For architects, 1933 was a pivotal year in the debate. That was the year the German architect and modernist Bruno Taut arrived in Japan and the year the Japanese novelist Jun’Ichiro Tanizaki published his essay In’ei Raisan (Published in English as In Praise of Shadows). The statements made by one of these men influenced the debate to an unwarranted extent whilst the approach taken by the other should have received more attention than it did…

Japan-ness: Lipstick or Machine

The identification and definition of a specifically Japanese culture proved more difficult than anyone had probably imagined and some of the attempts to do so in an architectural context are covered in my earlier post, Two Houses : Part 1. The examples featured there (the combination of a Japanese-style roof and a Western-style façade; the adoption of elements from earlier buildings such as Katsura Imperial Villa or Ise Shrine; etc.) are typical of the general approach, which was to seek stylistic clues to Japan-ness by studying the external appearance of particular historic buildings from a detached viewpoint. There seems to have been little attempt to investigate how Japanese buildings were inhabited or to examine the underlying conditions for clues as to why they had developed in the way that they had.

In his now famous essay, In’ei Raisan (In Praise of Shadows) the novelist Jun’Ichiro Tanizaki takes the opposite approach. What he does is precisely to inhabit the spaces of Japanese buildings, to be still and to observe them over time and to record what he sees, what he hears, what he feels, what he imagines, how the spaces affect him, what memories they stir, and to speculate on the circumstances and conditions that had produced them.

In the same essay Tanizaki laments the fact that Japan, having fallen behind the west in technological development, had been forced to adopt Western technology in order to catch up. He ruminates on how different it might have been if Japan had been left alone to develop its own technology, grown from Japanese roots and suited to Japanese needs. He uses the example of the fountain pen, developed in the West as an improvement on the quill, whereas Japanese script is based on the brush. Might not the Japanese, given time and space, have developed a modern equivalent of the brush he asks, and speculates that the consequences of such a development might have been far-reaching:

Foreign ink and pen might not be as popular as they are; the talk of discarding our system of writing for Roman letters would be less noisy; people would still feel an affection for the old system. But more than that: our thought and literature might not be imitating the West as they are, but might have pushed forward into new regions quite on their own.1

Instead he was confronted with the Japanese fountain pen. Japanese fountain pens can be beautiful and desirable objects, but they represent the surface application of Japanese decorative techniques onto a piece of imported Western technology that was developed to suit Western needs.

Japanese fountain pens: Japanese decorative techniques applied to the surface of Western technology.

It seems that the Japanese architects involved in this debate took the same approach as the fountain pen manufacturers. They seemed content to take the Western machine, developed to suit Western requirements and sensibilities, and add Japanese stylistic elements. Tanizaki wanted a Japanese machine, born out of Japanese requirements. He wasn’t proposing a design for the machine, but he was attempting to identify what the essence of the machine should be. Tanizaki wanted to identify what the machine should do; the architects seemed content to influence how it looked.

This was a recurring pattern. From the earliest attempts by architects like Sutemi Horiguchi, through the series of design competitions organised by the Japanese government in their search for an Imperial Japanese style, right up to the building that is often seen as representing the coming of age for Japanese modern architecture (the Yoyogi National Stadium, designed by Kenzo Tange for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics), close inspection reveals the same basic strategy of seeking to develop a specifically Japanese modernism through the adoption of Western precedent to which is applied historic Japanese elements. In the case of Yoyogi Stadium the dominant feature of the design is the roof and the precedent is clearly the 1958 Yale Ice Hockey Arena by Eero Saarinen, with the arched central spine inverted and replaced by suspension cables. Historic flourishes are added from Japanese shrine and castle design.

Aerial view: Yoyogi National Stadium (left); Yale Ice Hockey Arena (right).

Crossing members at end of roof: Yoyogi National Stadium (left); Ise Shrine (right).

Inclined stone wall with white building on top: Yoyogi National Stadium (left); Nijo Castle, Kyoto (right).

The Influence of Bruno Taut

As outlined in my earlier post, Two Houses: Part 1, immediately after his arrival in 1933 Taut was co-opted by a group of Japanese architects wishing to develop a modernism based on ‘pure’ Japanese elements. They took him to Katsura Imperial Villa and Ise Shrine, which Taut immediately declared to be archetypal representations of Japanese culture and the finest achievements of Japanese architecture, comparing Katsura to the Acropolis in importance whilst also finding it ‘absolutely modern’. Taut was influential, not because he told his Japanese hosts anything that they didn’t already know regarding the historic value of these buildings (they selected the buildings to show him after all) but because he told them what they wanted to hear and, as the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki has pointed out, after having been isolated for so long, the Japanese relied on the power of the external gaze for validation.

Taut’s book Personal Views on Japanese Culture represents what Nagao Nishikawa,

Professor at Ritsumeikan University Graduate School of Core Ethics, called ‘a perfect model on the theory of Japanese culture’ by which he meant that it perfectly reflected the ideas being promoted by Japanese intellectuals, and the Japanese state, in the 1930’s. Ise, writes Taut, is the source of all that Japan has offered the world, the key to the completely original culture and the cradle of Japan, absolutely perfect in its form, at which the whole world stares in admiration, whilst Katsura is no doubt the archetype of all Japaneseness.2

Nishikawa suggests that Taut’s remarks would have appealed to a nation suffering from an inferiority complex towards the great powers of Europe and the United States, a nation preoccupied with the idea of ‘national pride’ or ‘national glory’.3

Taut reinforced the prevailing view that ‘true’ Japanese culture is homogenous, un-changing (and un-changed) since the beginning of time and irrevocably linked, particularly through Ise, to Shinto-ism and Tenno-ism (Emperor worship).

One can say that Japanese culture originated in Shintoism, because the origin of Shintoism, which can be traced back to ancient times, nearly two thousand years ago, is a pure Japanese heritage fostered with no foreign influences. The basic idea of Shintoism is so simple: people are united in the name of the Emperor4

There are certainly lessons about Japan-ness to be learned from Katsura and Ise but, by focussing on these two examples to the exclusion of others that represent different strands of Japanese history and culture and, in particular, on Imperial buildings and elements that fitted the desired narrative, Taut not only appealed to a Japanese state intent on promoting Japanese culture as homogenous, unique, pure and inseparable from the Imperial system, but also confirmed the Japanese architects' emphasis on a detached, stylistic analysis.

Towards a Japanese Machine

Perhaps closest to the development of a ‘Japanese machine’ are some of Kunio Maekawa’s later buildings, where he gradually moved away from Corbusian, high-impact, buildings set as objects on the landscape and towards quieter, less assertive buildings that deployed the more relaxed, additive planning techniques of traditional Japanese architecture and the intermingled integration of building and landscape. We can observe a first, subtle shift by comparing two projects that were designed simultaneously: the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan (now the Tokyo Metropolitan Festival Hall) completed in 1961, and the Kyoto Kaikan (now the ROHM Theatre) completed in 1960.

The Tokyo Bunka Kaikan repeats the established pattern of adopting a Western model and adding Japanese flourishes, in this case a Brutalist design that, whilst impressive as a piece of architecture, would not seem out of place in Paris or London, with the addition of 'moat and fortification' elements again reminiscent of Japanese castle design.

Tokyo Bunka Kaikan: Western Brutalism meets Japanese castle.

Tokyo Bunka Kaikan: Not out of place in Paris or London.

Tokyo Bunka Kaikan: Detail of facade (Corbusian brise soleil).

The Tokyo Bunka Kaikan sits facing the, earlier, National Museum of Western Art (1959), designed by Corbusier with assistance from his former employees: Maekawa, Junzo Sakakura and Takamasa Yoshizaka, all of whom had returned to Japan by then. The plan of Ueno Park at that time shows the Museum of Western Art sitting as a pure object on the landscape and the Bunka Kaikan likewise. If we zoom into the plan of the Bunka Kaikan we might argue that the foyer acts like a public square linking the separate elements of the design, but we would still have to read the separate elements as pure objects placed on that ‘internal’ landscape.

National Museum of Western Art: a pure object sitting on the landscape.

Ueno Park, Tokyo: 1 National Museum of Western Art; 2 Tokyo Bunka Kaikan.

Plan: Tokyo Bunka Kaikan. A series of pure objects placed on the 'public square' of the foyer.

The Kyoto Kaikan, by comparison, begins to exhibit a more relaxed approach to the plan and the free-flow of landscape through the scheme. A particular element to note is the device of entering the site through a ‘gate’ that recalls the Nandaimon (the Great South Gate) of Todai-ji in Nara, constructed in 1199. Both the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan and the Kyoto Kaikan are muscular designs but, where the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan adopts the muscularity of Western Brutalism, the tectonic expression of structure in the Kyoto Kaikan exhibits a muscularity similar to the Daibutsu-yō * (Daibutsu style) of the Nandaimon.

* Daibutsu-yō is the third historic style identified by Arata Isozaki in his book 'Japan-ness in Architecture', the other two being the Yayoi style of Katsura and the Jomon style of Ise. Isozaki observes that, following Taut’s intervention, nobody has dared to challenge the importance of Katsura and Ise, whilst the Nandaimon has remained largely ignored and under-appreciated.

Plan: Kyoto Kaikan. More relaxed planning and the free-flow of landscape.

Kyoto Kaikan: Landscape and building intermingled.

Kyoto Kaikan: Building interacts with landscape through reflection.

Kyoto Kaikan: Landscape interacts with building and adds seasonal flavour.

Kyoto Kaikan: Detail of balcony and balustrade.

The Daibutsu style of the Nandaimon is itself based on methods imported from Sung Dynasty China. Isozaki explains that the Daibutsu style of the Nandaimon is not pure Sung, which is based on a direct expression of structure, but has been modified by the addition of some, mostly decorative, Wa-yō (Japanese style) elements. It appears that the Nandaimon anticipates the post Meiji Restoration strategy of adopting an imported architecture and adding, largely decorative, Japanese elements to it in an attempt to render it ‘Japanese’. Nonetheless, if the Nandaimon was influential in Maekawa’s design for the Kyoto Kaikan, it shows him reaching back more than 700 years, well beyond the Meiji Restoration and the subsequent predominance of Western influences. This is not implausible; according to Hiroyasu Fujioka (Professor, Graduate School of Tokyo Institute of Technology) Maekawa’s other conceptual foundation (aside from modernism) was medievalism.

In order to evaluate the architect Kunio Maekawa, it is helpful not only to perceive him as a flag-bearer for modern architecture, but also to recognise him as a medievalist.5

Kyoto Kaikan: Entrance gate and tectonic muscularity reminiscent of the Nandaimon at Todaiji in Nara.

Nandaimon (the Great South Gate) at Todaiji in Nara. An example of the Daibutsu style.

Nandaimon: Sung expression of structure with the addition of decorative Wa-yō elements.

Kyoto Kaikan: the direct expression of structure.

Kyoto Kaikan: Structure framing landscape.

Although not a linear progression, from this point onward more of Maekawa’s buildings exhibit an increasing use of relaxed, additive planning, the intermingling of building and landscape, and specific planning devices such as the flying geese formation**, which can be found in historic examples such as Katsura Imperial Villa and Nijo Castle in Kyoto.

** The flying geese formation refers to the device of staggering the plan in a chevron fashion to create a receding progression of parallel planes.

Plan: Katsura Imperial Villa showing flying geese formation to south-west.

Nijo Castle showing receding progression of parallel planes created by the flying geese formation plan.

Located in Ueno Park, close to the National Museum of Western Art (1959) and the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan (1961), is Maekawa’s design for the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum (1975). Compared with the two earlier buildings the site plan has been relaxed and opened up to allow the landscape to flow through. The series of parallel, linear galleries is reminiscent of Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas (1972), modified by the introduction of the flying geese formation. Maekawa may still be reaching for precedents in Western architecture but, rather than seeking to adapt them through the addition of largely decorative Japanese elements, he is beginning to adopt recognisable Japanese principles in the fundamental planning of the project.

Model, Ueno Park: 1 National Museum of Western Art; 2 Tokyo Bunka Kaikan; 3 Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum.

Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum: Model showing integration of building and landscape and the use of the flying geese formation in the planning of the galleries.

The architectural expression of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is certainly not as striking as that of its near neighbour, the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan, which is one of the pre-eminent modernist buildings in Japan, but that seems to have been Maekawa’s intention. After Kyoto Kaikan we see Maekawa increasingly moving away from buildings with a strong architectural presence towards quieter, more modest buildings with a greater emphasis on the creation of flowing sequences of linked spaces and a closer integration of building and landscape. Maekawa made increasing use of these techniques in a series of Museums he designed through the 1970’s, culminating in the Kumamoto Prefectural Museum of Art (1977) and the Fukuoka Art Museum (1979).

In a series of works in the 1970's the space he produced generated a profound sense of beauty. His plans became more skilfully subtle.6

Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum: A move towards a quieter, more modest architecture.

Kumamoto Prefectural Museum of Art (top), Fukuoka Art Museum (bottom): A return to traditional Japanese planning techniques.

We might say that, in his later designs, Maekawa moved away from buildings that were designed to be admired from a detached viewpoint and towards the creation of spaces that were designed to be inhabited. In that sense we might see him as moving towards Tanizaki’s position, albeit forty years later, by which time modernism everywhere was fading as a force in architecture. As with Tanizaki’s conjecture over the Japanese fountain pen, we are left to wonder how different the development of modern architecture in Japan might have been if that move had been made by more architects, and half a century earlier. To paraphrase Tanizaki, might Japanese thought and architecture not have imitated the West as they did, but have pushed forward into new regions quite on their own?

Tanizaki: A Voice in the Darkness

Why was Tanizaki not more influential amongst Japanese architects? An obvious fact is that he was not an architect; nonetheless he was a major cultural figure whose opinions should have carried some weight. Perhaps more telling is that he was not a modernist. His earlier writing had been influenced by Western literature but, after moving from Tokyo to the more traditional Kansai area (Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto, Nara) following the great Kanto earthquake of 1923, he became increasingly interested in traditional Japanese arts and culture. Whilst this should have made him an obvious candidate to help identify the essence of Japanese values it is more likely to have worked against him in the rush to ‘catch up’ with the West.

We also cannot ignore Tanizaki's relationship with the Japanese authorities as a potential obstacle. Whilst he could never be described as an outsider or as an anti-establishment figure, Tanizaki had a troubled history with the Japanese censor, who had banned several of his works as 'injurious to public morals', whilst publication of his novel Sasame Yuki (Published in English as The Makioka Sisters) was suspended during WWII after the government warned his publishers that it 'did not contribute to the needed war spirit'. Tanizaki's use of eroticism in his novels, sometimes to the point of deviancy, was clearly seen as running counter to 'Japanese values' whilst his candid examinations of the cultural-identity crises faced by some of his Japanese characters struggling to choose between a traditional (Japanese) and a modern (Western) lifestyle did not sit well with wartime jingoism. Compared to this, Nishikawa summarises the key concepts in Taut's discourse on Japanese culture as: purity; tradition; nationality; national character; Japanese spirit; the spirit of Tenno-ism (Emperor worship); simplicity; plainness; clarity; chasteness.3 Good, upright, unequivocal values, as compared with Tanizaki's ambiguous, dark deviancy. Tanizaki was a major cultural figure, with deep knowledge of Japanese history and culture but Taut offered the advantages of validation through the external gaze and of being 'on-message'.

In addition, understanding some of the concepts that Tanizaki discusses in his essay, In’ei Raisan (In Praise of Shadows), and in particular the language he uses to describe them, can be challenging even for Japanese readers. According to Toshi Tatsumi, Professor of Japanese Literature at Mukogawa Women’s University and a specialist on the works of Tanizaki, Inei Raisan was not widely read when it was first published in Japan. Only after it was translated and gained a reputation overseas as one of the definitive texts on Japanese aesthetics was it taken up in Japan. There are even anecdotal reports that some Japanese have found it easier to understand in translation than in the original Japanese. This raises the issue of the 'understanding' of In’ei Raisan. Isozaki has stated that translation of the term In’ei as Shadows is not only incorrect but reveals a lack of cultural understanding. If it’s true that Japanese readers find it difficult to understand in the original, and that some of them have found it easier to understand in translation, and if the translation is incorrect and reflects a lack of cultural understanding, it raises the possibility that even some Japanese have failed to understand, or have misunderstood, its meaning. So, what is the true meaning of In’ei and how, if anyone had been listening, could Tanizaki’s text have informed the debate on traditional Japanese values in the context of architecture? I’ll be discussing that next time.

  1. In Praise of Shadows, Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, translated by Thomas J Harper and Edward G Seidensticker, published by Vintage Books.

  2. Nippon (Japan), Bruno Taut, 1934

  3. Two Interpretations of Japanese Culture, Paper by Nagao Nishikawa, 1993

  4. Personal Views on Japanese Culture, Bruno Taut, 1936

  5. The Foundation of Kunio Maekawa's Concepts : The Flag-bearer of Modern Architecture and the Medievalist, Hiroyasu Fujioka, published in the catalogue to the 2005-2006 exhibition, The Works of Kunio Maekawa - A Pioneer of Japanese Modern Architecture, translated by Norie Lynn Fukuda.

  6. The Life of Architect Kunio Maekawa, Azusa Kito, published in the catalogue to the 2005-2006 exhibition, The Works of Kunio Maekawa - A Pioneer of Japanese Modern Architecture, translated by Norie Lynn Fukuda.

Worth a Visit

If you're in Tokyo it's worth visiting Ueno Park where you can see the historic progression from the Tokyo Imperial Museum*** (1937 : 1 on the plan below) through the National Museum of Western Art (1959 : 2 on the plan below) and the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan (1961 : 3 on the plan below) to the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum (1975 : 4 on the plan below).

*** See earlier post, Two Houses : Part 1. (Now known as the Tokyo National Museum).

Plan: Ueno Park.

You can also see Yoshio Taniguchi's Gallery of Horyuji Treasures (1999), which is located within the grounds of the Tokyo National Museum (1 on the plan above).

Gallery of Horyuji Treasures.

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