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  • John Barr

In Search of Japan-ness : Part 2 (We're All Japanese Now)

For an instant he thought he saw O-hisa’s face, faint and white, in a shadowy corner beside his bed. He started up, but quickly caught himself. It was the puppet the old man had brought back from Awaji… The door slid open, and this time, half a dozen old-style Japanese books in arm, it was no puppet that sat faintly white in the shadows beyond the netting.1

So ends Jun’Ichiro Tanizaki’s novel, Tade-kuu Mushi (published in English as Some Prefer Nettles). Both the doll and O-hisa, the traditional Kyoto woman, symbolise a disembodied Japanese femininity to which Tanizaki returns several times in his works. In his essay, In’ei Raisan (published in English as In Praise of Shadows) he writes of the traditional Japanese woman:

Most of her life was spent in the twilight of a single house, her body shrouded day and night in gloom, her face the only sign of her existence… (Her) clothing was in effect no more than a part of the darkness, the transition between darkness and face… The darkness wrapped her round tenfold, twentyfold, it filled the collar, the sleeves of her kimono, the folds of her skirt, wherever a hollow invited. Further yet; might it not have been the reverse, might not the darkness have emerged from her mouth and those black teeth*, from the black of her hair, like the thread from the great earth spider? 2

*Tanizaki refers to the traditional habit of Japanese women blackening their teeth in order to emphasise the whiteness of their faces.

Tanizaki makes the link between darkness and woman not only in the text of In'ie Raisan; it is embedded in the very title of the work. In written Japanese, meaning is imparted by a system of ideograms originating from China (kanji). These are not phonetic but carry ideas. The common Japanese word for shadow is kage and is expressed by the kanji character 影 but Tanizaki never uses this character in In’ei Raisan, neither in the title nor in the text.

In the title he combines two characters:

陰翳, that are read In’ei. Each of these characters, individually, can carry the ideas of darkness, shade, gloom, dimness, other side, and one of them (陰) can carry the additional ideas of female, negative and yin (as in yin and yang).

Tanizaki chose these particular characters deliberately and, moreover, had a purpose in combining them, and this takes us to the heart of the issue raised by the Japanese architect, Arata Isozaki, when he claimed that the translation of In’ei as Shadows is not only incorrect but betrays a lack of cultural understanding. The origins of the misunderstanding are ancient and deeply embedded in differences between Western thought and Eastern thought. In Western/Christian thought darkness existed before light. God created light to illuminate the darkness and divided the two into separate entities.

And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. (Genesis 1:3)

And God saw the light, and it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. (Genesis 1:4)

Gustave Doré: The Creation of Light

This concept has permeated Western thinking, with light and darkness not only separated but set in opposition, often representative of other values such as good and evil. These ideas are alien to Eastern thought, which holds light and darkness simply as degrees of the same phenomenon or, to put it another way, as yin and yang phases of the same phenomenon. As such, they cannot be considered separate entities set in opposition.

Within light there is darkness, but do not try to understand that darkness. Within darkness there is light, but do not look for that light. Light and darkness are a pair, like the foot before and the foot behind in walking.

Sekitō Kisen: from the poem Sandōkai

In order to make sense of the discussion that follows I will hereafter use the Eastern interpretation, and refer to a single phenomenon of light/darkness.

Why did Tanizaki choose, and then combine, these particular kanji characters and what meaning should we take from it? The technique of combining two characters of similar, if subtly different, meaning is used in classical Chinese to introduce a nuanced depth of meaning and Tanizaki is undoubtedly tapping into that tradition. As to his intention, it is beyond me to decode it at a linguistic level, but Isozaki has compared In’ei to the darkness that expands and fills the space like mist.3 In seeking to understand the phenomenon described by Tanizaki and Isozaki it occurred to me that I could follow Tanizaki’s example by simply occupying the kind of space he describes and recording what I witnessed. Where his medium had been words; mine would be images.

The space I selected was a Japanese-style room (wa-shitsu) in one of Tanizaki’s homes. Known as Ishoan, this is the house he inhabited from 1936-1943 and is the model for the family home in his major novel, Sasame Yuki (published in English as The Makioka Sisters), which he largely wrote whilst living there. The room faces south, and so is exposed to the movement of the sun throughout the day but, due to the presence of overhanging eaves and a further, intervening space (engawa) between the room and the outer façade, no direct sunlight enters the space. The light that does enter is further filtered and diffused through the Japanese paper screens (shoji) that separate the room from the engawa.

Entrance to Ishoan.

Ishoan from the garden: the chosen room is on the ground floor at the farthest corner, deep in shade.

Ishoan: ground floor plan. The chosen room is at the south-west corner, set back from the facade by the intervening corridor (engawa) from which it is separated by sliding paper screens (shoji).

I photographed the space from first light until last using a fixed exposure setting throughout. The exposure was set at midday a few days earlier when weather conditions were similar (clear and sunny). Normally, camera exposure is adjusted to compensate for lighting levels and to render reflected colours as ‘true’ as possible, irrespective of the amount of available light. In the normal way of proceeding the emphasis is on uniformly recording the colours reflected from the surfaces that surround the space at the expense of understanding the amount and quality of light/darkness present in the space, the latter being effectively eliminated from the resulting image. By maintaining a fixed exposure throughout the day I was able to visually record the changes in the quality and degree of light/darkness in the space, using the camera not only to capture an impression of space, but also as a machine to record the phase fluctuations in light/darkness. There are sixteen images, taken at hourly intervals between first and last light, although at shorter intervals near the beginning and end of the day as conditions change more rapidly at those times.

















I wonder if my readers know the colour of that darkness...It was a repletion, a pregnancy of tiny particles like fine ashes, each particle luminous as a rainbow.2

A number of things are revealed that can be linked to Tanizaki’s text.

Note: In the following quotes the term ‘shadow’ comes from ’In Praise of Shadows’ the published English translation of ‘In’ei Raisan’. This is the description to which Isozaki has objected and examination of Tanizaki’s original text reveals that he never used that term but a variety of other descriptions, the essence of which this study hopes to reveal.

The use of overhanging eaves and the further setback created by the engawa, combined with the use of paper screens, means that direct sunlight never enters the space.

In making for ourselves a place to live, we first spread a parasol to throw a shadow on the earth, and in the pale light of the shadow we put together a house.2

what first strikes the eye is…the heavy darkness that hangs beneath the eaves… cavernous darkness spreads over all beneath the roof’s edge2

Although photographed on a clear, sunny day, and with its main opening facing south, the space never becomes bright; it remains gloomy throughout the day and colour remains muted. That light which does enter is diffused by the use of paper screens (shoji).

Out beyond the sitting room, which the rays of the sun can best but barely reach, we extend the eaves or put on a veranda, putting the sunlight at still greater remove. The light from the garden steals in but dimly through paper-panelled doors, and it is precisely this indirect light that makes for us the charm of a room. We do our walls in neutral colours so that the sad, fragile dying rays can sink into absolute repose.2

The brightest period occurs as the sun drops towards the west and illuminates the low-level paper screen in the west wall, which does not enjoy the same protection of overhanging eaves and setback present at the south façade. If this low-level opening were not present (and often it would not be) the space would be remarkably dark.

And so it has come to be that the beauty of a Japanese room depends on a variation of shadows, heavy shadows against light shadows – it has nothing else.2

There are no explicit shadows cast onto the surfaces that surround the space. The phenomenon described above might better be translated as a variation in density of light/darkness. Indeed, elsewhere in the text, Tanizaki compares a Japanese room to an inkwash painting, with the ink thin and luminous in some areas and dense black in others.

An empty space is marked off with plain wood and plain walls, so that the light drawn into it forms dim shadows within emptiness. There is nothing more…we are overcome with the feeling that in this small corner of the atmosphere there reigns complete and utter silence; that here in the darkness immutable tranquillity holds sway.2

This is the same theme addressed by the Czech writer Milan Kundera in his novel The Joke, when he writes: When music plays, we hear a melody and forget it is only one of the faces of time; when the orchestra falls silent during a rest in the score, we hear time, pure time.4

Both writers are describing the importance of emptiness, the void, the space between. The ‘shadows’ then to which Isozaki objects are the two-dimensional shadows that are cast onto the surfaces that surround a space. The space described by Tanizaki excludes direct light and, in so doing, excludes these shadows. Instead the space itself is filled with In’ei. Like Kundera’s ‘pure time’ we perceive this only when we focus on space itself and not on the surfaces that surround it. Tanizaki wishes us to recognise the fundamental role of light/darkness in Japanese life and aesthetics but, when we perceive the phenomenon he describes, we also understand the presence of space, pure space, and its value.

Knead clay in order to make a vessel. Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use of the vessel. Cut out doors and windows in order to make a room. Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use of the room. Thus what we gain is Something, yet it is by virtue of Nothing that this can be put to use.

Attributed to Lao Tse

As I asserted in my previous post, when it came to creating a Japanese modernism, Tanizaki wanted to identify what the machine should do; the architects wrestling with the same issues seemed to be content to influence how it looked. In other words, whilst the architects concentrated on the appearance of the vessel, Tanizaki contended that beauty must emerge from the purpose of the vessel, which derives from the nothing within.

The quality that we call beauty, however, must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty’s end.2

This was the genius of our ancestors, that by cutting off the light from this empty space they imparted to the world of shadows that formed there a quality of mystery and depth2

The idea that usefulness derives from Nothing, is forcibly demonstrated by the work of the artist Rachel Whiteread, notably in her 1993 Turner Prize-winning piece, House where she cast the entire interior of an empty house in solid concrete then removed the external walls, which had acted as a mold.

Rachel Whiteread : House.

In retrospect, having experienced the phenomenon described by Tanizaki, I can see how a new concept of space/darkness is expressed in his choice of kanji characters. Each character carries the idea of darkness, whilst his use of two characters of similar but subtly different meaning in itself suggests a layering and depth, almost like a two-dimensional image that has been duplicated and slightly shifted to create the illusion of depth. The yin/yang allusion introduces the idea of phase fluctuations in the light/dark continuum through time, whilst the introduction of 'woman' suggests the void, the recess, the source. In his choice and combination of characters Tanizaki creates multiple layers of meaning possessing a depth not present in the simple, two-dimensional shadow cast on the wall.

The question is why the architects of the time, addressing the same issues, did not take a similar approach. It is a commonplace amongst Japanese architects that traditional Japanese architecture is distinguished by its basis in ma, the space between elements of construction. This is such a commonplace that their failure to consider it as a starting point in their search for Japanese values seems strange. In focussing on the elements of construction and materiality of Katsura and Ise (i.e. on the vessel) the Japanese architects were viewing the issue with Western eyes, perhaps inevitable having enlisted the external gaze of Taut and having been so much influenced or, perhaps more accurately, validated, by his statements. However, I suspect that a more powerful motivation was their desire to satisfy the political agenda of the Japanese state, which sought to link ‘Japanese values’ firmly to nationalism and the Emperor and, specifically, required an Imperial architecture to project into its expanding empire. It is difficult to project an image of power through something as nebulous as ma, or in'ie for that matter. Far easier to symbolise power through: A new Japanese architectural style (that is) sublime and powerful like God, brave and solemn like a giant. This is not an edict from the Japanese government, this is a quote from Kenzo Tange’s competition-winning entry for the Greater East Asia Memorial Building (1942), which was clearly based on Ise Shrine.** The quote speaks for itself and nothing more need be added regarding Tange's position, which was representative of many Japanese architects at the time.

**The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, although initially conceived by government advisors as a trading block, was adopted by nationalists and militarists as a vehicle through which to strengthen Japan's dominance in the region and became a euphemism employed by the Japanese government to refer to the, de-facto, Japanese empire.

Why is any of this of interest today? Well, you could say that we are all Japanese now. In this age of globalisation and the internet we all feel the pressure of external influences on our values and traditions and, like the Japanese after 1868, we must consider how we wish to respond to the situation. Do we want to become part of a global culture with globally-shared values and symbols, or do we wish to preserve local distinctions? Do we want to embrace some aspects of these external influences while rejecting others and, if so, which ones and on what basis? If we are to preserve ‘local values’ how do we identify and evaluate them in the first place?

In respect of this last issue (the identification and evaluation of local values) the Japanese experience highlights the potential for the search to be coloured by a predetermined agenda. In the case of Japan the agenda was nationalism and, again, this is relevant for many of us today. Nationalism appears to be on the rise, sometimes explicitly named, as in Scotland and Catalonia, and sometimes disguised under another heading, such as 'Brexit' or 'America First'.

As architects we must consider whether these issues form part of our remit and, if so, how to respond. Inevitably these will be personal decisions that each of us has to make. The Japanese experience offers valuable insights and at least two potential approaches: that adopted by Tanizaki and that followed by Tange and others.

  1. Some Prefer Nettles, Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, translated by Edward G Seidensticker, published by Charles E Tuttle.

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

  3. Seiichi Shirai Flashbacks, essay by Arata Isozaki, translated by Stanley N Anderson, included in Sirai - Anima et Persona, by Seiichi Shirai, published by Seigensha Art Publishing.

  4. The Joke, Milan Kundera, translated by Michael Henry Heim, published by Penguin Books

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