Japanese Culture from The Point of View of Language, Landscape, and Gathering
By Fumihiko Maki
Globalization presents one of the most pressing issues today in threatening the identity of different regions and cultures. The question is centered on how cities and buildings could be preserved and further developed for the future.
Japan is fortunately an island nation, situated on the fringes of former centers of civilization (Europe, Middle East, and China). While foreign cultures have undoubtedly influenced the country for over thousands of years, it is significant that they never fully shaped Japan’s cultural heritage.
Yet Japan’s active interest in the essence of foreign cultures –whether ancient Buddhism
or Western Modernism–has never ceased. Unlike colonized countries in Asia, foreign influences could be assimilated and “Japanized” over long periods of time and at the will of the nation. Of course, geographic conditions play an important role. Taking such issues into account, I would like to discuss the uniqueness of the Japanese culture from the point of view of language, landscape, and gathering.
It can be said that language is the most powerful cultural asset. Both directly andindirectly, language influences the thoughts and feelingsof those who use it.From ancient times, a variety of languages have existed in Japan. Ever since the Chinesescript (ideograms known as kanji)was imported, anotheralphabet (known as kana) wasadded to give phonetic expression tokanji.
Many new words were introduced from the West once Japan began to modernize in the mid-19thcentury, after a long period of relative isolation. Under renewed pressure to ‘Japanize’ the language, abstract ideas were formulated inkanji while emotional expressions were phrased inkana. To this day, the two have been used together,incorporated intothe spoken and written languages to form one of the most unique linguistic structures. This may account in large measure for the dominant positionenjoyed internationally by Japanese manga and anime.
The thought process of design involves an incessant feedback loop between the rational and emotional compartments of the architects’mind. While Japanese architecture had made great strides in emulatingthe West,thisdual thought process has shaped the uniqueness of Japanese architecture since JunzoSakakura’s Japan Pavilion in the Paris Expo of 1937.
Nature and Landscape
The islands of Japan stretch north and south for 1000 km, with its center being occupied by mountain ranges. Being surrounded by the ocean and filled with mountains,the landscape is bestowed with a wealth of natural resources. The general storage of space and the lack of plateaus and desert shave created a landscape in which residential and agricultural zones occupy most of the land up to the foot of the mountains.As general rainfall is high and temperature levels are mild, an abundance of forests with a rich variety of plants and trees could be found. On the other hand, the threat of earthquakes has restricted the amount of masonry constructions. Rather than brick or stone,almost all buildings are therefore made of wood.Within the otherwise tranquil environment, buildings, villages, and cities have been designed to coexist with, rather than confront, nature. With the exceptions of a few castles, Japanese architecture tends to emphasize its horizontality.
Incidentally the room, with all its sliding screens and panels, acquires a level of spatial freedom from the ingrained genetics that enables many different uses. The whole does not dominate the part, but the combination of parts constitutes the whole. This breeds unique spatial aesthetics based on asymmetry and the concept of ma– the space in between.
Moreover, the practical limitation of space has encouraged its perceptual enlargement, accomplished by means of spatial layering to amplify the sense of depth; something that has been further enriched by including elements of the landscape, like shrubbery and trees, as additional layers. This kind of multi-layered system emphasizesen closure, which explains the tendency to endow space with a centripetal rather than acentrifugal order. Characterized by ma and oku, Japanese tradition is better under stood through such spatial qualities rather than material forms.In this way, the motivation to seek a harmonious relationship with nature has always been strong in the city and its architecture.
The Edo period was a feudal society in which social status strictly determined one’s domicile and privileges. In such a rigid society, the only areas of public gathering were places well-known for their scenic beauty, and often included the precinct of temple sand shrines. While few such places remain as parks, most of them have vanished with the modernization of the country. In its place, train stations and their surrounding shave become centers of gathering in large cities like Tokyo. As mentioned earlier, it was not possible to modernize the Japanese city by mimicking its European counterpart due to the importance of coexisting with nature. The rail system, however, suited the organic structure of the Japanese city.
Today the private suburban lines, the central subway system, and the originally public JR lines have merged to create a vast rail network that lacks comparison in other metropolises of the world. In biological terms,its speed, precision, cleanliness, and reliability is analogous to the body’s circulatory system, while its nodes represent the organs. Furthermore, the expression of the rail terminal takes on a wide variety of architectural styles, being neo-classic, modern,post-modern, and neo-modern, and mega structural. The stations become vital centers of activity, attracting and nourishing diverse urban functions in its surroundings. As such, it could be said that the station has become the new public space of the city. It is important to recognize that there exists a strong social force that supersedes the will of the individual architect. Socialization of this kind has generated a unique quality to the built environment.
What best characterizes the modernism of the 21st century is that it has lost its initial objectives, principles, and styles, dissolving into a large pool of information. Architects are no longer passengers on a big ship but are left wandering on the open seas. Of course individual architects each have their own objectives, principles, and styles. But in the open sea, one must know what to hold on to and what to swim toward. In thinking about the future of architecture in a context where all things are becoming relative, it is important to reevaluate the qualities of the local culture.
Time and Architecture
Time offers a fertile ground for personal memories and experiences.
Time is a mediator city and architecture.
Time is the final judge of architecture.
Space and Architecture
Space has no differentiation between interior and exterior.
Space accommodates a given function and generates new uses.
Space not form, fosters delight (venustas) for people.
This material was presented by Fumihiko Maki at 15thArcasia Congress 2012, Nusa dua, Bali, Indonesia
all pictures are from