Wednesday, July 29, 2009

[東京都 p1] : The Floating City

by Agraphia

I'm currently working on a series of blog posts about the city of Tokyo -- the nature of the elusive beast as it appears to me, through its people, art and architecture -- as a way of coming to terms with a place I deeply love and admire, but also fear and hate, after having lived here for too long.

Writing about Japan is difficult. As it is often said, it is the land of contradiction, a country that is "almost as unique as its people like to think". Having lived in Japan for seven years -- several of which were spent deep in the countryside, the rest in the city -- I tend to feel at home in Tokyo, and easily tricked into thinking I have the perspective of an insider (Uchi 内), when in fact, as a foreigner -- and quite honestly, only an enthusiastic dabbler in the language -- I am in a way, forever outside looking in (Soto 外). But this perspective is equally relevant. I may not be Japanese, but I live in Tokyo, and Tokyo in many ways, despite its reputation as an amorphous, homogeneous blob, is a heterogeneous assemblage of migrants.

When thinking or writing about Japan, Nihonjinron (日本人論), I've tried to explore multiple perspectives, often with each holding equal weight. While trying to avoid the reduction of everything Japanese to Western perspective, stereotype, or sweeping generalizations about what is in fact a very diverse, heterogeneous culture, I equally distrust Nipponophilia, or the romanticising of eastern thought as fundamentally different from the Judeo-Christian tradition, an ideal model for alternative ways of thinking, or the magical solvent to cure the cultural ills of a degenerative West -- be it a return to conventional, natural, sage-like wisdom, or in exemplifying a radical, postmodernist future.

But I certainly do think we can learn a lot from each other.

Perhaps most importantly, I think special attention needs to be paid to the problem of perpetuating the myths of Japanese identity, generated not only from within the culture, but from the Nihonjinron without.

Some typical issues are summarized in this Wikipedia article:
* Uniqueness: Japan, its people, culture, ways of thinking, social behaviour, language, etc., are unique.

* This uniqueness of the Japanese is rooted in the distinctive characteristics of the Japanese race or ethnos.

* Ahistorical essentialism: The peculiarities of the Japanese remain unaltered essentially throughout history, and indeed, it is often asserted, are derived from a prehistorical world.

* Homogeneity: The Japanese are homogeneous as a people, race, or ethnic community.

* Language: The Japanese language contains words and phrases that cannot be adequately translated into other languages, demonstrating the uniqueness of the Japanese race.
- - -
* (1) The Japanese race is a unique isolate, having no known affinities with any other race. In some versions, the race is understood as directly descended from a distinct branch of primates.[16]

* (2) This isolation is due to the peculiar circumstances of living in an island country (島国, shimaguni?) cut off from the promiscuous cross-currents of continental history, with its endless miscegenation of tribes and cultures. The island country in turn enjoys a sui generis climate (風土, fūdo?) whose peculiar rhythms, the putative fact for example that Japan alone has four distinct seasons (四季, shiki?), colour Japanese thinking and behavior. Thus, human nature in Japan is, peculiarly, an extension of nature itself.[17]

* (3) The Japanese language has thus a unique grammatical structure and native lexical corpus whose idiosyncratic syntax and connotations condition the Japanese to think in peculiar patterns unparalleled in other human languages. The Japanese language is also uniquely vague.[18] Foreigners who speak it fluently therefore, may be correct in their usage, but the thinking behind it remains inalienably soaked in the alien framework of their original language's thought patterns. This is the Japanese version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, according to which grammar determines world-view.[19]

* (4) Japanese psychology, influenced by the language, is defined by a particular cast of dependency wishes or desires (甘え, amae?) that conduce to a unique form of 'human relationship' (人間関係, ningen kankei?), in which clearly defined boundaries between self and other are ambiguous or fluid, leading to a psychomental and social ideal of the fusion of ego and alter (自他合一, jiga gōitsu?).[20]

* (5) Japanese social structures consistently remould human associations in terms of an archaic family or household model (家, ie?) characterized by vertical relations (縦社会, tate-shakai?), clan (氏, uji?), and (foster-) parent-child patterns (親分・子分, oyabun, kobun?). As a result, the individual (個人, kojin?) cannot properly exist, since groupism (集団主義, shūdan-shugi?) will always prevail.[21]
I said myths. . . some would argue these ideas are fact not fiction. However, in the sense of myth as metanarrative, as the stories we tell each other that shape society, they are myths that, on the one hand, serve to support and affirm cultural identity, and on the other hand, confine and limit it.

I think it's safe to say the Japanese don't know what 'Japanese' is, if there is such a thing. Japan has a traumatic history. As William Gibson so aptly puts it, Japan was 'drop-kicked' into postmodernity, and in his own private Tokyo is fairing quite comfortably. "They don't really worry," he says "not like we do". Yes, not like we do... but, oh, they worry! Not so much about their youth hanging out in the streets in maid and nurse costume, dreaming in public -- although elders may grumble, it is just wrapping (風呂敷 "furoshiki") after all, and the girls hidden beneath the ephemeral masks of modern fashion trends are still, in essence, Japanese. As masters of appearance -- often hiding, in the name of harmony, the conflicting identities and power structures beneath -- they aren't anxious about such surfaces. But they worry deeply about the depth of social relations, about the uncertainty of the outside, the insecurity of an unknown future. They distrust and project fears onto the other (and I can't blame them, considering how poorly some foreigners behave.) They worry about strangers on the train. They worry about foreign viruses. They obsess over cleanliness and secrecy. They worry...

I'm not attacking Japan -- this wretched list of criticisms may be longer were it of my home country! But, I think one has to realize, in some ways, Japan may be profoundly insecure, poised between ancient Asian histories and heavy Western influence, wracked by war and natural disaster. I agree with Gibson, but at the same time, can't help but read the signs of a deep cultural identity crisis. Japan is an ancient culture, that while swimming the headstreams of the future, still admirably employs its ancient past. But scratch deep enough beneath the surface, intoxicated by the promise of an elusive origin, and it may seem like all one discovers is superficial appearance and simulation; layers of American paint on Chinese wallpaper. Is even sushi Chinese?!. Some will argue it is precisely this ability to adapt and assimilate the best of other cultures that makes Japan what it is. So why are we so preoccupied with its uniqueness? Is it overcompensation for a fundamental lack of it?

Things are never quite so simple. What is the origin of any culture or city? Tokyo is a collage of contradictory forces, giving expression to that which is uniquely Japanese, or a unique expression of that which is profoundly human. A city is the physical expression of the very being of a society, and as I have wandered -- sometimes oriented, sometimes lost -- about the major stations and back alleys of this sprawling, labyrinthian metropolis, I've been navigating the identity crisis, these very contradictions and exaggerations in all their corporeal beauty and ugliness, climbing and falling through a culture's past and future, as it both fights and yields to expansion and collapse, the pulse of its existence. A very human city, shaped by disaster, renewal, trauma and vitality.

In the end, as I prepare to leave, I withdraw with little more rational understanding of its mysterious mechanisms, but through lived experience, understand all to well, down to the very bone, my admiration of its stamina, my repulsion towards its superficiality and hyper-consumerism, its blind obsession with material wealth and social status, the boredom of its prosaic work ethic and routine, and the sudden vertigo of its undeniable, breath-taking exhilaration.

Tokyo: Empire of signs? A City without Center? Floating Signifier?
A game played by the Four Fearful Ones.

An Edo period woodblock print describing a game played by the Four Fearful Ones: earthquake (catfish), thunder (a devil with horns), fire (with fiery hair) and a father still having prestige.

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