Wednesday, July 29, 2009

[東京都 p2] 家 : The Household

by Agraphia

Central to understanding Japanese culture is the problematic idea of 家 "ie": [1] house; residence; dwelling; [2] family; household; [3] lineage; family name. Heavily influenced by Confucian hierarchical and patriarchal code, it is conventionally considered, in the ideal Japanese family, the family itself takes precedence over each individual member. Familial harmony, loyalty, unselfishness, and self-sacrifice is valued above all. Children are expected to be loyal to the family and in return earn the benevolence of their elders, including the deceased ancestors. Not unlike conventional 'family' in other cultures perhaps, but it can be argued, particularly central to Japanese understanding, and taken to extremes in well-known (almost trite) Bushido self-sacrificial ritual like Seppuku or Kamikaze. The philosopher, Watsuji Tetsuro -- who wrote 'Climate and Culture' in 1928, a time when imperial Japan was attempting to redefine itself in reaction to western influence -- has the definitive quote wherein he defines the ideal of the 'Japanese Household':
"The term 'house' (ie) signifies the family as a whole. The latter is represented by the head of the house, but it is the family as a whole that gives the head of the house his authority. It is not the case that the house is brought into existence at the whim of its head. The house is given a substantial and distinctive character by the fact that its unity is understood in historical terms. The family of the present shoulders the burden of this historical house and undertakes a liability for its unity from the past down to the future. Therefore, the good name of the house can make a victim even of the household head. The household member is not merely parent or child, husband or wife. He is also a descendant of his ancestors and an ancestor to those who are to come. The house evinces most starkly the fact that the family as a whole takes precedence over its individual members.

Through every age, Japanese have striven to eradicate selfishness within the family and to realize fully the fusion of self and other. But even though this affection is calm, it is full of passion. The calmness of affection is not a mere fusion of emotions sunk in the depths of gloom. It is achieved only at the cost of purging and purifying powerful emotions. In spite of its outward calm, the force that is directed toward unreserved unity within the family is essentially very intense. The sacrifice of the self does not stop short at the needs of convenience but is carried through to its extreme limits.

The house as a whole is always of greater importance than the individual, so the latter throws away his life with the utmost selflessness. The most striking feature of Japanese history is this readiness to stake one's life for the sake of a parent or a child, or to cast away one's life for the house. The calm of family affection contains within it the sacrifice of self-centeredness."
-- Watsuji Tetsuro 'The Family as an Ethical System'
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Uchi 内 / Soto 外

Another key construct is the distinction between in-groups (uchi, 内, "inside", self) and out-groups (soto, 外, "outside", other) in social behavior, thought and language. The in-group is humbled, and the out-group honored, not only with polite language, but social action and custom, like giving and receiving. Uchi-Soto relationships are not static, but contextual or situationally dependent, like circles that overlap and change in degree according to circumstance. There are interiors with interiors within exteriors. Uchi is that which is enclosed, accessible, familiar, cosmos, cleanliness, security; Soto is other, inaccessible, unfamiliar, chaos, uncleanliness, fear. Again, while similar social constructs exist in other cultures, many argue the Uchi-Soto binary is particularly central in the Japanese constitution of self (a self which is irreducibly social and constituted through social relationship), society, alterity, and ethnic identity. Such thinking is manifested positively in values like harmony, cooperation and group-cohesion, and sometimes negatively, such as a preoccupation with "Us/Them" oppositions, which may result in alienation, depreciation, or persecution of 'the other'. Again, while recognizing the uchi-soto distinction, and the constitution of a self only in relation to a unique social organization, one must be careful not to perpetuate the myth, for example, of the inability of the Japanese individual to 'find themselves' outside the established hegemony.

Another closely related construct is Honne (本音), one's inner feelings and desires, which may be quite contrary to Tatemae (建前), "facade", one's outer behaviour shaped by position and social obligation (giri 義理). Of course, this is no different from any other culture, other than the fact Japan is famous for its exaggeration, and principle to the Nihonjinron canon.
"Honne and tatemae are arguably a cultural necessity resulting from a large number of people living in a comparatively small island nation. Even with modern farming techniques, Japan today domestically produces only 39% of the food needed to feed its people so, before the modern era, close-knit co-operation and the avoidance of conflict were of vital importance in everyday life. For this reason, the Japanese tend to go to great lengths to avoid conflict, especially within the context of large groups.

The conflict between honne and giri (social obligations) is one of the main topics of Japanese drama throughout the ages. Stereotypically, the protagonist would have to choose between carrying out his obligations to his family or feudal lord or pursuing a forbidden love affair. In the end, death would be the only way out of the dilemma."
-- Wikipedia : Honne and Tatemae
Finally, tantamount to navigating the threshold of Uchi-Soto / Honne-Tatemae is the practice of wrapping (風呂敷 "furoshiki"). Everything in Japan is wrapped: bento in cloth, money in decorated envelopes, language in politeness, people in kimono, houses in fences, rooms in partitions, shrines in rope, gaijin in eikaiwa, cookies in cellophane... Wrapping, the decoration of appearances, completes the object, which is naked or dirty without it. There exist very stylized customs about the proper appliance and removal of wrapping, suggesting the ritualization of crossing Uchi-Soto boundaries. Wrapping may serve to hide, protect or arouse anticipation of its contents, communicating a beautiful caution, some advice to take care, that an exchange or transition is taking place between inside and out, that in its centripetal passage, may pleasantly surprise or violently shock its recipient.

"To wield power within a particular construction, one needs to know how to penetrate the various layers of wrapping."
-- 'Wrapping Culture' by Joy Hendry

"In the study of Japanese society and culture, the wrapping itself, or the form in which something is wrapped, very often takes on greater outward significance than the content thereof ... 'Wrapping', in short, is no more than 'rapping', whereby the Japanese indulge in 'national mythmaking', creating and defining their concept of what it means to be 'Japanese'."
-- Unwrapping Japan

"In every gesture of daily life, in the style of conversation, in the proper form of giving a present, the main concern, it seems, is how to wrap up things, ideas, feelings. Wherever Japanese life is not governed by this law of laws behavior it is in constant danger of becoming arbitrary and uncouth, crude and repulsive. It is as if the Japanese, not content with living in a mountainous archipelago all too often visited by mists and clouds and rainstorms, had attempted, from the very beginnings of their civilization, to reproduce in their social and cultural life an intensified image of their natural surroundings -- an interior scenery veiled in vapor, divided into small compartments by mountain ranges, bays and seas. Wherever they go they make a network of walls and fences behind which to retire: unwritten rules, ceremonies and taboos."
-- Mirror, Sword and Jewel By Kurt Singer

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Read in this context, the typical Edo period house itself illustrates these binary relations, layers within layers, exteriors within interiors. Fluid, intimate, flexible interiors, with paper thin walls permeated according to situation, open to the outside, drawing the natural background in, and turning the inside out. Of course, functional needs and historical practice are primary in shaping architecture, but at the same time, space shapes the minds and social relations of those within it, and those within it, shape the space. Both functional and aesthetic, some of the key components of the traditional Japanese house include:

Fence (垣):
Usually woven from local bamboo grass, blending in with natural surroundings to provide a soft, natural, unimposing boundary between the 家 and the outside, the private and the public.

Genkan (玄関):

The Entryway. Combination of a porch and a doormat for the removal of shoes before entering the main part of the house. Genkan are often recessed into the floor, to contain any dirt that is tracked in from the outside, like a mud room.
"Uchi and soto are associated with the clean inside of the house, and the dirty outside world. Almost every house in Japan has an entrance hall, where shoes, polluted with outside dirt, are removed. Outside is regarded as dirty because that is where germs, danger and fear are thought to be located; this contrasts with the security provided at home ... The concept of cleanliness seems to be an important aspect of Japanese social relations (with politicians, for instance, often wearing white gloves during campaigning) and many Japanese advertisements use this myth to convince their public of the cultural power associated with or supporting their product."
-- 'Advertizement as a Cultural Product' Anna Kalinowska
The Floor (牀):
Often built on wooden stilts or stone seats to raise the house off the damp ground and allow dry air to pass underneath. From the outside the floor appears to float several feet above ground. Covered with tatami, the floor behaves like a large piece of furniture to be sat upon. The Tatami, used as a unit of measurement loosely based on the proportion of a person, determines the overall size of the house and its quarters.

Shoji (障子) & Fusuma (襖):
Sliding and folding partitions made of light wood and paper permeable by light and air, or painted with nature scenes, that can act as doors, walls, windows or gates. The outer partitions of the house can be fully opened to the outside, merging foreground and background, house and landscape, inside and outside. Inside, they provide temporary boundaries that transform interior space according to the rhythm of everyday life. Furniture is minimal and portable, low tables and cushions, easily arranged in space according to necessity, be it eating, sleeping, or receiving guests, and easily hidden and stored. Therefore, each room doesn't necessarily have a designated function, but can transform according to the moment.

Zashiki (座敷):
The main guest room, where Soto meets Uchi. Center space, most decorated and highly ritualized by social custom, like seating arrangement, and characterized by the tokonoma (床の間) 'enclave', often holding a scroll depicting the current season, suggesting that at the center of the 家 'household' turn the cycles of nature, that the ethical code itself is perfectly natural.
"Once everyone is assembled, the host will ask people to move into the main guest room (zashiki), where low tables have been laid out in an inverted U-shape. The zashiki in fact often comprises two rooms, separated by sliding screens which can be removed when many visitors are present ... the tokonoma is considered to be the most important part of the whole building and so only the most important people are placed with their backs to it along the top row of tables. In the event of casual visiting, a guest will always be placed with his back to the tokonoma, while the host will sit opposite him in an inferior position."
-- Joy Hendry 'Interpreting Japanese Society'
Ofuro (お風呂):
The bath. Shared by each member of the family (who washes before entering) to conserve on water and fuel. Often open to a scenic view of the garden -- a bathing ritual.

Engawa (縁側):
The Engawa holds special significance as an intermediary threshold of communication, neither inside or out, between the house and garden, a kind of porch, protected by the extended roof, providing a place to sit to enjoy the weather and nature outside. It is a place where public and private merge, where one can invite neighbors passing by to sit and communicate without host and guest offending each other or impinging on privacy.

Constructed from a wooden post and beam frame, with wedges and pegs instead of nails that would just rust in the humidity, the house can be dismantled and repaired easily without damage. A pliant, flexible structure that allows movement in wind and earthquakes, but very susceptible to fire.

Machiya (町屋)

A more urban version was the traditional wooden shop / townhouse for merchants and craftsmen that lined the streets of Edo. The typical machiya was a long wooden structure one to three stories high. The face of the building, close against the street, featured wooden lattices, kōshi (格子), stylized according to the type of retail space, mise no ma (店の間), held within, and behind that was the living space, kyoshitsubu (居室部), stretching deep into the city block.
_ _ _

Watsuji elaborates on how the space is one of 'mutual trust' and 'selfless openness':
"The house as a structure of human relations is reflected in the layout of the house as a building. Above all, the physical house exhibits an internal fusion that admits of no discrimination. No room is set off from another by lock and key; in other words, there is no distinction between the individual rooms. Even if there is a partitioning by shoji (sliding doors) or fusuma (screens), this is a division within the unity of mutual trust and not the sign of a desire for separation. The close and undiscriminating unity of the house does permit partitioning by shoji or fusuma, but the very fact of the need for partition is an indication of the passion it contains. Partitions indicate the existence of antagonisms within the house, yet their removal is in itself a show of a completely unbarriered and selfless openness."
-- Watsuji Tetsuro 'The Family as an Ethical System'

And yet another myth ...
"To the casual observer, Japanese domestic life, in its waking and sleeping hours alike, seems devoid of privacy. The ordinary Japanese house affords little freedom from prying looks and unsolicited participation in practically all details of household routine, especially in the summer, when the 'walls' become little more than a system of slender poles and frames, marking off, rather than shutting off, the interior of the house from its surroundings. The communal style of public baths seems carried to extremes incredible to the Western traveler. Intimate details of personal life are freely asked and talked about. No limits of any kind appear to inhibit the reporter's curiosity and the policeman's zeal.

What fails to be observed by most foreign visitors is the unseen screen behind which the Japanese withdraws whenever he chooses, skilfully parrying all those inquisitive looks and awkward questions which catch the foreigner defenceless. The Japanese knows how to draw around himself a wall of inscrutability and silence which allows him to live the life he likes best, shy, reserved, self-centered. The Japanese language is admirably equipped for such a style of life.Rich in ambiguities, elusive in terms, indefinite constructions, it is a tool more for withholding and eluding than for expressing and stating."
--'Mirror, Sword and Jewel' By Kurt Singer

While ideally a space of calm affection, intimacy, and mutual respect, one needn't forget the possible negative aspects of the 家 'household', such as patriarchal abuse, gender inequality, and detached, instrumental relations between family members. In the early twentieth century, families were legally required to conform to the household system, with authority and responsibility for all members under the household head. Usually, the eldest son was the sole inheritor, younger sons were expected to establish their own households and daughters were married out.
"Women could not legally own or control property or select spouses. The ie system thus artificially restricted the development of individualism, individual rights, women's rights, and the nuclearization of the family. It formalized patriarchy and emphasized lineal and instrumental, rather than conjugal and emotional ties, within the family."
-- Wikipedia: Japanese Family

According to conventional wisdom, the Japanese myth, as the post-and-beam of the social, the ethics of 家 'household' reaches beyond the closed family unit to community, company and country. It is the primary model of group behaviour, Watsuji argues, structuring everything from family and neighbourhoods, to politics, economics, and the national identity of Japan as a whole.
"The Japanese, it was said, are one great family that regards the imperial house as the home of its deity. The people as a whole are nothing but one great and unified house, all stemming from an identical ancestor. Thus, the entire state is 'the house within the household', and the fence that surrounds the latter is broadened conceptually to become the boundaries of the state. Within the borders of the state as a whole, there should be the same unreserved and inseparable union that is achieved within the house."
-- Watsuji Tetsuro 'The Family as an Ethical System'

Daikazoku seido (大家族制度) "Extended Family System"

In modern life, though times may be changing, for the average Japanese salaryman, in many ways the company takes over the traditional role of the ie, with a kind of benevolent-parent / loyal-child relationship among superiors and subordinates. Companies expect unquestioned loyalty, self-sacrifice, and excessive amounts of 'service overtime' (unpaid) from workers, often at the expense of the their families. In return, the company offers job security, life-time employment, and general support for the individual and their family. Once you are within the company (family), 正社員/社員 (seishain/shain, ie fully registered employee with all benefits), foraml hierarchy is not so prevalent, with each member sharing roles and equal salary. Faced with economic recession, protectionism and globalization in general, the Uchi-Soto binary is antagonized further, sometimes fostering rivalry, fear and contempt, Japan Inc. vs the world.

While the everyday lived experience of the average Japanese family may be quite removed from the conventional household ideal, there is clearly a more rigid adherence to 'traditional family values' than that of most of my generation in North America (at least, the more liberal parts). Having a far more fluid notion of what a normal, healthy 'family' can mean, I've been stunned on occasion by the strong, immediate negative reaction of Japanese people to issues like divorce or mixed marriage. At the same time, one should take care not to impose western assumptions onto the Japanese household, where its members, such as stay-at-home mothers, may be perfectly comfortable in, and enabled by, their role and the meaningful relationships they have in maintaining the continuity of the home.

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