UNEXPECTED ORIGINS OF JAPANESE MINIMALISM





feb 2019



"Abandon hope all ye who enter here"




So what do you know about Japanese architecture? What comes to your mind? Wabi-sabi, tea houses, tatami, paper partitions, wooden temples or, perhaps, usual favourites of Archdaily and Dezeen like Tadao Ando, Kengo Kuma and SANAA? Whatever it is, I want you to forget all of it, at least for now. Yes, even those exquisite tatami you always wanted to try sleeping on and wood-bamboo-mania of Kumo-san much appreciated by architects around the world, wipe it all out! Deep inhale, slow exhale. Done? Great, now we’re set to go.



You might want to ask me what was that all about, so let me explain. When I first came to Japan I had this broad set of preconceived ideas of a typical Western person on how local culture should be. All images, no connections to meaning, of course. It worked for a while, couple of months even, until I realised there was a rapidly widening gap between my expectations and reality when dealing with Japanese environment closely. By ‘closely’ I mean studying at university, working for an architectural office, visiting people’s homes — I dived into the system and came to be influenced directly both by its participants and its untold rules. Frustration started building up. I would be asking myself everyday: “Those people are insane, how can they function as a society like that?”. Caught up in a world that occasionally just didn’t make sense at all, I started looking for reasons behind Japan’s inconsistencies with (my) common sense. It took me a while but I found some answers. Yes, the answers are concerned with that 'my' in parenthesis.



The problem is that Western people are used to operate within an extensive shared set of values without realising this. And rightly so, because how can you even notice such thing when phrases like ‘work shouldn’t be inefficient’, ‘one’s time is precious’, ‘sleeping in class is rude’ sound totally justified both in a major American city and in a tiny Italian village? Basic fundamental assumptions of a certain society at a given period, or 'episteme' as defined by Foucault, are usually the result of historical and environmental factors. Here I am not talking about national cultural beliefs like Italian pasta al dente versus Russian-style overcooked spaghetti with ketchup served as a monstrous garnish or American mac'n'cheese. Yes, Italy, Russia and the US don't share same climatic conditions, have drastically different histories and thus possess visually diverse cultures, but zooming out you'll find that most of the a priori values are still very similar.


Example: you usually finish your tasks faster and work more efficiently than your colleagues. Chances are you are going to get a raise, or at least a good word from your superiors — makes sense, doesn't it? Another one: you are very good at a certain subject at university and get straight As on all your assignments but then catch a terrible cold, missing two or three classes. You still hand in all homework and your final exam is excellent so it's only natural to get an A for the term, right? Western Europe, Eastern Europe, America, Australia — seems to work everywhere I've been to before. But not in Japan!


After collecting enough of these Japanese 'surprises' I came to a conclusion that since their country historically had very few contacts with Western civilisation until Meiji Period (1868-1912), their episteme is also based on something else they nurtured before that, so purely native occurrences + adopted Chinese and Korean influences. Basically Japan managed to avoid both Christianity and cultural-economical connections with the West for the most part of its history. Now think what that means! You might not see it straight away, but a lot of our fundamental beliefs come flying from Christian doctrine. Doubts? Be you an absolute atheist or a 15th generation Muslim, if you grew up in Europe - you're still affected. Impact of Christianity on Western civilisation extends from our ideas of human rights to what we think of as acceptable sexual behaviour. Fairytalish Bible parables played a role even in what we think of as good and evil. Take "Good Samaritan" for example, where the main idea is that we should help people in distress even if they're complete strangers of inimical beliefs and culture. Never heard of this parable? Doesn't really matter, because its idea is embedded in every Western mind as ‘common sense’ thanks to our ancestors. I take it that most of us would run to help a heavily wounded person who just got into an accident even if we end up late for work and mess up our clothes with blood. Anyone would try to do the same, right? Okay, not anyone, but your usual passerby would at least call an ambulance. But, surprise, surprise, not in Japan!


I couldn’t prove it with an official source in English web, but a Japanese friend told me that in Nagoya the ambulance workers used to provide a money reward to every person who found a heavily injured accident victim and called 119. So people were so reluctant to get involved that the authorities were ready to give 100$ to the first ambulance caller each time to save more lives. That friend himself once witnessed a motorbike accident in another city: the rider bleeding on the ground and people passing by on both sides of the road, stopping out of curiosity for a few seconds, then averting their eyes and quickly moving on. After a while someone called an ambulance, but nobody approached the guy to check on him until he was taken by the paramedics.


Oh, some victims of the 1995 Tokyo metro gas attack recall that when already seriously poised with sarin they finally managed to get out on the street level, most of them crawling or kneeling down on the ground and coughing blood, crowds of commuters were rushing to work right beside them as if they were in a parallel disconnected world. For more scary details check out Haruki Murakami’s “Underground” - one of his few non-fiction books based on the interviews he conducted with 60 victims of the attack. Their stories are full of interesting details about Japanese everyday habits and little-known cultural beliefs.

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To be continued