I have an affinity for prefacing my thoughts with disclaimers; an activity that, according to an old Professor of mine, was the result of either bad writing (if something must be disclaimed then it should have found its way into the content) or lack of confidence. In this particular instance, I hope that it is the latter. For what follows is the transcribed journal of my thoughts during a month-long trip to Japan. As such, it lacks the much needed citation, revision, omissions, and clarity that I’d have it possess. What is presented, however, are some personal reflections on my interaction with Japanese culture: fractured, incomplete, unvetted. In summary: it is a blog. But in the spirit of a disclaimer, I’d like to list those authors (my need to cite) whose writings were influential in my experience in Japan, and, in some cases, formed the foundation upon which I felt compelled to expand: Donald Keene, Roland Barthes, Jun’ichiro Tanazaki, and John Whittier Treat.
Visiting Japan as an Uninitiated, a Westerner with little or no knowledge of the language (visual, linguistic, or otherwise) of the Japanese people, affords one the chance to experience the signs of another culture without the bias that language carries with it. Language, both speech and script alike, carries innumerable signifiers of cultural implicature that alter interpreted meaning. This is implicit in the language but the affected meaning is always on the side of reception. Examples: accent, ethnicity, social status, and inflection; within a language every speaker has a perspective. It is my status as an Uninitiated, my ignorance, in effect, that washes the language clean of these signifiers.
Adrift in a Void of Meaning
Roland Barthes, in Empire of Signs, points out that “language carries with it these signifiers that keep us from accessing certain levels of communication... As an outsider we can view a semantic culture free of linguistic barriers.” However, we should beware this sense of freedom in our analysis; while we do not have access to the syntax and historical weight within the language, it is that language which has formed the semantic culture. Our exile is thus transitive, without the linguistic there is no semantic; We are adrift in a sea of meaning, unable to drink for fear of dehydration.
Respite. An island: the gesture. A level of communication presents itself to us as soon as we acknowledge the fissure between our linguistic bodies. The gesture takes the place of language, beautiful in its clumsiness, and simple in its syntax. This language has been bleached of excess; it is not burdened by class or politics (were we to find these in the Other we remain unable to position ourselves in hierarchical relation to him/her). Misinterpretation, that ghostly figure that haunts our complex languages, is foregrounded in the gesture. This language becomes about misinterpretation: its elimination.
The gesture is a histrionical performance: the actors personify their roles in outrageous caricatures: the angry becomes Anger. It lacks the subtleties of spoken language, shedding sarcasm and irony. Despite the implicit hierarchy between a native and an Uninitiated the ground is made even through the elimination of these excesses; one must convey a message rather than a position. It is the navigation of common ground in order to bring each other to the same place: blunders are made by both sides, two steps forward one step back... at last! the epiphany! Oh, you mean...!
Death of the Gesture
However, this form of language requires that one of the performers be an Uninitiated (although both may occupy this space). Thus, we will quickly lose our even footing, as we cannot be immersed within a culture and maintain our position outside it. We assimilate: the signs will not remain empty. The more we become aware of cultural distinctions, propriety, and language, the the more we become subjected to the restraints of language. The gesture retreats to the background in advance of language; culture will impose and language will thicken around us. The gesture becomes simply an accompaniment of this language as the politics of communication strive to dominate meaning.
So it is that this avenue of simplified communication begins to recede as suddenly as it appeared and we are ushered unceremoniously into that complex
tangle of linguistic inference.
The Otherness of Japanese
The encounter with Japanese culture poses the categorical: is this thing Japanese? yes or no? More to the point: is this thing strictly Japanese? Our inability to answer this question in the affirmative frustrates. Japan lies somewhere in the shades of differences, yet we can answer with certainty only to the similarities (and even this is tentative, at best, in our growing global state). The Otherness of Japanese is a statement about our own culture rather than Japans. Many times, during my trip, one Professor or another has exclaimed at how Japanese a thing is, whether it be the everyday aesthetics of wrapping, gift giving, or the dawning of face masks to prevent the spread of illness. The implicature of these statements is, of course: see how specifically not-American these activities are?
Japan the Mirror
Kant, in Critique of Pure Reason, has pointed out the impossibility of knowing a thing in itself since we cannot step outside our own perspective in order to view it. Through this condition the encounter with Japan becomes a mirror: at every turn an encounter with some form of myself, whether it is what I am or what I am, distinctly, not. What follows are not my meditations on Japan, rather they are considerations of myself in Japan: they are self-reflections.
This is being especially provocative, of course, since it is certainly possible to close the gap between ourselves and another culture through interaction and education(Although the degree to which this can be accomplished is something about which I remain skeptical since it is seems impossible to trace ones own cultural lines).
Japan the Irrational, Disorder in the Streets, De-centered
My first expansive view of a Japanese city (Osaka, from a raised crosswalk) afforded me several reactions which I felt the urge to put to paper; In the order that they arrived: awe, wonder, and confusion. The first two responses are self-explanatory: the city seemed overwhelming, sprinting eagerly to conquer the horizon. But it is this skyline that bred confusion. It’s chaotic and disordered. Skyscrapers cast shadows over residential houses and tiny plots of farmland alike. Contemporary shopping malls dominate entire blocks before giving way to traditional Japanese architecture which is itself situated beside rusted tin shacks. A lack of zoning regulations, or simply different ones, bequeathed a city where the skyline rose and fell as randomly as the mountains that ensconced it.
The cities of the West are, in contrast to Japan’s, composed with an order that parallels that driving force of Western thought: progress. The Western city is to be navigated, not digested. It is a serious of steps, a grid or a circle, where all roads lead to the center. This center is clearly marked by those infamous silhouettes that grab for our attention like the edges of a Brice Marden painting (suddenly the sky is a backdrop, its magnificence usurped by those symbols of our dominance, hence: skyline). This cluster of skyscrapers, our metaphysical, monetary, and political center, also carries the psychology of upward mobility. It is a place to go to and come from. There is an immediate sense that something is missing in Osaka: there is no sense of direction. There is no center against which one might set their compass; No towering markers of urban sophistication to orient the self, and the rest of the city, against.
Adding to this sense of irrationality are the streets themselves. Most of the surface streets of Osaka do not have names (street names are seldom used in Japanese postal addresses, the exception being the Chinese cities of Kyoto and Nara). Similar observations, on the streets of Tokyo, led Barthes, in Empire of Signs, to see Japan as irrational: “an apparently illogical, uselessly complicated, curiously disparate” system. For Barthes this is a reminder “that the rational system is merely one system among others.” This statement, however, is problematic: it is a virtue of the Western conception of rationality, a binary system, and a categorical one at that, which does not allow for the existence and proliferation of another rational system. One or the Other is more rational, more efficient, and our own rationality demands the immediate adoption of that system. Thus, Barthes is required by Western axiom to view the Japanese system as irrational. But if we accept Japan, ever adaptable Japan, as a rational system then perhaps we might learn where tradition and reason meet: that line where an overhaul of the system ceases to be the rational decision.
The streets of Yamakawa-cho, a rural town nestled in the mountains of the Tokushima prefecture, are also unmarked. Asking for directions here (to the post office, grocer, bus stop) will often result in the construction of a hand-drawn map. Without the benefit of street names this map turns vendors into landmarks, revealing the streets for what they truly are: negative space. This shift in emphasis, from the street as object to the path as subject, forces us to construct a city full of people rather than a grid full of names. The town also highlights another difference between our two systems: the grid. The avenues of this sleepy town, often barely wide enough for a single vehicle, cut across the valley at whimsical angles. They run the perimeter of the randomly shaped plots of land, occupied by houses or small farms, that rise and fall in steps. This system seems to have found no rationality in the grid; a stark contrast to the rectilinear pattern stamped across the U.S.
Japans food, like its cities, has also been de-centered (an aggressive term that occupies a specific perspective). In the West, an entree is often placed in a privileged position: steak is the meal, the potatoes are the compliment; satellite dishes are organized around the main course or are simply nutritional after thoughts. In Japan, a meal becomes the location of an activity rather than a process: the Japanese dish is presented as a palette to be sampled and mixed according to individual aesthetics: flavors are combined the way a painter mixes colors. The meal is made up of a myriad of dishes, each equally portioned and carefully partitioned so that no color will bleed into the next. The balance is striking: the pinch of a strong flavor, pickles or octopus, is countered by a larger portion of the mild or bland: rice, miso. But the aesthetics of this palette extend beyond the flavor of the food: the combination of textures, smells, and colors are all considered: carrots are cut into flower shapes, the white of the rice is emphasized with the bleeding red of a pickled plumb, the soft fleshy texture and rich pink of raw fish is set against a bed of crunchy green lettuce.
The de-centered cityscape and non-concentric streets of Osaka may seem disordered and irrational to Western eyes, but it is through this shift in perspective that we come to see the ontological relationship between reason and culture: it is not reason that our endeavors serve, like some Socratic Ideal, but rather reason serves our endeavors. The rational cannot be shrugged off (“merely one system among others”) because reason is a means: the goal must be ascertained before it even comes into the equation. This becomes evident in Yamakawa-cho, where the streets preserve Japans ancient farming structure (one can’t help but speculate that those farms have remained exactly the same for generations) over switching to the more “rational” grid. It is also apparent in the Japanese meal (different but not irrational) that hierarchy was simply never the point.