My first impression of Japan after three years in the UK (2)

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Jul 22, 2012 05:10

But these were easy things. What struck me most was something else.

Before the trip, I was rather anxious and scared of going back to and seeing my country. One of my Japanese colleague worked in the UK for one or two years and then move to the US and spent another year there for her study. When she finally came back to Japan, she was shocked that everything in Japan looked in 'grey'. She told me that she felt like she moved from the world of colour TV to that of black-and-white TV. I was wondering if this could be the case for me as well.

It was the case. In the international airport, everything looked grey. You could argue that it could be just the colour of airport buildings. However, the world still looked grey, when I took a bus and then took a train. After all, I felt the same throughout my stay in Japan.

It was shocking, even though I'd already heard of it.

The grey colour can partly arise from buildings made of naked concrete. But you can find such things easily in London as well. I think the grey colour was actually coming from 'noise', i.e. the lack of united style in architecture. Each building on a street uses different colour of materials. Buildings on a street have different heights. There's not a style in architecture on a street. Furthermore, there are loads of electronic cables running across at a height. Along the pavement you can always see white guard rails. There are also fascia and signs. As a whole, the view of a street becomes quite noisy.

Then, where does the noisy randomness in architecture come from?

It could be a traditional Japanese thing. Toshio Suzuki, the head of the famouse Studio Ghibuli told an interesting story. When Hayao Miyazaki made 'Howl's moving castle', some French newspapers praised his design of the moving castle, which looked kind of asymmetry random mixture of many things. In Suzuki's opinion, that was because people in the Western world are so much accustomed to think of a grand design before going to details. The way Miyazaki created the castle was the total opposite. He started with an artillery and then drew a house at the bottom. Then added many different things to the castle one by one. Finally, he spent much of time about how to move the castle and ended up with legs of chicken.

Suzuki thinks that this may be a typical Japanese way of building something. He introduced an episode about Japanese traditional architecture. During the Edo Period, houses of samurai in Edo looked quite complicated. Foreigners often come to see them and are quite confused. Then they ask if they can have a look at a blueprint for those houses. During the Edo Period, however, people in Edo didn't have a blueprint for their houses. How did they built houses without a blueprint? They built the main pillar at first. The quality of entire building was dependent of the quality of the main pillar determines. After the pillar, they started making doors and decide the room size. After one room was made, they then start thinking of the next room. But they still didn't have a toilet, bathroom or entrance. They came after other things. There was a unit size (90 x 180 cm) straw mat 'tatami' available. So they added rooms just like playing Lego. In short, Japanese architecture is basically about adding something one by one.

This was in stark contrast to Western architecture. As typically seen in churches, all churches have the shape of a cross if you look at them from the sky. In the front view, they are symmetrical. This kind of symmetric design is also common for standard houses. The Western people start from a grand design and go to details, whereas Japanese people start from details and go to the whole thing.


Another factor, in my personal opinion, is denial of traditional style especially after the WWII.

Even though they were built without a grand design, traditional architecture surely had its own architectonic style, which was developed over several hundred years or even more through the history. You can still find streets with traditional buildings (often called 'machiya' 町家 etc) at sight seeing spots, such as Kyoto, Takayama, and Kurashiki. Those styles were now almost completely lost from the modern architecture. Although new types of buildings appeared soon after Japan started trades with the Western world, I think that the traditional styles were largely abandoned after the WWII.

When Japan was defeated by the US in WWII, the emperor Hirohito made a radio broadcast speech, called "玉音放送", on 15 August 1945. This was the most shocking moment for most Japanese people then. First, for most Japanese people it was their first opportunity to hear the the voice of the emperor, who was believed to be a living god during the war. Second, the living god himself admitted that the country surrendered. After this historical moment, the ideology in Japan flipped over by 180 degrees. Soon the emperor declared himself as a human. Everything taught and believed before was denied by the same teachers. Since buildings were burned, people lived in a simple houses with simple materials, called in Japanese 'バラック' (barracks).

Decades later, with some lucks and people's efforts, the country's economy grew rapidly. However, to my eyes, the 'grey' modern buildings in cities looked like a highly sophisticated version of 'barracks', because much of them don't inherit architectonic traditions from the pre-war period. These days, "purely Japanese style" houses are expensive and quite rare.

So, basically, I went back to Japan in 2012 and personally felt I saw traces of WWII everywhere within.