27 February 2018

Lost Japan - Tradition & Transience

Kyoto, 2004.
Japan is a country of continuity and change. Think of the Shinto Shrines at Ise. They comprise a national monument which is essentially an architectural expression of the Japanese soul, a special and sacred place which has been rebuilt exactly alike every thirty years over many, many centuries (the complex of shrines is said to have been founded more than 1,500 years ago). Some might contend that there are perfectly good practical reasons for this – the shrines are built from perishable materials, such as wood and thatch, which, in the humid forest climate of their local setting, are liable to rot and decay in a relatively short time span. And, of course, buildings made of flexible, lightweight and easily renewable materials are eminently practical in a region which is prone to frequent earthquakes and tremors. But the cultural aspect to these buildings is also clearly key, they are symbolic of the core concepts of regeneration and renewal as commonly reflected in various systems of Eastern philosophy. The importance of this should not be overlooked. It is that distinctly Asian idea of tradition overcoming transience by embracing and incorporating it – utilising it perhaps? – establishing continuity through impermanence, which has always fascinated me.

Pilgrims climbing the steps to the Main Shrine at Ise Jingu, 2007.

Ise Jingu, 2007.

In many respects nostalgia is opposed to this idea of continuity through change. But, in order to survive traditions often need to adapt. It’s only when those changes or adaptations are too radical or happen too suddenly that nostalgia becomes a standard reaction, lamenting the loss of what went before and what perhaps seemed immutable over supposedly vast stretches of time. In that respect, I wonder if we were able to see those thirty year renewals of the sacred buildings at Ise Jingu speeded up, as if recorded on film from a fixed point by a time-lapse camera, how might they have very subtly changed over the many generations since they were first built? – I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there wasn’t some sort of organic evolution or adaptation in their forms and configurations over the many intervening centuries which no single generation alone might have been readily able to perceive.

The Main Shrine (left) and its empty mirror site (right)

Every thirty years each shrine building is renewed, alternating its site between these two parallel spaces.

Nostalgia is an odd phenomenon in my opinion. It manages to indulge its own biases whilst simultaneously overlooking the limitations they prescribe. Self-selecting memories never create a clear record of what went before. It strikes me as even more bizarre when it is imposed from the outside by an external observer. It has the tendency to over-simplify. Yet I wouldn’t claim to be immune to nostalgia myself, as the hidden antiquarian in me often laments when a much loved place changes in some way or an old building gets demolished to make way for another new, soullessly modern, marble-lined identikit glass cube – but sometimes the historian in me does attempt to curb my instincts by trying to imagine what it must have felt like to see such venerable, old landmarks as they once were, when first emerging from their original construction sites; for surely they too would once have been seen by some as new and needlessly excessive edifices, perhaps even eyesores?

Benten-do, 2003.

I found myself pondering something along these lines when I was travelling in Japan last month. As I always do when in Tokyo, I paid a visit to a small Buddhist temple called Benten-do, set on a little island in the centre of a large pond, called Shinobazu-ike, in Ueno. I’ve been visiting this place regularly since 2003, this though was my first visit there since the year of the big earthquake which happened in March 2011. Benten-do had been damaged during that terrible natural disaster. I remember seeing large cracks in its concrete base just above the foundations. When I left Japan in the September of that year metal scaffolding was already in place and restoration works were underway. Now though, as I walked down the path and over the little humpbacked bridge towards it, I could see these works had evidently long been completed. The temple was still decked out with all its decorations celebrating the start of the New Year. But something else was different. The first thing I noticed was that many of the nearby trees had been drastically cut back and dead lotus plants were being dredged from the waters of the pond, yet as I drew closer I began to realise that the building itself was different. The platform in front of the hall had been enlarged and substantially reinforced. The water fountain, for ritually purifying hands and mouth, nearby had been moved. It looked the same but seemed newer, and sure enough when I peered up inside at the wooden ceiling I noticed that the wonderful, old painting by Tani Buncho of a dragon writhing through the clouds was no longer there (I very much hope it’s been preserved and is now stored somewhere safe). It felt odd wandering around such a familiar place which no longer seemed quite the same. But then I suddenly remembered many years before, the time when I visited an exhibition of early photographs of Japan at an art gallery somewhere in Tokyo, where I’d come across a hand coloured photograph of Benten-do taken in the late nineteenth century. And I remembered how I stood before it, transfixed for a very long time, fascinated by this familiar place, studying how different it once was – even though it was still essentially just the same. And I realised: there it was once again, that same feeling. Continuity in change.

Benten-do, 2018.

It was during this recent trip that I read Alex Kerr’s Lost Japan (Penguin, 2015). Entertaining, evocative, erudite, and effusively enthusiastic, this is an outsider's profoundly personal view of an ideal Japan that’s presently waning. Billed as a love letter to Japan the book is comprised of a set of autobiographical sketches by an American Japanophile who has immersed himself deeply within aspects of the culture which he has personally found most appealing (especially Kabuki). It is not a comprehensive history of Japan. It's not an ethnography. It is a personal memoir. The culmination of a lifetime of reflection upon the traditions of his adoptive country. Having first spent a period of his childhood growing up there, and later returning as a student, eventually building a career there as an art dealer – all the while devoting himself to the hobbies of preserving old buildings and studying Japanese arts and crafts, it is a book steeped with anecdote and observation. But it is also a lament for a lost idyllic view of Japan which fits into a strong tradition of mostly American ex-pat writers (par excellence perhaps being Donald Richie's The Inland Sea), who have given witness to interesting periods of change, yet ultimately these laments can at times seem somewhat self-indulgent and overplayed to my mind. 

Traditional wooden building in Ise

Unlike Kerr, who has spent most of his life since the 1970s living there, I have been visiting Japan regularly for only the last fifteen years (as well as living there on and off), and yet I too have seen places change irrevocably. And I've felt sad about that, but I think – ultimately – that is the nature of Japan; for all its ancient traditions, all its long-standing continuities, ultimately change is the only constant. Kerr does get somewhere close to acknowledging this in the book's final chapter, but it's ironic that he doesn't perceive certain self-parallels more clearly; to give one example, that his restoration projects always begin by modernising his traditional wooden Japanese houses (adding plumbing, electricity, modern sewage systems, etc.), making them more comfortable for a modern day Westerner, much like his lament that many Western imports to Japan (e.g. Italian restaurants) are always "modified to better suit Japanese tastes" thereby, in his opinion, rendering them bland and void of their original virtues, which he lauds. Our worlds are never what we want them to be, but there will always be a strong tradition of lamenting what we can see and wish they could or should be – demo, shikata ga nai, ne (translation: but, such is life, it can't be helped). 

Traditional interior, with sliding shoji screen and tatami mat floor.

That said though, this is an interesting, insightful, and entertaining read, particularly for anyone who already knows Japan well – it provides a good yardstick against which to measure and reflect upon your own personal impressions of the country and its culture. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on China versus Japan, as Kerr's experiences and opinions here reach a confluence of sorts with my own. He writes: “I will surely be criticized for making broad generalizations about the nature of Japanologists and Sinologists – but I can’t resist. Lovers of China are thinkers; lovers of Japan, sensuous. People drawn to China are restless, adventurous types, with critical minds. They have to be, because Chinese society is capricious, changing from one instant to the next, and Chinese conversation is fast moving and pointed. You can hardly relax for an instant: no matter how fascinating it is, China will never allow you to sit back and think, ‘All is perfect.’ Japan, on the other hand, with its social patterns designed to cocoon everyone and everything from harsh reality, is a much more comfortable country to live in. Well established rhythms and politenesses shield you from most unpleasantness. Japan can be a kind of ‘lotus land’, where one floats blissfully away on the placid surface of things. […] In general, Chinese Studies tends to be a little dry, keeping a discreet distance from the subject; Japanese Studies, in contrast, takes almost too reverent an attitude towards traditional culture.” This may well be a generalisation, but I have to admit I feel there is some truth to this assertion. Many of the Westerners I’ve encountered in Japan, particularly the younger ones, seem to exhibit a strong tendency to bracket Japan (and themselves within it) off from the rest of the world. Frequently when encountered while travelling on the subway or the Yamanote Line in Tokyo they are often at pains to avoid all eye contact with other foreigners, desperate that nothing should burst their personal “Japan bubble.”

Senso-ji, Asakusa, 2003

Kerr is sympathetic to many of the changes in Japanese culture, perceiving the 'hows' and 'whys' behind many of these adaptations because of his deep affinity for Japan and the cultural undercurrents which have prompted and steered the unconscious collective which perennially seems to seek to define "Japaneseness" – the uniqueness or exceptionalism that sets Japan apart from the rest of Asia – but I was most impressed by his speculations as to how much of this is rooted further afield than simply in the neighbouring cultures of China and Korea in other parts of Southeast Asia. However, I felt he missed a trick when thinking about the regimentation behind the creeping ugliness of the urbanisation he decries. I've always admired the practicality behind this, for, as already noted, Japan is a country that experiences regular seismic disturbances – hence it seems logical that living spaces would be kept small and built of composite and easily renewable materials (as with many of the small, older wooden buildings with their shoji and fusuma sliding screen doors which preceded them), and why hillsides would be reinforced with concrete and power lines kept above ground. What's most interesting to me is the cleanliness and order behind all of this which I think has its roots in the very traditions and practical 'know-how' which Kerr so enthusiastically eulogises. 

Tokyo Tower, 2003.

The modernisation of Japan, particularly urban Japan, may well be garish (especially re: neon interior lighting) and unsympathetic to the more naturalistic emphases of Japanese traditional culture, but all cities of the world are guilty of this to varying degrees – losing aspects of the past through a process of renewal. What's interesting though is how pockets of the old do still manage to survive. For example, think of the many smaller, wayside Shinto shrines dotted throughout Japan's urban spaces – there are many instances of these being built around or moved to the tops of tall buildings rather than simply being bulldozed. Plus, I always marvel at how many places in Japan manage to turn the smallest corners into miniature gardens, areas which in any other country would undoubtedly remain neglected or be allowed to accumulate rubbish.

Shinto shrine on the rooftop of a tall building
If Kerr laments the loss of a certain aesthetic view of Japan's past he perhaps overlooks the resilient, if somewhat muted, adaptation of a Japanese aesthetic to a modern functionality that is contending practically and pragmatically with a sudden rapid expansion of population in a finite and fragile landscape. Undoubtedly Japan's urbanisation over the course of the last 50 or 100 years could well have been a lot worse, and it may well yet improve – and as Kerr's book was originally published (and was well received) in Japanese it could well help in this respect by prompting further reflection and discussion upon the quintessential aspects of what is meant by this concept of "Japaneseness." Hence the value of this book to anyone interested in contemporary Japan, whether insider or outsider, Japanese and foreigner alike – it's well worth reading.

Benten-do & Shinobazu Ike, Ueno, 2018.

Below are a series of short films and stills which I shot in 2007 of a new lintel for a shrine building being ceremonially dragged to Ise as part of the 30 year renewal cycle. 


  1. Very thoughtful and interesting article.

    When I was in Myanmar someone joked to me that in Britain they put the founding year on a cafe or pub to proudly show how old it is. In Myanmar they do it to proudly show how new it is.

    Nostalgia is a complicated beast - often when we are defending the loss of Victorian and Edwardian buildings we forget that actually the Victorians were huge vandals, destroying swathes of old medieval streets to shove the buildings up we now so admire. Just look at Haussmann in Paris and the photos of Atget trying to capture a vanishing world.

    So true as about tourists trying to avoid eye contact with each other.

    Interesting that Kerr’s book was well-received in Japan. Outsiders can show something new. If I ever make it to Japan I shall make sure I have his book.

    1. Thanks, Alex. That's very true about the Victorians. Looking through the photos in Philip Davies' "Lost London" book is a real feast of fascination. All in the name of progress, but also puts me in mind of Westerners decrying the recent loss of hutongs in Beijing and Shikumen in Shanghai. Local authorities rarely find the right line between slum clearance and historical preservation.


Thanks for reading. I would be very interested to hear your thoughts. Please leave a comment.