In his new book, 20th Century Japan in 20 Buildings, author and architect John Barr considers how Japanese building design reflects a nuanced and often mis-represented national identity and culture, and how social, political, economic and historical influences play out in the design of 20 key buildings. In this article he describes a long-standing Western tendency to view Japan through cherry-blossom-tinted glasses, and states his intention to offer a more rounded story that includes the everyday concerns of ordinary Japanese people...
Britain in the 1980s was gripped by recession and social unrest, epitomised by the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85. The construction industry was hit hard. People lost their jobs, or were put on a four-day week, and then a three-day week. The BBC comedy-drama Auf Wiedersehen Pet captured the times in a tale about a group of construction workers from Newcastle who go to Germany looking for work. I went to Japan. One practical problem was that I didn’t speak Japanese, and so I took a crash course of one-to-one Japanese lessons. One day my teacher asked me why I had come to Japan. I explained the background and that I had come for work opportunities.
He let out a sigh of relief whilst saying: Oh, thank God... He explained that his other students all said they had come to Japan because they were passionate about Japanese culture. They all wanted to learn about the tea ceremony, or flower arrangement, or origami, or get to grips with Zen, or the concept of wabi-sabi… The amazing thing about all these people who were so interested in Japanese culture, he said, is that they themselves were deeply uninteresting. That seemed quite harsh, but I later realised that, although he might not have thought of it in these terms, he was expressing a personal frustration with a situation that has coloured all Western interaction with Japan since the 19th century: Orientalism, or Exoticism - a view of Japan and the Japanese that admits no interpretation except one that is deeply refined, mystical and 'other'. In recent times another view has become popular: one that concentrates on the Japanese television game show for example, or the vending machines that dispense all manner of surprising items. This view concentrates on the ridiculous or troubling, but shares with the Orientalist view an insistence on ‘otherness’. Whether it is the inscrutable Japanese or the crazy Japanese, there is a persistent image of a culture and population that are inherently different from us, and impossible to understand.
This situation has suited two groups of people: the Japan specialist, who acts as interpreter of Japan to the West (those for whom, as Benjamin Disraeli wrote, ‘the East is a career’ ), but also some Japanese. Most notable in the latter group is the Japanese government, which regularly plays the ‘cultural differences’ card. We want free trade with the West, they say, but we cannot possibly open our rice market to imports. It’s not a matter of protectionism you understand, it’s a cultural matter – so deep that you could never understand, even if we tried to explain – it’s a Japanese thing.
These aspects of Japan: the deep culture and the dodgy game shows, are not imaginary. They exist, but they are two dimensional. They represent two single layers in a multi-layered society and so, to see Japan in only those terms is to have at best a partial, and at worst a superficial, view of it. To put my Japanese teacher’s frustration another way: those people who wanted to understand Japan through study of its traditional culture were taking a shallow view of the multi-faceted Japan that he lived in and knew.
In 1995 the Japanese novelist and Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe refused to attend a conference in France in protest against French nuclear testing in the South Pacific. France is an Atlantic nation, whereas Japan is a Pacific nation, and so it seems not unreasonable that a citizen of Japan might have a legitimate interest in this state of affairs. In response, the French novelist and Nobel prize winner Claude Simon wrote a letter criticising Oe’s stance. The Japanese literary critic Kojin Karatani has characterised Simon’s argument as implying that Oe is not qualified to comment on such matters on the grounds that he is Japanese, and disqualified by Japan’s past colonisation of its neighbours and its actions during WW2 (as if France had never colonised other countries). At the end of his denouncement of Japan however, Simon, perhaps in an effort to show that he was not anti-Japanese and, in fact, had deep respect for Japanese culture, noted that he was deeply moved by Japanese calligraphy. Karatani argues that:
'Simon does not want to listen to intellectual and ethical criticism from a country such as Japan, and he does not even think that it is something Japan can offer. If the Japanese can offer anything at all to France, it can only, and should only, be something aesthetic. Which does not mean, however, that Simon looks down on Japan, just that he would rather talk about his love and respect for Japanese culture. But in this passionate love and respect there is a certain bracketing of the concerns of pedestrian Japanese, who live their real lives and struggle with intellectual and ethical problems inherent in modernity. Inasmuch as these Japanese lives and concerns do not stimulate his sense of wonder, he would rather ignore them.' 
Whether or not this was true of Simon, Karatani is making a wider point that I believe is generally true of the West’s approach to Japan and has coloured most study and criticism of Japanese modern architecture. I wanted to get away from that and, hopefully, in the process, produce a more rounded appraisal of modern architecture in Japan from which lessons might be learned. To paraphrase Karatani, I wanted to include 'the concerns of pedestrian Japanese, who live their real lives and struggle with the problems inherent in modernity'.
- John Barr, February 2022
Photographs by John Barr.
1 Disraeli, Benjamin. Tancred or The New Crusade. First published by Henry Colburn (1847)
2 Karatani, Kojin, ‘Uses of aesthetics: after orientalism’. Published in Edward Said and the work of the critic: speaking truth to power. Edited by Paul A Bové. Duke University Press (2000).
John Barr's book is published today! 1st March. Order your copy HERE.
John Barr is an architect with over 30 years of experience working in Japan. In 1992, he became the first British architect to qualify as a registered architect with a first class licence in Japan and established his own practice in Kobe. He was admitted to the Architectural Institute of Japan in 2002 and has been lecturing on Japanese architecture at the University of Strathclyde since 2012.