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Notes on Japan: Acknowledgement

Any kind of meeting involves acknowledgement, whether it be between two people, two cultures or two materials in an architectural joint. One of the reasons underlying the extraordinarily high quality of life and space in Japan is that this acknowledgement is celebrated and ritualised in every aspect of everyday life.

France (and -to a certain extent- the United States) are mentally constructed under the banner of overarching abstract concepts such as liberty, equality and fraternity. There is no detailed, agreed notion of what these might mean in practice, they are rolled out as a bulwark against intolerance, terrorism and anybody else’s values with which one might happen to differ: in opposition, rather than as positive qualities (this is not to denigrate them per se: imagine a country whose motto is ‘Inequality, Suspicion, Selfishness!’ Actually, let’s not bother..…).

In Japan however -to the outsider’s eye- collective identity is all ground-up, in the concrete details, and it’s not an act. An example: when alighting from a bus, the driver personally thanks every passenger as they arrive at the exit door at the front. What might seem slightly comic to western eyes -why should he care, he’s just driving a bus from A to B?- is actually a fragment of utopia. Driver and passenger acknowledge that a service has been offered, accepted and paid for; something has been achieved, urbanites have been able to move quickly between destinations, their lives have been facilitated, loved ones are closer, jobs can be done, time has not been wasted, the shared funding of this service has improved society, one passenger at a time. Thank you. Arigato wazaimas.

And that’s just a single bus journey. If you extrapolate this acknowledgement to the scale of the massive train set faultlessly moving 38 million people around the immense territory of Tokyo day in, day out, without delays, bad temper, dirt or trash (there are no bins!), then it would seem that the Japanese are on to something pretty serious. Gratitude is the glue of the impossibly dense metropolis of Tokyo: without gentility, consideration, recognition towards the other, the whole thing would fall apart in minutes. You might counter that this is down to robotic childhood indoctrination -just as early education somehow seems to make French people enduringly competitive and disparaging in one corner of their characters. However, the beauty of ritual lies in the enactment and renewal it requires: acknowledgement is an action which cannot be entirely empty of meaning, the whole point is that it reminds you of the inherent nobility in even the most fleeting encounter and transaction, and also reinforces that nobility by rekindling it. A billion tiny acts of kindness, repeated every day by everybody, prevent a whole lot of big trouble. It is tempting to say that Freudian theories of the character dissolve here, the preeminence of a collective superego not spoiling the party for the dinky ego and the healthy id.

Much of what I have already said concerning boundaries is applicable regarding acknowledgement: after all, a limit is nothing more than the concretisation and enactment of the conditions inherent in the encounter between two different states. The Japanese genius for stepping stones goes far beyond the purely aesthetic. In fact -at Katsura, for example- the stones for feet incarnate and choreograph the acknowledgement of difference between the accommodating earth and the unmodified natural world. The absence of straight lines, the perfect wiggles, the transition from round and rough to square and then paved stones set together, reminds us at every step that we are both apart from but fully engaged with nature; we tread on it lightly (or should, in any case). This is enacted by the turn of your ankles, the texture underfoot, the change of pace, the sudden glimpse afforded to your eyes alone, a situation diametrically opposed to the bludgeoning of the individual by the infinite axis of the French 17th-century garden.

The same can be said for architectural details dedicated to gently acknowledging the water drip from eaves, the entry of the breeze, the bloom of shadow, the roof overhang built up in progressive, striving layers of thin cypress or straw: it’s all about describing (and transforming) something greater than the sum of the architectural parts. This not a question relegated to tradition. Contemporary Japanese architecture is still wriggling like a fish hooked on a line from the past (in the case of the Metabolists, they are a very big sea creature, perhaps a whale, but hooked nonetheless). Some (like Kengo Kuma) seem to enjoy being attached to the rod, others -Kazuyo Sejima- have used modern capacities for dematerialisation of structure and envelope to express afresh a familiar sentiment of dissolving into nature.

Winter protection for palms, Katsura Detached Palace

This is a simplistic summation of Sejima’s work, however: she should also be recognised (acknowledged!) as a master of the architectural plan, investing new life into something we thought had been dragged and dropped into the trash can of the digital revolution. Her 21st-Century Museum in Kanazawa is a civic space first and foremost: a 112-metre diameter, low glass cylinder which shyly announces its entrance points, then conveys the visiter down gridded streets and alleys past public functions (library, creche) into the pay-to-enter exhibition spaces at its heart (there are also several areas visible to the casual visitor). The volumes are gently differentiated (unlike Gehry’s thrashing fish for Vuitton in Boulogne), rather like a gentle bow acknowledging the visitor’s need for space and calm in order to encounter the art works inside. Perhaps even more impressive is her Nishinoyama House on the edge of central Kyoto, a collective housing complex envisioned by an art collector, initially for himself and friends (there are 10 units, each of about three rooms plus a basement). It’s another miniature city, but this time the acknowledgment between glassy rooms across courtyards is charged with all the detail of private space: your bathroom, facing one of the myriad interior gardens, is not separated from neighbours by fences (all the gardens interconnect, some through tiny, shoulder-width alleys). The openness of the plan creates a palpable sense of trust: you acknowledge my privacy, it does not need to be architecturally enforced.