Friday, 30 April 2010

Kyoto Mayday

I participated in the ”Dispersal and disobedience” Mayday in Kyoto yesterday. Here's a short report.

The weather was perfect and pleasant, although the people carrying the gigant puppet must have had a hard time because of the strong wind.

It was also beautiful. There is a tendency for people to associate beauty with defeat - with resignation, loss, the serenity and clarity of distance. But beauty can be much more than that. It can be an oil can bath and the sun shining on a gigant puppet!

The name of even was "dispersal and disobedience" (Chôsan to fufukujû), "dispersal" being an old term from premodern Japan when villagers would mass-emigrate in protest against feudal oppression. Here the theme was flight and exit from the norms and the system, "away from everything people tell you that you have to do", as one of the participants told me.

There's a pleasant atmosphere at the gathering in the park from where the demonstration will set out. Acquaintances everywhere. Happy faces. "Kyou wa hare no hi", I think - a sunny day, but also a day for celebration. My surprise at finding a person who has come all the way from Tokushima to participate - wonderful! Endô-san has brought the old flag she used for her hunger strike: "Not just hungry, but angry!".

The people of Bochibochi start distributing signs for us to carry. I get one with the words "Chôsan", dispersal.


Other people carry signs with words like "I made the wrong choice when I started to work" or "Form is emptiness" or "It's OK to escape".

It's time. As we head north towards Shijô, jubilation starts as the procession is joined by the oil can. It's Kubikubi's famous old can which has been turned into a bath (doramu kan buro)! It's pushed on a small chart. The first time ever that an oil can bath appears in a Mayday demonstration? :)


(I think it's OK for me to publish this photo - if anyone on it has objections, please tell me and I'll remove it)

It's a small demonstration and sometimes the disproportion in strength against surrounding society feels overwhelming. We are a like a small brook, I reflect. The people crossing the pedestrian crossing outside Takashimaya almost look like they are as many. For a moment I recall Simmel's words about modern society making people feel they are a "quantité neglieable", a neglieable quality.

But on the way something happens. Beauty arrives!

Maybe it's the laughter and jubilation around Kubikubi's oil can. Maybe because we are now walking in the sun (Thinking about the sun might be important when planning a demo course). The sun is shining in the flags and on the gigant puppet. Maybe it is also because I am now walking close to the pressure and force of the sound. It's good to be close to the drums and the musicians.

All this created a special, startling beauty - the beauty of happiness.

Friday, 23 April 2010

No sunglasses

Just a brief note on Belgium's "sunglass ban" which is likely to be passed soon:

According to today's news, Belgian lawmakers are set to vote on a proposed ban on wearing sunglasses in public, a day after neighbouring France proposed enacting similar legislation. The ban would also include a ban on make-up, masks, hats, caps, beards, veils and mufflers that do not allow the wearer to be fully identified. The lawmakers say they are motivated both by security and morality. "We think all people in public places must show their face," says Denis Ducarme, member of the liberal Reformist Movement Party which drafted the legislation. Xavier Baselen, another party member, said the ban is needed for reasons of public order. "In Belgium we decided [that] to be visible in the street is [a] real important law at a public order point of view".

OK, I was joking. The ban will only target the full-face niqab and burqa. The quotes, however, are authentic. And really, I think that there are many of us who should feel concerned. This guy, for instance: 


Wasn't it Arendt who warned that the destruction of the rights of the minorities was often aimed at destroying the rights of everyone?

For news reports on this scandalous issue, see for example:

"Belgium considers ban on Islamic face coverings", Richard Allen Greene, CNN: http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/europe/04/21/belgium.burqa.ban/index.html

"Belgium to vote on face veil ban", Al Jazeera: http://english.aljazeera.net/news/europe/2010/04/20104224838700832.html

"Belgien kan bli först ut att förbjuda slöja", Linnéa Jonjons, DN:
http://www.dn.se/nyheter/varlden/belgien-kan-bli-forst-ut-att-forbjuda-sloja-1.1081690

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Are you a tree person or flower person?

We visited the botanical gardens in Kyoto yesterday. As usual, most people around me flocked admiringly around the flower gardens. I don’t deny the beauty of flowers, but to me that beauty is of another, less intensive kind than that of trees. While walking around in the park I began to think about whether one could perhaps distinguish between two kinds of people, those who prefer trees and those who prefer flowers, and whether an investigation into the different kinds of beauty could help me clarify to myself why I so clearly belonged with the former.



What, then, is it that makes me like trees? One important factor is that trees have individuality. Each tree has a shape of its own and only something that has individuality can speak to you. Flowers by contrast disappear in their numbers. Being small and appealing by color rather than form they seldom stand out from each other. It is possible to have a favorite tree, but almost impossible to have a favorite flower (except in the sense of a favorite species).

Another reason that I like trees is that they invite a tactile relationship: they can be touched, leaned against and climbed up into. Flowers , by contrast, keep you at a distance: they are for watching, not touching.


But there is more to it than that.

Consider the song of the hototogisu ouside my window. It is beautiful, yet lacks individuality. All birds of the same species sing the same. So why do I find it beautiful?

One could say: things lacking individuality too can create their own kind of beauty, the beauty of ambience, a beauty that creates pleasure while staying in the background. We have the same phenomenon in the case of the sound of water: again a beauty that lacks individuality. The beauty of clouds and city crowds also belong in this category.

But this answer is insufficient. Apart from such ”pleasant” ambience, there is what could be called beauty in the strong sense, a beauty that grasps your attention. Instead of staying in the background, it jumps to the foreground, startling you, and making you catch your breath. The sound of hototogisu can startle you in that way. In fact, doesn’t it almost always? Doesn’t much of the beauty of this bird’s singing come from the surprise of broken silences, from the intervals in its singing?

In the same way, a flower or the sound of water too can be startlingly beautiful, if it appears in an unexpected place.

So a generalization: even things lacking individuality can be beautiful in the strong, attention-grabbing sense to the extent that they startle you. The element of surprise helps them catch attention and in that way makes up for their lack of individuality.

This is confirmed by the fact that things like trees that do posses individuality are themselves made up of unoriginal elements, just like a piece of music consists of unoriginal elements called tones.

What happens in the case of trees, and what creates the impression of individuality, is that the elemenent of surprise doesn’t cease with the first impression. As you look closer and trace the shape with you eye, the first surprise yields to the next. Tracing a shape means exactly this: to go from one surprise to the next. Thus the attention continues to be held in thrall. Here the sensation of fascination comes into play: the phenomenon when you ”never tire” of looking at a thing or ”can’t get enough” of it. You linger with it, unwilling to leave, thinking you would have liked to stay until you knew or understood the thing better.

This arrangement of elements into shapes that continually create surprises is the root of individuality and fascination. We can see the same in mathematics or in people whose acquaintance we make: fascination arises when we encounter a phenomenon in which not only the first, but also the subsequent, impressions startle us.

Flowers or birds may catch our attention, but they seldom hold it for long. They startle us once, but seldom leave any room for further surprises. They are ”flat”. Ambience, as in the case of water, is the only beauty they can aspire to in the long run. This ”flatness” is a quality they share with much human-made beauty, including architecture, ”good design”, fashion and commercials.

Therefore, I think it is possible to distinguish between three kinds of beauty (which sometimes overlap): the ambient, the startling and the fascinating. All inspire a sense of pleasure, but the ambient lacks intensity and the ability of catching attention. The startling kind of beauty captures attention, but only for a moment. Only fascinating beauty invites lasting attention, but this kind of beauty is only possible for things that create an impression of individuality.

This categorization can be applied to human-made objects as well. Restaurants and cafés may be good at ambience and background, but are usually not very interesting in themselves. Monuments can startle but quickly become boring. One tires quickly of even the most startling architecture. In general, it would seem that whatever is domesticated, designed or planned rarely inspires fascination. At most the beauty it inspires is of the startling or ambient kind.

The quality of fascination seems to require ”nature” or ”wilderness” in the sense of things being able to grow in an unplanned fashion, in their own way, without conscious control or design interfering too much. Human beings are fascinating since they contain "wilderness" in that sense. Urban environments that fascinate are usually areas that are neglected: ruins, abandoned buildings, slums, shanty towns, or tent villages in parks.

Flower gardens are domesticated, but in trees there is something that remind me of the wilderness.

Amino Yoshihiko (2): "Muen Kugai Raku"

The first of Amino's works that I will bring up for discussion will be the famous Muen-Kugai-Raku: Nihon chûsei no jiyû to heiwa (Muen Kugai Raku: Freedom and Peace in Medieval Japan, first published in 1978; references below are to the expanded Heibonsha edition of 1996).

Being relatively early, this is also one of his richest and most complex works. It was also one of his most controversial, inviting a barrage of criticism at the time of its first publication. Remarking on its boldness and radicalness, Nakazawa Shin'ichi writes: "Among Amino’s remarkably many works, this book stands isolated, being almost the only one that still has not been accurately understood. Amino hurled Muen Kugai Raku to the future, a future with which our age has still to catch up” (Nakazawa 2004:105).

This is the work where Amino introduces the concept of muen, which has since become popular among medievalists, ethnographers, historians of religion and even political activists as a concept related to asylums or sancuraries in early Japan. Literally it signifies a state of being cut off from all bonds. The term originated as a Buddhist term for freedom from secular ties and was used, among other things, for temples and places that were considered off-limits to secular power. Amino calls these places muenjo (a term originally used for temples that didn't rely on the support or patronage of feudal lords or their vassals). Today muen is used as a term for loneliness and isolation. A muen-botoke is a person who dies without kin to arrange for her grave or pray for her soul, while muen-shakai, the title of a recent NHK documentary, is a desolate society in which people live and die in isolation. Interestingly, in muen Amino sees an early, medieval form of the freedom and equality we today associate with the public sphere. Through muen, discriminated people or people of low status were able to come together and form communities where the norms and hierarchies of the surrounding society were no longer in force. ”People who had a master were not allowed to dwell there. Converesely, the moment you entered, all ties of subordination were cut off” (Amino 2001:27f).

To illustrate the principle of muen, Amino starts with an example that was probably familiar to many of his readers: a children's game called engacho. This is a tag and chase game where you escape the chaser by shouting "en ki-tta!" (I've cut of my ties or broken my relations). In an alternative form of the game you would escape by touching a tree or entering a circle drawn on the ground, thus creating a sanctuary where you would be safe from pursuers.

In the following chapter Amino works his way back into history, turning first to the enkiri-dera (temples for cutting off relations) of the Edo period. These were temples where women who had managed to escape their husbands could get protection and obtain divorces. He then shows that this was a legacy of a much vaster array of freedoms possessed by temples in medieval times, before their military power and economic independence was crushed by the warlords who unified the country during the 16th century. During medieval times, when the religious prestige of temples was buttressed by military might as well as political clout with the imperial court, they would often function as sanctuaries in a very broad sense, providing asylum not only to the old and sick but also to criminals or people escaping debts, and in many cases possessing explicit rights to refuse entry to secular authorities (funyûken). Amino himself compares the muenjo to the asylum of Germanic tradition, mentioning for instance the principle in Western Europe that serfs were freed if they reached the city and managed to live there a year and a day without being caught (Amino 1996:25f, 91). Near the end of the book Amino offers a few speculations about the origin of the principle of muen in the most ancient strata of history in what he calls a primordial muen (gen-muen).

One of the reason that the book was considered such a sensation was simply that very little research had been made previously about asylums in Japanese history (an early work by the historian Hiraizumi Kiyoshi from 1926 being a rare exception).

Another reason was that Amino managed to make these medieval ideas of freedom, peace and equality sound peculiarly relevant to our own age. As Nakazawa points out, Amino appeared not only to be writing history but also to be creating a new "theory of freedom" that touched on something fundamental in human nature, even as he was seemingly working with nothing but the tools of  empirical historical science. "Although not clearly stated on the surface of his texts, which were written as historical articles, I understood very well from the conversations we had at the time that he conceived of his theory of the asylum as a theory of human essence” (Nakazawa 2004:94).

A third reason for the attention the book gathered was surely that the idea of freedom which the book presented was so different from how we think of freedom today. Above all, it appeared to depend crucially on the strength of religious sentiment. The muenjo were "exits" from the mundane order into another world in which people were equal in the face of the "Gods and Buddhas". To enter them meant to leave the profane, secular world of the everyday with its rules and differences in status and political and military power. To be sure, places where this principle was realized were not limited to temples. By looking in turn at different groups or places that were associated with muen (or the related qualities kugai and raku), Amino puts together an impressive list comprising among other things: prisons (Amino 1996:29), graveyards (ibid 145ff), outcasts and their organizations (shuku, ibid 29f, 137ff), prostitutes and brothels, markets (ibid 136ff), finance and banks (ibid 168ff), free cities, trees, riverbanks, crossroads, mountains (ibid 125ff), the world of arts (such as -drama, renga-poetry, tea, travelling entertainers and gambling), and popular uprisings and federations (ikki) (ibid 2001:27-32). The freedom or protection offered to these groups or by these places varied from case to case. It could be freedom from secular power, from marriage, from taxes and debts, from violence or freedom of passage. However, common to them was that they at least partially offered a refuge from the mundane order, most of them though a direct or indirect link to the sacred.

A forth reason for the book's popularity was that it offered a novel way of thinking about the emergence of capitalism in Japan. This was a problem to which Amino would ofter return in later writings (and which I will refer to as the problem of the "origin of capitalism" in future entries). In this book, he suggests a strong link between muen and commercial activities. As he put it later in an interview, things were only able to become commodities or means of payment by being "offered up to the Gods and Buddhas" and thus freed from their specific local ties. In fact, early means of payment before the development of a monetary economy usually consisted in rice or other products (usually the from the "sacred" first harvest or first catch) offered up to local rulers who stored them in storehouses where they were administered by priests. Temples too controlled storehouses and played an important role in medieval society as banks and gradually also in the birth of money and early financial papers. Markets usually sprang up in front of temples. With their vast networks for collecting contributions to the building of temples or bridges or for public welfare, temples also catalyzed the emergence of long-distance commercial networks.

Finally, the book was also one of the first to trace the origin of the discrimination of outcasts back into the middle ages, a theory which today is widely accepted but at the time was considered very marginal (this is a point to which I hope to return in connection with Uesugi Satoshi's criticism of Amino).

We can note that the "freedom", "peace" and "equality" offered by muen was usually obtained by exit or withdrawal, rather than by protest or revolution. However, they were not necessarily quietist places of withdrawal. According to Amino, the idea of muen helped inspire riots, uprisings, and the autonomous popular federations (ikki) of the late middle ages. They were moveable anticipations of Utopia that inspired revolts and served as anticipations in popular consciousness of a Utopia of peace, freedom and equality.

To take an example from another of Amino's works, here was a custom called "pulling bamboo grass" (sasa o hiku) among commoners who engaged in resistance against a feudal lord during the Warring States period. It was a symbolic form of resistance. By using the magical power of the bamboo grass they transformed the house or village into places for muen, into "mountains and forests off-limits to secular power" (sanrin funyû no chi) (Amino 1993:138f).
Importantly and suggestively, to Amino these exits were not exits from the “public” so much as from a world of feudal power-relations and private interests. To him it is indeed the muenjo that anticipate or realize a true public – as suggested by the related word kugai, written by the characters for "public" and "world". Travelling entertainers, mendicant monks, outcasts and travelling salesmen all part of this public. In his description of how words like muen and kugai were used it is clear that they represented not an escape from the public, but that they themselves were a public where everyone - priests, traders, money-lenders, entertainers and outcasts - were supposed to be equal and live in peace and impartiality.

As Amino makes clear, this medieval "public" was different from how we think of the public sphere today. The universality or commonality offered by muen was not expressed in terms of general rights. The rights they were endowed with were not general rights for “all citizens” as in modern publics, but local rights. They were bound to places or certain groups of people. Furthermore, some of these places or statuses were like “prisons”; once having entered them it was often difficult to leave them (Amino 1996:6, 26). As he himself recognizes, exit is not necessarily a gate to freedom, and exit can often be involuntary. At heart the essential issue is probably not whether they offered a possibility of “exit” or not. “Exit” is a possibility offered up to persecuted or discriminated people once these alternative “places” with their special rights have been established. The very existence of this possibility served to make society freer, since people were never caught up entirely within any single dominant system of power or hierarchical order. First and foremost, the precondition for muen is power – a power strong enough to assert itself against the surrounding power centers. Only then does the freedom for weak and help-seeking individuals to “exit” arise.

This leads over to a further important point. Amino shows that the proliferation of muenjo is only possible in a situation in which there is no complete centralization of power. It thrives only in a situation of multiple power centra, like in medieval Japan. He paints the picture of a porous and multipolar world in which "freedom" is not something that is vouchsafed in a shared and unified public space, but through a balance of power and the freedom of people to change place by exiting from one power-center to another. The recognized rights of the muenjo rested on the fact that secular power was not yet as all-encompassing as it would be during the Edo period.

Amino states in the book that he hopes that the “principle of muen” will be revived (ibid 7). Let me add a few reflections on the prospects of this. Today, it is big transnational corporations or finance capitalists rather than "sacred" institutions that most obviously have the power to establish alternative power centers. While temples may have been willing to offer havens to the subalterns and marginals of medieval society, corporations are usually not. This shows that it is not enough to simply have a plurality of competing power-centers. The power-center to which one exits must also try to be a better, freer and more egalitarian one than the rest. To establish such centres is surely an important task for social movements today. Sometimes Amino is unclear concerning whether it is power-plurality per se that provides the exiters with freedom from competing powers (like when a refugee escapes to another country) or if the freedom stems from the fact that the temples and markets were built on principles that were freer or more egalitarian, but in my view it is safe to say that both of these ingredients are necessary.

What can movements do today? Firstly, they too can utilize the rivalry between existing power centers. Secondly, and more importantly, they must contribute to the establishment of better - more egalitarian, open and open-minded - alternative places to which the weak can exit. Thirdly, they can do what they have always done – confronting power and protesting. To use “exit” for movements, then, does not mean that the movements themselves should escape from power. It means that they should fight for the establishment of alternative places and power-centers.

Let me end with a bit of criticism. When Amino contrasts the “private” power struggles of the feudal lords to the impartiality and universality of muen, and when he goes on to argue that markets, priests, finance institutions and even magistrates (ibid 173ff) were realizations of this principle, then the difference between muen and the state becomes blurred.  The state too, with its central bureaucracy, claimed to be impartial and above all private interests. A fact to which he will often refer in later works as well was that many muenjo or groups of people associated with muen enjoyed the special protection of the emperor. Muen was thus part of the establishment – the emperor, temples, free cities, finance, the bureaucracy. This is problematic, for how can muen offer any “exit” from this power? Muen may have offered some freedom from feudal or patriarchal power, but their relation to the state appears to have been far more ambiguous. Where would the person who tried to escape from the temples or imperial rule find asylum?

This idea that the muenjo and peoples associated with them enjoyed a special protection by the emperor points to an important, recurring ambiguity in how Amino views imperial power or the Japanese "emperor system" (tennôsei), an ambiguity creating a thrilling, uneasy tension in his work which critics and commentators have loved to discuss. As he himself has stated, some critics even accused him of being an apologist for the emperor system. This accusation is unfair, but to show why is going to require some intricate argumentation which I am not going to delve into here. In future blog entries I will refer to this as Amino's "emperor problem" as a shorthand.

A further point where I believe Amino is unnecessarily vague is in regard to the question of what the crucial element supporting the autonomy of the muenjo really was. Was it the strength of religious sentiment in society or the political, economic and political might of the religious institutions that made secular power respect the muenjo? This question has some important implications. As Amino himself points out, the strength of religious sentiment and the authority of the "sacred" in society appears to have started to dwindle already in the 14th century (with the Nanbokuchô period as a tipping point). The military and economical independence of the temples, however, continued to be vibrant until the late 16th century, when it was crushed by warlords like Nobunaga and his successors. Amino himself often talks as if he believed that the decline of the sentiment of the "sacred" in the 14th century was the decisive watershed, and this also fits in with his thesis that the prestige of outcasts, gamblers and prostitutes - groups associated with muen - started to decline around the same time. However, how are we then to explain phenomena such as the rapid growth of the Ikkô ikki (a popular religious federation of the Pure Land Buddhist faith which actively tried to reach out to groups of low social status such as women or outcasts) during the late middle ages? Examples of outcasts achieving wealth and prestige as late as the 16th century also don't seem to be rare. At least to my untrained eye, it seems that the ability of temples to function as rivalling power-centers to the power of the feudal lords may have been more important in supporting the muenjo than the alleged decline of religious sentiment in the 14th century. Then there is also the evidence quoted by Amino himself: the letters of priviliges granted to temples by sengoku-daimyô (warring states period feudal lords), the fact that the greatest realization of raku came in the form of Nobunaga's "rakuza-rakuichi". I am of course no historian and all I can state here is that I wish Amino would have been clearer about his position in regard to this issue.

There are also other controversial points in his book - for instance his thesis that the idea of muen was a crucial premise for the birth of commercial exchange and capitalism in Japan or his speculations about a primordial muen operating as a universal principle of all human societies - but these I will return to later in connection with my presentation of the debate around his ideas.


References

Amino, Yoshihiko (1993) Igyô no ôken (The heteromorph monarchy), Tokyo: Heibonsha.

Amino, Yoshihiko (1996) Muen-Kugai-Raku: Nihon chûsei no jiyû to heiwa (Muen, Kugai, Raku: Freedom and Peace in Medieval Japan), Tokyo: Heibonsha.

Amino, Yoshihiko (2001) Nihon chûsei toshi no sekai (The world of medieval Japanese cities), Tokyo: Chikuma shobô.

Nakazawa, Shin’ichi (2004) Boku no ojisan Amino Yoshihiko (My uncle Amino Yoshihiko), Tokyo: Shûeisha shinsho.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Notes on Amino Yoshihiko (1)

One of the most interesting historians in Japan and, I would say, the world for the last decades has been Amino Yoshihiko (1928-2004). A Marxist historian, he has done more than anyone else to transform the face of Marxist historiography in Japan, outflanking established frameworks by introducing new vantage points, concepts, and whole new fields of research.

Famous for his research on marginal groups in medieval society such as outcasts, prostitutes, bandits and pirates, he controversially showed that many of these groups were not simply "outside" society but at the same time linked by relations of protection and mutual support to institutions embodying the sacred, such as temples or the emperor. Demonstrating the importance of sea lanes, trade and regional autonomy throughout the middle ages, he contributed to the "deconstruction" of the idea of a unitary Japanese nation-state based on rice cultivation which had long been dominant among nationalistic as well as Marxist historians. Despite his reluctance to engage in explicit theory, his introduction of new concepts - such as the famous muen - and the sheer force of his empirical material, which throws an entirely new light on phenomena such as Japanese "feudalism" or the emergence of a capitalist market economy, had an enormous stimulating effect on theory. The most drastic break with previous Marxist historiography was perhaps his introduction of the idea of a universal principle of freedom, muen, that had more to do with the sacred of ancient societies than with the comming of communism.

Unfortunately, despite the towering influence of his ideas in Japan, almost nothing of his output has been translated into English - only a few papers, but none of his books.

I plan to let this be the first of a series of entries on Amino and his work. I hope to be able to use them to:

(1) Introduce some of his works to readers unfamiliar with Japanese

(2) Discuss the debate around them and introduce some of his critics.

(3) Show how influential his views have been, not only among historians but also as an inspiration to activists and intellectuals in social movements among young Japanese today.

Unfortunately, I am not a student of history and I have to admit that I have so far read only a tiny fraction of Amino's output (which is said to include 486 published titles). I am still in the process of reading his works, and these notes will therefore by necessity have a preliminary character. They are taken from an ongoing process: please join it and give me a hint!

Monday, 12 April 2010

Kyoto: a thousand years of discrimination

It rains all day, but we decide to at least go for a walk to the nearby Shimogamo Shrine. Just as during our walk yesterday, I am overwhelmed by the beauty of lush green, the moss and the bright green of the newly budded maples. Dan splashes in the puddles with his orange boots.

As we approach the shrine, I’m reminded of the long history of discrimination in Kyoto. We pass the triangular riverbank where the Takano meets the Kami, the place from which people who were considered defiled (many of whom used to live on riverbanks) were driven away in the 10th century, according to a decree recorded in the Engishiki. The reason appears to have been that purity was considered so important for the shrine, which was the ubugami shrine of the Imperial House and the protector of the Imperial Palace from evil influences from the north-east.

The use of purity to legitimize Imperial power was one of the crucial elements in the birth of discrimination of outcastes in Japan. As can be seen in the history of this shrine, discrimination intensified with closeness to Imperial power. Even today the signs of the shrine's close relations to the Imperial House are evident. The gate, for instance, is decorated by flag-like draperies carrying the Imperial crysantemum crest.

I also notice some blatant signs of nationalism, such as a poster in one of the adjoining shrines with the exhortion to to be proud about Japan and fly the Hinomaru flag on holidays.


A few days ago I spent some time drinking coffee while looking out at the spectacle below of crowds of people moving around in the futuristic architectural landscape of Kyoto Station, designed by star architect Hara Hiroshi. There is no denying it: the north side of the station is a sensation. It is an unforgettable architectural experience to move around among its various levels and platforms and enjoy the spectacular views.

At the same time I remembered the feeling of backyard and young poverty when I took the cheap nightbus to Tokyo from Hachijô-guchi on the station's southern side the other week, the sleepy crowds tensely waiting for the bus annoucements, the backpacker-feeling...

As everyone knows who has visited the station, the north side is the ”front side” (shômen”), the architectural showcase, the entrance to Kyoto. The southern side, by contrast, is a somber affair. While the north has the feel of a bright, enormous gateway, the south has only a few small and rather dark openings that decidedly give the impression of back exits. Here white greyish concrete takes the place of glass architecture, and the comparatively low roofs create a cramped, contricted feeling that contrasts with the lofty sense of space on the ”front side”.

Taking the bus from Hachijô-guchi helped me realize that the new station building – it opened in 1997 – has preserved the old discrimination of the ”south” in Kyoto, the part of town south of the station where outcastes and Zainichi Koreans used to concentrate. I was rather amazed to realize this. After all, the municipality was said to have done much to remove the stigma of the south, but still it allowed a new showcase building to be erected that left the old division of the town totally intact.

Many have complained that the station building breaks with tradition, being too high and futuristic. People tell me that the old station building was nice, with a beautiful cupola and roof paintings. At the same time, I can personally feel that the new building hardly breaks with all Kyoto ”traditions”. In some respects, it is even stridently "traditional". To me this is the contemporary Rajômon (the name of the city gate of Heian-kyô): head straight north and you’ll end up at the Imperial Palace.  One can also think of the ambiguity of categories like inside and outside in the station, which reminds me of premodern Japanese architecture (think of Nijô Castle or the tea houses of Katsura Rikyû).

And as mentioned, the station sadly replicates the old neglect of the south. Even more than most stations, this one has the feeling of a grand, magnificent gateway, opening up to the splendours of the north while turning its back to the south. Some people appear to think that the building’s been designed according to the principles of feng shui, but shouldn’t you have a big opening southwards if you are concerning with the flow of chi? Here, by contrast, the flow is blocked. The tracks partition the town in two parts. The nice, pretty one in the north, where the tourists go, and the forgotten southern part,

Just as we reached the courtyard of the Shimogamo shrine today a wedding couple came out. There was happiness in the air. The bridegroom smiled and waved his hand at Dan.

Beauty is not bad, but nothing is more beautiful than the thing it excludes.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

S/N

Last week I saw went to see a film recordning of S/N, dumb type's celebrated theatrical dance performance from 1995.

It's about AIDS, but also about much more. Watching it I increasingly felt that it was also about the sediments of my self, poisoned with gender, nationality and power.

It opens up with darkness. There are figures running and falling, electronic sounds that are sometimes painful. A swirl of circle shaped images of naked torsos in a cold, inhuman blue light - all round, as if put in the line of fire or seen in a microscope.

Dance, music, images, text drill themselves into your eyes, ears and mind.
The beauty of pain.
No, this is no whole, no damned, smooth, claustrophobic Gesamtkunstwerk.
It never makes you impatient, since it opens up and tears away.
Who could fail to love anything that chills your heart like this?
It is montage at its best. It is so good.

There is a montage-like effect in the juxtaposition of actors too: in the movement between Furuhashi's acerbic, unsettling intensity and Bubu's gentle patience.

Much of the force of the performance comes from  genre-montage, as when Furuhashi in drag bursts out in "People who need people". Just as love can no longer be thought without AIDS, songs that would have been boring in themselves are suddenly good, rescued by their insertion into a montage, as if only sarcasm could make them sound just so sweet, innocent and moving as they probably aimed to be when they were created.

No doubt it's copyright problems concerning som stupid quoted chanson that's prevented the S/N DVD from being released.

If irony and desperacy are the only ways to save sweetness from being ideological, then why am I then suddenly so moved by totally un-ironical words like these: "Don’t cry, you’ve finally made a step in the right direction”?

S/N hits you underground, it digs open these hardened layers of self (so poisoned with prejudice), and makes you long for change.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Herman Ooms' Imperial Politics and Symbolics

Two of the best books ever published in English about Edo period Japan are Tokugawa Ideology (1985) and Tokugawa Village Practice (1996), both by Herman Ooms. Last week I read his latest work, Imperial Politics and Symbolics in Ancient Japan: The Temmu Dynasty, 650-800 (2009). Here he deals with a period of Japanese history that predates the Edo period by close to a millennium. The book is a bit unorganized and not as startlingly eyeopening as his two earlier works, but it is still highly interesting.

The book will be especially rewarding if you're looking for an answer to either of the two following questions: what are the origins of the Japanese emperor system and what are the origins of the discrimination of outcasts?

To start with the emperor system, it's well known that much of its institutional trappings was created during the reigns of Temmu and his widow Jitô. What surprised me was the role played by Daoism in this process. I already knew that word "tennô" may have originated as a Daoist term for the Heavenly ruler (Tianhuang Dadi or Taiyi) and that it only began to be used as the title of the Japanese ruler during the reign of Temmu, but what I didn't know was that Temmu seems to have made serious efforts to present himself as a Daoist wizard (master of the art of invisibility, for instance). I also confess that I never thought before of the Daoist connotations of the word "Daigokuden" (Taiji-gong), the name of the main hall of the imperial palace.

Tianhuang Dadi
Ooms shows that the tennô institution was shaped together with a whole set of Daoist practices and symbolics, all meant to strengthen the shaky ideological foundation of the rule of the usurper Temmu and to create symbolic distance between him and his predecessor Tenji. This strenghtening also included other symbolic moves, some well known - such as creating the name Nippon (Japan), founding a new capital, establishing the ritsuryô legal code and commissioning the first official chronicles - while others are probably less so, such as styling the realm in Chinese fashion as "all under Heaven" or as ”central kingdom”, or establishing Ise as the realm’s ritual center. In its original conception, the tennô is something completely different from what most people think: not a Shintô divine ruler so much as a Daoist wizard. At the same time, ”shintô” itself is shown to be full of Daoist elements, much in line with the research of Kuroda Toshio. Unlike Joan Piggott, whose The Emergence of Japanese Kingship (1997) is another influential study, Ooms also downplays the influence of Buddhism in the ideologies of kingship around this period, stressing instead the entire package of Chinese beliefs that entered Japan together with Buddhism.

The title of tennô is of course interesting to interpret in the light of Ooms' thesis on the centrality of Daoism in the politics of this period. The title may have been attractive to Temmu for many reasons: unlike the title "king" (ô or wang) it didn't imply subservience to the Chinese emperor, and unlike older Japanese terms like ôkimi ("great king") it clearly suggested divinity. Rather than referring to the shintô Sun Goddess, however, this divine element referred to the Daoist God of the Polar Star or Dipper, the Supreme Heavenly Ruler who was thought to be controlling yin and yang. The association of the ruler with the Polar Star is an old one in China, and can be found already in the Analects. In the Han era, the pole star was used as a metaphor for the ideal of the passive ruler, who does little but radiate virtue but nevertheless functions as the central hub around which everything moves - "sitting on the throne of non-action and riding on the perfection of his officials”, in the words of the court scholar Dong Zhongshu. The identification of the polar star with Tianhuang Dadi also dates from Han texts, and during the mid-second century AD, the belief took root that earthly human beings could acquire the shape of this deity. Finally, the third Tang emperor Gaozong – a contemporary of Temmu – changed his title from huangdi to tianhuang (tennô). Although the possibility exists that Gaozong might have inspired the Japanese tennô, Ooms believes - like Piggott - that older Han texts were a more likely source. Here his opinion differs from that of Tim Barrett, who in a recent study ("Shinto and Taoism in Early Japan", in J. Breen & M. Teuwen, eds., Shinto in History: Ways of the Kami) argues for influence from Gaozong.

Finally, Daoism also contributed to the political valorization of "purity" which started during Temmu's reign and provided the ideological justification for dividing the population into "good" and "base" (ryômin and senmin as stipulated in the Taihô Code). ”Purity” was a central value in Temmu's legitimation project which was evident in the naming of court ranks and in the name of his palace, Kiyomihara (Pure field). The discrimination of the ”defiled” in Japan can thus be traced back to Temmu. 

Ooms is not claiming that internal power struggles (the shift from Tenji to Temmu) alone explain this new set of imperial symbolics. What superficially appears as a vainglorious attempt at competing with China by claiming peer status as an "empire" in its own right (as indicated by terms such as "all under heaven" or "central kingdom") is explained both by internal factors – that Temmu had to legitimize his rule after usurping the throne – and external factors – that the threat from the new and vigorous Tang empire provoked centralization and state building in Korea and Japan. "Nippon" was thus born from the unification of China and from the combined Tang and Silla attacks on Paekche, which forced the Japanese rulers to strengthen their own state.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Back from Miyashita park

I'm just back in Kyoto, a bit tired after the bus ride. Right now I think of the people left in the park and I wish could have stayed a little longer, at least until today. Yesterday was a day of protest actions culminating in a sound demonstration (the "home-made" type with cans, pans, pots and other objects that make a noise, drums of course, trumpets, tambourines, a sanshin).

Oh, the beautiful Shibuya evening! I found myself looking up att the brightly lite windows of a gym, congratulating myself to being down here on the street and not up there.

This is how Shibuya should be experienced, not as a consumer!

For those who wonder what this is about, look here or in English here (Keep it Miyashita) or here (Nikepolitics). Basically, Miyashita park will be turned into a ad, into "Nike Park". The homeless who live there will be evicted and an entrance fee charged.

To me the choice is simple: a park for the homeless or a park for Nike and its consumers?

I was only in Tokyo for a brief stay so I didn't contact so many people, but then many of the people I knew turned up anyway for the demo. Small happy surprises.

Construction of the new sports facilities are planned to start today. For the last weeks (starting on 15 March) a group of artists and activists (AIR, Artists in residence) have put up tents in the park, decorating it with the most fantastic, weird, utopian, angry art. For those who happen to be in Tokyo and are interested in art and activism, go and see it. Hopefully it will still be there. You will appreciate it if you, like me, have a taste for "akichi" (wastelands, no-man's-lands, commons)

Here are two of my favorites.

This is from a "risôzu" (image of an ideal): "Lets go to the park, it's so free!".

This sign says "I love wastelands".

They also arranged a NO NIKE fashion show on the Shibuya pavements on the 25th (on You tube here) and a funeral parade with a lots of ghosts, people in mourning and an impressive orchestra on the 28th (here). Remember the kind of place Shibuya is, the contrast is wonderful!

In any case, good luck today!!
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