Japan-ness + Suchness:
Seeking to Seize an Understanding of an Ethereal Elusive Ethos
Japan is in many ways a mysterious society with a rich history and complex culture. Informed by longstanding traditions and deeply-rooted values, contemporary Japan struggles to chart paths forward while retaining strong threads binding yesterday to tomorrow. Modern planning, architecture and design in Japan, and perhaps most notably in its capital city of Tokyo, in many ways illuminates the tensions that exist between the authority of the past and the promise of the future. Inspired in part by pervasive spiritual paths, fundamentally Shintoism and Buddhism, design embraces notions of ephemerality, impermanence and non-attachment. It also characterizes the pursuit and acceptance of perfection through imperfection. Wabi-Sabi and similar approaches highlight a high degree of comfort with the uncertain, the flawed and the incomplete. That said, remarkable advances in high-technology and an aggressive uptake of digital media counter this acceptance of the indeterminate, both in social and physical spheres. People are increasingly connected and informed, yet ironically disconnected and unaware. While society writ-large is shaped by intense formal and informal expectations to conform (the nail the stands out gets hammered down), it also permits ample latitude for the proliferation of subcultures and the acceptance of the extraordinary. Metabolist Architecture, for example, demonstrated an unbridled openness to utopian vision, bold departures and iconic gestures. The present research, through meta-analysis of the literature, case studies and logical argumentation, critically examines the notions of ‘Japan-ness’ and ‘suchness’ in light of current turbulence and transformations. The author, an architect and psychologist with extensive first-hand experience of Japan, considers a spectrum of dimensions that serve to distinguish and define the country and culture. Viewed through scholarly lenses that include architecture, education, spirituality and homelessness, the paper delineates and interprets the many qualities of Japan that continue to uphold its interwoven veils of mystery, sensuality, advancement and atmosphere. The paper seeks to demonstrate how architecture and urbanism in Japan embodies historic, spiritual and cultural values & practices. Using Tokyo as one window into such aspects, the author explores a variety of facets of the metropolis that illustrate those qualities that contribute to ‘Japan-ness’. Discussion includes implications/impacts to an annual study abroad program in architecture and planning whereby graduate students search for contextual understanding and cultural meaning prior to embarking on dramatic and diverse urban design projects. Designing, in a studio setting, in such a complicated and charged milieu demands a willingness to know and a commitment to connect. The deliverables of the research include the portrayal of a series of features of Japan-ness woven into an approach for understanding the conditions, complexities and characteristics of this leading nation and its incomparable culture. The systems- oriented multi-pronged tactic, and its underpinning information, proves valuable for researchers, educators, students and visitors examining, discovering and engaging Japan.