J a p a n e s e    C u l t u r e

Modern and Traditional Japanese Culture: The Psychology of Buddhism, Power Rangers, Masked Rider, Manga, Anime and Shinto. 在日イギリス人男性による日本文化論.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Nostalgia in Premodern Japan

Nostalgia in the Suma Diary by timtak
Nostalgia in the Suma Diary, a photo by timtak on Flickr.
A variety of authors (Ashkenazi, 2001; Askew, 2007; Gerster, 2006; Rea, 2000; Robertson, 1988) suggest that the Japanese love of historical tourism, be it for Japan related history or histories of pre-modern ideals, is due to the modernisation of Japan. According to these authors, Japanese are seeking a nostalgic return to pre-modern, pre-Western self.

I claim that the the Japanese love of historical theme parks, such as Furusato (home-towns/villages), Heide in Switzerland, Beatrix Potter in the UK, Anne of Green Gables in Prince Edward Island Canada, is indeed because the Japanese are attracted to nostalgia. But I believe the Japanese always have been wallowing in nostalgia because nostalgia is just pandemic in Japan. In the UK nostalgia is for old folks like myself, but in Japan even young people - e.g. my students - like to proclaim that something is "natsukashii!" (nostalgic). Things do not need to be all that old to be nostalgic. Indeed it helps if they are not so that young people can remember them.

The Japanese love of nostalgia has nothing to do with the West.

The point I want to make is that the Japanese interest in nostalgia has little to do with a yearning for a pre-modernised, pre-Westernised Japan. The Japanese have been into nostalgia for a long time, well before anything that might be described as modern or western and an impact upon Japanese society. Nostalgia lies on the same emotional seam as wabi, sabi and aware, the wet, masochistic love of the unfolding of time, as manifested in solitude and decay, and the Japanese were into this aesthetic since the dawn of recorded history.

In one of the earliest travelogues (Zouki, c975) and the earliest poetic diary describing a pilgrimage the author visits places significant in Japanese mythology, and reminisces about the time of the gods all the while typically Japanese aesthetic enjoying the impermanence of things.
If possible I would like watch flowers in spring, and the red leaves in autumn, smelling nature and yet without a wish to make any of these my prize, look upon the dew at dawn and the moon in the evenings sky and from them learn of the impermanence of the world.

Seven hundred years later, in 1689, the post travelling poet, Matsuo Basho waxes lyrical about ancient "ruins" (see Hudson, 1999, p1-2) as mentioned in a previous post. Basho visits sites where there is nothing to see but grass, and is moved to weeping by a sense of nostalgic impermanence.

At a stone commemorating a castle long since destroyed, Basho writes, "Time passes and the world changes. The remains of the past are shrouded in uncertainty. And yet, here before my eyes was a monument which none would deny had lasted a thousand years. I felt as if I were looking into the minds of the men of old...I forgot the weariness of my journey and was moved to tears of Joy." (Keene, 1955, p366 in Hudson, 1999, p1) .

And in one of his most famous poems composed at site of a once famous samurai family, where now only summer grass remains, he writes (Basho, 1997):

夏艸や兵どもが夢の跡 Summer Grass, Warriors, Trace of their dreams

Donald Keene (1999) claims that Basho was so into nostalgia, or at least reliving literary precedent, that he only commented on scenes that had been mentioned by previous poets.

"He (Basho) had absolutely no desire to be the first ever to set foot atop a mountain peak or to notice some site that earlier poets had ignored. On the contrary, no matter how spectacular a landscape might be, unless it had attracted the attention of his predecessors, the lack of poetic overtones deprived it of charm for Basho. When, for example, he travelled along a stretch of the sear of Japan coast that inspired no important poems, he did not mention the scenery" (Keene, 1999, p 311 in Watkins, 2008, p101).

Another 250 years later a cultured traveller Kikushi Tamiko (1821) set off "in a cultural quest for the locations and events made famous by the texts that she had read"(Nenzi, 2004, p). Once again, her criteria of selection "in terms of  its presence  (or  absence) in  the pages of  classical  literature," (Ibid, p291). The innate beauty of the destination did not matter because, according to Nenzi (ibid), "For culture travellers, the essence of the experience of meisho [named-places] was to recover "the idea behind" rather than to delve into the present substance of the sight."

Basho was clearly not alone, but part of an immense tradition that he helped to perpetuate. When a lowly warrior was sent from Kurume City (my old town) to Tokyo, then Edo, in 1839 as part of the alternate attendance/hostage system (Sankinkoutai), he wrote in his diary "While in Edo, we may also go to see the places where Basho visited, and this brings on great nostalgia."(Aoki, 2005, in Vaporis, 1996, p296)

At about the same period, more than a decade before the opening of Japan to the Wet, the Suma Diary (Kagawa, 1847) details a trip to Sumaura in what is now Hyougo Prefecture, to the ruins of the palace of one of the poets whose poem was featured in the famous collection of 100 poets used on Japanese playing cards, originally from the second most famous old book of poetry (Saeki, 1981).

Here below is the excerpt from the travel diary above, translated with a little help from my Japanese wife, and with my attempt at a modern Japanese, non poetic version in brackets.

願ひし須磨の浦につく。 (願った行き先である須磨の浦に到着しました。)
I arrive at Suma Bay, the place I had been yearning to reach.
The view from here is out over the sea.
There is nothing like it. Just a wilderness of water.
It is not easy to put into words, even if I go on talking. And even now??
At each house the bamboo blinds are down. As if they have a reason for (not) living here?? (Maybe suggesting that they are waiting).
???? Nostalgic.
I hired an old man guide. We went on together talking. Look at that. At that little mountain there.
When Lord Yukihira Chunagon went to get water from the bay.
This is the Inaba Mountain in the poem (one of the 100 that are told at new year).
Stare and go (come?) from/to the beach.
Very interesting! ???
Starting with Suma Temple, the ruins of the palace, and the Ichinotani battlefield.
I even started to count the autumn grass above (the ruins) with my eyes.
Becoming like the shadow of a pine (this may be another reference to the woman in the aforemented poem who was told to wait like a pine tree for her lord to come back to her.)
I prayed at the burial mound of Taira no Atsumori.
And all the while, the sounds of the wind and waves, runs through me.
And the memory of you, (my lord) rises before my eyes.
たちよれば君を忍ぶの草おひてあらぬ露さへおきそはりけり (たちよったら中納言の君を忍ぶ草にあった露さえ落ち添わった。)
Having paid my visit, even the dew on the grass that remembers you has increased.
(This is a reference to another ancient poem --kokinshuu, 545 -- and suggests that the author is crying and thus increasing the dew)
I can't but be nostalgic about the place I am seeing.

(Corrections gratefully received!)

In other words, the author, went to some lonely spot on the coast of Japan in what is now Hyougo Prefecture, to the site of the residence of one of the poets who had been famous almost one thousand years years previously, and then, staring at sea and grass, he felt an image of that lonely, ancient, love-struck poet spring to mind. And imagining the ancient poet, this tourist wept, mega-nostalgically. Contra Urry (2002), in this most quintessentially Japanese touristic experience, there was nothing to be seen. There was only grass, only sea. There was nothing that the tourist or traveller could not have seen in many other places far nearer to home. But at the same time, the author did see, did experience nostalgia and the pity of things (mono no aware), because the traveller called images to mind.

Japanese "site-seeing" (thing seeing: kenbutsu, 見物) is about seeing but not of sights, not of external visual images, but rather of visions: physical absence juxtaposed with images in the heart.

   In order to bring the observations above back to a theory of the visual-imaginary (Takemoto, 2002), or "lococentrism" (Lebra, 2004) of the Japanese self, I might perhaps go via "phallocentrism"(Spivak, 1976). The narratival, linguistic self is that which is accompanies identification with the symbolic parent.  whereas the visual-imaginary self is that which accompanies identification with the primary care giver (Lacan, 1949). I could then link nostalgia with "pay-forward" and pay-back families as I did in my last post. In order to link nostalgia with lococentrism directly, would have to create a deconstruction of the theory of place (Nishida, 1987)!
  Western theorists (Mead, 1967; Lacan, 1949) insist that visual self-identification can only take place in the presence of a real other (mirror or person) and that the subject is thus never free to develop or simulate an objective, generalised view on self. While the visual is decried in this way language is seen to provide a "generalised" (Mead, 1967), capitalised (Other, Lacan, 1998), "super" (Bakhtin, 1986) objective 'perspective' on self a priori. Above all, visual self-views are almost always considered to be external (e.g. Cohen & Gunz, 2002), whereas linguistic representations of self are seen to be somehow inherently private or at least internalisable (for exceptions see Duranti, 1986; Koster, 2009; Wittgenstein, 1973, and to an extent Derrida).
   Derrida sees nostalgia (Derrida, 1998, p240) as a desire for time before language, "[The] Dream of a mute society, of a society before the origin of languages, that is to say, strictly speaking, a society before society." From a position within the logocentric tradition that he is critiquing, Derrida, sees this nostalgic longing for self presence, or authenticity, as a longing for self before self.  This critique is founded in the impossibility of non-linguistic self-reference (or even non-referential self-reference).
   Accepting this contradiction, Nishida (1987) argues that a phenomenological -- and I would say viso-imaginary -- self-experience can be achieved even as, or especially once, language is expunged. Once language is externalised, it is possible to experience an "absolutely contradictory self indentity:" self as the immediate environment, self as place. Japanese tourists aim to achieve this kind of pre-symbolic authenticity, by visiting the symbolic sites, sights which have themselves become markers, deliciously, from a Japanese viewpoint, "encrusted with renown" (Culler, 1988, p8 in the online version).

   Words do always result in "differance" (Derrida, 1998), but images are not "timed"(contra Fenollosa & Pound, 1936). Whereas words are always differed, mean something in the future, images are always of something recalled, already in the past.  The Japanese tourist is not loving any image real or imagined, but the place in which it appears. 
    Hmm, really riffing here...Derrida says that the phoneme results in differance. But while phonemes do exist in time they only point forwards in time under the assumption of a static presence or place. If he insists on any before and after then Derrida is as nostalgic as Rousseau, or our tourist. It is the admixture of place that makes the phoneme forward speaking. Conversely it is the removal of temporally differing language that makes the place, the mirror shine brightest in recollection of the past.
    Incidentally, the opposite of nostalgia is hope and we, Westerners, are awash with it. I am hoping I make sense one day:-)

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Aoki, N. 青木直己. (2005). 幕末単身赴任 下級武士の食日記. 日本放送出版協会.
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Bakhtin, M. M. (1986). Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. (V. W. McGee, Trans.) (Second Printing.). University of Texas Press.
Cohen, D., & Gunz, A. (2002). As seen by the other...: perspectives on the self in the memories and emotional perceptions of Easterners and Westerners. Psychological Science, 13(1), 55–59. Retrieved from http://web.missouri.edu/~ajgbp7/personal/Cohen_Gunz_2002.pdf
Culler, J. D. (1988). The Semiotics of Tourism. Framing the sign. Univ. of Oklahoma Pr.
Derrida, J. (1998). Of Grammatology. JHU Press.
Hudson, M. (1999). Ruins of identity: ethnogenesis in the Japanese Islands. University of Hawaii Press.
Fenollosa, E., & Pound, E. (1936). The Chinese written character as a medium for poetry: a critical edition. Fordham University Press.
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Keene, D. (1999). Travelers of a Hundred Ages. Columbia University Press.
Koster, J. (n.d.). Meaning and the extended mind. 2009. Retrieved from http://www.let.rug.nl/koster/papers/extended%20mind.pdf

Lacan, J. (1949). The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I as revealed in psychoanalytic experience. Cultural Theory and Popular Culture. A Reader, 287–292.
Mead, G. H. (1967). Mind, self, and society: From the standpoint of a social behaviorist (Vol. 1). The University of Chicago Press.
Nishida, K. 西田幾多郎 (1987). 場所. in 上田閑照編 西田幾多郎哲学論集〈1〉場所・私と汝 他六篇. 岩波書店.
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Takemoto, T. (2002). 鏡の前の日本人. ニッポンは面白いか (講談社選書メチエ. 講談社.
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Diary and Poems
Kagawa, K. 香川景周. (1847). 須磨日記 (Suma Diary my trans). In 岸上質賢 (Ed.) "續紀行文集". Retrieved from books.google.co.jp/books?id=qKk9as-h84kC&printsec=fro...
【百人一首講座】立ち別れいなばの山の峰に生ふる まつとしきかば今かへり来む─中納言行平 京都せんべい おかき専門店【長岡京小倉山荘】. (n.d.). Retrieved April 24, 2012, from www.ogurasansou.co.jp/site/hyakunin/016.html
Kokinshuu 古今和歌集の部屋. (n.d.). Retrieved April 25, 2012, from http://www.milord-club.com/Kokin/uta0545.htm
Matuso, B. 松尾 芭蕉. (1997). 芭蕉自筆奥の細道. (上野 洋三 & 桜井 武次郎, Eds.). 岩波書店.

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This blog represents the opinions of the author, Timothy Takemoto, and not the opinions of his employer.