Thursday, May 24, 2012
The Japanese Love of Vehicles and Time-Travel
"The months and days are the travellers of eternity," Matsuo Basho, Narrow Road to the Deep North.
Professor Kishiro Sawa, one of the academics on my corridor, is an expert on transport and has written several books on the varieties and systems of transportation in Japan.
In his latest book (Sawa, 2010) he points out that transportation tends to be viewed as a means to get from point A to point B, but that in Japan there are a vast variety of transportation services, cable cars, private railways, jets "wrapped" in the designs of anime characters, bullet trains, miniature trains, vehicles both animal and human powered, and other means of transportation in weird and wonderful variety, that are seen, ,wholly or in part, as an end, the objective, the destination of travel.
There are narrow gauge railways in the UK, and of course roller coasters in theme parks, and in many countries 'the pleasure cruise'. But looking at the number of examples of 'transport destinations' (a deliberate oxymoron) that Professor Sawa is able to give, it seems fair to say that the Japanese often travel to travel.
Professor Sawa interprets this behaviour as being a product of the extra-sensitive and caring Japanese service industry - from the pull perspective. In an attempt to make their customers happy, transportation service providers have been so successful as to make their services attractive as tourism products, tourism destinations, in an of themselves.
What other things might motivate the Japanese love of vehicles?
The animism that is argued to motivate the Japanese love of robots (Robertson, 2007; Schodt, 1988) many also encourage them to be fond of, friendly or almost familial towards vehicles.
Alternatively, vehicles, in the form of palanquin (mikoshi) take prominent place in Shinto festivities. As located-ness is an important feature of the sacred in Shinto (Bachnik & Quinn, 1994; Pilgrim, 1986; 1993) then the movement of the deity in a mikoshi may help to create a "liminal" (Turner, 1964), chaotic, merged, ecstatic state among festival-goers. Elsewhere I have suggested that boarding trains - which are capable of moving not just people but spaces - may also created this unchained, unrestrained festival feeling among the "Lococentric" (Lebra, 1992; Lebra, 2004) Japanese. It was perhaps this freely floating feeling that that Nenzi writes was the objective of Edo period travel, "As the juxtaposition of movement and immobility in this image suggests, motion is, in a sense, the antithesis of order: it displaces what ought to stay put; it frees what ought to be contained." (Nenzi, 2008, p188). In the image that Nenzi is describing (ibid, p. 189) it is not (only) people so much as space itself that has been set free.
Another theme to note is that Japanese travel (tabi) often emphasises roads, particularly historical roads (Hori, 2010; Shirahata, 1995; Guichard-Anguis, 2009, p 2. ) following in the footsteps of others such as Takasugi (Ichisaka & Yoshioka, 2002), or Basho (Sekiya, 2009) which is what Basho himself was doing, and circular pilgrimages where again, the act of travel itself seems to be the purpose of travel, rather than the destination (Reader, 2005). The attention placed on roads and the act of travelling has been associated (Creighton, 2009) with the practical and spiritual "paths" (dou, michi) such as Japanese martial arts, calligraphy, tea-ceremony and flower arrangement. Similar to the Japanese love of travel for travels sake, in each of these praxes, accorded the highest veneration in Japanese society, the ends are seen as of secondary importance to the means: the process, the concentration and asceticism required to get there.
Finally, as usual, on this blog I have taken a Nacalian look at travel. If the Western self is seen as narratival, symbolic, and while infected by the image always eschewing of it, I have suggested that perhaps Westerns go to see sights for the same reason that Western Philosophers have conjured up thought experiments about an imprisoned women coming out of achromatic rooms: to assure themselves of the duality, exteriority of vision, and the existence of a transcendent self. In my reading of Derrida (1998), Western philosophers, and perhaps Western Tourists, are always trying to purify language as thought from anything visual (res-extensa, writing, the act, qualia etc).
If on the other hand the Japanese self is predominantly imaginary, seen from the eye of the other, then perhaps the Japanese travel in search of signs and symbols - as they do appear to do, to named, literary historical places, for stamps, and icons - in order to externalise the sign, as I argue they also do in Shinto purification rituals. Travel to the Japanese may be a sort of symbolic purification, in the sense that they may be attempting to rid themselves of the sign.
Taking this analogy one step further, if as has been suggested by philosophers of the Japanese self (Nishida, 1987; Heisig, 2006; Mochizuki, 2006) the Japanese self is a place ("basho"), and as suggested by Western philosophers (Heidigger see Watsuji's Fudo introduction, Derrida, 1998) the Western logo-phono-centric narratival self is linked with time, itterability and deferral. So, at at deeper level rather than travel destination as 'images vs signs', perhaps Westerners go to see and externalise space, whereas Japanese travel to experience and externalise time.
Certainly an awareness of time figures prominently Japanese travel. The tremendous emphasis on history and nostalgia (Rea, 2000; Reader, 1987; Robertson, 1988, 1997; Routledge et al., 2011; Tran, 2005; C. N Vaporis, 1996; Constantine Nomikos Vaporis, 1995; Watkins, 2008) and witnessing changes in nature, the flow of the seasons, the impermanence of things. Till now I have understood this desire of Japanese to witness time as a desire for a self-extinguishing enlightenment. But if the Japanese self is a primordial space (Mochizuki, 2006, Nishida, 1987) the externalisation of time through time travel, may in fact be much more like Robo, logo Mary going to see the sights: protective and creative of self, and the self other boundary.
So perhaps the Japanese have a thing about vehicles because they like to go to experience time, and by doing so in the framework of tourism, externalise it. Perhaps they are attempting to return to a primordial space before the word, and leave time, 'the months and days', to travel on their own.
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This blog represents the opinions of the author, Timothy Takemoto, and not the opinions of his employer.