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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, July 10, 2012


Japanese Spaceless Space & Western Timeless Time

Japanese Space Unextended & Western Time That Does not Flow by timtak
Japanese Space Unextended & Western Time That Does not Flow, a photo by timtak on Flickr.
I recently argued that Japanese gardens, top left, and interiors, middle left through the use of trickery encourage Japanese to see space as the primal space (Nishida, Watsuji) that is devoid of scale and conceptually unextended, as the pure experience where the world and the heart meet.

Additionally bottom left, it is well known that Japanese love to go and see the passing of time, autumn leaves, and spring cherry blossom, or fields were once great castles stood. This may very Buddhist, and profound of the Japanese but it is worth bearing in mind that not only do they pay attention to the "A series" of becoming, but also to "B series" objective points in time related to the seasons, and specific dates. Time is out there.

Westerners, on the other hand, like to emphasise the extensiveness and exteriority of space with geometrical patterns in gardens, white celings and bay windows in their rooms. Space is seen as extended, complete with the concepts, the symmetry and geometry, that keep it so.

Westerners like spatiousness, big rooms, big views, big spaces. But they are conflicted because at the same time they want to preserve the past in their rooms and in their cityscapes. Westerners like to present time as if it were stationary, as if the past is is in the here in now.

Space is the medium of the self as image and mental mirror (Heisig, Nishida). Time is the substrate of the self-narrative and language as thought (Derrida, Kim).

The above is not right. And it is a make or break post.

Conventional wisdom has it that the Japanese are (Buddhist) relativists, and that Westerners are the objectivists that believe in the world and the world and themselves, due perhaps (though scientists would not agree) to their belief in a third person, an Other.

And I too thought/think that the Japanese fondness for scale trickery and their fondness for the changes in nature were both indications of a tendency towards anti-objectivity, and relativism.

But if that is the case, then my argument that the Japanese are like Westerners but in a different modality or channel, that they have a different kind of Other, a different kind of objectivity, would have to be rejected.

Because space is surely the plane, substrate, or place of the visual (self) and time is argued (by Derrida especially) to be the modality, medium, or (dare I say place? topos, axis?) of the phonetic narrative (self). Place is where vision takes place, time is where phonemes unfold. If so then attitudes towards space and place should exhibit a similar "Nacalian" reversals (if such exists) as between word and image. Attitudes to space and time would or should be related through a meta-Nacalian reversal.

I am having a problem seeing any such reversal. It still looks to me rather like Westerners are being objective, and Japanese are being relative, about both space and time but I hope not.

I was wrong to say that Japanese are into the B series of time. First of all, they use period names for dates rather than relating everything to a year dot. The period names encourage, I believe, a before after view of time rather than some objective temporo-cartesian coordinate (X years AD).

So okay, Westerners are into the year dot, the B series of time, whereas (other than Mecca and Jerusalem) there is little in the way in the West to speak of or identify a "B series of space". Our Western God is omnipresent. Japanese gods on the other hand have a "place dot," or many scared space that dot, anchor and objectify the space. On this basis it is Western, or at least Newtonian, space that is "indexical" (before me behind me) related to a inertial, three dimensional frame of reference.

But then this goes against
(1) Bachnik and Lebra's theories regarding the "indexical", relative nature of Japanese space perception, emphasising inside (uchi) and outside (soto), front (omote) and back (ura).
(2) The destruction of scale in Japanese plants (bonsai), gardens (zen gravel gardens), and interiors (if my observations regarding the tricks used to destroy perspective are correct).

Other observations
How should a comparison of Japanese and Western space and time perceptions be approached?

A) By considering the ways in which space and time perceptions inter-penetrate and dominate, arguing that the Japanese have a spatial view of time, and Westerners have a temporal view of space, perhaps.

Japanese time perceptions don't have the year dot but they have a sort of C-series, or rather C-loop, in that the fleeting nature of cherry blossom is not seen as solely a purely Heracleatean flux but as something that will repeat. Perhaps it could be argued that this cyclical view of time results in a the creation of a "time-space." the seasons of the year. Do Westerners have a temporal view of space? Does the geometry and regularity of Western gardens and architecture reflect the tick tock of a clock?

B) From the point of view of a conceptual abstraction capable of framing both time and space. E.g. by abstracting the "A series" and "B series" to apply to space as well as time? Or the use of words such as "flow" and "repetition," and "reference point" that may perhaps be applied to time and space?

The geometric gardens and Neo-georgian cityscapes emphasise the "flow of space" as cherry blossom emphasise the flow of time? Geometric gardens and cherry blossom may also emphasise a repetition. And finally, perhaps in both geometrical gardens and cherry blossom there is an absence of a spatial or temporal reference point respectively. How?

Do antiques present any sort of "trick" corresponding to the scale destroying 'trick' of gravel gardens, bonsai trees and Japanese interiors? Does "Neo-Classical" Georgian architecture of Bath present a similar sort of dillema: instead of an unanswerable "is this big or small", "is this old or new."? Does neoclassical architecture, or do shiny polished antiques forces their viewers to suspend judgements of time? Is there a British Zen!? I have never felt that Bath architecture was in any way Zen when I lived there but perhaps to a Japanese visitor it presents a similar "vortex" of conflicting, interpretation defying, agelessness.

If so this would help me to understand Japanese architecture. Japanese architecture confuses me, creates in me a vortex of trickery, but I am sure that Japanese that are used to it have suspended judgement already. To them it is peaceful, as Bath architecture was to me. Perhaps when I lived in Bath I had already suspended judgement as to whether buildings are old or new. Bath architecture was old AND new, as bonsai trees and gravel gardens and big and small.

If bonsai trees and Bath architecture are both a trick then, both should leave a pure experience of something. I can grasp, however fleetingly, the way in which Japanese architecture makes me "see the light," "the purity of experience" through "cessation" of interpretation. But what does Western architecture make anyone see (or hear?). Am I too anti-Western, anti-temporal. "Cessation" sounds profound, but is a very anti-temporal term. Perhaps "purity" is also linked with space. It is certainly linked with Shinto.

When Husserl and Nishida engage in 'bracketing' they experience different things. Nishida stopped (with all the anti-temporality that that implies) interpreting and saw the place/space/mirror. Husserl on the other hand discovered (with an implied anti visio-spatialness) the transcendent the "irreel," "forms". I have always been dismissive of the latter, dismissed Plato's spelunking satori as mere myth. The forms are fantasy, mere words, I thought. Or again I may have been too keen on vision. When Nishida or Zeami experience their place or flower, they might be the first to admit that there is nothing to see.

I need to change my title, which is now, "Japanese Space Unextended & Western Time That Does not Flow." Japanese space is still in some sense extended (how can space not be) but scale, big small, this in front of that distinctions are lacking. Western time, or at least the antiques, are old but here still, past but present. They both (Japanese space and Western time) lack something, and have something gained. Space-less Space and Timeless Time? I will go for that.

Anyway, am I an old structuralist dog chasing something or just a waffler?

More (thanks to Ms. Hajima)
Ryoutaro Shiba and Donald Keene point to similar differences but reach opposite conclusions in their discussion of the Japanese and Japanese Culture. They say that Europeans do not want to feel time (then why the obsession with antiques, even with rows of things evolving over time even), and are pleased if works are preserved completely as if it were made the day before. This is true, and great labour goes into preserving antiques I know as the son of a picture restorer. But at the same time, it is important that the antique is old. It is important to Europeans that an item looks both new and also it is important that it be old. In Japan however, very little importance appears to be given to preserving old things, or to age itself, with Ise Shrine and Japanese houses being rebuilt regularly. Donald Keene and Shiba also claim that Japanese prefer works that are broken a little or faded.
遼太郎司馬, & キーンドナルド. (1996). 日本人と日本文化 (改.). 中央公論社.

Top Left: Joueiji Temple Zen Gravel Garden by me
Top Right: Ham House Garden by neilalderney123
Middle Left Japanese house traditional style interior design / 和室(わしつ)の内装(ないそう) by TANAKA Juuyoh (田中十洋)
Middle Right: "Prospect Park Place West Victorian brownstone interior dining room fireplace mantle by techpro12. Techpro12's blog has many similar images.
Bottom Left: 紅葉 (red leaves)by jasohill
Bottom Right: Bath Crescent HDR by alex_smith1

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