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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.

Friday, September 12, 2014


Fushino River Wasteland: Nature as abject/subject

So great is the Japanese aversion towards nature, that the areas around even urban rivers are generally deserted wastelands. Despite the fact that the Japanese detest nature, all the Japanese, and most but not all (Knight, 2004) of the the books about Japan will tell you that the Japanese love nature. I do not tire of attempting to correct this misconception.

The Japanese love symbols taken from nature. Japanese surnames are mainly taken from nature (Tanaka middle-field, Honda original-field, Fuji wisteria, Yamamoto foot-of-the-mountain) as are their family crests, pictorial art, letter greetings, fabric designs, religious events, poetic theme, sociological theories, and, of course, arts that deal directly with nature such as bonsai, flower arrangement and garden design.

However when it comes to nature itself, that is to say tauto-pleonastically, natural nature, the muddy stuff with wasps, weeds and waste matter, the Japanese can't stand it. They'd far rather be in a shopping mall or pachinko parlour or the comfort of their hermetically sealed homes. They hate natural nature so much they don't want to look at it, and nature being so abject and horrific to their minds, they are even utterly unaware that they abhor it, believing, to a woman, that nature is absolutely wonderful stuff.

I can see why Japanese might detest nature so much that they think that they love it. Freud calls this reaction formation. Sometimes those that appear the most chaste and demure do so to conceal their lasciviousness. Sadists may hate their cruelty so much that they present themselves as pacifists. But that external commentators should buy into this reaction formation when Japanese mountains, rivers and seas are deserted, or covered with concrete, surprises me.

Perhaps the real surprise is rather that Westerners should want to get down and dirty with nature. As Saito (Saito, 1985) and I have argued, the Japanese the Japanese interest in a "tamed" or "miniaturised" nature is related to their identification with nature. They do not see any separation between themselves and nature. They are natural. Nature is alive. They don't want to live on the edge of a muddy river estuary, much less swim in it (as I do) any more than they want to smell their own sweat. They dislike bugs as much as bodily fluids.

That Westerners, on the other hand, should enjoy swimming in murky water (as I do often), or using a machete to cut a path through a mountain forest to reach its summit (as I did with a visiting Scottish friend), relates conversely to Western alienation from nature. We think, we feel we are not natural, so we immerse ourselves in the wildest most inconvenient aspects of nature both as as a sort of "exposure extinction" behavioural therapy, to conquer nature and our antipathy towards it, and also, conversely, as a sort of aversion therapy, so that we may continue to persuade ourselves that wild, wet, and nasty nature is out there whereas we ourselves are narratives. As I swim through the murky water in Fushino River estuary, blissfully unaware that I am swimming through myself, and my own waste, I indulge in that most Western of pleasures: I listen to myself speak.

Further it is not true to say that the Japanese avoid natural nature, but rather when they brave they are even more extreme. The Japanese practice of "misogi" (禊ぎ) involving swimming in coldest mid-winter or sitting directly under waterfalls with the water pummelling their head, and other spiritual exercises in the most extreme natural environments, are aimed at purification. What is it that they are trying to expunge? At least one of the poems (626, see below) in the 7th century book of ten thousand leaves (Manyoushu) shows that Japanese leaped into rivers in order to purify themselves of linguistic thought, and become one with the water**, "their absolutely contradictory self" (Nishida, see Kozyra, 2013).

君により、言の繁(しげ)きを、故郷(ふるさと)の、明日香(あすか)の川に、みそぎしに行く 八代女王 626
With all those bloomin' words about you my lord, I went to purify myself in my home town's Asuka River. Yashiro no Ookimi Poem number 626 (recent commentators suggest that the blooming words were rumours about the writers relationship with her lord the emperor).

Another early, this time Heian poem, presumably also about purification in water (misogi禊)
The sinful words that piled on my body were washed away and my heart cleared in gentle Mikasane waterfall. (Saigyou, Sangashuu)

In any event, the good news is that nature loving gaijin (foreigners) can come to Japan and enjoy the unspoilt nature shunned by the Japanese, or even purchase property on the side of rivers, mountains or the sea for a song, which will probably be about nature in Japan. And I will now go and swim in that estuary, and try and let my I become me (mi 身・水) won-with-the-water, wwww.

Knight, C. (2004). Veneration or Destruction. Japanese Ambivalence Towards Nature, with Special Reference to Nature Conservation, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, NZ.
Kozyra, A. (2013). The Logic of Absolutely Contradictory Self-identity and Aesthetic Values in Zen Art. Retrieved 2014/9/12 from dspace.uni.lodz.pl:8080/xmlui/bitstream/handle/11089/3415...
Saito, Y. (1985). The Japanese appreciation of nature. The British Journal of Aesthetics, 25(3), 239-251. Retrieved 2014/9/12 from bjaesthetics.oxfordjournals.org/content/25/3/239.short

*All the ancient poems about purification (harai and misogi)
**The Kokugakuin University entry on misgo explains that while it is clear that the "sogi" means steep or rinse, the "mi" of misogi has been interpretted to mean both body and water. Too right.

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Very interesting post. Coming from a nation of nature lovers (Norwegians), I always found the insistence that Japanese love nature puzzling, since they mainly seem to enjoy artificial or "tame" nature. Even a couple of the surnames you mention are not actually taken from nature, but from agriculture, which is a human activity concerned with taming and "de-naturalizing" nature. Similarly, bonsai, flower arrangements and garden design are all arts concerned with taming nature and removing it from its "natural" state.

I'm not entirely convinced by the claim that Japanese detest nature simply because they feel no separation between themselves and nature, though. How could they possibly know, when most of them grow up in concrete jungles and never really experience natural nature? If anything, it seems to me that the Japanese feel a compulsive need to remake nature in their own image, which suggests an acute awareness that nature is something alien that needs to be either assimilated or repulsed (much like gaijin).
Thank you.

The compulsive need to remake nature is something that the Japanese impute is the propensity of Western culture. It does seem to be true that westerners are inclined to make their gardens symmetrical and geometrical, where as Japanese aim for the absence of symmetry - a sort of artificial sur-naturalism as featured in an earlier blog post.

Their reasons for controlling nature to make it appear "more natural", as well as the Westerner tendency to like geometrical Laura Ashley prints and William Morris pottery, featuring geometrized-nature remain unclear, to me at least but I am somewhat persuaded by your suggestion that we all "have a compulsive need to remake nature in our own image", and the Western self-image is different from that of the Japanese.
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This blog represents the opinions of the author, Timothy Takemoto, and not the opinions of his employer.