Culture

Graduate school applicant seeks books about Japanese culture, nature, and landscape

アメリカの大学院に応募する方がこのブログの読者に質問したいそうです:日本の自然とランドスケープ文化の意味について、何かおすすめの学術本がありますか? 私も読者のアイデアを聞きたいです。Image credit: Luis Mendo. From TEDxSeeds プレゼンテーション.

Which books define a Japanese cultural outlook on nature and landscapes? A perspective PhD student wrote to me asking about scholarly works that would allow a comparison with England. Is there a Japanese counterpart to Raymond Williams and William Hoskins, author of The Making of the English Landscape?

I am equally curious to hear what Tokyo Green Space readers know about this topic. So please help this perspective graduate student and share your favorite in the blog comments. Thank you!

はじめまして。
My name is Jennifer Jane Riddle, and Mr. Braiterman has kindly allowed me to introduce myself and use his blog space in order to ask readers about any texts or articles by Japanese authors that address spaces and landscapes in Japan.  I am currently applying to various PhD programs in the United States, and my goal is to examine how cultural attitudes towards natural spaces are cultivated and understood and how cultural values affect the way in which countryside spaces are used. Comparatively, I am looking at the countryside of England and English authors,  such as Raymond Williams, who wrote about British culture in relation to nature and the English countryside. I am also using more anthropological centered works, as well, such as the landscape histories of William Hoskins. As for works on Japan, I have read Jinnai Hidenobu’s work on Tokyo, and I am looking for similar writers, anthropologists, or theorists who write about Japanese relationships to countryside spaces, nature, and the environment. If anyone who enjoys this blog is aware of any Japanese scholars, past or present, who focus on culture, space and place in such a way, I would love to know more.
どうぞよろしくお願いします。

Image credit: Luis Mendo. From TEDxSeeds presentation.

Pink and red together again

原宿で、ビンク色のスクーターがツツジの隣に駐車されていました。ぜいたくな商品と満開の自然が一緒になって圧倒的。こんな色の組み合わせもすごい。

Spotted in Harajuku, this pink scooter parked next to red azaleas. I am overwhelmed by the extravagance of this product juxtaposed with nature in full bloom, and, of course, the color combination. For all those foreigners who think that Japanese culture is full of restraint and minimalism, this image shows the other side. This mix of nature and industrial product reminds me of the psychedelic backdrops to the ubiquitous television variety shows full of shiny objects, moving parts, and more colors than the rainbow.

Begonias draw attention to surveillance cameras

あなたは監視されている。監視カメラと花のコンビは、公道を安全で楽しくするけれど、見張られているのはあまり好きじゃないです。

You are being watched. Surveillance paired with flowers keep streets attractive and safe. Still, I am not sure I like being watched.

I noticed these lovely hanging begonias on the utility poles leading out from the southeast exit of Shinjuku’s JR station. I was admiring the unexpected late fall color they provide, when I realized that each flower pot is paired with a banner explaining that “security cameras in use.”  Sure enough, above the banner and below the spikes to keep birds off, is a surveillance camera.

The banner is ominous, from the spooky greyscale graphic of two human figures in shadow to the logo with a man and his briefcase crossing the threshold of the kanji for exit in the six kanji that state “Southeast Exit Association.” Isn’t shinwakai (association) normally a volunteer group? The more I think about the Tounanguchi Shinwakai (東南口親和会), the less clear it is who is doing the watching.

Often I fool myself into thinking that Tokyo’s super-respectful public behavior is cultural and comes from positive socialization. I forgot how pride is also reinforced by peer shaming and legal enforcement. Tokyo has minimal public litter and no municipal garbage cans. It can also boast minimal street crime and an enormous number of police on the street.

Gardening for Strangers in Tokyo: New Huffington Post article

The Huffington Post published the English version of my recent Newsweek Japan article. Entitled “Gardening for Strangers in Tokyo,” it argues that the smallest gardens connect city people with nature, culture and history. Written in a personal voice to show a foreigner’s view to a largely Japanese audience, the article emphasizes how “Tokyo’s distinctive streetscape encourages proximity with many small gardens and their gardeners,” creating human as well as environmental benefit.

Gardening for Strangers in Tokyo

(This article originally appeared in Newsweek Japan on January 12, 2009 in Japanese)

Spending several weeks in Tokyo on a business trip in 2008, I was startled and enchanted to discover its human scale and its streets alive with people and plants. Like many foreigners, I assumed Tokyo would be all cold high-rises, crowded Shibuya scrambles, and flashing neon advertising. In short, I imagined the world’s largest metropolis entirely removed from the natural world.

I brought to Tokyo a lifelong interest in gardening. What surprises me still are Tokyo residents’ ingenuity and passion for cultivating plants and community in a crowded, over-built city. On leaving a beginner’s ceramics class in a humble Tokyo neighborhood one day, I came across four perfect pansies growing in the crack of a narrow sidewalk.

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This image of Tokyo as a gardeners’ city motivated me to relocate from San Francisco to research and write about Tokyo Green Space. Placing my research in the context of design anthropology and urban ecology, I was extremely fortunate to receive generous support in 2009 from Hitachi, which is committed to a Japanese approach to environmental protection and to cultural diplomacy.

The sidewalk pansies show that Tokyo is organized differently than United States and European cities, and that many of these differences are nearly invisible to Japanese people. I formulated several guiding questions. Why do Tokyo residents care so deeply about their surroundings? What role can nature play in dense urban environments? What can other cities learn from Tokyo’s urban gardening culture?

I began collecting images of gardens visible from streets and sidewalks. Surprises included a valuable bonsai collection growing on a private residence’s cinder block wall; rice maturing in styrofoam containers; a single, exquisite mini-watermelon supported by a wooden stand in a Ginza backstreet. Sadly, in San Francisco and most developed world cities, these potted plants would be quickly stolen or vandalized. Meanwhile few Tokyo residents connect the respect shown to public plants with their unequaled personal safety in streets and transit.

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Rushing into a men’s room in the Tokyo Metro, I glimpsed ivy growing in a two-liter plastic bottle lying on its side. In the twenty-first century, United States cities permanently closed their subway restrooms for “public safety.” Here in Tokyo I could calmly imagine the anonymous person who beautified an underground utility with a living organism and minimal resources. Did he return regularly to change the water? What inspired his passion for plants and his kindness to strangers?

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Across the four seasons, I observed Tokyo residents celebrating nature together in public places. For hanami (cherry blossom viewing), it is common to see people sleeping overnight in parks and along rivers to reserve spaces for blue sheets and the next day’s outdoor party for family, co-workers, or friends. The pink cherry blossoms transform the entire city as boisterous crowds share drinks and food. In fall, many thousands view ginko trees turning bright yellow in Aoyama, and special evening “light up” displays of red maple trees in traditional Japanese public gardens.

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Meeting Yamada Yoriyuki at Kajima

Recently I met with Yamada Yoriyuki (山田順之), Manager of the Office of Global Environment at constructino company Kajima and a leader in bringing biodiversity ideas to Japanese corporations. He showed me the new interactive illustration Kajima created of an integrated sustainable city, where bees pollinate community gardens, school fields are mowed by goats, falcons provide crow control, rivers support animal life, hospitals have healing gardens, and plants and animals contribute to a better environment.

Yamada’s vision for new urbanism is holistic, with the widest variety of wildlife improving human life. Contrary to the government’s minimal regulations, Yamada boldly states, “I am not interested in greening.” Instead of applying green to existing projects, Yamada emphasizes habitat and culture. Habitat requires links between insects and birds, bees and food, trees and birds, clean water and fish. As an anthropologist, I was also pleased to hear Yamada emphasize culture as key to creating social change in cities. Yamada cites the importance of “eight million kami” (ya-o-yorozu no kami or 八百万の神), a Shinto belief in animism and the presence of spirits in an infinite number of natural beings and materials.

In addition to working with Kajima and the Japanese Business Initiative for Biodiversity, Yamada is very hands-on. He explained how he monitors honeybees on Kajima’s Ikebukuro dormitory using GPS and biking along a 2 kilometer radius. From his observations, he sees urban honeybees avoiding park and street trees because pesticides have made them unsafe, and preferring instead small gardens grown by residents.

Yamada also cites the Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker as a key indicator species. Because it travels relatively short distance, urban habitat requires a series of interconnected parks and street trees creating a green web. I find this idea of the ecological connection between large public spaces and individual gardens very inspiring.

I also highly recommend the article he co-authored: Kumagai, Yoichi and Yoriyuki Yamada. “Green Space Relations with Residential Values in Downtown Tokyo: Implications for Urban Biodiversity Conservation.” Local Environment, Routledge Press, Vol. 13, No. 2, 141–157, March 2008.

Edo gardening in wood block prints

Edo gardening in wood block prints

Encouraged by my host Suzuki Makoto sensei at Tokyo University of Agriculture, I recently visited the Edo Gardening Flowers exhibit being held at the Ukiyo-e Ota Memorial Museum of Art until November 26,2009. The exhibit has spectacular colorful wood block prints showing flowers and plants in a variety of urban settings including kimonos, at festivals, commercials nurseries, educational materials, Kabuki actors, and Noh dramas.

The exhibit theme is that the Edo period experienced a “gardening culture” in which a passion for gardens and flowers permeated all social classes, including court nobles, shoguns, feudal lords and the common people. According to the catalogue, “the Japanese people’s passion to flowers surprised the American botanist Robert Fortune as seen in his diary upon his visit to Japan in the late Edo period.”

An interesting comparison is also made between between the widespread practice of Edo gardening and also the interest of common people in wood block prints. It is wonderful to see the use of flowers and plants in both high culture realms and in depictions of everyday life during the Edo period.

Two of my favorite prints are collections of plants used by children to learn the names of flowers. The one below, from the back cover of the exhibit catalog, has the names in hiragana. The exhibit also includes Edo era ceramic plant pots.

Edo gardening in wood block prints

Some more images after the jump, and also a list of plants seen in the wood block prints.

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Single tree beautifies modern house

Single tree beautifies modern house

A single tree standing in the entrance to a modern Tokyo house provides a marvelous contrast between the traditional and the new. The beauty of the single tree and the clean lines of the boxy concrete home create a uniquely Japanese feeling, or what I introduced recently as wafu modern (和風モダン) in relation to Kuma Kenga’s new Nezu Museum and tea house.

The intricately pruned pine tree evokes hundreds of years of Japanese garden design almost single-handedly. The pairing suggests a forward-looking aesthetic that remembers and revitalizes traditional culture elements.

Wafu modern residence with gorgeous pine tree

From an ecological perspective, the single tree and minimal shrubs provides very little habitat. This quiet cul-de-sac suffers a typical Tokyo over-abundance of pavement, which is a certain pathway to Tokyo Bay pollution from storm runoff and an obstacle to insect and plant life that could feed and shelter bees, birds and other urban wildlife.

Still, the effect of the tree is all the more dramatic against the excess of hardscape. I also would regret if urban ecology became a quantitative calculation of efficiencies and benefits. There must be a place for not only traditional culture but also the type of human care and aesthetic appreciation manifest in this stylized pine tree.

Diane Durston talks about Old Kyoto and Portland

Diane Durston

Diane Durston will be speaking on Wednesday, October 28, 2009 at the International House of Japan. Her talk is entitled “Bringing Old Kyoto Home: Author Re-invents Japan in a Pacific Northwest Garden.” She will talk about preservation of Kyoto historic buildings (Kyo-machiya and machinami), and how she has brought Japanese craft and culture to a wide variety of United States forums and audiences.

Diane is currently the Curator of Art, Culture and Educator at the Portland Japanese Garden, the finest Japanese garden in North America. She is the author Diane of many books and articles, including Old Kyoto, in print since 1986 and the current second edition with a forward by Donald Richie. Previously she worked with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Whitney Museum, Yale, and the University of Pennsylvania.

You can reserve online a seat for the talk at: http://www.swet.jp/index.php/events/october_28_bringing_home_old_kyoto/