Cultural Crisis Confronting Japan Cultural Studies Essay

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The 1970s saw an increasing awareness amongst many Japanese intellectuals of the cultural crisis confronting Japan. In face of increasing loss of cultural identity due to rapid modernization, many Japanese intellectuals began constructing cultural difference as a way of establishing identity in an increasingly homogeneous world (Isozaki, 2011:35). In many ways, the quest to construct identity is based on certain perceived unique characteristics of the Japanese - one of it being the Wabi-sabi aesthetics - as a response to the problems of globalization.

The architect Tadao Ando and the Wabi-sabi aesthetics embedded in his works is situated within this backdrop of issues concerning Japanese identity. This study will start by providing background on the evolution and definition of wabi-sabi, observing and examining arguments of how wabi-sabi is ingrained Ando's approach. It will finally demonstrate the processes in which imported and Japanese architectural ideas interact in Ando's works.

2. Wabi-sabi: A Context

The Japanese aesthetic tradition, like any other cultural tradition, encompasses diverse tastes and arts. They range from the ordinariness of Noh theatre to the lavishness of Kabuki theatre, the severity of monochrome brush ink paintings to the opulence of gold-gilded screen paintings, and the simple rusticity of tea huts to the august majesty of castles.

Among the variety of aesthetic pursuits, one theme stands out for being somewhat unconventional. It is a celebration of qualities commonly regarded as 'falling short of', or 'deteriorating from the optimal condition of the object' (De Mente, 2006). While such works may appear somewhat homely and rough, at the same time they impart a sense of elegance and tranquillity, a kind of 'unsophisticated sophistication', like 'the moon obscured by clouds'. (Koren, 1994).

This study will refer to this Japanese aesthetics of the imperfection and insufficiency as wabi-sabi. The following discussion will briefly review the aesthetic, social, historical, and philosophical dimensions of this Japanese aesthetic taste.

Wabi and sabi

Wabi is derived from the verb wabu (to deteriorate) and the adjective wabishii (solitary, comfortless). The essence of wabi has been described as nonattachment and subtle profundity (De Mente, 2006:45). The nonattachment essence of a wabi is part of the Zen School of Buddhism that teaches detachment from all material things and the ability to experience the essence of things (Koren, 1994:12). On the other hand, the original meaning of sabi is 'rust' or 'patina', but it also connotes loneliness and desolation as reflected in the adjective sabishii (lonely), particularly with reference to old age (1994:13).

Koren (1994:21) primarily suggests wabi-sabi as 'the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of what we think of as traditional Japanese beauty', comparing its importance in Japanese aesthetics to the 'Greek ideals of beauty and perfection in the West'.

Originally, the meanings of neither wabi nor sabi were specifically related to aesthetic qualities. The development of the wabi-sabi aesthetic began in earnest during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) coinciding with the spread of Zen Buddhism in Japan (Koren 1994:12). Zen ideas about transcending the mundane world and conventional ways of looking at things - through concepts like emptiness, impermanence and renunciation - inspired a kind of appreciation of 'negative' experiences such as old age, poverty and loneliness (Suzuki, 1972:42). Hermits, priests and poets leading a solitary wandering life in search of spiritual insight incorporated this sense of appreciation in their works and teachings. As these ideas gained momentum, people tried to resign themselves to the sufferings of life and began to see a kind of beauty in them. Expressed in artistic forms, this in turn evolved into the aesthetic appreciation of wabi-sabi (Koren, 1994:14).

Later, the development of the tea ceremony in the 16th century marks an important step in the evolution of wabi-sabi. Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591), credited with establishing the tea ceremony in its current form, was also influential in establishing wabi-sabi as an aesthetic concept (Okakura, 2005:33). He extolled the use of simple, indigenous home-style tea utensils over the expensive and highly decorative tea utensils imported from China, placing objects expressing wabi-sabi at the pinnacle of aesthetic appreciation (2005:34).

Initially, these new aesthetics could only be 'discovered' in the humble utensils used by the common people, or in a neglected stone lantern overgrown with moss. However, as time progressed, design works were intentionally created to reflect wabi-sabi, for example, raku earthenware tea bowls or the design of the tea-house, which took on the style of a simple rural hut, with space inside for only two tatami mats (around 3.5m²) (De Mente, 2006:45).

Futhermore in art and design, two other elements that are often associated with sabi objects are asymmetry and austerity. Kakuzo Okakura (2005:15), the Japanese tea master, labelled this asymmetry beauty as 'the art of imperfection'. Surprises are achieved by the unbalanced by the apparent randomness of things that allows the observer to complete the image. This stands in contrast to the Western compulsion to symmetry and mathematical balance, leaving no surprises and nothing for the viewer to add.

Also worth nothing is that in modern Japan, the definition of a wabi-sabi style of living evolves into the elimination of things which that are inessential. The tranquillity aspect of wabi dictates a look and feel that radiates an aura of calm and solace. The natural aspect of sabi results from avoiding machination of any sort. This includes making an object or area look as if it were created by nature, not by human or machine (Koren, 1994).

3. Wabi-sabi and Tadao Ando

[further writing here on Tadao Ando's background and 'why Tadao Ando': his significance in Japanese architecture since the 1980s]

Although there is no resemblance in terms of style or actual forms, one could argue that there is much application of the ideals of wabi-sabi in the works of Tadao Ando. Several themes related to wabi-sabi can be identified in Ando's works, and these will be discussed under the following distinct but interrelated headings: 'light', 'overlapping spaces' and 'materials'. This study will engage the expression of these themes through the analysis of his better known works, alongside an examination of similar principles in traditional Japanese exemplars.


The spaces in Ando's works are typified by light within darkness. Common features among Ando works are their meditative calmness and dimness. While describing Ando's Church of Light in Ibaraki, Jodidio (2004) sums it up: "If the enclosed world is a microcosm, the shaft of sunlight penetrating it is a ray of hope rendered vivid by the enclosure and the surrounding darkness". [fig.1]

On the other hand, the fragile beauty of shadows that marked the Japanese cultural identity, as were praised by novelist Junichiro Tanizaki (1977), are utilised by Ando to infuse his buildings with an uncanny mood which enrich the void with darkness. Ando's Shiba Ryotaro Memorial Museum in Higashiosaka [fig.2], visitors experience a space saturated with a heavy darkness, yet made significant by the sudden burst of light in the south-west elevation.

[fig.1] Author's sketch of Shiba Ryotaro Memorial Museum [fig.2] Church of Light, Ibaraki, outside Osaka.

Spatial Enclosure

Though set in an urban environment, in true spirit of wabi-sabi, Ando's buildings strive for the mood of a mountain retreat. Ando's buildings are often described as an 'enclosed world, shut off from the exterior environment' (Jodidio 2004:10). It shuts out the exterior world but introduces nature, in symbolic form. The symbolic representation of nature is a major expression of wabi-sabi aesthetic, and is prevalent in all Japanese art. One outstanding example is the Zen rock gardens of the Ryoan-ji, in Kyoto, where stones and white sand are used to depict islands and the sea [fig.3].

In Ando's Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, near Kobe, one observes a deceptively closed, minimalist volume of raw concrete [fig.4]. Dal Co (1997:125) describes the form of the museum as one which is radically new, yet "there is still the old feeling of seclusion, of an architecture that creates 'another world' remote from the everyday". The overall spatial structure is described by Dal Co (1997:25) as 'closed to the outside yet open within, the former tempered by a few slits and the latter by layered planes'. One can argue that this is suggestive of the wabi-sabi approach in older, traditional Japanese architecture, where buildings are enclosed with a simple mud wall and made inwardly porous by layered screens.

[fig.3] Zen rock gardens of Ryoan-ji, Kyoto.

[fig.4] Entrance stairs

Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, outside Kobe

Thus, spaces which overlap and figuratively fold in on each other add depth and richness to the composition and stimulate excitement and expectation in the person experiencing the space. The effect is achievable through the approach to the building. For example, the approach to a tea ceremony pavilion often leads through a garden space called a roji. This is exemplified in tea-ceremony huts in Kyoto's Katsura Imperial Villa, one of Japan's best known architectural heritage [fig.5]. In the course of traversing this garden, the visitor must pass through several gates, usually designed delicately and minimally, before finally reaching the pavilion where the tea ceremony will be performed. Detours are deliberately included in the stepping-stone walkway to generate similar anticipation and excitement. The same kind of indirect approach is characteristic of Ando's buildings.


Traditional Japanese house architecture often employs unfinished logs, simply split bamboo, and walls made of clay with an admixture of chopped straw, as in Katsura's tea-ceremony hut. [fig.6] One can notice that materials were deliberately used without finishes for the sake of creating an aesthetically pure, ideal world of sobriety, calm and refined rusticity (Okakura, 2005). One can conclude that designers of tea ceremony architecture carefully selected only those materials conducive to production of a microcosm compatible with the aesthetics of wabi.

Thus, one might argue that wabi-sabi, the exclusion of all surplus things, pervades Japanese psyche. Designers of such architecture tend to use natural materials, to have them look as natural as possible, and to employ muted -almost monochrome - colour schemes. It is the author's opinion that Ando's works severely limits the range of interior colours. Ando's buildings are almost entirely unfinished concrete with the exception of floors and furnishings, which are of natural materials, and window sashes, which, though steel, are always painted gray, never bright self-assertive colours. This approach used both by designers of tea ceremony buildings and by Ando, is determined by a concern for the materials themselves and for spatial composition (Baek, 2008).

Furthermore, in the spaces in Ando's works, one can observe the same peaceful, almost desolate spirit of wabi-sabi that informs the design of a teahouse or lonely mountain temple. Apart from warm touches of wooden flooring and nature beyond, every surface of concrete, steel or mass is a chilly monotonous grey. These black-and-white tonalities are distinctly Japanese, apparent in traditional buildings in silvery roof tiles, grey-weathered boards, neutral plaster and white paper screens.

[fig.5] Pathway leading into the gardens of Katsura Imperial Villa

[fig.6] Tea-ceremony huts, Katsura Imperial Villa

4. Tadao Ando's 'Critical Modernism'

Despite what seems to be a detachment of the vernacular, Tadao Ando's works tend to evoke the same sense of tradition and sentimentality. Ando's interpretation of the wabi-sabi Japanese aesthetic evokes a nostalgic feel for a familiar past.

However, this is not always the case. From the beginning of his career, Tadao Ando has struggled to reconcile aspects of international modern architecture with aspects of Japanese tradition. Through his travels to the West in his late 20s, he has learned extensively from the precedents of 'modern masters' such as Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Louis Kahn (Dal Co, 1997). Despite so, Ando has, remarkably, never been described as a 'neo-Corbusian', a 'neo-Miesian', or a 'neo-Kahnian'. In place, is a celebration of Ando as a 'critical regionalist', first and foremost by Kenneth Frampton in a book published by the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1984. One might argue that it is the book which first places Ando under the spotlight when it comes to discourses about East Asian architecture.

This chapter of the study begins with a brief exploration of the architectural concept of 'critical regionalism'. Building on the discussion of wabi-sabi in chapters before, the chapter further discusses the role of wabi-sabi in making Ando a 'critical regionalist'. It further posits wabi-sabi as a representation Japanese architectural identity.

Critical regionalism

Critical regionalism was first coined as an architectural concept in the early 1980s in essays by Alexander Tzonis, Liane Lefaivre and, subsequently, Kenneth Frampton.

Historically, regionalism is a concept evident since the times of Vitruvius, in which he discussed regional variations in architecture in his ten books. The Romantics propounded picturesque regionalism during the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

In the context of this study, regionalism has been defined in a new light against the backdrop of the domination of modernism and the imitating scenography of postmodernism, both of which were thought to have failed to address the human condition in their extreme stances towards historicism. The core question which arises is "how to become modern and to return to sources?". In their 1981 article "The Grid and the Pathway," Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre hypothesise "critical regionalism" as the solution. the term critical regionalism was defined as the third and latest type of regionalism in Greece, succeeding the English picturesque of "nationalist regionalism," and the Neoclassical "historicist regionalism." The article then introduces critical regionalism is as the "(upholding) of individual and local architectonic features," opposed against "the custodial effects of modernism." They further argued that modern architecture is impersonal and monolithic, destroying the humanistic qualities in architectural expression which would be reinstated by a new form of regionalism.

Later, Frampton follows the lead of Tzonis and Lefaivre in propounding critical regionalism. In his 1983 seminal essay 'Towards a Critical Regionalism', he embeds the concept with a higher sense of urgency and highlights its critical nature against placeless monotony. Frampton defined critical regionalism as "an architecture of resistance," seeking "to mediate the impact of universal civilization with elements derived indirectly from the peculiarities of a particular place," thus aiming "to reflect and serve the limited constituencies in which it was grounded."

This resistance, one could argue, is more apparent in 1980s Japan in the midst of an economic boom. It is typified as a reaction against universal standards, western culture homogenisation and placeless modernism, but at the same time critical in its outlook. Critical regionalism in Japan is self-evaluating such that it is confrontational with not only the world but also to itself.

Tadao Ando: a wabi-sabi Critical Regionalist

Frampton celebrates Tadao Ando as a critical regionalist. This is most evident in his essay 'Tadao's Ando's Critical Modernism' in which he uses the approach as a paradigm to discuss Ando's architecture (Frampton

One of Frampton's criteria for critical regionalism is a "direct dialectical relation with nature," a dialog with the environment that Ando's architecture embodies in the articulation of structure through the changing impact of terrain. This dialogue is exemplified in the Rokko Housing near Kobe (1978- 1983) [Fig.7 ]. The Rokko Housing Project is characterized by the steep 60 degree slope of the site located at the foot of Mt Rokko. Avoiding the modernist tabula rasa approach of levelling the site, Ando chose to situate his building on the severe slopes to make a "quiet building standing quietly in nature" (Ando, 1989a: 46). This is in true adherence to the spirit of wabi-sabi of preserving the tectonic quality of the nature, and in this case, the site situated on rugged mountains. In Rokko, the work is tactile, another component of Frampton's (1983:28) definition which "resides in the fact that (the building) can only be decoded in terms of experience itself." Indeed, Ando professes that "a building exists to be seen and experienced and not to be talked about" (eds. Knabe & Noennig, 1999: 118), seeking to address the tactile range of human perception.

[fig.7] Phase 1 Apartments, Rokko Housing Development, outside Kobe

Also, the romanticised emotion of wabi-sabi can be seen in the way Ando describes his buildings and context, which he refers to as "cruel urban surroundings" (Ando, 1997:12). As discussed earlier, within his territorial walls and spatial enclosure, Ando intends to establish a natural, Shinto-like relationship between the person, the building material and natural phenomena; the building is meant to be experienced in "body and spirit." (eds. Knabe & Noennig, 1999: 118)

He talks of the "spirit and emotional contents" which he has translated from the Japanese vernacular and the richness of the tradition of sukiya1 and minka2 which is lost in urban chaos and economic growth (Ando, 1982). In fact, his architecture is largely influenced by the nostalgia of his childhood memories:

"We all have had certain experiences in our childhood that have stayed with us for our entire lives. The house that I grew up in was very important to me … It is very long, and when you come in from the street you walk through a corridor and then into a small courtyard and then another long space that takes you deeper into the house. The courtyard is very important because the house is very long and the amount of light is very limited. Light is very precious … Living in a space like that, where light and darkness are constantly interacting, was a critical experience for me." (Auping, 2002: 22)

Hence, one can argue that the element of light and the use of clerestories and corridors are recurrent themes across Ando's work as they reflect familiar spaces in his childhood past. Ando (Auping, 2002: 22) says of himself, "I value cultural treasures and would like to develop them in a creative way," revealing the inherent fondness for cultural artefacts and a related sentimentality in the loss of such an environment due to unrelenting urban progress.

Ando's architecture is further described by Frampton: "Ando is at once both an unequivocally modern architect and a figure whose values lie embedded in some archaic moment … committed to some other time before the machinations of progress has turned into an every present nemesis." (Frampton, 1995:12)

The argument that posits Ando as a critical regionalist lies in this very statement. Ando is critical in his opposition against the chaotic Japanese urban context and his refusal to reproduce traditional Japanese elements. In Ando's work there are no familiar physical elements associated with traditional Japanese architecture. One can hardly find the traditional open pavilion, bare timber skeleton, deeply overhanging roofs, or sliding shoji doors of spotless white paper (Jodidio, 2004: 21). Nevertheless Ando has transmuted these properties into something new, grounding his architecture in an ancient culture while freeing it of depiction.

Wabi-sabi as a representation Japanese architectural identity.

Hence, one could argue, like wabi-sabi itself, the notion of Japanese identity is perceived sensually rather than visually.


1. Sukiya is a type of Japanese architectural style. It can be literally translated as 'sophisticated, cultivated experience', often a reference to delight of the elegantly performed tea-ceremony.

2. Minka are private dwellings of farmers, artisans, and merchants, constructed in traditional Japanese building styles.