JAPAN "Expect the Unexpected"

by Julius Bokor | October 20, 2015

After my fourth visit to Japan, I am no closer to understanding the culture.

The emphasis on private aesthetic virtues and the lack of interest in there being any aesthetic value in the public realm is confusing, to our way of thinking. Compare the streetscape at the rear of Tokyo’s Hotel Parkside, a lane of massage parlours, women dressed in fantasy costumes, and underworld figures in large black cars, while opposite the hotel’s front entry sits Ueno Park, site of the famous Lotus Ponds, where photographers spend days getting perfect images of lotus blossoms.

What follows is an exploration of this contrast between the Japanese Yamanote (high life) and Shitamachi (low life), and my account of the Benesse Art Site, on the island of Naoshima.

      Low life    
      Lotus pod - High life

A short historical introduction is a useful context.

Japan, or Nihon, is a constitutional monarchy ruled by an Emperor who can trace his family back 2600 years to 660BC to the goddess of light. He is called the son of heaven. The empire of the rising sun.


The people are probably descendants of Mongolian migrants who crossed from Siberia. The Japanese have shown a great ability to assimilate and transform other cultures for example; Korean pottery, metalwork and textiles, town panning from China. Japan has historically been an isolated country composed of islands and has never been occupied by a foreign power until 1945 when the US forces occupied it until 1953.

      The ideal
Several attempts at invasion by China were repulsed by the Japanese superior swordsmanship and a timely typhoon that destroyed the invaders fleet. The great Khans were also defeated. Kamikaze is a divine wind that when invoked helps preserve the empire. Our early knowledge is from Marco Polo’s second hand accounts of fierce small people who grew rice and made exceptional swords, and adopted Chinese script.    
      The actual

Marco Polo’s knowledge of Japan is from Chinese accounts of fierce dwarf people who knew how to grow rice, make swords and adopted Chinese writing culture making it their own. Society was divided along class lines.


The most popular sport - Baseball. Adapted after American occupation


Japan was isolated and very little more was known about it in the Western World until Portuguese sailors were blown off course and landed on Honshu in 1543. At this time there was a Papal Bull encouraging the spread of Christianity with Spain and Portugal sharing the spoils, and the missionaries were active in Japan soon after.

Japan was only unified in 1460, under the supreme military ruler the Shogun, after centuries of fighting for supremacy by warlords. Any sign of rebellion was harshly dealt with. When the convert landowners rose against the Shogun (Tokugawa) all missionaries were either crucified or expelled and travel in or out of Japan was stopped.


Only a tiny artificial island close to Nagasaki, Dejima, remained host to a small number of Dutch protestant traders and doctors who dealt in metals and medicines that Japan needed.

      Nagasaki, Dejima

In 1854 when the US tried to open up trade relations with Japan they found a medieval feudal society run along strict class lines. Initially denied access ,  US warships anchored in Tokyo bay and forced the Japanese to open up to trade .At this time the political class system came close to breaking, as it was unable to accommodate the rising merchant class. The contradictory ideals of Yamanote (strictly controlled high life) and Shitamachi (low life) and life of fleeting pleasure started to fray. The Kabuki actors, prostitutes, circus performers and artists were quarantined in areas behind drawbridges, in Tokyo.

      The Black Ships

The landed class was beholden to the Shogun and unable to sell their land. Land ownership and trading in land was not permitted for the Daiomyo who held land in trust. The Shogun forced them to build palaces on their land for them to spend alternate years in Tokyo; this has left a legacy of parks in Tokyo. Like the French nobility in Versailles this exhausted the landowner’s finances and made organised resistance impossible. The famed Samurai were attached to the landowners, and only disbanded in favour of a national army loyal to the state, in the 19 century. The failure of the Shogun to deal with social stress, and subsequent famine brought about the restoration of the Emperor.

      Fascination with Japan after it opens to Europeans
I hope that by discussing Tokyo and Naoshima Art Site we can demonstrate the opposing realities.

Kyoto was the imperial capital until 1590, when Shogun Ieyasu selected Tokyo as the site of his power base. Situated in the delta of a river on marshy land, and with an inadequate fresh water supply the site was subject to floods, tsunamis and earthquakes. It was a curious choice. However, it was on the largest fertile plane of the island of Honshu. By 1800 Tokyo had 1 million inhabitants and today has more than 35 million. In 1867, following a famine and an ensuing revolt, the Shogun surrendered power to the emperor in Kyoto who then took up residence in Tokyo castle in 1868. Following the restoration of the Meijii, the country opened up to all cultural and technological ideas that the west had to offer. 

      Typical Imperial Castle
Universities opened, railways were built and rapid industrialisation took place. In 1905, the Japanese were sufficiently advanced, defeated Imperial Russia and now had an effective navy and military force.

Tokyo has always been subject to natural disasters and the nature of the city, mainly constructed of timber, meant that there were devastating fires, following earthquakes, floods etc. However, rapid rebuilding was possible, and this is still characteristic of the energy of the city. The great avenues in Tokyo were the result of the need for fire breaks.

Following the devastating Kanto earthquake of 1923, when large areas of Tokyo were destroyed, the nationalists in the army and government sought to interpret this as punishment for the abandonment of traditional values. A movement started to counteract what were seen as foreign influences, destroying traditional values.

      View of Tokyo after earthquake in 1923
There were dreams of an Eastern Empire, where the natural resources necessary for the survival of the empire were plentiful. Conquests in China, Manchuria, Korea furthered this and the following history is well known ending with the surrender of Japan to the US forces, following the invasion of Manchuria by the Soviet Union and bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 70 years ago.
The temporary nature of most wooden buildings along with the fires, earthquakes and floods meant that there are few buildings in Tokyo older than 200 years. The pace of building and the pattern of land ownership in the hands of the merchants and artisans meant that small land holdings were common, making large scale redevelopment very difficult.    

Typical Street

      Small land subdivision
Today most large scale developments are entrusted to a consortium led by foreign architects.    
      This is part of large scale redeveloping

The ugliness of the modern city and the disregard for visual calm and unity can be traced to the Shitamachi or “low life”. The neon signs represent a layer of visual complexity that is exacerbated by the use of at least two different scripts as well as English. The contrast to the refined and considered discipline of the traditional dwellings and handicrafts could not be greater.


The disparity between the ideal and the possible are in contrast to Naoshima, where harmony is achieved. 

An aside to consider Kenzo Tange: the earliest exponent of modernism, tempered by Japanese sensibility.

      Breakfast - Ideal life


The adoption and assimilation of external influences is well illustrated in the work of Kenzo Tange the great Japanese architect. Following his early upbringing in China, he studied the works of Le Corbusier.

      Hiroshima - Memorial Park Museum

He also studied urbanism and realised that this was much needed in the post war reconstruction of Japanese cities, many of which were destroyed during the war. Until then, Japanese architects showed little understanding in interpreting western buildings and there were few opportunities for urban planning.

      Hiroshima - Tomb

Following the complete destruction of the buildings on the island in the centre of Hiroshima a commission was established to decide what to do with the area. It was decided to declare it a “Peace Park” and Tange was the winner of an international competition for the masterplan and the design of the museum building.

      1958 Town Hall

Tokyo won the right to stage the Olympic Games in 1964. This event went some way to restoring national pride and gave impetus to a period of feverish building and modernisation. The bullet train system opened in 1964 and two buildings by Tange were the central masterpieces of the Olympic venues in Hibuya Park.

      Entry Hall

Tange went on to develop the idea of “metabolism” in 1960's. This was to change the concept of cities from that of an island defence to a living city which changes over time, is organic, efficient and based on nature.


In many ways Tokyo is a city that is constantly evolving, an urban conurbation rather than a traditional city with a civic and religious centre as we know it.

      Kyoto Railway Station - Metabolic Architecture


Mr Fukutake a publisher originally based in Okayama, at a company conference held at a camping ground near the present day Benesse Art Site, was determined to acquire part of the island and develop it into an ideal of harmony between nature buildings and art.

He was helped by the mayor who was keen to develop tourism, following the demise of the metal extraction and refining industry.

      Map of Naoshima - Art Site

Mr Fukutake later acquired the Berlitz Group, and relocated to Tokyo.

He purchased the southern end of the island in 1985, and proceeded to remove all traces of the metal refining infrastructure to restore the original topography. In approximately 1988 he approached Tadao Ando to masterplan the site, who incidentally was reluctant to accept such an impossible task.

      Park Hotel - Naoshima

The area overlooks the inland sea of Japan, and other than passing ships is a timeless beauty of islands, water and vegetation.


Using a few simple materials Ando over the last 25 years has built a number of museums, site specific containers for individual works and accommodation for guests.


The new buildings are connected to the landscape, some wholly underground, and are the antithesis of the busy dynamic nature of Tokyo.


The relationship between art, nature recalls the traditional temple buildings and gardens. It is a static setting in contrast to the western active container, illustrated by the ideas that brought about the Pompidou Centre.


The buildings, the simple details embody Japanese ideas of harmony rarely seen in a group of buildings.

It’s the opposite of the floating world of Tokyo, which inspired so much of the art of the impressionist painters.


Should mention that to travel to Naoshima, a small railway from Okayama, takes you to Uno where a ferry transports you to the SAANA designed ferry terminal on the island.


A bus takes you through the traditional village to the Benesse Foundation.

The need to provide for a number of temporary installations, unused houses are utilised, in the village, including interventions by Ando.

Approximately 400,000 visitors a year, hardly disturb the serenity of the area, being largely there for the day. Some stay in the old village, as there are no shops, cafes or bars at the Art Site.

Only scared sites have achieved this serenity in Japan.





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