For much of its history, Japan has been isolated from western influences, with the exception of 200 years between the 15th and 17th century, when the Portuguese "discovered" Japan. Japan closed this opening in 1639, and it wasn't to open again until the arrival of Commodore Perry in 1854. The result of this relative isolation is an incredible unity of thought and purpose that crosses all aspects of its culture, and which struck me dumb when i visited in the early 90's. i plan to ramble about many of the visual aspects that struck me, and no doubt you will recognize the thoughts of others, such as Bataille and Barthes, though i've forgotten which are the pillaged thoughts.
Japan is a "frame" culture, as can be said of American culture. But the idea of frame in Japan is very different from that in the US. Whereas the American frame is one of extension and allowance, it doesn't deal well with disruption, and is averse to variation, though of course has had to allow for it. The American "frame", if one is to think in these terms, is also very "center" oriented; the Japanese frame not so. The Japanese "frame" culture is one that celebrates the interruption of the frame, and relishes these interruptions as though works of art. As it must. For Japan exists in the ocean, at the edge of a tectonic plate, and so has a history pierced, and to a degree defined, by natural disasters in the form of earthquakes and typhoons. These cataclysmic events are not welcomed per se, after all they are cataclysms, but they have been "let in", and one could say the aesthetics of Japan are partially characterized by a "disaster mentality", a mentality that from a formal standpoint favors the perimeter over the center, and celebrates interruption of the standing order, the flecks of disorder. The traditional Japanese calendar, for example, is marked by eras, most of which are defined by the arrival of a new emperor, but some of these eras are defined by the occurrence of an earthquake or tsunami, at which, in one sense, the calendar is "reset", and a new era defined. Thus a natural disaster, a disruption of the established order, is celebrated as the birth of something new, rather than the demise of the existing order.
From a formal standpoint, Japan is all perimeter. It is a number of islands with a variegated coastline and high, dense mountains. The "center" does not want to be occupied. And so most of the population has lived on or near the coastline, and the Japanese people have long favored fishing over agriculture and animal husbandry (fishing can be seen as the taking from without, farming as a taking from within, and so it involves a "reach", a distention from the self, the home). Even the production of rice, which is central to their diet, involves the creation of many small "seas", or paddy's, which i will discuss again later. This notion of favoring perimeter over center can be seen throughout Japanese culture, from the treatment of packages to the presentation of their food, and from their way of greeting to the way they build their temples. It permeates everything, but this is not the most interesting feature of the Japanese "sense"; what is most interesting to me is the consistency of this feature as an aesthetic, as if it were a gene all Japanese are born with, a folklore passed on through generations, and the amazing ability of this aesthetic to extend throughout Japanese culture, from teenage fashion to fortress walls.
More to follow...