Japan musings 6

Shinto, the religion of Japan, doesn’t identify any one god. There are many gods, so to speak, though they are less gods than spirits (Kami), and may take the form of mountains, wind, or trees, but at the same time exist within people. If the center-centric cultures of the west can be said to originate in monotheism, or at least find definition through monotheism, than its not unreasonable to find in Shintoism the Japanese preoccupation with the periphery or edge, but here its more nuanced than saying Shintoism = edge or periphery, and more accurate to say that Shintoism denies any one center. It is multi-centered, but where many claim center, center ceases to exist as its namesake declares, and assumes another role, that of localized node, or a character within a cast of characters. The periphery then exists less as the perimeter of an established center then as a container of multiple characters, and this is the more accurate rendition of perimeter within the context of Japanese culture. Rather than “all roads lead to Rome”, one has a rice paddy, with a clear, defined edge but many claimed “centers”.

 We understand a path as a means to a destination. European cities exist as a network of paths that allow us to travel to various destinations, but they also establish a hierarchy within the city as to the relative importance of those same destinations. Our cities are organized around these paths, and through their association with destination and hierarchy, they exist as extensions of the city center, whether localized as a neighborhood center or centrally as the Town Square. Its not a surprise, then, that our doors along these paths are numbered linearly according to their position on the path. This is the primary means of way finding in the European city, organized by number along a street.

 In Japan, things are arranged inversely. Though paths take people to their destinations, the nature of the city structure is such that the importance of the path is diminished. If in the European city the path has an “object” quality in terms of its assigned importance, in Japan it is the city block that is object. The Japanese city/town is defined not by a city center, but by a multiplicity of centers each with a sphere of influence around which the city is organized. Each door is numbered according to the sequence in which it was constructed with respect to the local node or center; the street is only of secondary import, and is usually not even named.

The compartmentalization so clear in this diagram can be seen throughout Japanese culture, from rice paddys to the bento boxes. The expression of multiple centers over the means of connecting those centers is the Japanese expression of a de-centered/multi-centered society, and can be found to originate in Shinto where there is a heightened value placed on the expression of ones relationships to another person, as opposed to having the rules of that interaction codified by law.


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