Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Tom Heneghan, who teaches architecture at Sydney Uni, bemoans the difficulty confronting the foreigner who wants to live in North Asia: the wretched script. "After two years of study I knew just over 200, including numbers," he tells Elizabeth Farrelly, The Sydney Morning Herald's architecture critic-in-residence.

"As I learned new ones, the old ones I knew slipped out the back of my brain."

The newcomer is enchanted, as I was, with the spacial dynamics especially, as happened to me when I visited Japan in the winter of 1982, for a person with an inherent interest in the plastic arts. Here's me mimicking my host's wife's script (shodo):

This concern with form may be the reason for Asian reticence when faced with a confrontation. Farrelly writes that Oxford psychologist Michael Argyle finds Japanese faces "are still inscrutable, less legible - even to the Japanese - than English or Italian faces".

And the condition is common to Chinese people, too. The similarities are endless and hence are cause to regret the poor political link between the two countries which, it must honestly be said, know each other better than anyone else knows either.

Says Farrelly: "what really strikes you, on a first, fleeting Tokyo visit, is just how Japanese it still is". But the next bit is really beautiful:

Japaneseness infuses everything, from the way the buildings collude in their space-making to the extraordinary quietness of the streets, where the dominant sound is the soft, insistent rain of a trillion footsteps.

As even the train trip from Narita airport shows you something quite different is happening here. Tokyo's wan industrial suburbs are themselves oddly picturesque. Almost nothing is brick or concrete. All is light and timbery, textual and textural, settling to the ground in a loose, ordered chaos that makes a place of every street and a joke of the entire Western edifice of urban design.

It's true. There is truly a "loose, ordered chaos" in Tokyo and any other large city in Japan. What needs to be stressed, however, in "the soft, insistent rain" is the second qualifier.

The press of people in the world's largest city means that 'insistent' is a negative quantity. And this may also be a reason for Asian reticence: so many people living in such close quarters for such a long time. The Chinese influence, however, is really, yet to be adequately chronicled.

A friend tells me that Japanese traditional kimono (the garish, but lovely dress the women are most famous for) is highly reminiscent of T'ang Dynasty dress (circa 700 CE, when Buddhism and the script migrated across from Korea to the archipelago).

The little wave of the hand, in declining something, that is so characteristic of Japanese women (the men would never do this), is also common to the Chinese. My friend does it all the time.

And covering the mouth, when laughing is, it transpires, another point of commonality linking Japanese and Chinese women. It signifies good breeding.

My friend, however, laughs with her mouth open.

Farrelly ends her interesting article by pointing to "a palpable thoughtfulness" that inheres in what a Japanese person does. "Not just politeness, which suggests a kind of fraud. More a zennish mindfulness, a concentrated energy beneath the calm."

"[E]ven the young mother taking three smartly uniformed under-fives to the temple school by bike." Oh, what a feeling!

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