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Fresh Views on Japanese Modernism

From: The Journal of Japanese Studies
Volume 39, Number 2, Summer 2013
pp. 397-406 | 10.1353/jjs.2013.0056

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Modern design should be regarded as one of Japan’s leading cultural exports— no less true in architecture than in product design, packaging, anime, and other influential forms. As someone who teaches architecture to graduate students at Harvard, I have long been aware that when an instructor or guest juror refers to a student’s project as having “Japanese” qualities, this comment will inevitably be interpreted as high praise indicating an abstract aesthetic, transparency and lightness, well-crafted details, spatial surprise and/or sensual appeal. Certainly the inference is no coincidence. In many ways, the very aesthetics of twentieth-century modernism that underlie Western design pedagogy would be almost unthinkable without the historical influence of Japan: of its premodern wooden architecture on Frank Lloyd Wright and the European avant-garde; of its Edo period ukiyo-e on the French impressionists and later artistic movements; and of its cultural attitudes toward materiality, subjectivity, and artistic production pervading traditional crafts on modern industrial design, abstract art, and architecture alike. Japanese audiences have long been aware of the enduring value of their design culture in linking tradition with modernity, and every generation of Japanese designers invests new energy in perpetuating this legacy of cultural continuity through innovative design. Japanese architects seem particularly aware of—and at times troubled by—the degree to which historical and cultural context defines even the most original examples of their work. Architects are public figures in Japan, and the profession sponsors an active intellectual discussion among its leading practitioners to a degree rarely seen in other countries, resulting in a wealth of published essays, interviews, and conference proceedings—as often as not picking up threads of the venerable old “tradition debate” (dentō ronsō).

Until recently, however, non-Japanese-speaking audiences have had relatively limited access to this theoretical dimension of Japan’s modern architectural discourse. English-language publications on the subject, with a few important exceptions, have favored pictorial surveys of the contemporary scene and lavish monographs on the work of individual architects, mostly with minimal analysis or criticism. Among international audiences, this tendency may perpetuate the unfortunate impressions that Japan produces little architectural discourse of its own and that its modern history should therefore be considered a compromised, derivative version of the West’s (indeed, one still encounters this way of thinking in some academic circles). To counter this argument, the task of connecting significant architectural works to complex, multigenerational threads of Japanese architectural history has relied on a handful of canonical texts—among these David Stewart’s The Making of a Modern Japanese Architecture, 1868 to Present (Kodansha International, 1987); William Coaldrake’s Architecture and Authority in Japan (Routledge, 1996); and Jonathan Reynolds’s Maekawa Kunio and the Emergence of Japanese Modernist Architecture (University of California Press, 2001)—as well as translated essays by culturally aware architects such as Tange Kenzō, Maki Fumihiko, Isozaki Arata, Itō Toyō, and Kuma Kengo (regrettably, Fujimori Terunobu’s highly respected Nihon no kindai kenchiku has not yet been translated into English). Now, with the recent publication of three highly original and incisive new books on Japanese modern architecture by a new generation of authors, it appears that scholarship on this subject has reached a new stage of maturity, characterized by increasingly diverse points of view and elastic narrative frameworks.

Ken Tadashi Oshima’s International Architecture in Interwar Japan: Constructing Kokusai Kenchiku fills a significant gap in English-language literature on Japanese architectural history, focusing on the two decades preceding World War II, the 1920s and 1930s, sometimes referred to as the “forgotten years.” Various reasons might be cited for the relatively low profile of this architecture, foremost among these the lack of enduring physical evidence in Japanese cities. Although architecture from the earlier Meiji era boasts a superior record of historical preservation, and the postwar work of Tange Kenzō and Maekawa Kunio is largely intact and attracts international admiration, not many great works survive from Japan’s interwar period. Many buildings were destroyed by wartime bombing and fires, while others were later demolished to make room for structures with improved antiseismic or economic performance. But might the disproportionate disappearance of Japan’s interwar architecture also reveal something about Japanese society...



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