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An architect's thoughts on a recent trip to Japan

Updated: Feb 1, 2019

The first aspect that jumps out immediately upon arrival in Tokyo for the first time is what appears to be order within chaos. Chaotic juxta-positioning of buildings without apparent control of height, scale, style or character, somehow, doesn’t seem to create an emotional disturbance. As one peers more deeply into this endless sea of concrete and glass, numerous gems shine out amongst the ordinariness. Some are imaginative, often quirky, but beautifully crafted modern buildings. Then alongside there might appear a shrine or temple that has stood for hundreds of years. The city is an endless and exciting journey of discovery.

How is it then that Tokyo seems to succeed so well, especially considering that this city contains almost the entire population of Australia? I think it is beyond the bricks and mortar – it is the very essence of the Japanese people and their culture and traditions that have evolved over centuries that has enabled them to devise systems that work for them. For instance, as one tries to work out the very considerable intricacies of the subway system it becomes obvious that everything works so, so efficiently. Despite the sea of people they all seem to be able to avoid each other without contact and without extraneous noise or confusion. Trains arrive exactly on time, every time. There is no graffiti anywhere. There is no rubbish visible anywhere. Everything is spotlessly clean and works- all the time.

Once one has navigated the underground rail system and ascends into the street it becomes evident that the same degree of order and cleanliness exists above ground also. Despite the considerable traffic volume it all moves smoothly. Drivers accommodate the needs of other drivers without road rage. No-one beeps their horn – it is considered disrespectful! …… and herein lies one of the essences of Japanese success – RESPECT. Respect for other citizens, respect for nature and the environment, and in fact, all things in life.

Together with this genuine respect for all things, the Japanese have developed over many centuries, (following a brutal period of Samurai mayhem), an intense understanding and love of design and order. This has been refined to a point where the mere essences of design elements become cherished as the most important aspect to promote. Minimalism asserts itself as a strong aesthetic that pervades Japanese life. And it encompasses all aspects of the visual, including flower arrangement, calligraphy, visual arts, industrial design and architecture and more. Even the manhole covers in the roads, representing elements of the Prefecture where they are located, are beautifully designed and crafted.

Coming back to Australia the contrast is significant. Immediately the question arises, “Why can’t we do things as well as the Japanese?” My answer comes down to attitude developed through a long history. It is not our ability. Australians have demonstrated in all fields of endeavour our cleverness and skill. What we don’t have, and cannot expect to have, is experience and growth over a long period of history which allows for refinement and respect to evolving fully…. And there is one more thing we don’t have - that is a deeply consistent spiritual belief system like that which permeates Japanese life. Shinto and Buddhism happily co-exist and are fully embraced in all households. On the other hand, our culture is much diversified through immigration and is accepting of practically all belief systems. Whilst this is an honourable egalitarian viewpoint it does not lead to a cohesive position where the majority have a committed and consistent base from which to move forward.

Is there a case for change? Possibly. Is it likely? Probably not.

Would I like to see a greater public understanding of beauty and design in an Australian context? Absolutely. Is it likely to happen? Again, unlikely.

In conclusion, Japan is an exciting country with many aspects to admire .. and so has Australia too.

And in the end, I’m Australian.

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