The Japanese garden is probably the most marvellous gift of Japanese culture. Unfortunately it is frequently misunderstood, interpreted merely as a 'miniaturisation' of landscapes, as a 'microcosm' modeled according to macrocosmic ideas or as 'transitional space in regard to architecture'. In the following we would like to present a contrasting picture. It is based on a bi-levelled view of Japanese culture (tradition and history). It interpretes the Japanese garden phenomenologically as an artful tradition from below (Egenter 1996). This concept does not just rely on written history - which is often more confusing than elucidating. It searches for its factual precursors, for its origins within Japanese culture. A quite different picture results.
In short, there is something very puzzling in all this. Our Western definitions become vague and inapropriate. Let us try for a moment to put aside our generalising concepts of 'nature' and our classifations of objects like tree, stone, rock etc.. What do we see?
Evidently there is an all-embracing dialogue between some sort of stable and clearly marked places in the sense of the Greek term 'topos'. And these 'topoi' are usually surrounded by arrangements which imply vastness, dynamics, mobility. Evidently not the objects are most important but rather a relative element which creates dialogues between these objects and their characteristics. Trees are related to a source of water, rocks define movements of water, a waterfall is created by an arrangement of rocks, stones are markers in an 'ocean' of gravel, bushes, fixed in their forms by cyclic cutting are found dialogueing with surrounding mosses amorphously growing. It is a kind of contradictive relatedness which counts. The theme is endless: islands and ocean, stony beach and pond, the near and the far in the borrowed landscape gardens, and, finally, architecture as a human 'topos' in the natural environment. Modern man classifies immediately, thus isolates the objects and covers up the relational essence. But what we call 'relational essence' here is nothing else than the heartbeat of art. We know it too in the West. "High and low sounds make a melody" Heraclitus said quite some time before the Pythagoreans and Platon mathematised aesthetics. Black ink and white paper are the conditio sine qua non of any drawing. The interplay of light and dark constitute most European paintings essentially. 'Still-life', 'nature-morte' to which the painter gives vitality (!), an eternal theme in painting.
Thus, of course, the Japanese garden is part of the wider domain which we call art. But, what is different then? It is this ambivalence between art and nature which makes it so particular among other types of art. Somehow daringly we could say it is 'still close' to 'nature'. The river and its stonebed become a piece of art, the same is valid for an island and its surrounding gravel-ocean. But, what makes them become art? The theme is nature, but the arrangment makes it art. What makes it art?
The author considers himself part of a recent development within Japanology which developed a 'cutural anthropological view' on Japanese traditions. It uses the agrarian level of the Japanese hinterlands as ethnographical sources to gain new insights into the structure of Japanese culture. For about 10 years the author was mainly engaged in ethnographical field research in Japan. This is documented in several books (Egenter 1980, 1982, 1994). Initially all over the country, later systematically in 100 villages, a cultic system was surveyed which is constitutive for Japanese early history: the 'clan-deity' called 'ujigami'. Under the same name this deity is still found today in about 40‘000 settlements, villages and disctricts all over Japan as 'village protector deity'. Results of this research into ujigami-rites of Japanese villages suggest clearly that the Japanese garden is not merely an imagination of some brilliant Japanese garden-artists, but can be understood as a culturally refined reminiscence of 'Japanese village culture'.
That these forms are essentially buildings is evident. Binding is clearly the most ancient constructive technique. Binding stalks autonomously produces geometry, the circle (bundles are always round!), the cylinder, the cone (Fig. 1). Pillars and huts, most elementary forms of architecture (Fig. 2)! They are set up as signs in the landscape. No domestic functions! No inside-space. A new class of buildings ('semantic architecture'). A kind of land-art. Evidently with this 'fibroconstructive' type of 'semantic architecture' we are somewhere close to the origins of architecture and building (Fig. 3). It is like an experimental field where all what we know about evolved architecture and construction appears in a very primordial stage. In fact, that such a fibroconstructive 'industry' of building might be very old, maybe considerably older than the archaeologist's concept of a 'stone-age' (See Egenter 1996). An important argument for this assumtion: in the region surveyed as well as all over Japan we find many figurative types (artificial trees (Fig. 4, see Egenter 1981), very strange animals (Fig. 5), giants (Fig. 6), even artificial moutains (Fig. 7, see Egenter 1984) - all using the same fibroconstructive technique. This suggests that figurative sculpture might have developed from semantic architecture (Egenter 1994).
The comparison to land-art is not quite correct. Fibroconstructive signs do not stand casually here or there, they are part of the highest value system of a village, occupy somehow its open-air ,state-archive‘. They are closely related to the village protector deity's permanent dwelling, the village-shrine and they are themselves a temporary material expression of this deity. Also from the technological standpoint and from their function to mark sacred places, it is clear that the fibroconstructive signs surveyed are a pre-buddhistic prototype of the Shinto-shrines.
Such signs are known from many cultures, historical or ethnological. But they were devalued in the context of Western religion. They were considered as an insignificant or primitive part of ,primitive belief‘ and thus devalued as 'fetish', 'idol', and the like, evidently because their primitive materiality did not fit with the scholastic concept of an absolute spirit.
The author has dealt with these phenomena in quite different ways. In the framework of recent developments of architectural ethnology and architectural anthropology these formations were studied in all details with the eyes and the methods of a researching architect. As buildings they soon showed their essential character as signs for certain territorial domains, for a village or a village-district. The rituals - essentially devoted to the construction and destruction of such signs - showed their close relations to specific social units. A kind of heraldry or an open-air land register. The detailed studies show clearly that these groups - well organised - identify themselves with their vital environments in these cults. They appropriate it physically and spiritually.
This clearly explains the high value of these objects. Settlement history is not written with ink on paper, the signs are 'written' into the landscape itself. The rites are reminders of the chess-game. Like chess figures these signs are set up in the centre of certain domains, where they remain stable semantic indicators for a certain time, or are moved or removed according to certain rules and thus express a constitutional structure. At the local 'origins', the founder of the village had appropriated the domains of his village by setting a fibroconstructive sign. Through ritual renewal it survives into our times and documents the 'constitution' of the settlement. Traditionally the priest was the representant of the founderhouse. He was called kami-nushi, the owner of the deity. His power as village-chief is documented in this sign. In many villages even today the present representative man of the founderhouse is like a local king. It is thus evident: the signs are the archives of the local settlement 'history'. In short, using the analogy of the chess game, we can easily guess what these signs and rites once meant for farmers: the chessboard was not just a playground, it guaranteed their existence.
That cultures use symbolic models for their environmental 'design' over hundreds, even thousands of years we clearly know from China: for more than 2000 years, the Yin-Yang and Tao symbolisms were at the basis of Chinese 'designs' in the widest sense. Did we make a discovery? Were such fibroconstructive signs the prototypes of this harmonious 'modeling' of man's environment and social structure? Are these fibroconstructive signs at the same time models of an aesthetico-philosophical concept (polar harmony)? Do they somehow represent the origins of art? Are they microcosmic models of man's macrocosmic structural ideas? It seems so. We have many sources to support this assumption universally.
If, with this idea, we look again at the Japanese village traditions of fibroconstructive signs, we realize that they offer us a lot of understanding in regard to fundamental terms of art, philosophy and religion. The term 'proportion' appears not yet Platonically and mathematically abstract, but, simply in its ancient Roman meaning: PRO-portion. Something important springs fourth from a well defined portion: mobility from stability, the natural from technology, multitude from unity, the non-limited from clearly defined geometry! (Fig. 9) The widespread philosophical concept of 'coincidence of opposites' (coincidentia oppositorum) could not be illustrated more convincingly and there are many arguments also that such fibroconstructive signs were the prototypes of Taoism and YinYang symbolism in China (Fig. 10). And even the term 'meta-physics' can be related to these forms: it becomes congruent with the term PRO-portion. Like in the case of 'cosmetics' and 'cosmos' which both had practically the same meaning in Ancient Greece, indicating a harmonious order in the human environment. But the contents of cosmos followed the spatial extensions of the age of discoveries, whereas 'cosmetics' remained on the human face. Similarly 'proportion' in art remained close to art- form, but - mainly under scholastic influences - the contents of the word 'metaphysics' evolved into cosmic space.
In fact, we find ourselves in a very mysterious domain. Just in front of our eyes, here, in these Japanese villages, very ancient cultural conditions erupt at these rites. What in separate terms we call art, philosophy and religion still form a unity in these cyclically rebuilt signs. Nietzsche would call this the 'eternal return of the origins'.
Thus, the Japanese garden is shown in a new light. It is evidently a highly refined, but essentially nostalgic creation which strongly alludes to rural elements, to village culture and its harmonious unity of environment, where what we call art, philosophy and religion are still a unity. It is proably to a good part also a reaction against extensive, merely verbal speculations of Buddhism in regard to time and space. A Japanese type of Romanticism? Maybe, but in a very positive sense. The Japanese garden tells us a lot about the human creation of art. And this is probably its deepest wisdom: that - palacegarden or villagevalley - human life is at its highest merely an artful garden. Ancient pond. Frog jumps. Water's noise.