Nold Egenter


A Japanese example of Romanticism?

An extra-ordinary view

In modified form this paper was originally read at the meeting "Architecture et Jardins" (Architecture and Gardens) organised by Nadja and Jean-Michel Hoyet at the 'Chàteau des Forges de Pesmes" (Haute Saône), France, July 20 to 23, 1995. A revised text is published in French language under the title "La coincidence des contraires et l'harmonie habile. Les sièges sacrés du Shintô, la culture du village japonais et l'ontologie esthétique du jardin japonais. In: Hoyet, N. and J.M. (ed.): Rencontres Architecture et Jardins; Actes, Château des Forges, F-70140 Pesmes, France; 1996; 111 p., ill. ISBN 2.911911.00.8, p. 30 - 40 (ca. 20 US$)

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.


The reason why the Japanese garden remained a continuously fascinating phenomenon lies certainly in the fact that its philosophical meaning is very wide, much wider e.g. than that of European gardens. It is closely related to the world-views of Shinto and Buddhism. This might imply also that it has something important to say. In the context of art it is remarkable how the Japanese garden deals with materia or substance. In the following four characteristics. (1) The artificial aspect of art shows much more freedom to intrude into the domain of nature: trees and bushes are smallbred, often deformed according to aesthetic criteria. The borderline between art and nature is astonishingly vague. (2) There is a very strange familiarity between very different things. Gravel can stand for water. Monks have to move it frequently, thus introducing the category of movement. In other words, there is a strange ambivalence, a strange absence of clear definition which eases the metaphorical. (3) There are very unusual thematical patterns like 'rock-source and river', 'mountain and valley', 'rivermouth and pond' etc.. They are not just part of a natural environment, they are the main theme of this art. And, (4) this art is definitly environmental. It does not present itself on a canvas or screen, but in the vital landscape of man. Of course, this corresponds basically to the domain of the architect. Thus, here too, ambivalence: the Japanese garden is built with nature.

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?


It is evident that this art lives from the ontological codes immanent in its themes. The arrangements are part of a world-view with clear values. The source is pure, its water flows down, nourishes many existences, finally reaches the sea. The island is a stable existential platform in the endless oceans. In short, mountains, hills, trees, rocks, stones and their moving counterparts are all empirically coded in some ways and thus - and only then - express values. But, where do these values come from? This is a very important question. If what we call 'nature' in the Japanese garden reveals as a coded panorama which has its origins in another human environment, then we might understand first, why the Japanese garden artist deals so freely with his 'natural' substance. And, second, we might critically question our own understanding of 'nature'. Is, what what we call nature, in fact widely a kind of tapestry of longgone habitats or environmental 'rooms'? In the following we will shortly visit such a 'room', the 'rooms' of Japanese village culture.


Conventionally Japanology was strongly based on history and philology. This covered up an important view. Culturally, Japan shows clearly two distinct levels which are very different. There is the spatially centralised urban level showing strong continental influence and being founded on linear time concepts (history). And there is the primarily autonomous, locally structured agrarian level of villages based on cyclic time concepts (rituals). The latter is still hardly known in the West.

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'.


It has to be noted here: the Japanese village is not just a casual heap of some farm houses! It is rather a very well structured and orderly garden. Village culture in Japan shows very similar, ontologically coded landscape patterns like the Japanese garden: mountains and fields form complementary units and this finds expression in rituals (e.g. yama no kami / ta no kami, mountain deity / field deity; similarly the 'ujigami' system separates and polarly unites wooded mountains and rice-fields including human dwellings). Water with sources and rivers are the essential structural element of this environment. The system is coded, the mountains bein tabooed, highly valued, sacred, the domain of spirits, the fields are reserved for human use, as it is described in one of the old topographies, the Hitachi-Fudoki. (8th century). The village plan develops along its 'value-focussed' axis, the central path or street towards the 'mountain-entrance-gate' (yamaguchi), where the village-protector deity resides. In short, here too natural things like (sacred) trees, (sacred) stones, and - on the other hand artificial ones - like (sacred) buildings are part of a harmonious 'design', which, however, is not designed by a subjective artist, but corresponds to a very ancient traditional system. It preserves a local factual 'originality' which is of highest values to the community: it guarantees its physical and spiritual existence.


Persons who only know the urban part of Japan might be very astonished about what they discover in these local autonomous worlds of village culture: it is like coming out of a time-machine. On one certain day of the year the cultic men's association of the ancient houselines come together to practice art in an evidently very archaic way. They build pillars or huts using reeds and bamboo and rice-straw and other fibroconstructive materials, and applying binding and tressing by their mere hands - no tools - as constructive means. These built signs in the landscape serve as temporary representations of their village protector deities. Though usually they do not mean much to Westerners, in the eyes of the local residents they are of highest values. But in spite of this, this art does not last. After one or two days the monumental forms disappear like ghosts. They are ritually burnt. The rest of the year: nothing. Therefore they are hardly known, even among Japanese.

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.


Thus, we have gained some insights into the vital factors of the Japanese village. But this does not explain the rich cultural expressions we are confronted with, particularly at rites and cultic festivals. Where do they come from? Why do Japanese farmers adore beauty? The answer is clear: the villagers had a model, a prototype of their cultural 'designs'. The village layout with its polar relation of fields for productive work and tabooed mountains for instance represent the same 'meta-physics' which we find in the fibroconstructive signs. (Fig. 8)

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'.


It is probably not difficult to make the step from what was said: The Japanese garden is evidently not a 'miniaturisation' of the macrocosm, it is rather a definite reminiscence to a very concrete and factual microcosm deeply embedded in Japan's cultural tradition, the microcosm of the agrarian village. Remember the three points we listed initially as phenomenological characteristics of the Japanese garden: (1) The ambivalence between artificial and natural as 'substance' of art (2) The metaphoric character of materials , or, rather, the dominance of categories over the logically defined (gravel for water: gravel artificially moved). (3) The thematic preference for ontologically coded realistic sites (source and river, rocks and water, etc.) and (4) The evidently artistic goal of the arrangements: To create an environmental harmony. There is no doubt: all these elements come from the agrarian village. They are the constitutive characteristics of its 'design' in the widest sense.

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.

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