The Illustrious Central Pillar of the Japanese world

By Nold Egenter

The original title was:
A cultural-anthropological discussion of the phenomenon of “sacred space” in Japan.


Space is, after time, the most important element of human existence, being the basis of perception, thought and organisation. Correspondingly, the expression “space” has strategic significance in numerous cultural research fields. Powerful philosophies are based on concepts of space. For instance, one important factor in determining our world view is whether we interpret something like a Babylonian myth of Creation, as a metaphysical concept of space according to classical philology, or whether we treat it as a prerequisite for a view of the environment founded on anthropology. In the first case the text tells us of the creation of the world, today of course to be understood in terms of cosmology, in the second case the same text describes the founding of an ancient settlement, town or kingdom <1>.

Thus we can see already what has been involved in the discussion of the phenomenon of space in the European history of ideas, in both philosophical and scientific terms, since before Socrates’ time. It is this peculiar combination of ideas which makes any attempt at a precise definition difficult: the linking in one word of the proximate, subjectively experienced and environmentally determined space, and space which eludes human experience, forever stretching further afield into the immeasurable spaces of the planet and the cosmos.

Alexander GOSZTONYI (1976), who has compiled the most comprehensive European history of the problem of space in the German language, reflects this combination of ideas in concrete terms in two volumes. The first outlines Europe’s two thousand year struggle with the overpowering dimension of the immense spaces - sometimes through philosophy, metaphysics or theology, sometimes through mathematics, geometry or physics. The second volume deals with the more recent questions, contrastingly systematic, about space seen from the human perspective. ‘Mental awareness and space’, ‘Space in modern philosophy’ (in which phenomenological methods play an important role), and ‘Space as structure’ are the main themes of the second volume.

GOSZTONYI’s extraordinarily profuse compilation shows clearly that the narrow space question seen from the human point of view is a modern one. For centuries space was discussed not in terms of people, but rather in metaphysical terms. It was Platonically subjected to the highest level of knowledge, scholastically and Neoplatonically identified with the absolute and the holy. Even today this fascination with large spaces still dominates, at least in the scientific use of the term: we are impressed by astronomy's cosmos measured in light years.

This age-old preoccupation with metaphysically wide spaces also plays a part in modern western everyday life, whether it be ethical-religious, psychological or philosophical, even political or aesthetic. But this combination of ideas, when seen from the other side, also poses the philosophical question of whether this rising to the highest point, this ancient field of metaphysics, overlays the ‘transcendental’ spiritual values with ever higher spheres, or is in itself an environmental space schema with its roots in the human past? There are certainly plausible arguments for this, such as the peculiar cosmological speculation of many pre-Socratic philosophers, who clearly looked to Near Eastern religious traditions for support (eg. Anaximander’s world columns). Or ancient Egyptian metaphysics, undoubtedly anchored in the topography of the Nile valley. The same clearly goes for the history of cartography <2>, and in etymological relationships, such as that between ‘cosmos’ and ‘cosmetics’ <3>.

If we decide to follow this line of reasoning, then the platonic cosmic teachings, for instance, become ancient speculation. This could have serious consequences for European thought. In the scholasticism of the Middle Ages, an absolute idealism was constructed in our western ‘arts’, for understandable reasons <4>, which, with a purely rational basis, and visibly supported by historical constructions, had, and still has, an immense effect on westerners. In our context this applies particularly to scientific dealings with non-European cultures which, like Japan for instance, have never been subjected to this scholastic absolutism.


The question of the relationship between the human being and space therefore has ideological consequences. In the late 1960s and early 1970s a research centre was formed in the Department of Architecture at the University of Kyoto, which could best be described as the ‘Kyoto Culture and Space Research Group’. At the time, the group was primarily interested in architectural theory as it was then generally understood in Europe, to establish a new theoretical basis for architectural and spatial planning, starting from first principles (MITSCHERLICH 1965, NORBERG-SCHULZ 1963, 1971; RAPOPORT 1969). The nucleus of the group consisted of the Chair, Professor Tomoya MASUDA (1978) and his department (KATO, TAMAKOSHI, TANAKA). They concentrated mainly on the phenomenological work of western philosophy on the subject of space (BACHELARD 1958, 1960; HEIDEGGER 1927, 1954; BOLLNOW 1963) and used this new perspective to deal with themes from architecture and art in the sphere of Japanese culture. The more flexible outer circle consisted of trained architects, mainly of European origin who, after completing their studies, had turned away from the normal career path of going into a design and planning practice, and chosen instead to devote themselves to research and teaching <5>. The works of some of these researchers today form, in the now greatly enlarged domain of architectural and spatial research <6>, a line, with strong reference to Japan, which promotes above all cultural and anthropological comparisons between the fields of architecture, space and culture. <7>.

A secondary consequence of this intensive study of Japan’s space and culture was the realisation that Japan, from a cultural-anthropological point of view, occupies a unique position for the investigation of the question of space in the cultural context. Joining the arena of continental civilisation relatively late, Japan has never been substantially colonised or converted to Christianity, so has retained an astounding wealth of agricultural traditions, whose origins can often be seen to go far back into prehistoric village cultures. In addition, Japan’s history of ideas has followed a quite different course from that of the West, as can be seen in her relationship with space. In such characteristics Japan is, in the widest sense, a tremendously valuable culture to be used in comparisons with the European situation. Indeed Japan can be used as a test bed for European cultural theories, as we hope to demonstrate when we sketch out a space theory which was of particular significance for the Kyoto group - the anthropological space of Otto Friedrich BOLLNOW. The results of the author’s investigations into ‘Sacred space in Japan’ can only be understood in terms of this fundamental theoretical standpoint.


Methodologically speaking, BOLLNOW’s book ‘Mensch und Raum’ (Man and Space) (1963) is very close to the group of philosophical works about space mentioned above, which examined various aspects of the term ‘space’ through phenomenological description. BOLLNOW however introduces a specific systematic approach to the discussion, in that he places human habitation as the centre in historical, phenomenological-anthropological and ethnological terms; this is treated as the 'fixed point', and other spaces (distance, pathways etc.) are described according to their polarised relationship with it. Man exists - or moves - within this system, and in doing so creates countless anthropological “spaces”. The distinguishing factor is that this system is no longer to be understood in abstract terms like the traditional homogeneous space of physics. It remains tangible and qualitatively linked to environmentally or culturally established conditions. The most important elements of this materially limited concept of space are the building, the house and other constructed symbols of the human “hub of the world”.

Alongside an enormous wealth of synchronic observations, BOLLNOW also introduces diachronic depths, in particular the theories that the German expression for space, ‘Raum’, had its origins in human settlement, and that the wider cosmic space was a later discovery in Europe, dating from the 14th century. For anyone who interprets the implications of space in scientific terms, these theories are in general of extraordinary significance, indeed - in the words of Thomas Kuhn - a scientific revolution. There are many indications that they are part of a trend towards an ‘implosion’ of the theoretical framework of the humanities, comparable to what has already happened in the natural sciences with regard to the term ecology. If this trend gains ground, BOLLNOW’s work might one day become one of the most philosophically important to come out of Europe in the second half of the 20th century. Since BOLLNOW sometimes gives very superficial assessments, and is even classified as ‘New Age’ (see the book’s blurb), we shall give here a summary of this extraordinarily important work. <8>

The elementary articulation of space

The etymology of the German word ‘Raum’ (‘space’) suggests that the term originally had a restricted meaning. Grimm saw it as derived from the corresponding verb ‘räumen’, to clear, in the sense of clearing a part of the wilderness with the intention of settling there and constructing a dwelling. BOLLNOW gives numerous examples of related expressions in everyday use, and shows that the word’s roots are closely linked with habitation, with the environment as ordered by man. Correspondingly the word ‘Raum’ used with the definite or indefinite article, eg. as a generalised term for the rooms of a house, is linked to buildings. Used in this way, ‘Raum’ is incompatible with places in the open air (eg. meeting places). Even when used without the article, there is a close link to the human environment, mostly in the sense of room to move in between objects. The concept of ‘Raum’ is only linked to wider meanings on a secondary level (eg. open sea, outer space etc.).

Particularly important is the knowledge of the existence of zero points and fixed points in the human concept of space. The polarity of going away from and coming back to traditional places (home), or temporary zero points (hotel room in a strange town) plays a fundamental role in the subjective system of orientation. BOLLNOW calls this the “middle of space”. <9> “When we move house, the world is redefined from the starting point of the new home.” (:58)

The basic concept of ‘fixed points’ is then dealt with in terms of the triangular relationship between the individual, society, and the hierarchical system of marking central points (home, church, market, town centre and state capital). BOLLNOW alludes to traditional concepts, which interpreted the fixed points as marking the “hub of the world” or the “world axis” (axis mundi). Concrete symbols mark central fixed points in different cultures (pillars, palaces, shrines, holy mountains). With reference to HABERLAND (1957) and BRUNNER (1957) he interprets such phenomena in polar terms as points of tension between inhabited space and surrounding chaos. In sharp contrast to ELIADE <10>, he characterises them as space within limits. This section, which deals with numerous examples of the symbolic marking of fixed points, is extremely important, as it outlines the beginnings of an ethnology of sacred space.

Another way of defining direction is by the four points of the compass, which are interpreted quite differently in different cultures (FROBENIUS 1933 - golden pillars which support the sky). With reference to JENSEN (1947) he mentions the river as a central orientation system which determines important categories on the horizontal plane (up and down, left and right) in relation to the flow of water from the mountains to lakes or to the sea. Such directional systems can at times be quite confusing to the modern mind, but they become meaningful if we consider river systems, in terms of the theory of space development, as paramount in comparison with cosmic orientation. With these descriptions BOLLNOW again gives numerous valuable tips for an ethnological research programme into the concept of space.

The wide world

Space, in the human sense, has developed with the passing of time. Enormous changes occurred around the time that modern Europe began. The poet Petrarch, in 1336, climbed to the summit of Mont Ventoux and described the exaltation of experiencing the endless expanse of sky. BOLLNOW links this crucial change to what followed: the discovery of the planetary system, the move from the geocentric world view to the cosmic, the new-found courage to sail across the oceans, to turn away from the early practice of sailing along coastlines and to brave the open sea. The results of this new awareness of space: the discovery of America and the strange traces of ideas left behind (West Indies), plus the discovery of countless distant and exotic cultures. In short: the age of discoveries.

Nowadays most people are more or less familiar with this massive shift in our way of thinking, which is of course incorporated into modern progressive thought. But hardly anyone stops to consider what this means with regard to the other side of the development, the question of accepted premises. BOLLNOW’s basic premise: man originally perceived space as closely interwoven with settlement and the history of habitation, and its meaning developed subsequently as a result of the extension of man’s spatial awareness. This might explain the fact that this new theory of space brings into question many of the idealistic or metaphysical views held in the West.

The home and the feeling of security

If the first part of his work dealt somewhat theoretically with man’s narrow spatial environment, BOLLNOW now turns to a concrete treatment of the same theme. The home is discussed; architecture comes into play. The home is portrayed as the centre of the world. The mythical image of a localised world axis has been abandoned, but the centre of the world remains to a great extent at the level of the home. Only in his capacity as a home dweller can man find his own essence and be truly human. In the general context of human existence BOLLNOW postulates the idea of the “anthropological function of the home”. Modern society has had to relearn the fact that habitation is a basic condition of humanity.

Close relationships exist between holy space and the protected space of the home. Individual and social control over the private sphere play a key role. Private space is protected by law. The home and the temple are essentially one and the same. A particularly important element in BOLLNOW’s anthropological approach to the home is the idea of the bed as the place of nightly rest. In the morning it is the point from which we set off to work in the outside world, in the evening it is the point of return after a busy day. It is the most intimate place in a house or flat. The daily cycle of departure and arrival is repeated on the level of the life cycle. Man is usually born in bed, spends the dark half of his life in bed and will die in bed. Cultural objects can be seen to be closely linked to man’s physical polarities, standing up and lying down, physical activity and rest, muscle tension and relaxation, conscious awareness of the environment and the giving up of all mental connections in sleep. All these polarised connections are significant. The transitional stages are also carefully described, for example waking up and falling asleep. Precise observations of the daily reconstruction of personal space and of its dissolution in the unconscious state of sleep make this deeply humanist book a fascinating work.

In two later chapters BOLLNOW develops two further, very important concepts, travelling space (hodological space) and ‘action space’, as well as exploring his critical anti-existentialist standpoint. We cannot go into this here however, and refer the reader to the writer’s complete account of the work (EGENTER 1992a, 1992ff vol. 2).

The decisive factor in all these descriptions is, as previously stated, the fact that space here is no longer understood as the empty abstraction of physics, but rather described in a completely new way in relation to the concretely physical, both natural and cultural. Amongst the cultural conditions referred to, architecture plays a vital role. It provides above all the semantic orientation framework within which, alternating between opposing points, the greater part of man’s daily existence is played out.

The most scientifically shocking aspect of BOLLNOW’s method is the fact that he does not actually define space. He describes the concept rather by means of countless comings together and crossings over of opposites. Anyone who is at all familiar with Japan’s culture will admit that it is precisely this aspect, the phenomenological description based on polar opposites, which makes BOLLNOW’s style eminently Japanese.

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