a masochist in tokyo

Thursday, June 15, 2006

with so little time left in the program, i've been asked to reflect on that which i feel i need to accomplish in the time i have left. japan is something otherworldly to me even now, but to wake up in the morning and EXPECT this place has been a transformative experience. i've never wanted to move somewhere so much in my entire life. i have to consider that i'm viewing the country through a narrow lense, surely colored by the relative control a university imposes on the concept of "real life," but it stands that my reactions to my temporary home have been positive. so, having seen what i have and having begun to understand its implications on where i see myself heading as both a designer and a citizen of earth, whatever that means...what next? what are my expectations for the rest of the program? difficult to say. on the one hand this is and has always been an academic program, and the workload has certainly been considerable (and reason enough for delays in blog posting, though i'm sure others managed to be more diligent than i by virtue of their project). however i wouldn't say that i am coming from it without some sort of personal reconstruction of values. japan's inherent homogeneity pushes an atmosphere of isolation on the "other," in this case me...however its liberating in a certain sense to have that isolation without a sense of fear. i approached japan with excitement, expecting absurdity from a multitude of directions, but a cultural meme that wasn't dissimilar to my own. i've found it to be the opposite...life if a mirror image of home, that mirror cracked and distorted by the history that westernization attempted to mask. it's not japan that's dissimilar, it's the japanese...born of generations of history only (relatively) recently allowed to mingle with culture i consider my own. in a lot of ways, i find the manner that they have reconstituted western customs to be preferential to that of the actual west, though i will never forget that the personal and social control here is a result of a relative lack of freedom comparative to home.

My project attempts to cast a humorous eye on the concept of assimilating one’s self into another culture, here specifically referencing Japan. As an outsider, travel to a foreign country opens us up to a certain amount of scrutiny, and we become (intentionally or not) a representation of the whole of our home country. In Japan, with so many historically and culturally relevant values and customs, it requires more work to fit one’s self comfortably into this environment. My project surrounds personal experiences that I’ve had retrofitting my sense of self and the way I was raised into this new setting, using Menato-ku ward as template for the whole of Tokyo (and in a broader sense, Japan). Through personal anecdotes repurposed as tips and with a generous dose of sarcasm, I’ve attempted to outline certain experiences a foreigner might have on these shores, with highlights given to both things to avoid and things to attempt. Japan is, in a sense, thoroughly westernized, but there are key remnants of their past values that distort and change that westernization into something wholly unique and Japanese. As such, things that might otherwise have been quantifiable for a “gaijin” such as myself become themselves alien, unfamiliar. My own work has largely surrounded these sorts of experiences, or rather my reactions to the world as it unfolds around me. At home, there are at least “safe zones” that represent a return to normalcy, a reprieve from the absurdities of daily life. Japan, by necessity, has provided no such comfort area, and my reaction has been suitably amplified in response. I often work with humor because it is a great equalizer, and in this project the humor is focused on the actions (both positive and negative) of a fictional character, the “nameless gaijin.” I would imagine he might represent any of us, though he directly correlates to my own experience. My piece utilizes a heavily stylized form of illustration that is, in a sense, an amalgam of American and Japanese influences, which I’m certain speaks to the heart of the workshop’s intentions. The piece forms a booklet, and in that booklet is housed a supplementary cd that features a recording of similar materials to that covered in the main piece. The host of this recording is the aforementioned “nameless gaijin,” using my own voice to represent his, but with the intention of mocking the bouncing cadence of typical instructional cds. It carries with it the same thematic goal of the book itself, but rather than bulleting the information it takes the form of more of a dictation. In this way one gets the feeling of being led through several scenarios that might be encountered in Japan, with the appropriate actions spelled out for the listener in a tongue-in-cheek fashion. The purpose of the project is not to provide serious instruction, but rather to ease the reader into understanding the absurdity of living abroad and to relate through personal experience certain facets of Japanese culture that might prove alien.

Monday, June 05, 2006

my project has forced me to editorialize my experience here...in a sense, reconstituting what i've seen and done and distilling it into a couple pages of hammy "survival tips," for all its inherent disposability, has made me more cognizent of the whole of what i've done. it's not something i would have expected upon mounting the project, but i wouldn't say its entirely unwelcome. casting such a critical eye on something that superficially might be enlightening has made me a little cross at points, but the real surprise is how hungry i've become to delve deeper into the abyss. i don't claim to be any kind of cutural or social anthropologist, and i'm not the most articulate when it comes to reassembling sense experience into something someone might be interested in reading, but i do find myself wanting to test the limits of the fascination i've had and continue to have with the machinations of the japanese machine. after all, this program has been designed with the intention of allowing students of disparate backgrounds to share the effects of globalization and culture shock on one another.

Monday, May 29, 2006

thinking through my project has brought me to a couple of philosphical roadblocks. i think i know where i'm going with my message, and i think i have a vessel through which to deliver my message, but i'm a little battered by the thought that i'll have a to distill an enormous collection of thoughts and responses to a couple of pages of booklet (poster?) and a cd of noise. any representation of a culture brings with it a necessary paring of certain details...it creates its own stereotype, regardless of one's attempt at honest representation. i tried to sidestep the issue by making it less extroverted and more introverted, a single person's experience focused in on the difficulties inherent in a language difference. still, i found my project to be scattered. i don't know where i came to the conclusion, but i find myself leaning toward the idea of letting the outsider be aware of what they have to face. coming from a position of relative uncertainty about everything i see, the idea of letting someone in my position know what they are going to have to deal with is of some interest to me. at present i see my project falling under the heading of "how to confuse an american." in this way i have a proper vehicle to lay out certain expected elements and let the viewer understand what being a a gaijin in japan really means for you. language, culture and social absurdity are the order of the day, and a step by step guide to this culture shock could be an interesting thing to witness. i don't necessarily see it diverging too much in the media component from what i had planned, a noise collage is a nice mental prep for being totally lost within the cacophony that is tokyo and its many prefectures. understand that you are going to be overwhelmed every day. let it sink in. curse a lot. then get over it.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

if we are to understand tokyo as the flaming center of japan's look to the west, then the area of kyoto we explored represents nothing less than the polar opposite of that, an insular community that feeds on itself for its culture and heritage. most of kyoto is not like what we experienced...but what we did see and feel was "old japan." this is in stark contrast to the kinetic energy of japan's center of industry, and purely represents the strange dichotomy that exists throughout the whole of japan. the temples and valleys and simple but bold architecture calmed me in ways that i never would have thought i would experience in japan given where i've spent the bulk of my trip. where tokyo is all push and pull, the ryokan and the temples visited in kyoto and nara represented stillness and acceptance. the most elaborate of structures exuded a sense of peace, along with a silence uncharacteristic of the bustling metropolis. and yet, like elsewhere in japan, there is a strange sense that everything you see is guided by the hand of man...that here, there is no accident, no unshaped beauty. everything, even the most peaceful and earthy elements have been manipulated to create what ritchie refered to as the japanese concept of nature. for the japanese, he says, nature is not by chance but by choice, and through manipulation reaches its potential. i saw seemingly natural elements throughout the temple areas and gardens, trees, rock formations, and the like. however, the trees were too perfect, creating (for a western eye) unnatural geometric shapes, becoming architecture of a sort to support and enhance the main structure they surround. the rocks were shaped to represent mountain formations and to facilitate eye movement around a carefully created stream. even the trees in the distance on the mountain had the odd peculiarity of not having their leaves start until very high on the trunk...had those at one point been pruned and formed into those shapes? for someone like me, it became impossible to tell what had been enhanced and what had been left alone...i just began to assume at one point or another everything in that place had been touched by man. in that context, that which is intended to calm and enlighten in the japanese culture isn't a nature that exists of its own volition...those are only elements. the work and hardship that goes into creating a peaceful garden is a metaphor for the whole of japan, i think. even moments of serenity are carefully calculated and controlled.

Sunday, May 21, 2006


i can understand putting restraints on a project as broad as that of "neighborhood narratives." giving us certain boundaries results in something managable from both sides, the student and the teacher. with 6 weeks to complete a project, concept to execution, a framework allows for a starting point. and with as broad as this project seems like it will be, that framework may be all we have as a nesting ground for our concept. making minato-ku our playground makes logical sense.

so why is it that the first thing that comes to mind for my project is something best handled in jiyugaoka??

minato-ku encompasses a wide range of areas, from the space surrounding temple to roppongi and everything in between. what makes those areas different from jiyugaoka is in their inherent urbanization. what i want to capture in my project at this stage is the rush of being overwhelmed, being inundated with images and markings foreign to my mind, the feeling of having indecipherable branding and language shoveled into my head in such a densely populated space. minato-ku has that at points, but the overall feeling (especially in roppongi) is of a posh and post-modern take on new york. very hip, but very sterile as well. shibuya opens up a bit, its sheer density adding a distinctive and surreal feel to an otherwise very urban environment. jiyugaoka was my first impression of tokyo, and i would argue it remains yet my most vivid, and not even because of my proximity to it. cars are almost an afterthought here. it exists as a hyperactive network of side streets and alleyways, with the train station as the hub, within which it seems to create its own kind of perpetual motion. not like shibuya's mass hysteria, mind you, but rather more of an ocean wave of people on foot or bike, existing as one and the same with the rest of tokyo but having a distinctive color. where my project concept emerged was through bearing witness to the barrage of colors and shapes in the first few days of being here, and finding myself getting winded. i wanted to capture the moment i stopped being in awe of this place as a livable construct and began to feel oppressed/liberated by it.

at first, i found no equivalent experience in minato-ku. no oversaturation of language, fewer instances of sheer visual vomit, good, bad and indifferent. what i began to realize was that my experiences were being had on a smaller scale, that it wasn't the bigger picture of being in japan that was causing this feeling in me, but the day to day mishaps and revelations. for example, operating a cooking device i'd be able to use without incedent in the states and finding myself unable to break the language barrier. so i thought about what happens when one transposes their experience with something they might recognize in from home with the equivalent thing here, how it becomes more oppressive despite the built in familiarity. i chose my block in minato-ku for its corner shops and convenience stores, rudamentary parts of city life, but by definition more difficult to navigate and slightly more frightening from the outside looking in. i'm noticing bad design everywhere here because i can't read the information, a factor that colors its recognition in the states. in that respect, the language barrier is liberating, as i become unconcerned with message and totally focused on form. as i experiment with different means of showing this in my project, i've toyed with the idea of creating an appropriately cacophonous sound collage for my media component, letting the messages and marketing and underlying cultural meme overlap and create something (for lack of a better term) relentless.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

what i've felt so far in reading a lateral view is a sense of detachment and observation, a certain reverence for the subject matter. richie obviously loves japan for a number of reasons, perhaps foremost among them his notion of japan bringing old world asian sensibility into an increasingly westernized template of society. he talks about their notion of time and structure, the idea that nature isn't natural until it has been fashioned by the hand of man, alluding to a symbiotic relationship that renders unaffected natural things (man included) as "invisible." i found his ideas interesting, certainly. and i do think that there is a kernel of truth in the idea that this is a people and society that, while increasingly borrowing culture from the west, dilutes and changes it by adding to it built in ideology from a distant past (not to mention a control dictated by the shades of a former police state). however, i think a lot of what he mentions here is a bit too romantic for its own good. he may be speaking candidly about the whole of japan, but it is a little more difficult for me to sit in downtown shibuya and see much of the old world (if i can sit at all...much of downtown tokyo is perpetual motion). plus there is a marked difference between the vestiges of old tokyo and the new generation that is poised to inheret the city. the japanese men in suits that form the landscape of the train system may indeed think of themselves as natural and conforming to their environment, but the youth of the city is different. they speak on the trains, they party, they dress in fashion ranging from americanized to interstellar. one gets a real sense from observing the kids in harajuku that they have been born into a lessening need for communion with the group and an increasing need for individuality, perhaps a byproduct of international communication tools like the internet giving them a glimpse of what is outside their fair island. ritchie mentions again and again that everything in japan is deliberate and controlled, and thus tranquil as a result. i'm sure some case could be made for these youth choosing designated spots for their counterculture revolution, but regardless of the location, what exists here isn't tranquility, but rather an exhilarating sense of chaos.