Monthly Archives: March 2013

Into the World

Walking on the academic quad after the snowstorm.

Snow covered field-

Through a gap in the snow,

Green grass.

This week’s lectures focused primarily on Japan’s relations with the world, and how that changed with the arrival of foreigners (for a second time), in the mid 19th century. Japan was forced to “become a part of the world space rather than the definition of space itself” (Inouye, 106). This was seen in class by the comparison of the grand view in Versailles to the one of the Sumiyoshi pine, which purposely blocks the view of the garden. The difference I feel is that, from the Versailles view, you see all, but at the same time you see nothing; although the general picture is seen, the little details in the plants, their arrangements and the life that surrounds them cannot all be seen from one stance. By being forced to go through the garden to see it, a moment is created with everything you interact with, rather than just looking at it from a cool distance. Furthermore, I found it sad for Japan to transition from the lyrical moments of utsusemi and Bashō’s ‘sound of water’, fleeting moments in existence, to the nationalistic “Tenno Heika, Banzai” (Inouye, 111). By being forcibly integrated into the world at large, it seems as if it was necessary for Japan to swallow this bitter nationalistic pill and become a colonizing power itself, lest it be taken over by the Europeans or Americans. It seems as if the Japanese needed to make an identity for themselves to relate to the “other”, the non Japanese that was now affecting the land in a way that had never happened before. Izano Nitobe’s work, “Bushido: The Soul of Japan”, claims that “unformulated, Bushido was and still is the animating spirit, the motor force of our country” (Inazo Nitobe, 139). I do not particularly agree with him on this point, however. The Samurai only came to prominence during the Kamakura Shogunate, established in 1185. Before that period, the cultural makeup that resonated in the country did not stem from Bushido or the Samurai, but from the established Buddhist monasteries and the nobility in Kyoto, as well as from native Shinto. To summarize “Japan” as simply “Bushido” is, in my view, a neglect of all that came before it, ignoring the fundamental base of the conflict between evanescence and form. Moreover, I found the references to rice being “sacred… [as] Amaterasu obtained the best rice seeds…” (Inouye, 108) particularly interesting. It is as if rice moves from being this very concrete source of sustenance, to an abstract embodiment of the new Japan. Although it was probably regarded as a sacred food in times past, it status was ‘asserted’ as such by people Aizawa Seishisai. The move from non symbolic to symbolic added and altered some of the basic concepts that we studied in the previous weeks; the “land” of Japan, and not the unique space, was seen as holy/sacred. Imperial ambitions derived partially from the fact that Japan was perceived by the some to be “The head of the world.” (Inouye, 107).

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Change is changing

Sitting in South Hall, I looked out the window at the stormy whether outside and in the dark room, I thought about the challenges my life was presenting me.

The trees are moaning.

Rain falls from the sky to ground,

And the world is gray.

Throughout this course, evanescence has held similar meanings and representations.  Japan’s transition from here-and-now to the Transcendental Order showed evanescence changing for the first time.  Evanescence changed from being focused on impermanence and form to progress (Lecture 7/15).  This shift develops because Japan now has a global existence rather than a local existence.  By competing with the other powers in the world, Japan’s views changed as they see the main difference between all the countries being progress and a lack thereof.  More shocking to me than this was the emperor’s new role brought in an idea of an unchanging and lasting essence (Inouye 111).  For Japan to accept something as permanent seemed to go against the ideology I had known them to have.  This seemed to me as if Japan was becoming less Japan.  What made me rethink this thought was bushidō, the way of the warrior.  Bushidō, written by Nitobe Inazō, is a book that explains and defines Japan as the way of the samurai.  Most interestingly to me is that Nitobe compares bushidō to chivalry (Inazō 34).  As a competitive person, I define and compare myself to what is around me.  In a similar way, Nitobe is defining the essence of Japanese character with another type of character from a prevalent society.  By using another existence to decide what makes oneself different was a concept all too familiar to me.  This made me realize Japan’s westernization was just another example of evanescence, yet its retention of form still made it Japan.  In fact the comparison to other cultures made it all the clearer how Japan is Japan.

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“That’s your word for it? Alright, then I feed my ship ‘Kami’ to make it go.” -Comm. Perry

Nothing this week.


In order to best encapsulate my response to this week’s readings, I’d like to revisit the important milestones of Japanese modernization, but from my own perspective. The stage is set with an evanescent Japan and a choir warmly chanting “you suck, I suck, we all suck.” Comm. Perry walks on stage and tilts his head to listen. A look of bewilderment crosses his face as he addresses the chorus. “Haha what? No. No that’s crazy. Have you seen my magic iron boat? Or the sections of the world I’ve conquered with it?” And suddenly, a look of hunger enters into his eyes. (Inouye, 106) Stage right, a worried Aizawa walks forward and addresses the chorus. “No, hey, guys. We don’t suck. THEY do. They’re a bunch of asses. We’re perfect.” (Inouye, 108) And then more men (Robun, Okakura, Kuki) walk on stage and drown each other out, some addressing the chorus, and some the Comm. (Inouye, 104, 118, 122)  Until Notibe’s voice breaks the din*. He speaks to Perry, but does so loud enough that the chorus can hear. “My dear sir, I do believe frank that our exchange of vocabulary gestated in an entirely unsatisfactory manner. We don’t suck, nor have we EVER sucked. We’re just like you. We use symbols and valued chivalry.  And hey- remember Feudalism?” And while he berates Perry with poems from every Western poet, a small group of exquisitely dressed men listen in, wringing their fingers. They break out a pack of pastels and begin furiously drawing a portrait on a half-blank canvas. FADE OUT. *(The copy of Bushido I used doesn’t have page numbers. I was referencing when Notibe expresses the entirety of Shinto as a symbolic religion of “loyalty” and “piety,” his comparison to the honor of “knighthood,” and his implication that Bushido is dying out in the same way Chivalry did.)

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Friday I went on a walk around the campus in the snow and was moved by the children sledding down the hill, so light in their play.

Children laugh,

playing in each other’s belonging.

The wind freshens.


This week we focused on the rapid change Japan took into modernity. This is the first time I’ve seen symbolism and conceptualization so highlighted in this class. But I guess this is the way it happens as time unfolds. When I was a kid, I was care free; I was not embarrassed to do something strange and I didn’t pay any attention to what others thought of me or even what I thought of myself. But this all changed around probably the 4th or 5th grade, when I guess I began to pay attention to other people were doing and how they were doing it and thus became aware of myself. I could say I started to think of, or conceptualize, myself against them; this continued to sharpen as I grew older. This is what I feel Japan went through. The way I see it, animism provided them with child-like awareness of not knowing the difference between self and other. Buddhism introduced symbolic conceptualization; but this conceptualization was about what beyond this realm. During this shift into modernity, we see the conceptualization of the self. It was their encounter with the other that moved them to encapsulate themselves in symbols, to define in order to know and demarcate their place in this larger world. Nitobe was a writer who embarks to define the Japanese nation, making the argument that all Japanese are Samurai (Inuoye 3/6). He writes, “What Japan was she owed to the samurai. They were not only the flower of the nation, but its root as well”( Nitobe p.159). This is because Bushido had “ furnish[ed] a moral standard for the whole people” (Nitobe p.163). But what I find strange is that Nitobe wrote this devotion to morality for a foreign audience. In doing this, Japanese morality and therefore its identity is being shared and adopted by “the other”. I wonder what this does to the Japanese identity and how will it influence future Japanese identity. It feels that by the other becoming more like the self, the line between the two becomes blurred. Perhaps, in full circle, this means becoming once more like a child.


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Bushido and the new order

I was on my way home Friday night, and saw a puddle reflecting light from the house and trees.

Branches of the tree

Reflection of the house

Shimmering in the puddle

Meiji period Japan witnessed a dramatic shift from nonsymbolic reading of the world to an era full of symbols. (Lecture 3/6) As we discussed earlier, Japanese modern identity started to form long before Meiji period, but I think the 19th century is more about the presentation of this modern national identity to the world, or more specifically, to the western intruders. The presentation is an attempt to connect a domestic order of here-and-now to the new world order. (Inouye 106) How I read Meiji period is that it is when Japanese start to find the balance between adapting to the new world and resisting to become colonized. The book Bushido, written in English by Japanese, was an example of this attempt. I was greatly impressed by the accuracy and the persuasive power of Nitobe’s language. Also I have noticed that in the book he constantly draws parallels of western thoughts or historical events to Japanese ones. On the one hand, Nitobe tries to show the similarity of two cultures, suggesting that Japan and the western world do share some essential values. On the other hand, however, the book emphasizes the uniqueness of Bushido as the soul of Japan, which I read as a warning telling the west that Japan, as a nation embracing the spirit of “Fighting Knights”(Nitobe 9), will refuse and resist to be colonized. Then he explains the core values of Bushido with great details, namely, masculinity, the sense of shame and  honor, duty of loyalty, and absolute obedience to the command of higher voice (Nitobe 37). He also gave examples of Japanese spiritual culture that had been misunderstood by the west, among which is the tea ceremony, which we also discussed in the class. (Lecture 3/6) In his words, the Cha-no-yu is not merely a ceremony, but fine art, and poetry,  (Nitobe 27) which represents the Japanese belief that the best way to do things is always the most economical, and the most graceful. (Nitobe 25) We can see that tea ceremony, the rice (Inouye 109), things that were not read as symbols, turned to symbols pointing to the superiority of Japanese culture and other abstract ideological concepts in Meiji period. Another point interested me is the idea of passivity in Bushido, which I think was rooted from Japanese understanding of evanescence.

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Modernization and Progress

Sarah Marakos

I was on my way to South Station Friday night, and when we were passing over the Charles River, I could only see the buildings and the water in the darkness of the night.

A brief view of the city skyline

Reflects against the water—

The train is pulled underground.

Once I finally grasped the concept of nonsymbolic meaning of things, we start learning about the symbolic world that Japan slides into with its modernization. Shinto becomes a form of monotheism, and the emperor is the symbol of the nation. “Largely by way of this apotheosis of the emperor as an unchanging and lasting essence of the nation, Japanese political culture gained a stable, authoritative point of view and, therefore, a perspective on the world by which the struggling nation could systematically express and extend the unified and unifying truth of its own culturally correct version of modernity.” Japan moved from the idea of local space to national space. (Inouye 111). At first frustrated with the contradictions, I now understand this concept best with the pictures of the two gardens. The Japanese view used to be like the garden where you have to see one thing at a time and walk through the garden to experience it. Now, with its modernization, Japan shifts more toward the view of the garden at Versailles, where you can see everything at once from one spot. Change should come as no surprise at this point because the world is always changing- evanescence just like we have seen over and over again. However, this is sort of a “new kind of evanescence”. Instead of things always changing in the same way, they are now changing but progressing. “Unlike evanescence in general, it has a specific direction. Progress expresses intention. It is pointed.” (Inouye 105). Now the Japanese saw themselves in the context of the rest of the world and were forced to modernize to keep up. However, with this Western influence, I am glad Japan still kept some of its original cultural values. The values and form in Japan will never die, according to Nitobe. “Chivalry is a flower no less indigenous to the soil of Japan than its emblem, the cherry blossom; nor is it a dried-up specimen of an antique virtue preserved in the herbarium of our history…The conditions of society which brought it forth and nourished it have long disappeared; but as those far-off stars which once were and are not, still continue to shed their rays upon us, so the light of chivalry still illuminates our moral path, surviving its mother institution.” (Nitobe 33).

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Western Influence


I was taking a study break outside Tisch and I looked out over the President’s lawn.

Tall bare trees

Extend countless twisting branches

Into the clear dusk sky


This week we learned about the modernization and westernization of Japan. When Japan was opened to the West, the cultural mentality had to shift from Japan as the world, to Japan in the world (Lecture 3/6/13). I found it very interesting to learn about how assimilating into the world changed everything from perspective, art, government, to even evanescence and form. The most drastic change that occurred was the shift in evanescence from samsara to progress (Lecture 3/6/13). Evanescence as progress differs from samsara in that the change has “a specific direction” (Inouye 105). This change was made to accommodate the fact that Japan needed to modernize to catch up with the rest of the world. Evanescence became linear, change became “either progress or regression” (Inouye 95). I found this concept somewhat contradictory. To me, it seems like form is being imposed on evanescence. We are helpless to evanescence, but instead as accepting it as just change, we categorize it on a linear scale (from regression to progress). I also thought this shift was sad in a way. Before Japan opened up to the rest of the world, its culture evolved in its own unique way. The Japanese were focused on the order of here-and-now, but the influence of the West put sights more on the future and things that are not present. I found this sad because I think that focusing solely on the present was a beautiful notion as the present moment is all we really have. However, even with western influence, Japan still kept much of its uniqueness. Inazo Nitobe tried to explain Japan’s uniqueness to the West in Bushido: The Soul of Japan. In it, Nitobe described bushido or “the way of the warrior.” It emphasized “justice, courage, benevolence, politeness, sincerity, honor, loyalty, practical education, and self-control” (Inouye 115). Bushido remained part of the Japanese mentality even though the country was going through drastic changes. In fact, bushido is still influential in Japan. In this way, I see bushido as a kind of form that resisted evanescence. In the past, all samurai lived by bushido and breaking from this form was looked down upon: “Nothing is more loathsome to him [samurai] than underhand dealings and crooked undertakings” (Nitobe 46). While evanescence itself was changing, the Japanese still recognized the importance of form and lived by a strict code. Overall, Japanese culture is still very different from that of the West. My favorite description of the differences between the West and Japan was Nitobe’s comparison of the rose and sakura. The Europeans find the rose beautiful while it hides thorns “as though loath or afraid to die rather than drop untimely; preferring to rot on her stem” (Inouye 115). The Japanese find sakura beautiful “which is ever ready to depart life at the call of nature” (Inouye 115).

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Assimilation Nation

On Friday, I watched a square foot of snow slide off one of the eaves of West Hall and land on a student.

Shifting glacier

Pouring over black edges ―

A wet scream.

This week, we learned how the Japanese coped with the changing world. As we have learned over the past couple of weeks, Japanese culture is very different from western culture. There are rules, structures and formulas that don’t exactly line up with western values. One of the greatest examples of these inherently Japanese values is bushido, or the way of the samurai. Bushido was a strict code of honor that dictated how the noble warrior class of Japan behaved in all situations. The code was documented by Inazo Nitobe in his English-language text, Bushido: The Soul of Japan. In it, Nitobe makes a record of the ancient behavioral law with various examples and observations. In one instance, he describes the formalism of seppuku, in which a condemned samurai, after giving a speech, “stripped naked down to the waist…tucked his sleeves under his knees to prevent himself from falling backward…then stabbed himself deeply below the waist on the left-hand side…drew the dirk slowly across to his right side…never mov[ing] a muscle of his face” (Bushido 109-110). In another, he conveys a retainer’s loyalty when the sacrifice of the retainer’s own young son in the place of the son of his master causes the retainer to “rejoice…[for his] darling son has proved of service to his lord” (78). Both examples of bushido draw horrified reactions from Western readers, but are well-understood by even present-day Japanese, as the principles behind them are inherently Japanese (Inouye 87). However, as Japan moves towards the modern age, cultural forms like bushido begin to clash with the changing times. In the 18th century, new rules and regulations were set forth by the Tokugawa Shogunate in order to preserve a hard-earned peace (Inouye 3/6). However, these new laws (for example, the banning of freely-carried swords) conflicted with the ancient code of the samurai. The most striking example of this conflict is the struggle between the retainers of Asano Naganori and Kira Yoshinaka. The retainers followed the noble and ancient code of bushido by violently avenging the death of their master, thereby breaking the new rules set forth in a time of peace (Inouye 86-87). As a result, they are executed, but permitted to commit seppuku to die with honor, because they acted honorably according to the ancient laws. This schism between longstanding Japanese values and the changing world becomes more and more pronounced as Japan is bombarded by foreign powers, and the only way to to evade colonization is by adapting and integrating western culture with their own. As we enter the Meiji era, the old ways of Japan become form, while the country’s adaptive shifts become evanescence. However, Japan “respond[ed] positively to outside influence…as a result of its own well-established base” (Inouye 103). The Japan that most people in the West envision today is representative of the mixture that occurred with the flood of Western culture (Inouye 103), and the deeper, older undercurrent of ancient, formal Japanese culture is often overlooked by mass media. But that undercurrent still persisted through the Western influence. As previously noted, the Japanese once saw China as the source of culture and learning. However, while the Japanese and Chinese had similar cultural roots, the Western influence was completely different. Japan played subservience to foreigners for a long time, with the Japanese changing their manners and styles of dress, and accepted modernity as inevitable (Inouye 3/6). But despite continuous outside influences descending on Japan, the Japanese values of rectitude, courage, benevolence, politeness, sincerity, honor, loyalty and self-control (Bushido) remained constant. Japanese form persisted through the evanescent cultural changes caused by foreign invasions.

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The Way of the Nation as the Way of Warrior

I was walking through the snow last Friday and stepped in a giant puddle on the side of the road.

Wind whipping coats
Water soaks through shoes

An example of Japanese westernization.

Japan’s westernization under the Meiji brought more than a new style of dress to the people; it also fundamentally changed Japan’s perspective of its place in the world. While under the Tokugawa rule, Japan was the world—now Japan was in the world, and citizens were forced to think of themselves relative to people from other nations and cultures. (Lecture, 3/6/13). I found it profoundly interesting how a worldview like this could resonate in the art world, too. Though early attempts at representing perspective were less than polished, Japanese artists began to modify their style to reflect more of the singular power of Versailles and less of the joy of discovery in the Katsura. This paradigmatic shift was not entirely new, though. Inouye mentions how, “rather than focus on bubbles drifting haphazardly upon the river of change, the rhetoric of progress comes to fixate upon the current itself” (Inouye text, 105). Japanese people were well-versed in the power and frustration of evanescence, but now they could focus that attention to change in a specific direction of progress. Form was a difficult idea to give up, too, as Nitobe describes how the formulaic aspects of bushidō still remain in the hearts and minds of Japanese citizens today. I have to disagree with Nitobe on one point, though. He contrasts bushidō with Christianity, arguing  that, “having no set dogma or formula to defend, [Bushido] can afford to disappear as an entity; like the cherry blossom, it is willing to die at the first gust of the morning breeze” (Bushidō, 153). Is it simpler to disseminate the messages of a book rather than local oral traditions? Sure it is—hence why Christianity was popularized so rapidly. However, I do not think you need a seminal dogmatic work to have a pervasive social structure endure through the future. Like it or not, bushidō is not likely to leave the hearts and minds of the Japanese people anytime soon. In the end, though, you cannot pin bushidō, the cherry blossom, or any other symbol on Japan—because just when you think you have it right, something changes and you’re brought back to the floating world of evanescence.

~Ezra Dunkle-Polier

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Western influence :(

Exploring the Mystic Lakes at high velocity with a friend clinging to my back.

Snow banks
Turn to puddles
Winter’s passing

The move above the line this week left me disappointed. (Lecture 3/6) I feel so attracted to the non-symbolic relationship traditional Japan had with the world due to its contrast with Western symbolism. All of the “progress” that I have made towards a more positive and present existence is undone by the “kind[s] of change that will later be called ‘progress.’” (Inouye 92) Observed from a traditional evanescent mindset, however, how long could that culture possibly last? Was it not inevitable that “lyricism [became] patriotism… and evanescence [was] channeled into increasingly linear paths of development so that all change becomes either progress or regression.” (Inouye 95) Despite it’s geographic separation and carefully managed interactions between Japanese and foreigners, the Western influence hardly failed to taint Japanese culture. (Lecture 3/6). Despite my chagrin for the change, I recognize the transformative properties induced by the outside influence: eroticism, obligation, and physical places of symbolism. The Ryounkaku in particular is a beautiful concept, with each room symbolising a separate country. The moment the ‘big picture’ view of Tokyo was mentioned, I knew I had to see it in my lifetime. I have always been infatuated with the distortion that occurs at the horizon. Childhood trips to the beach had me questioning the perverse meeting of the ocean and the sky, and I wonder now if this indicates a skewed temptation to see what lies beyond. If you are always concerned with the allure of the horizon, how can you possibly be present in the moment? As mentioned before, I am working to improve presence and practice hedonism. This has come at the cost of my discipline. I need to work again to regain it, without “[going] too far. It can well repress the genial current of the soul. It can force pliant natures into distortions and monstrosities.” (Inazo 110) Balance is hard!

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