The Emptiness of Kirei

I’ve been reading Alex Kerr’s Dogs and Demons. It’s a nonfiction work about the “dark side of Japan,” as advertised on the cover. I’ve heard it’s not one of the best books to read on the subject, but Kyle had it in his bookshelf and I had been meaning to read it.

It’s depressing. The book consists of mostly a collection of facts and trivia, which I can rely on as much as any other publication of data, but there are parts I can related to based on my own observations of the country. Unfortunately, they are numerous. The sections that ring true the most regard cities, landscapes, and environment.

The other day I was talking to Lindsay about our experiences so far here. She said with great enthusiasm that she wants to return for graduate school. I told her, as I tell everyone else, I’m looking forward to returning home…. There’s nothing here (so far) that had grabbed me and said, “This is where you need to be!” Frankly, it’s just a city.

And an ugly city at that. I am utterly unimpressed with the poor zoning, concrete covered parks and rivers, vending machines every 4 feet (6 million of them in the country), and lack of trees or noteworthy architecture. All this under a perpetual grey sky, and you don’t have much of a city as far as world cultural centers are concerned. Sure there are curiosities, but no CITY.

I’m even more upset about Kyoto, looking back. I’ve been once and have no desire to really go again. I did have an amazing experience at the temples, but temples do not a city make. People comment that Kyoto must be visited over a course of a few days, or at least more than once, to be fully enjoyed. I reply with, “Why go back, I’ve already been once.” How unfortunate is this! I actually do not want to take the effort to revisit Japan’s supposed most treasured city. Have you ever heard of someone spending a day in New York, Paris, or Rome, and then saying, That’s it, I’ve seen enough? Kyoto overall has no ambiance, no charm, no spark, save for the few temples dotted here and there amongst the concrete jungle that is the same of every other city in Japan.

Tokyo at night is a sight to be seen. Somehow the lights look spectacular and a whole new dynamic appears, along with the colorful youth and their subcultures, some entirely unique to Japan. (Maybe this is why Japan gets dark so early…. It’s only any good at night). During the day, though, Tokyo is nothing but an eyesore. There are three types of buildings you see: concrete and bland, shiny and sterile, or old and dilapidated. The latter category is fortunately or unfortunately rare, due to Japan’s tendency to remove all that is old and “dirty.” Japan does not realize that old does not necessarily mean ugly, or unusable, or uncultured. Wooden buildings and homes, such as the ones would expect to find in Kyoto, are torn down instead of refurbished, and plastic and aluminum structures are put up in their place. It’s as if no one, no architect, no city planner, no CITIZEN, stops to think, “Hey, we can update this while keeping the beauty of the Edo period alive.” Instead, Japan has to “update” everything, but it all turns into a grey mass of concrete, glass, and metal.

I mentioned before that I hate the prefabricated bathrooms most Japanese apartments have. Especially after reading this book, I’ve come to realize that everything is prefabricated, the bathrooms are just more glaringly so. Homes are cramped and uniform, everything (and I mean EVERYTHING) is wrapped in plastic, people eat more convenience store food than home-made dishes (partly due to the fact that most small apartments only have a sink in the poor excuse for a kitchen)…. Basically, there is nothing REAL.

I remember on my way to somewhere, I looked out the train window and saw a beautiful wide river and promptly snapped a few pics. Honestly there was nothing particularly special about the river; however is struck me because it was probably the first river I had seen that wasn’t lined with concrete on either side. I was so eager to see a river like this, not even realizing it was because it was the first real one I had seen since arriving. In Kyoto, Yoshiki pointed out a river where a lot of couples go to get cuddly on its banks. Instead of a treelined, romantically lit setting, it was the usual cement chute with wide sidewalks on either side. The only thing I said was, “It’s ugly.” If some guy actually tried to take me there to get romantic, I think I would laugh in his face and promptly leave. Nothing romantic about it. But there they were, scores of couples sitting on the cold banks. Has Japanese youth fallen in love with this ugliness and sterility? Where is the culture whose foundation is supposedly worshiping and protecting nature? I find it sad that these Japanese youth sitting on a concrete river accepted this place as a place to foster romance. It means they have accepted this Japan of stone and metal, not the Japan of wood and paper.

I am reminded of the first time I came to the Sophia campus. I was lost, so I hooked up with the first other exchange student and his Japanese monitor I saw to be led in the right direction. The monitor student led us into Building 2, with quite possibly the ugliest interior I have ever seen: grey floors, grey walls, grey ceiling, no color, no pieces of art, not even a single potted plant, just grey on all sides. I actually CRINGED when I entered. But the exchange student said, “Kirei!” to which the Japanese student replied, “Isn’t it? It’s new.” I was BAFFLED. Kirei means “pretty,” and I honestly almost asked what the hell he could possibly be talking about and how the student could AGREE. Unfortunately I was at a total loss of words.

Now I remember what kirei also means – “simple and clean.” It was simple and clean all right. The complete absence of color or form didn’t give much way to interest. And the Japanese student thought that it deserved fanfare for being so…. sterile. After all, straight lines, polished floors, and monochrome color schemes ARE simple and clean – therefore kirei, and therefore also pretty and pleasing to the eye. I wonder if Japanese use kirei to describe fallen leaves on a pond, twisted and moss covered boughs of an ancient forest, or the jagged craigs of a cliff getting pummeled with ocean waves, so celebrated in Japanese artwork, but destroyed, flattened, or covered in cement in real life?

Say it ain’t so, Japan.

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