japan: form follows fiction (the walkman and the zen garden)

(Stefano Mirti, first published on: Kindai Kenchiku, June 1999)

Yokohama, I am in one of the tea houses in Sankei-en: one of the most beautiful parks in the Tokyo area. It is a fascinating experience: few minutes ago I was in a chaotic environment, but now I am in enchanted garden. Drinking the tea, I can see through the window in front of my eyes: the wooden frame is open to a portion of the external garden. It is a very simple cut, but it allows my mind to leave the real world in order to go to a parallel universe.
Going back home, some hours later, I am in a crowded train of the Yamanote Line: my body is completely smashed, but Japanese people around me look fine. They are deeply lost in their thinking, someone is sleeping, eyes stare in the void, here and there several walkmans show up.

Walkmans in the subway and the traditional tea house: they seem a completely different Japan, but if we look at them a little bit carefully, we can find several analogies. A Zen garden and a Sony walkman are tools that allow people’s minds to move from the real world to another dimension. Like a switch: I am here, but thank to this window, to this earplug, I am moved to another dimension.
They both are very `precise` instruments, very detailed, based on a simple (but perfect) technology.
In the garden we have little trees, a stream, some stones. In the Sony product we have a plastic box, miniaturized components. The physical form is different, but the way to make them and the reason you make them are the same.
Anyway, if we live in a mass-society we can not build 122 millions Zen gardens: it is much easier and simple to set up a conceptually similar system, much more economic and practical.
To my eyes this character is very peculiar of Tokyo. A physical environment extremely rich of passages and openings to parallel worlds and dimensions. One of the strongest attributes of Tokyo is directly linked to this ambiguous relationship between `real` and `artificial`.

People in Tokyo, it is like they have a double life. In life number one, you wake up, you go to work, you work until late, you get back home. But then, there is life number two, tightly joint to the other one. You are in Tokyo, but actually you are disconnected from outer world: you might be in a crystal bubble inflated by your walkman; but it can also be a simulated golf course (or a tropical beach, or a snowy slope) on the rooftop of an hotel. You can be transformed into your favorite rockstar in a karaoke bar, you can make love to your girlfriend (or boyfriend) in a fantastic scenery chosen in a lovehotel in Shinjuku or Ikebukuro.

No other place in the world gives you so many opportunities to cross the edge between real world and artificial world. In no other city in the world, this edge is more blurred and fluid. Zen gardens like walkmans are doors to go from one world to another. Natural and artificial, real and virtual, full and empty: no one of those dicotomies is good enough to explain Tokyo life. Like a Zen garden that is natural and artificial in the same time, all the city is real and virtual at once. Full and empty don’t exist in the western meaning: there are several possible degrees that go from an extreme to another.
Tokyo is this: a system without a clear boundary between these different dimensions, an environment built through a technological idea completely different from the western one.

In the west, `technology` is the whole apparatus of knowledge that allows us to build taller and taller skyscrapers, to build longer bridges, that allows us to go to the Moon. Our idea of technology comes from a `muscular` concept, it is a matter of strength. Once we arrive in Japan, we understand that `technology` can be thought in ways (and with goals) completely different than ours. Our technological concepts of `strong` and `hard`, can be changed. We can think in terms of `soft`, `smooth`, `sensual`, `gentle` (we can say from `high tech` to `soft tech`).
Of course the Japanese have and understand the “muscular” technologies that build skyscrapers; but they never develop them. Their national cutting edge of research is elsewhere.
If you want to change the perceptive relationship between a person and the world, you can modify the world in a physical way or you can work on the lenses the person is wearing on his (or her) eyes.
If you think for a while, this is an incredibly advanced way to think about this matter.
If a westerner prefers to work on the lenses, rather than concentrate himself on the physical world, then Tokyo is the place.
The result is an extremely ambiguous city, where everything works perfectly (probably too perfectly). A superexact world, where westerners often feel a little bit dizzy and lost. This dizziness might be linked to this peculiar use of technology, apparently neutral and gentle. We can walk along a cherry tree promenade, we can spend days and days in enormeous shopping malls, we can go to Tokyodisneyland or play pacinko. It is like Alice in Wonderland, we are completely lost in a fairy tale, where there isn’t exist any violence, where everyone smiles and bows, where our senses feel sweetness and melliflousness everywhere, with our perceptions subtly distorted. The strangest feeling is this sensation of not understanding where is the frame of all this world, if there is one frame, how it is made, who made it.
From several point of views Tokyo can be seen as contemporary picture of our future living. It is a picture incredibly exciting, kaleidoscopical, like walking in the lysergic landscape of Lucy in The Sky with Diamonds. My heart is beating fast, but I can’t say why. Everything is working fine and it is fascinating, but it is one thing to listen to the Lennon & Mc Cartney song with your friends, and it is another thing to understand that your real life is played in an environment made of tangerine trees and marmalade skyes. Is it possible to go back? How do I get back?
Anyway, I have to admit that (as if it was a smooth drug that got into my mind) even if I could, at this moment I would probably not like to go back.


(image on top: Sony Walkman, 1979)

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