Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 2: Japanese Bush-warbler

while I’m gone
you and the nightingale are in charge
my snail

uguisu torusu wo shite orekatatsuburi

Except that the uguisu is not actually a nightingale; it’s the Japanese Bush Warbler, Cettia diphone. It has often been translated as ‘nightingale’ because it has similar poetic associations; it is famous in Japan for its song (YouTube) which announces the arrival of spring.

Similarly, the ‘nightingale floors’ found in some Japanese castles, which are designed to squeak so that intruders can be heard, are actually uguisubari — named after the bush warbler.

Bashō has a poem about the uguisu designed to undercut its poetic image:

uguisu ya mochi ni funsuru en no saki

A bush warbler
crapped on the rice cakes
on the veranda.

» The snail poem is by Kobayashi Issa, 1807; trans. David G. Lanoue and found on his enormous archive of Issa’s haiku. The photo is © a.koto and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence. I found the Bashō poem in the World Kigo Database, where there is lots more interesting stuff about the uguisu; including the traditional use of their droppings in cosmetics (!)

Links

Samurai William by Giles Milton

William Adam was an English sailor working as a pilot on a Dutch expedition of five ships that set out in 1598 to make money in the Orient. In 1600, after a disastrous voyage during which just about everything went wrong, Adam was one of just 24 men surviving on one of the ships – the Liefde – when it reached Japan, the men too weak with starvation and disease to row ashore.

He rose to become the most influential westerner in Japan, with direct access to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the effective ruler, and was granted a court title normally given only to senior samurai. Samurai William: The Adventurer Who Unlocked Japan is his story, and the story of the early English attempts to set up a trade with Japan. It’s by the same chap as Big Chief Elizabeth, a book about the English settlement at Jamestown.

A Dutch man and a French woman

As with that book, the emphasis is on telling a good story rather than exploring the finer ethical and semiotic nuances of colonisation. Which isn’t to say that he glosses over the frequently bad behaviour of everyone involved; just that the book is pitched as entertainment.

And the stories from that period of European exploration are really extraordinary; the men in their tiny little ships sailing off optimistically into unknown waters, and ending up either fabulously wealthy or dead. Or enslaved. Or marooned. It’s like Star Trek, if instead of peaceful, multi-cultural, non-interventionist scientists and diplomats, the Enterprise had been crewed by greedy, heavy-drinking, violent, unwashed men who were only really interested in local cultures if they could make money from them or have sex with them.

» The picture is from over 200 years after the period dealt with in Samurai William, but it seemed too good not to use. It’s a detail from a Japanese woodcut of a Dutch man with a French woman, from an exhibition about the Dutch in Nagasaki on the website of the International Institute of Social History, where you can see a larger version as well as lots of other great pictures.

‘Crafting Beauty in Modern Japan’ at the BM

I went to see Crafting Beauty in Modern Japan at the British Museum last week.

The exhibition presents works by members of the Japan Art Crafts Association (Nihon Kōgeikai), many of them designated ‘Living National Treasures’ in Japan, a title conferred by the Japanese government on exemplary individuals who carry on Japanese traditions.

In other words, it was lots of contemporary – or at least C20th – Japanese ceramics, kimonos, lacquer, metalwork and so on. There’s a wide range of techniques on display; the ceramics include stuff which is artfully rough-hewn as well as things which are finished to within an inch of their life; the kimono fabrics are a mix of tie-dyed, woodblock-printed, embroidered and woven. I didn’t find the items on display universally covetable; many were just not to my taste. Many of them wouldn’t have particularly stood out in a jumble sale, to my ignorant eye. I don’t think the lighting helped, mind you; it was perfectly competently lit, but I think most of them would have benefited from natural light. Others were absolutely gorgeous.

The things that appealed most to me were the lacquer and the woven kimonos. I find lacquer an incredibly tempting material; I can’t see it without wanting to pick it up and stroke it. Even just the plainest matte red and black lacquer rice bowl is a delight; I wish now I’d picked one or two up when I was in Japan, but the good ones seemed so expensive that I didn’t. The woven kimono fabrics were made with a technique called kasuri, which is the Japanese name for what I would usually call ikat. That is, the threads are tie-dyed in advance so that they form a design when woven together. Because the colour on the threads never quite lines up precisely, it forms soft-edged patterns which I find very attractive. They were mainly dyed with indigo for that classic blue and white Japanese look.

The BM website doesn’t offer any photographs, so I can’t easily illustrate any of my prejudices, but this website devoted to Japanese pottery and this virtual museum of traditional Japanese craft have plenty of pictures of the sort of thing in the exhibition. Those sites also demonstrate that even a passionate interest in visual arts doesn’t necessarily get carried over into web design. This tea bowl is from the second of those sites:

Tea bowl, Shino ware

Generally I’m slightly ambivalent about the Japanese attitude to art and craft. One is always told that the Japanese make no distinction between the two; and in some ways I find that a deeply admirable attitude. What’s great about it is the value placed on the making of beautiful things. Not just that there is a cultural and monetary value placed on beautiful objects, but that the job of making them is treated as a serious and important business. Curiously enough, I think the closest analogue in Western culture is the respect given, not to craftsmen, but to designers – Christian Dior, Charles Eames, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Hermann Zapf – who, if not exactly household names, are still remembered in a way no hands-on practitioner is. Not that the craftsmanship of the Japanese is at the expense of being designers; they are more like designer-craftsmen in the William Morris tradition. To some extent they are even descendants of that tradition, since Morris was surprisingly influential in Japan.

I think we should all hope to live our everyday lives surrounded by well-designed and well-made things, and one part of achieving that is giving due respect to the people who design and make them. So I think that is a Good Thing. My ambivalence about it arises from the fact that actually I do think there is an important distinction between design and art. I don’t think that an earthenware sake jug, however exquisitely glazed, has the potential to be a great artwork in the same way as a Rembrandt or an El Greco. When I was living in Japan I went to few galleries of Japanese art, and a few exhibitions of ceramics, and I saw some lovely things; but I tended to think that flip-side of granting importance to craftsmen was a tendency to reduce the likelihood of producing an El Greco. All art seemed to be pitched at the level of the decorative arts. I’m wary of expressing that sentiment, because I know I’m an outsider with an extremely superficial knowledge of Japanese culture, and I think of the beautiful work of Hokusai and Hiroshige which would seem to cast doubt on my theory, but that’s how I felt.

The other slight concern is the essential conservatism that the attitude can produce. Not that Japanese culture has any shortage of modernity; but it can seem a little schizophrenic. There’s a risk that the admiration for design and craftsmanship in something like a kimono gets put into a tidy mental compartment and held separate from the manufacture of MP3 players, kettles and apartment blocks. I guess though that that tension between tradition and innovation is a separate issue, really; the important thing is to value well-made, beautiful things and not to treat them as disposable.

Anyway, I’d recommend the exhibition. And if you’re visiting the British Museum for any reason, I’d suggest having lunch at Bi-Won, a Korean restaurant on the intersection between Coptic Street and New Oxford Street. It’s very reasonably priced, the food is tasty and it’s very close to the museum.

Princess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke was on TV the other day. Like the other Miyazaki movies I’ve seen, it’s very concerned with the idea of nature spirits. The idea that every tree or rock has spirits associated with it is drawn from Shinto, of course, but it seems to have a particular resonance for Miyazaki.

I find the magical world of these movies much more attractive than, for example, Harry Potter. In the Potter books, the wizards are superhuman beings living secretly in a mundane world, holding themselves aloof from the lives of mortals except when they feel the need to play God.

Miyazaki’s characters are ordinary humans living in a magical world. They don’t get to do magic; magic happens around them and to them. They don’t get to bend the world to their will; the world is mysterious and rather inhuman. Sometimes it’s friendly and charming, and sometimes it’s hostile and scary, but it’s always other, and demanding of respect.

I think that the ordinary person in a magical world is a much more attractive dynamic. The clear environmental message intended appeals as well. But I think mostly it’s the idea of investing the world, and nature, with a sense of wonder.

I’ve commented on this strand of Japanese culture before, though from a rather different angle.

In Praise of Shadows

‘Modern man, in his well-lit house, knows nothing of the beauty of gold…’

From Junichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, an essay from 1933 discussing the importance of lighting in traditional Japanese aesthetics. The gold, the lacquer, Nō theatre, even Japanese make-up are all, he suggests, dependent for their effect on low, indirect lighting; bright light makes them look garish.

He contrasts this with a Western ideal of brightly-lit rooms, but I’m sure the same applies. We have an inherited reverence for gold and diamonds, but do they really look anything special under electric light? When I read Anglo-Saxon poetry, I imagine the gold glowing by fire and lamplight.

Fairy rocks

The Times reports today that a property developer in Scotland has had to come up with new plans for a housing estate to accomodate a large rock after locals protested that digging it up would disturb the fairies that lived there. Or possibly because Pictish kings had been crowned on it – their stories seem to be a bit mixed, but they seem to have agreed that moving the rock would be bad juju.

Given my general scepticism about all things New Age and supernatural, you might expect me to be exasperated by this. But no, I think it’s great. One of the things I really liked in Japan was that, when you went walking in the country, any prominent landscape feature – a big rock, a waterfall – would usually have a little shrine on it or by it. The shrines were extremely rudimentary – often just three bits of rock arranged into the rough shape of a torii gate, like a little tiny dolmen about a foot high – but just enough to indicate that the spot was important. This picture gives you some idea of the shrines I’m talking about, although it’s taken at Kamakura, a big temple site, not just some random bit of the Japanese countryside.

In Japan, the shrines would be to kami – Shinto nature spirits – but really, kami, fairies, it’s all the same thing. Now I don’t believe there are actually fairies or spirits living in every prominent rock or ancient tree; but the practice humanises and enriches the landscape. Just the fact that it picks out striking things and says ‘look at me’ gives a focus to the landscape. When we talk about respect for nature, it tends to be in an environmental context; respecting whole ecosystems. There’s a lot to be said for respecting your local big rock.

My uncle had a cottage in Wales. In one of the fields nearby was a standing stone. I’m not talking Stonehenge here; just a long thin rock sticking about two feet out of the ground. For all I know, it was actually put there by a couple of bored locals as a gag, but it doesn’t matter, somehow; the fact that it’s there makes the field a special place in a way no functional building would.

I think a lot of Andy Goldsworthy’s work has the same appeal – it’s the non-destructive, respectful engagement with the landscape, to give it a human aspect without de-naturing it.

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