Book Challenges Japan to Rethink Its Future

Alan Suemori
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry swaggered into Tōkyō Bay, ushering in a new era of modernity that would change Japan forever. The shogun’s officials had never seen ships that could sail under their own power and when Perry disembarked, accompanied by a coterie of giant armed guards carrying the latest technological confections of the West, the Japanese were stunned. More importantly, Perry delivered an existential ultimatum that demanded open ports and free trade, setting the stage for the return of royal power and the collapse of the Tokugawa dynasty. The Meiji Restoration would ignite Japan’s love affair with all things Western, eventually consuming every aspect of the ancient kingdom in the volatile decades that followed.

Among the human-made totems profoundly altered was Japanese architecture. Driven by a fear that they had been left vulnerable to a dangerous world, the Japanese abandoned their most cherished traditions and prioritized speed, convenience and expedience over quality, craftsmanship and precision. At first, this infatuation with the new only affected government buildings — Japanese homes were left relatively unscathed.

By 1945, however, with Japan’s great cities in smoldering ruins and a million people left homeless by the war, providing quick and cheap shelter became the priority of urban planners and city fathers. By the 1960s, the momentum of this mad rush to the future was unstoppable and Japan was well-ensconced in an architectural race to the bottom.

This all began to change in March 2011 with the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami in Fukushima that threatened a nuclear power plant and cauterized a younger generation to consider more sustainable choices to articulate Japan’s future. Today, a small flock of architects, homeowners and craftspeople are reaching into Japan’s preindustrial past to find possible answers to resolve present-day challenges that revolve around the dwindling resources of a threatened planet. The best of their work has been documented by author Deanna MacDonald, whose book, “Eco Living Japan,” is a moveable feast of elegant photography, instructive text and helpful insets that make her book accessible to both the layperson and the professional who may be looking for inspiration and a blueprint for the way forward.

Divided into five distinct chapters, “Eco Living Japan: Sustainable Ideas for Living Green” — a Tuttle Publishing book — begins its narrative with a primer on how to invite the natural world into the home in order to create a more holistic and joyful living space. MacDonald then explores how the building principles of Japan’s distant past may hold the key to creating a more sustainable world in the future. Hardly a Luddite, the author expands the discussion to include how modern day technology can be used to embellish the impact of traditional designs. To support her assertions, MacDonald provides examples of how neglected and forgotten minka (farmhouses) and machiya (merchant houses) have been brought back to life by marrying the principles of yesterday with the technology of today.

“Eco Living Japan” ends with a coda that spotlights buildings around the world that have been inspired by traditional Japanese architecture and cultural values.

While her book overflows with the idealism and energy of what could be, MacDonald is careful to remind the reader that government policy and popular taste are still regretfully stuck in a bygone era of mindless consumerism and waste because of a myriad of complicated historical forces that are difficult to resolve. The exorbitant cost of land in Japan makes each lot more valuable than each home. Additionally, the humid, moist climate fosters a world-class menu of mold that often leaves dwellings uninsurable within three decades, making it more profitable to redevelop than to renovate. This inclination to scrap and build (tatekae) rather than restore is further enhanced by a uniquely Japanese obsession with the contemporary and the timeless Buddhist belief in the impermanence of the physical world. Moreover, Japan’s location on the Pacific Rim of Fire leaves it vulnerable to earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions that encourages homeowners to invest as little as possible in their properties for fear of throwing good money after good.

In the midst of this wilderness, MacDonald’s beautiful book is a slender cry for rethinking the entire process of building that most personal of human expressions — the family home. Starting with the initial design, the resourcing of materials, the actual construction and the eventual recycling of the entire structure, “Eco Living Japan” challenges the status quo to go far beyond the minimum requirements of current green regulations to produce attractive, environmentally consonant, affordable houses that can change the world. In the process, she suggests that the whole definition of sustainable architecture be enlarged to include the entire lifespan of the home as opposed to merely the initial construction costs.

MacDonald’s book celebrates the rediscovery of traditional Japanese principles such as shakkei (borrowed scenery), mottainai (waste not, want not) and engawa (the interface between the interior and the exterior) that are now being reused to shape a vision of a 21st century Japan that is respectful of the past, yet undeniably modern.

Using wood, paper and tatami as its basic building blocks, traditional Japanese architecture has always operated in concert with nature. Only in the recent past has this partnership been abandoned. A Japanese home was more than just shelter — it was a metaphor for the human connection to the natural world and everything from the design, to the building materials, to the construction and functionality of the structure reflected that relationship. The Japanese found beauty in simplicity, detail and adaptability, which they accentuated with unadorned, uncluttered sight lines and an autumn-tinted sensibility that would find no equal in the rest of the world. While European homes emphasized rigidity and stolidness, Japanese design prioritized flexibility, a light footprint and suppleness that underscored an intimate relationship with the surrounding environment. Most significant was the fact that the entire house could be returned back to nature or recycled into individual parts that could be reused to erect or repair nearby homes. Ironically, Japan’s precepts for traditional design and construction foreshadowed the canon of today’s sustainable, green movement, which takes the impact of climate change, pollution and scarcity into account in the final calculation of planning, shaping and maintaining a home.

Author Deanna MacDonald is hardly a wild-eyed dreamer who underestimates the breadth and depth of the changes she advocates. She grounds her book by admitting to the massive economic, political and social investments that will be needed to move the tenets of “Eco Living Japan” beyond the narrow scope of solitary show houses into the larger marketplace. But her faith in the aesthetic sensitivity and technological wizardry of the Japanese is admirable and she has made a persuasive case that their nation can be the leader of green building in the 21st century if only it will honor its past, reassess its present and reimagine its future.

Alan Suemori teaches Asian American history at ‘Iolani School. He is a former Hawai’i Herald staff writer.

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