Material culture: a split personality


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Asia » Japan » Tokyo
March 29th 2016
Published: March 29th 2016
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The aesthethics of traditional Japan ranges from the lavish gold and ornate fine work of aristocratic traditions to the powerful simplicity of Zen Budhism but it is coherent in a tremendous attention to detail and awareness of the messages that lie beneath material culture.

Today we visited the Tokyo National Museum where we experienced some of the best of traditional art. The museum is actually a complex of six buildings set in beautiful Ueno park, with avenues of arching cherry blossoms now in full bloom and attracting huge crowds of celebrat locals. In the museum grounds there was a stunning grafted cherry with both white and red blossoms flowering simultaneously. The gallery we visited covered Japanese art from the prehistoric the Jomon period through to 19th C. It was extremely well laid out with a few manageable examples of each period and type of object. Like most major museums TNM only displays a small proportion of its collection at any time but unlike others it makes significant selections by season so among the current displaysthere were screens, ceramics, kimono and woodcuts from across hundreds of years with cherry blossoms. It was striking seeing images of people hundreds of years ago holding hanami (cherry blossom picnics) exactly like those outside. Lots of fabulous exhibits including an ancient Soga (a clay figurine believed to be a fertility goddess) from the Jomon, beautiful kimono and a special exhibition of dolls and doll house furniture some hundreds of years old and extraordinarily ornate with inlaid mother of pearl chests and tiny tea sets.

The contrast of the traditional aesthetic with the modern Japanese aesthetic couldn't be greater: from the high end shops of Omotesando to funkier Shibuya and Harajuku more is more: love hearts, garish colour, cartoon cuteness and an embracing of western tastes taken to extremes or melded in strange ways (long queues for ultra-sweet popcorn in every imaginable flavour, green tea kit Kats, cherry blossom bagels). The interest in western imagery includes English which is often quite unattached to meaning, leading to some amazing J-english. Some of this is mistranslation but other examples just seem to be a result of putting together words with no interest in syntax and very little in semiotics, the concept that words are symbols of something!

Favourite examples so far: Grilled chicken conceive, capricious salad, teste of fish, songjoymax, revolting youth, cooking of spring rain and (on a toddler's jacket!) "Most dope Paris bad ass".

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