In a Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree
According to a 2016 article in the The Japan Times there are currently eight million unoccupied places of residence in Japan and in further prediction this number is set to increase to one third of all properties by 2033—a staggering twenty million unoccupied homes. Once the most expensive real estate market in the world, Japan now bears the hallmarks of dystopian decline with the economic and property downturn, giving rise to a glut of ghost houses peppered mostly throughout regional areas. Factors such as an aging population, Chinese investment, urbanisation, widespread bank foreclosures and natural disasters have all contributed to a flailing property market and with few potential buyers or tenants many real estate offices no longer bother to advertise the vacant dwellings on their books. Costs associated with demolition often prove prohibitive to owners and arcane property laws mostly prevent councils from intervening. The detailed photographic records kept by agents of unoccupied homes have become the portent unofficial archives of this phenomenon of human retreat and despair.
These ghost homes have now come to haunt Japan as a subject of great concern to central government and the question of resolution a pervasive topic of cultural debate. In Japanese folklore there is a substantive catalogue of ghosts, goblins and spirits (yōkai) associated with the home. The tsukumogami are ghosts of aged and discarded domestic objects that had once given faithful service to humans. Clocks, brooms and lanterns in their ninety-ninth year transform into supernatural beings that seek to sabotage the households of their former custodians who have abandoned them. In other folkloric figures there is a metaphorical allusion to the idea that household disharmony and neglect manifests to collect in the corners of a room like dust, permeate walls and congeal on the ceiling. Those who fail to maintain housekeeping duties are to expect late-night visitations from such characters as The Ceiling Licker Tenjoname, or the bathroom grime ghoul Akaname. While for contemporary Japan and Western audiences these protagonists are recognised more commonly as Manga and Anime characters but through them the concept remains constant that: the home is a psychic space where consideration must be given to spirit of all things—animate and inanimate.
The nightingale floor or Uguisibari is a type of floorboard in Japan specifically designed to creak when walked upon. The flooring was used in some palaces, temples and hallways (such as Kyoto’s Nijo Castle) as a security device—with the intent of alerting a sleeping resident to an approaching intruder. Under foot, the angled nails in the floorboards rub against the support beams below, producing a frequency said to mimic the call of a chirping bird. The sequencing, tone, melody and tempo are all near identical to that of the Japanese bush-warbler or uguisu, thus the name uguisubari. The uguisu is a reclusive and unremarkable-looking bird that is held dear by the Japanese for its evening song that represents the seasonal shift to spring.
The two sounds operate as a sonic homonym: though vastly different in origin and semiotic representation. It is interesting to consider whether the warbler sounds like a creaking floorboard or the floorboard sounds like the bird? While I doubt the two have ever met; they curiously orbit each other in the same sonic space. Should they ever convene, I wonder how that conversation might unfold and whether their dialect would impede any meaningful exchange.
Watering a flower
In 1983 Japanese homeware retailer MUJI commissioned Haruomi Hosono, of the pioneering electropop group Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO) to produce background music for their stores. At the time YMO was Japan’s most popular group and had received significant success beyond Japan, for MUJI Hosono produced a two-track cassette, titled Watering a flower. Both were notably tonal, minimalist tracks, Talking and Growth were an exacting fourteen minutes and fifty-five seconds in duration, and articulated an intentional sonic representation of the key tenants of MUJI’s company manifesto. Key points such as ‘a simplicity achieved through a complexity of thought and design’ gave contemplation to the fundamental human desire to build sanctuary within one’s home. MUJI’s manifesto also asserted that their ‘no branding’ and ‘no adornment’ products have a neutrality that poses no imposition or attachment beyond that of sheer functionality. The purity of minimalism leaves few entry points for goblins or ghouls seeking retribution—at MUJI the relationship between human and object is strictly contractual.
Mono no aware
In 1914 the most powerful volcano eruption of the twentieth century was recorded at Sakurajima (or Cherry Blossom Island) located in Kyushu in Japan’s Kagoshima Prefecture. The lava flow was so extensive that the island connected to the mainland and engulfed several smaller nearby islands. Most nearby residents were evacuated but there were also fifty-eight fatalities. It is predicted that another major eruption could take place in the next twenty-five years and while the region currently enjoys healthy tourism due to the consistent volcanic activity, another catastrophic event lays in wait. Under threat are the 680,000 residents of Kagoshima just a few kilometres from the volcano and just a further forty-kilometres sits the Satsumasendai nuclear plant. Living in volatile circumstances is an accepted state for those in close proximity to Cherry Blossom Island. While another cataclysmic eruption is immanent and not just probable, an appreciation exists for the volcano and the region because of this natural volatility—not in spite of it.
While not directly translatable to English, the definition of the Japanese term mono no aware has often been distorted by the West and even within Japan, obscured by thousands of years of layered belief systems. There appears to be a convergence around a sensory experience of simultaneity that co-joins joy and melancholia in moments, events or objects of revelry and beauty that are knowingly fleeting. In Zen Buddhism the pre-eminent symbol of mono no aware is the cherry blossom—but perhaps in Japan, the symbol should be Cherry Blossom Island Itself.
Text: Angela Brophy
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