My Issue with Japan

Issue #11: The Japan Issue

It’s not that Japan is an impenetrable black box, an example of cultural relativism. It is rather that it is difficult to write about Japan in a way which equally draws attention to its perception, rather than presenting it as an object of knowledge.

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Although I love visiting Japan, it is no easy matter writing about Japanese culture. How can I put this? I write from the outside looking in. Like Commodore Perry, I enter the waters of Japan from far away. Although my intentions are not imperialistic as such, my understanding, perception and movement is informed by everyday norms which hail from somewhere else.  These taken for granted habits of thought underlie the manner in which I encounter that which is different. They filter its perception, the perception of the subject presumed to know. And yet, the encounter is an event, the relational means whereby new modes of thought come about.

We are no longer the same.

In any case, the binary between the outside and the inside cannot be sustained:


Made and performed by Takao Kawaguchi, About Kazuo Ohno takes up the work of the great Butoh master and emulates it from an exterior point of view. Working entirely from the outside, Kawaguchi seeks to copy the form of Ohno’s dances, his posture, facial expression, and movement. A Butoh practice that privileges the inside (‘the soul of dance’) is cracked open, turned inside out. There has been quite some interest lately in the kinaesthetic and performative archive, involving a reiteration of seminal works such as, for example, Trio A. The difficulty with these recreations is that they are performed by dancers who have a completely different kinaesthetic history and background, for an audience who equally comes from a very different time, if not place. Were About Kazuo Ohno aiming for a degree of authenticity, it would be destined to fail, not least because Kawaguchi is not a Butoh dancer. And yet, something else is made possible in this generation of a copy. Make no mistake, Kawaguchi prepares meticulously. He has a swathe of sketches, returning obsessively to video material in order to do what he does. And when he does what he does we, the audience, catch a glimpse of something far away and long ago. Elizabeth Dempster made a piece many years ago. The last section of the piece was in darkness, illuminated momentarily by a torch which she would turn on and off.  In those moments of illumination, we can almost make out her movements, only to be plunged once again into darkness. Are we likewise able to discern the great Butoh dancer through a veil of imitation that approaches from the outside a practice wholly oriented to the inside?


In a chapter entitled “The Foldings of Thought”, Gilles Deleuze describes the construction of the self in the work of Michel Foucault. According to Deleuze, the interiority of the self in Foucault arises via a movement from the outside to the inside. The inside (of the self) is a construction made possible by folding the outside inwards. The fold takes a surface and turns it over to make a pleat, an inside. According to this way of thinking, there is no original inside, merely a momentary pleat in the foldings of thought.


A friend gave me a book recently, Modern Japanese Short Stories.1 After so many years accumulating impressions about Japanese life through observation, I was here confronted with a bricolage of accounts, articulated from the inside. Having become used to the surface civility of the public sphere, the intensity of these feelings was a shock to me. As if I had forgotten that there is an inside to behaviour, as if I could tell the inside from merely watching.


The case of Japanese modernism: we know now that there is no single trajectory of modernity, anywhere. The National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo has a permanent collection of 20th century modern art. While ostensibly a response to modernism in the west, I was struck by a famous painting of a Japanese goddess – Kannon Bodhisattva Riding a Dragon, by Harado Naoshiro, 1890. In pride of place in the museum, gallery notes remind the viewer that this work was initially rejected by the local art world, who were unfamiliar with modernist tropes and techniques. To their eyes, this work was unfamiliar, an unwelcome treatment of the Bodhisattva2. To my eyes, the work took a Buddhist subject, giving it a mythological twist in the manner of German romanticism. Over time, this painting has come to embody a moment of Japanese modern art, in which aesthetic currents are made visible through the specific history, traditions and techniques of traditional Japanese art. A purported outside has become an inside, erupts and forms its own riposte.

It’s not that Japan is an impenetrable black box, an example of cultural relativism. It is rather that it is difficult to write about Japan in a way which equally draws attention to its perception (rather than presenting it as an object of knowledge). Edward Said named the colonial practice of knowing the colonised other, orientalism.3 For Said, power relations underlie the ability of the colonising point of view ‘to know’ the Other. Kawaguchi is clear that he does not seek to recreate Ohno’s dance. He claims no authority with respect to his venerable subject matter. And yet, there is a moment in the performance where, having applied the signature white makeup of Butoh before a mirror, the performer looks up from the mirror and beams at his audience. And we beam back.

Who is it who smiles at us? What is it that we recognise in the face of the performer covered in greasepaint?

A frequent visitor of Japanese eating establishments, I am often seated at the counter, watching the meticulous dance of food preparation. The care practised in the most casual eating house is something remarkable to watch. How is it that a humble café worker will carve an avocado with such focus and precision? It has been suggested to me that there is a feudal element to such dedication, a fealty to the job that persists in the most urban of environments. It would be easy to mistake such commitment for rigidity, to imagine a culture characterised in terms of compliance. And yet, Yumi Umiumare’s experience and training in Japanese Tea Ceremony suggests a degree of play that exists within a hallowed form. For Umiumare, that play historically threatened the authority of the state to such a degree that a number of hapless tea masters were executed. Not only was the emergence of Tea Ceremony a threat to the social order of the day, the ceremony itself allowed for a wide-ranging exchange between parties beyond the strict controls of the day. According to Umiumare, the politics of tea destabilised the authority and controls of the state. This potential for variation is also reflected in the objects themselves. Consider, for example, the tea bowl. While the ceremonial tea bowl is made according to a long-standing tradition of Raku bowl making, under the moniker of the Raku master, the work of each master is incredibly different.4 This is in part explained by the Wabi aesthetics promoted by Sen no Rikyû.5 Insofar as Wabi Sabi extols the imperfect, happenstance and existential variation, there would seem to be room for a singular mode of improvisation. So, on the one hand, the Tea Ceremony involves the performance of a very specific choreography – the way the water is poured, the drips collected, and the bowl held – on the other, there is an inherent variability of objects, movements and interactions. Is Tea Ceremony a finely scripted ritual, a space of improvisation or an undecidable oscillation between these two extremes?

Umiumare draws upon the mise en scène of the tea room in order to stage a performance that veers between stability and play, seeking a moment of quietude in contrast to the intrusions of accelerated life. She combines Tea Ceremony with a Butoh sensibility in order to create her own vibrant space of possibility. I ask Umiumare whether she considers her work Butoh. While her own work has extended to cabaret and burlesque, Umiumare has observed European Butoh performers position themselves much closer to Butoh’s classical roots. And yet, Butoh infuses all that Umiumare does. Given the spaciousness within a closely scripted ritual such as Tea Ceremony, the question is perhaps undecidable. And if that’s so, what are we to say to Takao Kawaguchi’s performative proposition. Is it the polar opposite of the Butoh master’s commitment to the soul of dance, or does its inversion make possible an improbable and unexpected degree of proximity? In which case, the outside point of view can no longer be sustained or perhaps, if assumed, is subject to change from within.



  1. Reference as Modern Japanese Short Stories, edited by Ivan Morris. North Clarendon, USA: Tuttle Publishing, 2019.
  2. Reference as See
  3. Reference as Edward Said, Orientalism, New York: Vintage Books, 1979.
  4. Reference as Raku Museum, Tokyo,
  5. Reference as Rumiko Handa, “Sen no Rikyû and the Japanese Way of Tea, Ethics and Aesthetics of the Everyday”, Interiors, vol.4, Issue 3, 229-248.