Tokyo – Saturday, May 25 2013 – Asakusa and Modern Art Museum

I only had three days to plan this trip – long story involving a lost passport – so I didn’t have many hotel options on a limited budget. I can’t afford a proper hotel, and I’m too old to stay in a hostel with seven other people stuffed into creaky bunk-beds nearby.  I usually use airbnb and have had great experiences in people’s homes… until this trip, largely because it wasn’t my host’s home. Rather, he had a small apartment in which he was renting out rooms – basically running a hotel without a license. But he acted like it was a hotel, showing us a list of how much we’d pay to replace any goods we damaged and taking a photo of our passports. And coming into our room when we weren’t there, plus showing up daily to sit in the kitchen and book other guests. If you’re a control freak, it’s a good idea not to have precious bamboo floor mats and paper walls for a stream of travellers carrying heavy bags. But I’m not blaming his culture or gender, I’m blaming his class position. He was a small businessman, and as I’ve argued before, small business people are the most petty and rapacious capitalists around (partly because they think they’re actually the most ethical, caring capitalists.) A large business depersonalizes things like damages and expenses; here, it’s all on his shoulders, and he made damn sure we, and the other guests we met, knew it. Next time I won’t stay at a place with no reviews.

Sanja-Sama Shrine

Nonetheless, we managed to avoid scraping the precious walls and made our way to the shrine at Asakusa. I’m not enamoured with pre-20th century things in general, and religious icons in particular, but the shrine was quite pretty and big, and I appreciated the fact that the Japanese themselves took it seriously.

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The smoke was coming from a pyre where people burned prayers. Many were gathered around wafting the smoke into their faces, and we couldn’t figure out if this was a religious practice, or one person tried it that morning and everyone else copied her. Having your eyes sting wasn’t a pleasant form of worship, I thought, though at least it was better than self-flagellation.



A tame example of Japanese fashion, which is the main reason I came to Japan:

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A model of a Japanese raccoon dog, his giant testicles discreetly covered.


National Museum of Modern Art

After a great meal of chilled udon noodles in fish broth (I’d moved to pesco-vegetarianism for the trip, I’d starve otherwise), we went to see art from the greatest century, the 20th century.

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What struck me about the collection was how openly Japanese artists copied Europeans. The technical skill on display was tremendous, and it was put to a single purpose: to appropriate the concepts and techniques of western artists. For these artists – and presumably the state institutions that sponsored them – modernity = catching up with the west. It wasn’t an attempt to learn from western methods in order to make something uniquely Japanese with them, but an attempt to imitate them exactly. For example, there were paintings that I could have sworn were by Miro, except they were by Japanese artists. This is in line with what I understand of the Meiji Restoration: a recognition that Japan was behind and needed to catch up.

IMG_4639IMG_4641Emperor Wu meets Bodidharma, Fusetsu Nakamura

As with all things modernist, that technique could be put to anti-social purposes, not just creating works of beauty:IMG_4644Capture of Luoyang, Ryushi Kawabata

What I like about Kawabata’s painting is how openly propagandistic it is. The Japanese come as respectful visitors – look how careful they’re being with Buddha. This was painted in 1944, long after the horrors of the fascist war machine had been put into effect. And there’s something distinctly fascist about the celebration of war sacrifice:

IMG_4650Sergeant Nobe’s Suicide Attack on Two B-29’s over Kityakyushi, Ken’ichi Nakamura

IMG_4653Special Attack Corp Setting Out From A Homeland Base II, Sentaro Iwata

Another, less delicate name for these guys is suicide bombers. But look how determined they are to sacrifice their lives for the emperor’s fascist regime.IMG_4655Red Sky, Saburo Aso

Painted in 1956, Aso seems to have a better idea – or at least, more artistic freedom – about the true costs of war. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated the aesthetics of all the paintings – and, as usual, the gift shop only held images of pretty flowers and courtesans, not the images of conflict and passion I enjoy most, hence these photos. But I enjoyed them precisely because of their ambiguity: the technical skills of artists, put to capturing the technical skills of industry, set to one of the common tasks of modernity: creating new capitalist empires. They show the two-sided nature of modernity perfectly.

Less intense was the design exhibit for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Photography was strictly prohibited – I couldn’t even take pictures of the write-up at the entrance – so I was only able to take these two before being told to stop. But the design was incredible: simple, intuitive, strong. You don’t need to know Japanese to figure out where the shower is.IMG_4658 IMG_4659

That night we went to Shinjuku and visited the Municipal Administration Building. It’s got a free observation deck, which afforded some great night views that my four year old point and shoot failed to capture in any depth. But I was pleased to be in a building much like the one I’d seen attacked in Big Man Japan.IMG_4662IMG_4664


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