Japanese architects make it big… with a natural sensibility

Article: Japanese architects make it big on world stage, not with monuments but with a natural sensibility (10 August 2014)

Link: http://www.foxbusiness.com/markets/2014/08/10/japan-architects-make-it-big-on-world-stage-not-with-monuments-but-with-natural/

This article highlights the rise of a “new generation” of Japanese architects who are achieving success and recognition that is attributed to their specific style of design that has been called “uniquely Japanese”. Here, Japan is represented and presented as having a special connection with and sensitivity to nature that is reflected in its style of architecture. This Japanese architecture is characterised by a blending with nature, and a focus on natural shapes and building materials (e.g. wood).

However, extending beyond the choice of materials and design styles, the article puts forth the idea that being one with nature is embedded in the Japanese psyche, or DNA. This sentiment is echoed specifically by two of the architects – architect Sou Fujimoto declares that the “understanding of the connection between nature and the man-made is Japanese.” Kengo Kumo also states that this is something that is part of the “[Japanese] genetic makeup”. The image thus being presented is that familiar myth of Japan and Japanese people having an intrinsic and built-in love of nature (Kalland and Asquith, 1997).

Even the fact that this style of Japanese architecture is a relatively new phenomenon (rather than something that has been ever-present) is conveniently explained away by saying that their predecessors, who did not exhibit such “natural sensibilities” in their designs, were actually emulating their Western counterparts. In such a manner, the idea of Japanese architecture being “natural” is also achieved by comparing and contrasting Japanese and Western architecture – the latter described in negative terms such as “monster skyscrapers”, made by “merely… stacking blocks on top of each other”.

However, as Kalland and Asquith (1997), Kirby (2011), and other scholars have refuted, this idea of an intrinsic and unique ‘Japanese love for nature’ is in fact a myth, which the article itself alludes to. Kuma himself admires an American architect (Frank Lloyd Wright) who is known for his designs that “[cherish] nature and people”. Another featured architect, Shigeru Ban, clearly rejects the idea that his designs are Japanese or traditional, pointing out that these so-called Japanese influences can also be seen in American architects – yet he is still included in this list of architects with a “Japanese natural sensibility”, and the overall message conveyed in the article is that there is a style of architecture, sensitive to nature, that is uniquely Japanese, furthering the myth of a nature-loving Japan, even in the sphere of architecture.

Arboriculture: Ideal Japanese Forests

The article talks about the arborist Matsuoka, who maintains and takes care of trees. He partakes in competitions on tree-climbing and safety.

From the complimentary tone of the article, Japan Times seems to praise Matsuoka for embracing nature in his lifestyle through his interactions with the forest. The media sees his actions as “green” since he lives and works among nature. However, this does not mean that his behaviour actually benefits the forest he is in. By managing trees as his job, Matsuoka ensures the growth and survival of certain species of vegetation that are valued in society, whether aesthetically or for the products that can be manufactured from them. During this process of selectively nurturing the forest, however, the balance of the ecosystem will likely be affected. Certain species of plants seen as invaluable will be weeded out to let other plants flourish.

The need for arboriculture seems somewhat ironic. It implies that forests, despite being a part of nature, cannot be left to grow naturally, and that forest management is required for ideal growth. This idea is similar to many other ways Japanese deal with nature, such as flower arrangement, bonsai, and Japanese gardens. In all of these cases, control or altercation of nature of a great extent is necessary for nature to be best appreciated. This complements the article by Kalland and Asquith (1997: 13), who say that objects of nature can be placed on a spectrum with “wild” on one end and “domesticated” on the other. The Japanese treat those nearer the “domesticated” end as ideal forms of nature (ibid.: 15-18). This means that they have to be managed by humans such that they become products of both nature and culture.

I also found Matsuoka’s actions seemingly contradictory. While he claims to protect trees, he chops them down for firewood. Nevertheless, his behaviour can be understood in the context of the common ideology in Japan towards an ideal rural lifestyle, which is manifested in the concept of furusato. This ideology promotes a simple, rural lifestyle with activities and settings that symbolise nostalgia or Japanese culture (Robertson 1988: 494-495). Thus, Matsuoka can be seen as embracing the rural lifestyle of living with nature by retrieving and consuming firewood instead of relying on electricity. With this perspective, his actions show that he upholds the Japanese ideals of dealing with nature by maintaining the forests and living a rural lifestyle.



Kazutaka, Hinata. 2014. ‘Climbing champ urges deeper understanding of forestry’. The Japan Times.




Asquith, Pamela and Arne Kalland. 1997. ‘Japanese Perceptions of Nature: Ideals and Illusions’. In Japanese Images of Nature: Cultural Perspectives, ed. Arne Kalland and Pamela Asquith. Surrey, Curzon Press: 1-35.

Robertson, Jennifer. 1988. ‘Furusato Japan: The Culture and Politics of Nostalgia’. International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 1(4): 494-518.

Railway line up Mount Fuji: Environmental Protection?

A local Japanese tourism firm is considering building a railway line, 30 kilometres in length to an altitude of 2305 metres, to the fifth station of Mount Fuji. Human construction on Japan’s most iconic natural feature and environmental protection are two contradicting concepts which this article [1] attempts to reconcile.

Koichiro Horiuchi, who holds authoritative positions in Fujigoko Tourism Association and a major railroad operator, describes the railway line as a “long-held dream”. The desire to make the great heights of Mount Fuji accessible is a continuation of Japanese longing to control symbolic forms of nature.

Mount Fuji was designated a World Heritage Site last year in June 2013; perhaps this helps to explain why the strong association of environmental protection is being incorporated into the railway scheme. Surprisingly, recognition of Mount Fuji’s international importance was based on its cultural and religious significance in Japan rather in its natural features [2]. Mount Fuji is important to the Japanese mainly because of its depiction as sacred in several arts.

Many advantages of the railway are focused on in the article such as: controlled number of visitors to the mountain (and undoubtedly increased numbers), less disturbance to animals, less air pollution, ability to operate in winter and most obviously access to beautiful scenery. The article avoids addressing any specific negative environmental impacts of the scheme; it only mentions that as the railway line will be constructed on an existing public road “almost no environmental destruction” will be caused. However, environmental disturbance will undoubtedly occur with the construction and operation of a railway.

The article vaguely suggests that some eco-friendly technologies and practices will be implemented in the design of the railway. However, this appears to stem from appreciation of the work of a Swiss railway firm, whom they are in a partnership with. Interestingly, as noted by Moon [3], traditionally the Japanese saw the West as often exploiting nature, but presently most practices of environmental protection are taken from the West.

Although the article attempts to present the railway scheme as an environmental protection project, it is obviously driven by the potential to grow Japan’s tourism industry. If the railway plan is approved, Horiachi expects the completion of the line to be in advance of the Tokyo Summer Olympics in 2020. With an influx of tourists, and many willing to pay for unique experiences, there will be a large opportunity for economic profit.

News Article: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/08/13/national/environmental-protection-key-to-proposed-railway-up-mount-fuji/#.VALlCvmSyN0


[1] M. Sakamoto, “Environmental Protection key to proposed railway up Mount Fuji,” 13 August 2014. [Online]. Available: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/08/13/national/environmental-protection-key-to-proposed-railway-up-mount-fuji/#.VALlCvmSyN0. [Accessed 30 August 2014].
[2] “Mount Fuji named World Heritage site,” 23 June 2013. [Online]. Available: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2013/06/23/national/mount-fuji-named-world-heritage-site/#.VALYTvmSyN2. [Accessed 30 August 2014].
[3] O. Moon, “Marketing Nature in Rural Japan,” in Japanes Images of Nature, P. J. Asquith and A. Kalland, Richmond: Curzon, 1997, p. 228.

When industry works in step with nature

Article: When industry works in step with nature from The Japan Times by C.W. Nicol
Link: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2014/05/31/environment/industry-works-step-nature/#.U_mGKfk70TJ 

Reviewer: Anita Sin

This article portrays the success story of a Japanese company – Sanden Corp – in its effort to become more sustainable and eco-friendly.  In the late 1980s, Sanden Corp bought over a large tract of land near the foot of Mount Akagi and wanted to build a golf course there but the locals protested against it. In the end, Sanden Corp built and opened Akagi Industrial Plant in year 2002 on half of the land while the other half was set aside as Sanden Forest whereby the physical environment was preserved and improved upon. For example, ’40 species of trees totaling some 30,000 specimens’ were planted in Sanden Forest and an environmental center which ‘attracts some 15,000 visitors a year’ is also built (The Japan Times, 2014). Schools and environmental groups were also allowed into the forest for academic purposes and from local history research, this plot of land ‘revealed sites dating back to the Neolithic Jomon Period… and the succeeding iron-age Yayoi Period’ which made the preservation of the forest even more notable (ibid).

This success story represented Japanese companies as being ‘green’ and ‘eco-friendly’ as Sanden Corp won various prizes in Japan and around the world due to its ‘green’ efforts. Japan itself was also being portrayed as being relatively ‘greener’ when compared to other countries as it was mentioned that people came from China and India to take a look at this case study. Such representations in this article might be what Kalland and Asquith (1997: 25) sees as a way Japan “partake in a ‘global ideology of nature’ and define their own ‘cultural identity’”. It is also a way Japan uses nature ‘in its orientalist discourse…both at home and abroad’ (ibid, p. 25).

Such a green representation can also come across as problematic as we know that not all Japanese companies are as such and that Japan is laden with environmental problems. For example, Japan chose coal as a long-term electricity source in its new energy plan even though they could have used the Fukushima nuclear accident to make the switch to renewable energy supplies (Bloomberg, 2014).

On the other hand, as much as this representation can be problematic to a large extent, this representation can be seen in a much positive light as it contradicts Kellert’s (1991) critique in Kalland and Asquith’s (1997: 7) paper that the Japanese ‘expressed little ethical or ecological orientation to conserve nature and wildlife’. In addition, such articles provide good role models for other Japanese companies and are positive articles that we can draw hope from in Japan’s attempt at becoming more sustainable.


Bloomberg (2014) ‘Post-Fukushima Japan Chooses Coal Over Renewable Energy’ Available at: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-04-13/post-fukushima-japan-chooses-coal-over-renewable-energy.html (accessed 20 August 2014)

The Japan Times (2013) ‘When industry works in step with nature’ Available at: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2014/05/31/environment/industry-works-step-nature/#.U_ojkPmSx5y (accessed 20 August 2014)

Kalland, A. and Asquith, P.J. (1997) Japanese Perceptions of Nature: ideals and illusions. Japanese Images of Nature,  UK: Curzon

Kellert, S.R. (1991) in Kalland, A. and Asquith, P.J. (1997) Japanese Perceptions of Nature: ideals and illusions. Japanese Images of Nature,  UK: Curzon

The Return of the Stork.

According to Yuzo Suwa’s article, “When storks arrive, you’re growing good rice, Hyogo farmers discover”, environmentally-friendly practices implemented by a group of farmers in Toyooka, Hyogo Prefecture, has increased numbers of a previously extinct bird species, namely the Oriental white stork. After doing some background research to understand why these storks were extinct in the first place, I found out that it was in fact, the Japanese introduction of modern high-yield rice farming techniques – altering natural drainage systems and using agricultural pesticides and other toxic chemicals – that led to the wipeout of these majestic birds in 1971. Although Suwa did mention how “Japan’s postwar agriculture placed high priority on crop yields by encouraging the use of chemicals, fertilizers and the off-season drying of paddies”, this particular article didn’t quite clearly state that it was because of this, did the birds die in the first place. So how highly praised should this reintroduction program be anyways? I mean, after all, wasn’t it the lack of environmental sensitivity that led to the extinction of these stunning creatures in the first place?

Regardless, this article focuses on the benefits of these green, chemical-free rice paddies for these Oriental white storks. Japan is portrayed as a country that puts emphasis and value on wildlife and environmental restoration. But is that their main objective? Suwa also mentions the benefits of the stork individuals on eco-tourism, as the reintroduction of these birds have drawn in tourists into the area. This improves the villagers living standards by selling touristy knick-knacks and other merchandise. Not a bad side benefit….  It brings in some profit, and boosts the Japan’s “green” label too.

Coming from a biologist’s perspective, some of the questions that pop up when I read this include issues of inbreeding and the ability for this small area of chemical-free rice paddies to sustain the Oriental white storks’ population in the long-term. If this city farming project is successful, as the article says to be, what size of restoration area is needed to increase the bird’s population to its original numbers, and is Japan willing to convert more rice paddies despite major cuts in output? Food for thought.

Image from: http://www.att-japan.net/entry_ex_af/graphs_dev/3/9/entry_ex_af.19355/thm/white-stork_image5__FT_600_373__.jpg

Main article reference:

Suwa, Yuzo. “When storks arrive, you’re growing good rice, Hyogo farmers discover.” The Japan Times. 15 Aug. 2014. Web.

Accessed on 24 August 2014 from http://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2014/08/15/environment/when-storks-arrive-youre-growing-good-rice-hyogo-farmers-discover/#.U_mgE_mSwfU

Other background information:

  • http://www.biodic.go.jp/biodiversity/shiraberu/policy/pes/en/satotisatoyama/satotisatoyama02.html
  • http://www.global1.youth-leader.org/2011/06/back-from-the-brink-revitalising-the-endangered-oriental-white-stork-population/