A Culture of Greys

'When the positions or standards of cultural value are in disagreement, it is not necessary for one side to defeat the other and force his values on his opponent. They can instead search for common ground, even while remaining in mutual opposition. The success of this approach depends upon whether one has any desire to understand one's opponent. Even two cultures so different from each other that understanding is impossible will find that the sincere desire to understand the othermakes co-operation possible.'

Kisho Kurokawa

Part One


Over the course of its history, Japan has been given several names by the Japanese themselves but also by its main neighbour, China. The ancient Japanese traditions mention several laudatory and poetic names relating to the natural environment of the archipelago. The texts thus mention the following periphrase: 'the fertile land where reeds grow in abundance by the water's edge and where rice and the four other cereals ripen.' [Toyo ashihara no mizuho no kuni].

But it is another name used for the first time by the prince, Shôtoku [574-622] which supplanted all the others and marked the history of Japan with his imprint. In 608, the prince sent a letter to the Chinese emperor Yang de Sui in which he wrote: 'The Son of Heaven in the country where the sun rises addresses a letter to the Son of Heaven in the country where the sun sets.' This is the first mention of the term Nihon or Nippon that the Japanese have used for over 1400 years to refer to the numerous islands which became central factors in much of Japan's customs and relationship to nature.

The rugged geography is that of uninhabitable mountainous regions covering 80% of the country, with the remaining land covered with plains and rivers that are scattered between these mountains and powerful cliff formations. The climate ranges from sub-tropical in the southern islands to semi-frigid in the north; causing a range of weather conditions from snow to high humidity, which are combined with earthquakes and typhoons.[1]

These continual and uncontrollable natural upheavals occurring over thousands of years have left the Japanese with the utmost respect for natural phenomena. It also left them with a lack of choice regarding their actions, as the entire environment is in a state of dramatic conditions. Since they felt that they had no choice in their environmental conditions, they moved away from the European dichotomy of ‘either/or’ to that of ‘this-and-that.’[2]

This fluidity of their ethos is essential to understand in relationship to their approach to design.[3]

[1] Thompson, D. [Ed.] [1985]. Japan. New Lanark, Scotland: Geddes & Grosset Ltd.
[2] Stierlin, H. [Ed.]. [1977]. Architecture of the World - Japan. Lausanne: Benedikt Taschen.
[3] Verghese, G [2003]. The Way of the Detail in Japanese Design. Idea Journal 4 (1):161-72. https://doi.org/10.37113/ideaj.vi0.242.


The Kami Way

Shinto, the indigenous faith of the Japanese people, is unknown among the religions of the world. Many people are familiar with the torii, the typical gateway to Shinto shrines, and some have a vague impression of the unique ornamentation which adorns many shrine roofs. Yet to all but a few, the shrines to which the torii leads and the Shinto faith which it symbolises are very much of an enigma.

From time immemorial the Japanese people have believed in and worshipped kami as an expression of their native racial faith which arose in the mystic days of remote antiquity. To be sure, foreign influences are evident. This kami-faith cannot be fully understood without some reference to them. Yet it is as indigenous as the people that brought the Japanese nation into existence and ushered in its new civilization; and like that civilization, the kami-faith has progressively developed throughout the centuries and still continues to do so in modern times.

The word Shintō [literally, the 'Kami Way'], the modern term for this kami-faith, was not current in very primitive times. Nevertheless, it is relatively ancient. The earliest extant Japanese record of its use is in the Nilion Shoki ['Chronicles of Japan'] which was published early in the eighth century. There it was newly employed for the purpose of distinguishing the traditional faith of the people from Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, the continental ways of thinking and believing, which in recent centuries had entered the land. 

Buddhism in Japan used the word most popularly, however, in the sense of native deities [kami[ or the realm of the kami, in which case it meant ghostly beings of a lower order than buddhas [hotoke]. It is generally in this sense that the word was used in Japanese literature subsequent to the Nihon Shoki; but about the 13th century, in order to distinguish between it and Buddhism and Confucianism, which had by that time spread throughout the country, the kami-faith was commonly referred to as Shintō, a usage which continues to this day.


In the mythology the names and order of appearance of the kami differ with the various records. However, it is not until the creative couple, Izanagi-nomikoto and Izanami-no-mikoto, appear that the mythology really begins.

These two, descending from the High Plain of Heaven, gave birth to the Great Eight Islands, that is, Japan, and all things, including many kami. Three of the kami were the most august [respected and impressive]: the Sun Goddess [Ama-terasuō-mikami], the kami of the High Plain of Heaven; her brother [Susa-no-o-no-mikoto], who was in charge of the earth; and the Moon Goddess, [Tsuki-yomi-no-mikoto], who was the kami of the realm of darkness.

The brother, however, according to the Kojiki behaved so very badly and committed so many outrages that the Sun Goddess became angry and hid herself in a celestial cave, which caused the heavens and earth to become darkened. Astonished at this turn of events, the heavenly kami put on an entertainment, including dancing, which brought her out of the cave; and thus light returned to the world. For his misdemeanor the brother was banished to the lower world, where by his good behavior he returned to the favor of the other kami, and a descendant of his, the Kami of Izumo (Ōkuni-nushi-no-kami), became a very benevolent kami, who ruled over the Great Eight Islands* and blessed the people. Little is said in the mythology of the Moon Kami. 

Subsequently, the grandson of the Sun Goddess, Ninigino-mikoto, received instructions to descend and rule Japan. To symbolize his authority he was given three divine treasures: a mirror, a sword, and a string of jewels. Moreover, he was accompanied on his journey by the kami that had participated in the entertainment outside the celestial cave. However, to accomplish his mission it was necessary to negotiate with the Kami of Izumo, who after some discussion agreed to hand over the visible world, while retaining the invisible. At the same time, the Kami of Izumo pledged to protect the heavenly grandson. Ninigi-nomikoto's great grandson, Emperor Jimmu, became the first human ruler of Japan.

This, in very simple form, is the basic myth which explained for primitive Japanese their origin and the basis of their social structure. It is a description of the evolution of Japanese thought in regard to the origin of life, the birth of the kami and all things out of chaos, the differentiation of all phenomena, and the emergence and evolution of order and harmony. In a sense, the myth amounts to something like a simple constitution for the country. However, in the ancient records the account is not uniform. There are several versions of a number of events, some of which are contradictory.

Thus, the traditions of the various clans were preserved and to a certain extent recognized as valid. Shinto recognizes today that its beliefs are a continuation of those of this mythological age. In its ritual forms and paraphernalia, this faith fully retains much that is ancient. But just as the Grand Shrine of Ise, which aims at preserving the oldest style of buildings and ancient rituals, has created the most beautiful architectural style in the country today, so Shrine Shinto has outgrown much of its historic mythology. The buds of truth have appeared and have been refined for the people of modern Japan.
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