Theory Teacher's Blog

Tokyo Diaries 3: the Zen of Hybrid Technology?

I just spent the past three days traveling to Kyoto and Hiroshima, and my students and I did so much in those three days that if feels like more than a week. And so, for your convenience, I’m going to split up my blog about this excursion into two posts — today I’ll write one about Kyoto, and then on Sunday I’ll write one about Hiroshima.

As my title indicates, the question I will explore in today’s blog post is the continuity and/or discontinuity between older and newer forms of Japanese culture, a question that will become obvious as I describe what we did on Tuesday.  We woke up early in the morning to subway it over to Tokyo station, got on the 6:30 a.m.  shinkansen (a.k.a. bullet train), one of the fastest railroad systems in the world, traveled about 300 miles, and arrived in Kyoto just three hours later, ready to begin a tour of the city.



We left our bags at the Ryokan Hiraiwa — a ryokan is a traditional Japanese-style hotel, and Hiraiwa is both nice and inexpensive — and then walked over to the gorgeous and ancient Buddhist temple, Kiyomizu-dera. Then we took the bus up to peaceful Nanzen-ji and walked up the Philosopher’s Walk to Ginkaku-ji, also known as the Temple of the Silver Pavilion (not to be confused with Kinkaku-ji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, made famous for international readers of literature by Yukio Mishima’s classic novel.) In addition to showing my students two of the most lovely temples in Japan, my pedagogical goal was to illustrate the difference between two kinds of Buddhism — the more pietist Amida at Kiyomizu-dera and the more meditative Zen at Ginkaku-ji. By looking at the architecture and layout of the gardens, my students could very easily see why Zen was favored by the 15th-century samurai warrior and supported financially by the wealthy for its self-discipline and intellectualism in contrast to the the straight-forward piety of Amida that appealed to other socio-economic classes of Japanese from the 8th century and still today. It seems to me that Americans tend to idealize Zen and ignore its high-class pretentions and its historical connections to a militaristic, feudal culture.



After Ginkaku-ji and some cold refreshments on a hot afternoon, we hopped on the bus to return to our ryokan. At this moment, one of my students noticed that the engine of the bus seemed to turn off when it stopped, and we all realized that the public buses were hybrid, and then the student remarked about the contrast between the ancient temples we visited and the modern, environmentally progressive technology we used to visit them.

And my student’s question is one of the questions that has been discussed and debated by philosophers, novelists, and scholars since the end of the 19th century (including Junichiro Tanizaki, whom I mentioned in my previous blog post.) Quite a few scholars have remarked on Japan’s ability to incorporate new forms of culture, such as Buddhism in the 6th century and capitalism in the 19th, and yet still retain its own distinct identity —  a cultural hybridity of sorts. But to return to the question both my student and Tanizaki raised, how do we conceptualize this relation between old and new?

Some have argued that the new forms of economy and culture mark a radical break (or discontinuity) with the past. In other words, Zen temples and hybrid buses have nothing at all to do with each other.  But others admire the continuity of the old with the new — implying that the unusual economic success of Japan in the 1960s-1980s was due to the unique qualities of its traditional culture. So, in other words, for this view, the same culture that produced Zen discipline and samurai loyalty is also what produced the most advanced hybrid motor technology in the world.

How do we reconcile these two opposite views? Well, it just so happens (not at all coincidentally), that my students on this trip are also reading a collection of essays edited in 1993 by the highly regarded theorist and critic of globalization, Masao Miyoshi: Japan in the World. In his introduction, Miyoshi lucidly deconstructs the many contradictory views held about Japan over the past 150 years, revealing the extent to which the West’s image of Japan has more to do with the West’s own fears and desires than it does with the reality of Japan.

In the case of our own experience on this trip, it might be worth considering that all of these temples and monuments were reconstructed after World War II as part of a deliberate effort on the part of the American occupation and Japanese government to establish continuities between the past and the present. If Japan was to become America’s ally in Asia, then its exceptional cultural identity had to be emphasized and promoted. Thus, the fact that we experienced Zen temples, quaint gardens, bullet trains, and hybrid buses all together is not accidental. It takes the postmodern forms of economy and technology to maintain a particular kind of ethnocentric Japanese cultural identity.

There’s more to say about the question of continuity and discontinuity, and how our perception of continuity and discontinuity is socially constructed in a globalized political economy, but this blog is long enough, and I have to go grocery shopping — my students and some students from our host university are having a little dinner party at our dorm. For more about our trip in Kyoto, check out this blog that one of my students is doing.


May 22, 2009 - Posted by | Japan


  1. Loving the plug for my blog 🙂 And you have a point where you bring up the blending of old and new in this hybrid system. One of the things I believe I mentioned in my blog, but will say again here is the example at Kiyomizu-Dera Temple where I was taking the drink from the sacred fountain in an effort to cleanse myself (so I was told), a tradition that seems like it has gone on for ages. At the same time the high tech, germ-freaked stage that we now live in meant these sacred cups were placed in a pristine box full of sanitizing ultraviolet rays which had been carved neatly into the fountain’s back wall. Hybrid indeed.

    Comment by pbitty | May 23, 2009 | Reply

  2. Hybrid indeed, but the question I’m trying to raise, is “hybrid, yes, but how?” And the HOW is more important than the observation of hybridity. In other words, let’s pay attention to ideology, power relations, and the ways in which experience may seem like just unmediated experience but is actually socially constructed in all sorts of ways that the one experiencing the phenomenon may or may not be conscious of — for instance, legal, political, institutional, etc. In other words, when the Japanese national government and UNESCO decide to preserve and promote certain things rather than others, then your experience will be a certain thing rather than another.

    Comment by steventhomas | May 25, 2009 | Reply

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