Kutsurogeru ‒ The Licence for Ugliness
Urban Living in Tokyo
Arriving in Tokyo with the new year after a month spent back home in Europe, the differences in the urban tissues and patterns of living are striking me with fresh intensity. People in Europe - or people in Vienna I should say, as this is the place I am most familiar with - dwell. That is, they spend a considerable amount of time, money and effort in finding, renovating or building and furnishing their homes. When they select their bookshelves, sofas or bathroom tiles many have an overall aesthetic view and eternity in mind. Once the work is finished or – as this might well take years - at least in a viable stage, they like to invite friends or just »be at home«. In Tokyo the approach is quite different. Houses and homes are not meant for eternity and the typical Tokyo child would rather buy some new clothes or electronic gadgets than spending his effort and time on designing and furnishing a house that he will outlive anyway. If she wants to meet friends, she invites them to eat out – and has an infinite number and variety of restaurants just around the corner to choose from.
»You know«, says Ms. Mochizuki while we sip tea sitting at a table in the cramped jumble of the living room of the family’s eight story building in Nihombashi, one of Tokyo’s wealthy central business districts, »if we had more money, we would pay more attention to aesthetical criteria, but like this, everything is just practical.« On another day, Mr. Hara, who is using his lunch break to show me around his small, rented apartment in a mainly residential area close to Ikebukuro, explains with an excusatory gesture aiming at his bare and rather uninhabited looking place: »Well, I leave early in the morning and come home at 10 or 11 at night – basically I’m only here to sleep.«
These two statements mark the opposing ends of the social landscape of urban Tokyo: On the one end stands the long-time resident, from a land-owning family, who have replaced the family’s former two story wooden house by a concrete building some fifteen years ago – the ground floor housing the long-established family business, the two top floors the family apartment, while the rest is for rent. On the other is the single »salary-man« in his thirties who spends more time at work than at home. Their life styles might differ in detail, however, their homes share the same remarkable disregard for aesthetic considerations. Design? Beauty? Aesthetics? That’s either a thing of the past – old Edo – or a thing for »the rich« (and »the rich« in Japan are always »the others«). The vast majority of Tokyo-ites content themselves with small, flimsy houses or dark apartments in tile-clad concrete condominium towers, furnished with plastic »unit baths« in beige and jumbled up furniture, often arranged with a gay sense of improvisation and often lit by a bare ring of fluorescent light.
All of this is usually explained to be a mere function of lack of space and hence high rents and land prices. Yet this is a much too simple explanation. It is rather the differences in social space and values – the long working hours, the complicated rental-system or the fact that it is still unusual for unmarried couples to live together – that produce the distinctive urban texture of Tokyo. However, what might seem like a deficiency to many a Westerner (and an increasing number of Japanese) also has its merits. A thoroughly aesthetic conception of the surrounding environment implies restrictions and constraint and may even become oppressive at times. A thoroughly beautiful space is at the same time a thoroughly controlled space. »Kutsurogeru« in Japanese has the connotation of: »to let one’s hair down«. Japanese society, even today, is strictly controlled at many levels. At home, however, control ceases. You allow things to be, however they happen to be. Even if this means ugliness.
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