Polylogue 04

A Conversation about Words

Mutsuo Takahashi × Kenya Hara

Times of Opportunity

HaraI would like to thank you for taking to come here today. There was a time when you, the poet Mutsuo Takahashi, were a member of NDC, wasn’t there? The subject I would like to discuss with you today is the Japanese aesthetics and sensitivity that we must utilize as a resource in the future.

TakahashiShall we begin with how I came to join NDC?

I had originally planned to find a job after graduating from junior high school, however I failed all of my employment exams. I failed the exams again after graduating from high school. I later learned that my results on the test were not bad, however there was an unwritten rule that top-tier companies would not hire men from a single-mother household. As a result it was my fate not to be hired. I had been working to pay for my education starting from junior high school, and I attended college on a combination of part-time jobs and scholarships. However I contracted tuberculosis just before graduating, and ended up graduating two years late. The university I attended is now the Fukuoka University of Education, and at that time anyone who had ever had tuberculosis lost any prospect of becoming a teacher.

I tried to find work at a number of different places, but none of them worked out. Despite knowing nobody in the city, I dodged the train fare and came to Tokyo by train. I wound up staying at the home of an acquaintance of an acquaintance. I checked the classified ads but nothing came my way. When I thought about it later, what kind of company would hire someone with no fixed address? (Laughs)

It was around that time when I happened to attend a function of a coterie magazine which I was a member of, and there encountered Hitoshi Anzai. I had known him before when he was a senior student at my school in the countryside. With a stern face, he asked, “What did you come to Tokyo for?” When I told him that I had been unable to find a job in the country, he said, “Well you should go back right away.” “I can’t make a living if I go back,” I said, and he responded, “Well then, give me a call sometime,” and he handed me an NDC business card.

When I called, he asked, “Can you come to the company tomorrow?” There was a position for a go-fer in the Planning Department. They asked me to start work that afternoon, and I began working as a part-timer.

At that time joining NDC was an extremely competitive affair, but I got in through the back door (laughs). After working there for one year, I was made a regular employee. While I was a part-timer, I was working with Nikon and Fuji Iron & Steel, however after I became a regular employee I was put in charge of Asahi Beer. Sales of Asahi Beer at that time were really at a low. We brainstormed, trying to figure out how we could make the product sell, and how Asahi could beat Kirin. We thought about creating a ghost company named Kirin Air Fresheners. We would run daily commercials advertising, “Kirin for the toilet” so that people would associate the name Kirin with odors. We spent time thinking up stuff like that (laughs).

HaraYou have some nasty ideas (laughs).

TakahashiFor Sapporo, we thought of a diaper cover. The babies would have caught cold however (laughs). That is how bad Asahi sales were at that time; we actually said such things.

Because this was a Planning Department account, I was supposed to ask customers to keep certain parts low-cost, or to limit other parts. To have me – with no economic sense at all – handle a job like that was very strange.

After one year, I was transferred to do copywriting work. I had zero talent at copywriting. I also did not get on well with my superior. Tetsuo Deguchi was my boss; he had been a pupil of Shintaro Suzuki at Tokyo University, and had worked with Mallarme. I also loved Mallarme, and yet he had left Mallarme behind to come work in advertising. He was also very strict with me, and said things like, “I figure that even if you try as hard as you can, as long as you are writing poetry you are only putting half your effort into advertising.“ He seemed to want me to give up poetry, a thought I found unbearable. I think Mr. Deguchi probably found my approach to life frustrating.

That is why I eventually quit NDC and went to SUN-AD. At that time, Kazumasa Nagai asked me to stay, and suggested I could share an office with him. That truly made me happy.

HaraHow many years were you at NDC?

TakahashiFour years. But at that time NDC really had the atmosphere of a school. For example, whenever somebody completed a piece for Toyota or Toshiba or whomever, once we heard it was completed we all went to that office to see it and criticize it together. We could say whatever we wanted to one another. When the JAAC exhibition came around, we all started ignoring our work and everyone took on part-time jobs. At that time, we called the part-time jobs “triangles” and the company work “circles.”

HaraEven now we still use the term “triangle,” and we also had the same culture in my time. We encourage the young people to do the same. There is no way for them to expand their worlds otherwise.

TakahashiThere were also exhibitions at NDC. These were exhibition and sale events. There were rows of square panels containing, for example, works by Akira Uno or Tadanori Yokoo, or photographs by Yutaka Takanashi. They could be bought for quite low prices. These were also very enjoyable times, and part of why I describe NDC as having the atmosphere of a school

HaraI wonder why you were never successful at advertising?

TakahashiThat is just not the kind of person I am. Once I was speaking to Isamu Asakura, who had written the “No matter how many glasses you drink, Sapporo Beer always tastes as good as it did at the first sip” ad copy. I said, “I am just no good at copywriting, am I?” He didn’t contradict me. “You still have your poems, right?” he responded. Now that I am free, if someone asked me to do advertising work, I imagine I could come up with something interesting by taking a completely opposite approach.

HaraPoetry and advertising involve values that are from very different worlds, so much so that a person might think that one has to give up Mallarme to enter the advertising world, or that a person who writes poems has only half his energy left for advertising.

TakahashiI suppose so. However this was not at all the case when I first joined SUN-AD.

I had a collection of poems out then. The president of SUN-AD, Takao Yamazaki – the man who created the Suntory culture – called all the employees together before bonuses were handed out and showed all of them my collection. I am sure I had never given Mr. Yamazaki a copy. I thought he was going to be angry, but he told them, “This is Mr. Takahashi’s book. Doing other kinds of work like this is a very good thing and I hope that all of you will give it a try.”

Therefore, there really may have been that much of a difference in the atmosphere between the two companies. Yusuke Kaji was also very strict, although he did not show it on the outside. Mr. Kaji had long been friends with Takeshi Kaiko and Tadahisa Nishio – they were a bunch of bad boys, and so I think Mr. Kaji must have had an interest in literature. I think that he decided to leave that behind and join advertising. Although he did not do a lot of complaining, Zenso Arita was also strict.

HaraWhen I hear your stories, I realize that although I too am at NDC, it is truly a different place now.

TakahashiThat may be the case. It was really very open at the time.

When I was in the second year of high school, the title page of the Japanese textbook had on it the words “Education is...” I really like those words, and even now use them as a policy for my life. “Education is an opened mind.” That is what it is. All one needs to do is open up. Open up your windows and all kinds of things will enter. What you need will stay behind, and the rest will drift away. There is no need to chase after anything. It will come back through the window again.

Hina Ogawa, the mother of Kinnosuke Yorozuya, said something very similar. She said, “In the end, this is what the world is about,” and with her thumb and index finger she made the shape of a coin. However the space between her thumb and index finger was empty! (Laughs.) If not open, nothing will enter, and if it faces downward, the contents will fall out. It was not only money she was talking about.

I met people while I was at NDC and SUN-AD, and I still meet all kinds of different people today. Because I was younger, at one time I knew may people older than myself, but now there are persons much younger than myself with more technical expertise than I have, and I am learning from them. Despite growing up in a very poor household, I have been very fortunate in the people I have known.

HaraPerhaps that is part of the special nature of a poet. I still find poets to be intimidating (laughs). Poets are the persons who can be accepted by society with the smallest amount of expression. In other words, aren’t all of us trying to become poets?

TakahashiOh, we aren’t accepted (laughs).

Poetry and Design

HaraI started asking myself if I was really a designer. I liked the idea of design, however I did not honestly think of myself as a “designer.” There was something that I wanted to do through design, however I continually asked myself if I was truly a designer.

In fact, I was always intrigued by the idea of poets. Because I liked words, I thought that I should just quite design and try using words to express something. However I realized this was no easy matter. Although many persons produce collections of poetry, only a very small number are recognized as poets by society. That part is extremely difficult.

When I hear your stories, I think that it must be your way of living that makes you a poet, and that the fact that you can make a living in this way is a kind of poetry.

TakahashiYou question whether or not you are a designer, but in fact it is exactly the same with poems. I do not know what a poem is, and that is why I am continually trying to find out.

If I had to define a poet, I would say that it is a person who continues to seek poems, not a person who writes them. Whether the person is a real poet or not is something judged by the outside world; it is inappropriate for him to designate himself a poet. In my case, in my tax returns I list myself as a “writer,” not a “poet.” When I do some writing work on request from a magazine, they ask me, “What title do you want next to your name? Poet or writer?” I always say, “the former.” I cannot bring myself to actually say I am a poet.

The word “shi” [poem] has many other names: poem, poetry, poésie... “Poésie” comes from Greek and is a term that was created relatively recently. There is also the Greek verb poièo, which means “to make.” We may call something made of words a poem or poetry, but in fact everything that has ever been created is a poem. It just so happens that among everything that is created, we use the word “poem” to describe something made of words.

I believe it is best to divide poetry into two concepts: these are “poésie” and “poems.” Poésie refers to the true poetry that exists someplace. We perceive it as that part which is continually transmitted from that place to us by a kind of wave action. In many case, it is transmitted by means of concrete objects or sometimes, for example, by human beings. Perhaps it may cause us to fall in love. In any case, it always comes to use by some kind of medium. Even a single tree will do. It may come to us when we marvel at a something particularly beautiful. This can become the inspiration for writing what we call poems. Poésie comes to us from somewhere else, and our attempts to capture it are poems, however none have ever succeeded in actually capturing it.

HaraThey are the marks of an attempt to capture it.

TakahashiThat’s right. A collection of poems is an accumulation of such failed efforts. It may contain a few relatively good failures, and some which are not even worth mentioning, but there is no doubt that all of them are failures. Because all of them fail to capture the poésie, we never lose interest and keep on writing poems.

HaraI understand. Although my work is graphic design, rather than producing posters and newspaper advertisements, I am creating “an idea.” I think that the poster represents the marks left from my attempt to achieve this idea. Just as you said, perhaps it is the shadow of something which I tried but failed to catch which remains behind as the poster.

At Musashino Art University, there is a professor named Shutaro Mukai. In one of his courses, there is a lecture titled “Afterimage of the Sun.” Students were told to look at the sun and then quickly shut their eyes and paint what they could see when they closed their eyes. When a person shuts his eyes after looking at the sun, he sees a residual image – sometimes orange, sometimes green, sometimes blue – known as “phosphorescence.” The students were told to paint that image in as much detail as possible. I did not understand why he asked us to do this, however one time Professor Mukai said, “The pattern of a butterfly’s wings is an afterimage of the sun, externalized through the body of the butterfly?” This surprised me. While nobody can prove this, I found it to be a highly inspired idea. It captured the spirit of poésie.

Professor Mukai said that if there is a study of design, it must be something like poiesis (the study of poetry). I felt the same. What is needed is the power to inspire people – the sure ability to move people to action even if there is no proof or scientific backing. I felt that I had gained the ability to see design in that way.

At that time, I felt that I was attempting to capture through design the same sort of object that the poets were. Therefore I had the sense that what I wanted to do was different from the profession of designer as ordinarily conceived. I still feel this way, and feel somehow uncomfortable when I am described as a designer. However I cannot describe myself as a poet.

TakahashiI think that a person only needs to be in continuous pursuit of something. I also am quite confident that there is something which I am still continuing to pursue.

HaraIn my case, I have specific production job skills, such as arranging text in an attractive manner for layout, binding books, and creating logo types. As a result, I am kept at least distantly connected to society. However a poet does not have this connection, and he relies only on words. Persons such as musicians and novelists are striving so hard to achieve what you already have. There must be something which the words are connecting you, right?

TakahashiThat sounds a bit suspicious (laughs).

If we are talking about design, whenever I send a book to Ikko Tanaka, I always receive a reply from him. One time he told me that my poems had – in a good way – something similar to design about them. I thought that I must have been the recipient of some formless blessing while I was at NDC and SUN-AD. When I bring the outside world to myself, I always organize it in some way. This is a type of design. Unrelated to the amount of training I received for this purpose, I think that I somehow absorbed this ability, and it has been very important to me.

Individuality and Originality

TakahashiIkko Tanaka struck me as quite a peculiar person. I heard that he was unable to produce finished work. The finishing work was always done by one of the staff. He was always extremely disorganized. Perhaps now would be a difficult time for people such as Mr. Tanaka. That such a disorganized person could succeed as a designer was due to the abundance of opportunities at that time. His passing away might have symbolized the ending of an age.

HaraWas the reason he could not finish his work because he could not bring the chaos inside him to an end and therefore could not pull things to a conclusion?

TakahashiI am sure it would have been an easy matter for him learn to finish things, however I think he may have feared that if he did, he would lose himself. That is how big Ikko’s ideas were.

When I think about my own words and expressions, something I have noticed is that when I reread what I wrote from the time I first arrived in Tokyo at age 24, I feel that my writing has not changed at all. This is because from long ago I have never believed in the concept of “individuality” at all. My basic thinking was that individuality was something that could do no good, but could do a great amount of harm.

Imagine that there is an apple and a peach, and that I am to paint a picture of them. At this time, my individuality is not necessary. What is necessary is the individuality of the peach and the apple. I should express and return that individuality as accurately as possible. I should return a peach and an apple. At that time, I require only the individuality of the peach and the apple. Perhaps my own individuality can be of use in accomplishing this, however revealing my own individuality is not the ultimate goal.

Speaking from my perspective, the more I express my own individuality, the deeper I fall into a hell from which I may not be able to rescue myself. I think that the modern hell is a hell created when everyone asserts themselves all the time.

So what is the purpose of expression? In the end, it is to redeem oneself from the hell of one’s own individuality through those subjects a person wants to express. I believe that is what expression is. Nothing good can come from perverting it for the purpose of expressing the self That is my basic thinking regarding the concept of expression.

HaraTo speak in basic terms of West and East, there is the term terra incognita used to describe creation in the West. Creating something is there understood to be like stepping onto and leaving footprints in land where nobody has ever tread before. If those footprints last forever, it is an accomplishment and an honor. However in the East, creation means following carefully in the footsteps of one’s predecessors and stepping precisely in the same footprints. Because those footprints never align perfectly, the parts which are the same and the parts which are different are understood as the issues of universality and individuality. One attempts in one’s own way to grasp that which past persons judged good. However being unable to grasp it fully, one turns to a different way of grasping it – a way which departs from the predetermined path. One then searches for new value in this departure. The fact that this is described as “derivative” or “copying” I think shows that our concept of creativity is fundamentally different. We are often taught that when we create something we must not imitate something else, and that we must possess individuality. However nothing is more of a hindrance than cheap individuality.

Recently, I feel that I need to take a close look at Japan and Asia, and to reexamine the problem of imitation products from the perspective of traditional copying. I would like to learn more about Asian art. From time to time, I am seized by the desire to see for myself those things that Tenshin Okakura saw. What are the emotional factors operating in Asian art? What is happening in India? What do the Chinese seek to obtain through Confucianism? What did the Tartars seek when they crossed the Great Wall? I would like to examine Asian art because I think that evidence for these – emotional factors, perhaps – may remain in the art.

What I sometimes come across in this area is the problem of imitation products. For example, because a bowl is made using a potter’s wheel, similar repetitions naturally occur. One could say that it is in fact similar repetitions which produce a bowl. In other words, one does the same task that the prior persons did, and finds what is good and what is bad in the minute differences between the products. Then maybe that old man from the TV show Nandemo Kanteidan [We Appraise Anything] appears and says that because the period is different, this piece is a “fake.” However art is not archeology. I believe that the true nature of the piece – that which transcends time and is not subject to judgments of authenticity – may also be present in the “fake.” bnWhen we examine it with a measure similar to the perfect pitch that is used for sound, I think that we are certain to find something in the fake piece as well. I expect this will lead questioning originality and where the value of an item truly lies.

TakahashiI do not reject the concept of terra incognita. Unless one takes a step beyond where others have been before, what value can there be in expressing oneself? However the purpose is not for one’s own honor. The purpose is in the honor of the expression, and the individual is only a tool for that purpose. Otherwise, the person will not be able to save himself. If a person keeps saying, “this is me, this is me,” he will continually thirst for that affirmation.

I have heard about demons. The true aim of demons is to corrupt human beings. They are said to suffer from an eternal thirst which gives them no satisfaction in corrupting a person, and forces them off again to corrupt another. Self-assertion is something similar; it is an eternal thirst from which a person cannot be saved. I also have a strong need to assert myself inside me, and it is because I have it that I think this way. There is no meaning in expression unless one can escape from hell. I believe that true expression is giving oneself over to what one is trying to express, and therein seeking to purifying oneself.

HaraTo purify oneself?

TakahashiYes. This is always a part of something good, no matter what it is. Self-assertion only clouds the goodness. Self-assertion can be useful as a starting point, and everyone has ambition. When one thinks well about it, Dostoyevsky, Mallarmé... they are men thousands or tens of thousands times greater than I am, and yet even they will fade and disappear after a hundred million years. No matter how much a person asserts the “self,” after death it will gradually fade away. Eventually nobody will remember what a Mutsuo Takahashi was. Even while I am alive, in the eyes of others I am always undervalued, overvalued, or misunderstood. A correct evaluation is impossible. Even I do not know my own value. Nobody does.

Although I enjoy it when I receive praise for my expression, I think what would make me happiest would be if some person somewhere remembers a part of what I have expressed, while having forgotten the person who expressed it. In that sense, nothing remains in Japanese art history of the life stories of Soutatsu and Sharaku. I think that is wonderful.

The world of commercial design is not by its nature a world of signatures. Much of it is an anonymous world. I think this is very good – a blessing. In place of a god there is the product, and the overriding priority is to sell the product. As a result, the product takes the place of a god, and the person offers everything he has to this purpose.

HaraConsumption has also become a complicated subject, and I feel that there the shape of the gods as well have become obscure. The shape of advertising has also become less clearly defined. Advertising copy during the early days of NDC was dedicated to commerce occupying the place of a god. Judging from the evidence left from the attempts at capturing a nameless something, it was an enjoyable world.

There emerged a copywriter named Shigesato Itoi, who created ad copy such as “I love the unusual.” and “Delicious Life.” Consumption had become complicated and consumers had also become cynical. Up to that time, I think there existed a simple relationship. If a good product was well presented, the consumers also understood and were pleased. Subsequently, advertising went too far. When advertising began only saying what is favorable and convenient, it became clear that there was a worn-out relationship between advertisement and consumer in which the advertisement itself preaches, while the recipient accepts the words knowing that they are unreliable when deciding how to consume. After coming full circle in this way, the language of advertising has become extremely difficult.

TakahashiHowever that is the nature of words. The gods themselves are not that simple. Therefore I believe that the present conditions perfectly represent the way of words, and the way of the world. I do not think any great deviation is occurring. I think that Shigesato Itoi, and also Takashi Nakahata, were persons who appeared at the times when they were needed.

However if we assume that words describe objects, then there must be some deviation between the two, and this deviation is continually increasing. The relationship between words and objects is complex, and there is no direct relationship between them.

Words came into existence in order to communicate ideas; however, once they existed, words took on their own existence and came to exist on their own. As a matter of course, words themselves have become independent, and no longer correspond perfectly to the objects they describe. For example, the words in a poem have a message, but not always meaning. There is more to words than their meanings.

I have no more difficulty with ancient literature than I do with modern literature. The reason ancient literature does not present trouble for me is that when I was in the third grade, I encountered the complete collection of Japanese literature published by Kaizosha. I still have it, although it is falling apart at the seams now, the first story in the “Literature for Young Readers” section was Kogane-maru by Sazanami Iwaya. It was written in the formal literary style, however young people during that time in the Meiji Era read children’s stories written in that same literary style. Because I was exposed to this kind of writing naturally, I have no particular resistance to it. Of course I did not understand the meaning entirely. However still it remained inside of me. As I read it over and over, the grammar of the literary style somehow entered my head, and as a result when I later read Tsurezuregusa (Essays in Idleness), it was a breeze. Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji) is difficult because it contains much of the vernacular from that age. Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) on the other hand is easy to understand because it is in the literary style – a matter of logic. If a person begins with this kind of material, the ancient texts do not seem so unfamiliar at all. Because you understand it as sound, not as meaning, it remains inside you. It is not by the meaning that a person understands it. However learning in this way makes it a part of your flesh and blood. They are words, and they are sounds. If you approach them in this way words are not such difficult things at all.

Tabula Rasa

HaraAs there is an extremely close relationship between the printed word such as books and the spoken word, recently I have been thinking a lot about paper. More than just as a printing medium, I think the fact that paper is white and has good firmness are important.

I think the “white” of paper, which was created in a natural world where there are few examples of stable white color, presented a powerful image to humanity. Paper also has sufficient firmness that it can stand upright when grasped by the fingers, but at the same time is weak so that it crumples quickly when handled. It is on something so white and firm as paper that with ink we make our indelible drawings or letters. When we do so, we are committing an irreversible act on a substance that is white, willowy, fragile, and compelling. By committing this act repeatedly, we create words. The act may be irreversible but if the result is something wonderful, it will remain intact for future generations. I think it was this kind of imagination that accelerated our development of words. More than simple printing technologies used to reproduce some information, it was the primordial imagination involved with writing words on white paper that played a very important role.

Today I think this idea is beginning to change rapidly. Written works on the internet can easily be revised, however I feel that words in electronic media lack stability; instead they are in constant fluid motion. They can be rewritten by anyone at any time, and the writer himself may well decide to revise them. Like a musician playing before a crowd, or a dancer performing before an audience, the image of permanent and irreversible words fixed on paper is extremely important. I believe that we have always gained something from the imagination that leads us to place our carefully selected printed words on the printed page.

TakahashiDance and musical performances leave an impression on people, however the performances themselves vanish after each one ends. Something printed on paper does not vanish, and although the paper will deteriorate after a certain time, if the words are printed again they can be reproduced any number of times. There is a certain sinfulness to that.

As you said, in the end it is “white” which is important: tabula rasa – the blank slate. That is what is important. Silence is more important than words. Dark is more important than light. I think that white paper is a metaphor for darkness – an inverted metaphor for a state of nothingness. In the sense that Rilke said that darkness was more fundamental than light, I believe that white paper represents a metaphor for inverted darkness.

It is important that silence exist before words; when we become unable to bear the silence any longer, we create words. However the process of waiting until the silence becomes unbearable is gradually disappearing in our modern world. We are in a hurry to express ourselves before we have endured the silence, making the world a very noisy place and rashly corrupting both ourselves and others beyond redemption.

HaraI completely agree with your idea of redemption. I think there is a deep relationship between the placement of words on white paper, like lights we create when we can no longer endure the darkness, and the imagination that redeems us.

TakahashiThere is a deep relationship; because first of all we have to write something or nothing happens. It is important that what we have written will in the end one day disappear.

The person who had the greatest influence on me beginning from my junior high school days was Shinobu Orikuchi. Because he was a scholar of Japanese literature and Japan, he was speaking specifically about Japan when he said, “The most excellent among the songs and poems in the Japanese language are those which say nothing.” He often used the metaphor “grasping snow.” Snow always melts, and leaves nothing behind except for the memory of its coldness. He is saying that this is the essence of expression.

HaraI see.

TakahashiAnd I agree with him. Although he was speaking of the Japanese language, the same can be said the world over. Language leaves no trace, and even the faint memory of it will eventually fade. That may be the most wonderful thing about it.

On a deeper level, this also applies to the most basic Buddhist concept of nirvana. Although it sounds like a contradiction in terms, the Buddhism which we are familiar with is the most extreme form of Mahayana Buddhism. The man Gautama Siddhartha taught that the ideal human form was to fall from the endless cycle of death and rebirth and disappear entirely into nothingness. This was the final salvation and the ultimate goal. I think there is some connection between this and the concept of language.

I find it interesting that Mr. Orikuchi’s poems have not achieved that ultimate goal and in fact still endure quite strongly. They remain behind like some curious oil. The poems of Mokichi Saito are more appropriate. I believe Mr. Orikuchi developed this philosophy because he was filled with poisons and impurities and desired to rid himself of them.

HaraThat is a very remarkable idea. This is what forms the resource that drives us to expression. I think that the feeling of disappearing snow which Shinobu Orikuchi describes is one of Japan’s “resources.” Even if my generation cannot, this feeling may be carried on and resurrected by later generations. The idea is a tenacious, if fleeting, one. Although Japanese civilization contains an extremely large amount of chaos, its true nature may become clearer to us at some point in the future. We need to listen intently for any sign that this nature is becoming clear, and try to scoop up whatever we can of it.

During a time after the war, when Japan was described as an industrial country, GDP represented a large part of Japanese pride. That has begun little by little to change. But then what is next? It may not be manufacturing. It may be something nearer to an aesthetic sense or hospitality.

To me, the most shocking change in the world today is the sudden economic rise of China. I fear that if we become wrapped up in the great confusion resulting from China’s rapid growth, we may once again lose into obscurity the pride that we once held, as well as the understanding that is just now beginning to become clear to us. So the question we ask is how can we hold on to them? I believe that one of the most important of Japan’s aesthetic resources is a sense like that of Shinobu Orikuchi which you just described.

TakahashiA friend of mine who had lived for many years in Paris upon returning to Japan visited Takeisao Shrine – a shrine dedicated to Nobunaga Oda. On the recommendation of the daughter of a chief priest of his acquaintance, he went to have his fortune told by the chief priest using Four Pillar astrology. There he waited for the priest to emerge. There was nothing in the shrine except for the mirrors and the sakaki evergreen trees. When the priest arrived, he said to the priest, “Shinto [“Way of the Gods,” ancient Japanese religion] contains nothing, doesn’t it?” The priest responded, “That is right. Shinto is nothingness.” He was deeply moved by this encounter, as was I when he told me about it. When he told this story to Yukio Mishima a few months before he committed seppuku, Yukio Mishima declared on the spot that Shinto was in fact Japan.

He said, “Japan is nothing and nothing is Japan. Japan is a vessel of nothingness. However this vessel of nothingness sucks in things from the outside, and when they emerge again they are changed into something else.” If Yukio Mishima was able to see that clearly, then there may be some salvation to the shocking image of his death. I hope to make this state of nothingness something very dear to me.

I am now writing serially for the magazine Tosho (Books), published by Iwanami Shoten. In the December 2009 issue, I wrote about the subject of kire (cutting). Kire is one of the unique characteristics of Japanese culture. The understanding of continually cutting what was there before – cutting in order to seek its true, original form – is one stage that I believe I have now reached.

HaraIt is the same kire as in kireji [punctuation words used in haiku and other poems], isn’t it?

TakahashiRight. For example with haiku, the ultimate form of Japanese literature is considered to be 5-7-5, however in fact it is the 7-7 phrase which was cut away from the 5-7-5-7-7 tanka [short poem]. It was that cut phrase which we were most earnestly seeking. Going even farther back, a tanka is a cut version of a choka [long poem]. In this way, continual kire is the way of things in Japan. This is something that I now understand.

One might ask then where this first came from. You may laugh, but I think it comes from the fact that Japan is cut away from the Eurasian continent. It is the fate of Japan to be cut away. Those who came to Japan from the Eurasian continent found themselves with nowhere else they could go. This is where they were blown to and stayed. They gradually accumulated here like layers of earth. When something new emerged on the continent, something else which had come before it had to fade. However in Japan nothing faded and everything remains. In the world of performing art, to take one example, Japan is the only place where gagaku (ancient ceremonial court music) still exists in its pure form. Heikyoku (chanting of episodes from The Tale of the Heike to musical accompaniment) has also somehow survived. We have noh drama, kyogen plays, and kabuki, as well as traditional puppet theater. All of these forms coexist. I doubt there is another country as abundant – even bizarrely so – in this way as Japan.

HaraMy thoughts exactly! If you geographically rotate the entire Eurasian continent and the Japanese archipelago by 90 degrees, you get something that looks like a pachinko table, with Japan located at the position of the receptacle at the very bottom. The journalist Hajime Takano wrote a book titled Sekai Chizuo no Yomikata (Reading World Maps). It was from the diagrams in that book that I encountered this revelation.

As you said, true Japan is nothingness. Japan has been influenced by all parts of the world, and the world is based on complexity. Driven by something like a dense, concentrated power that is diametrically opposite to simplicity, the cultures of the world build their strengths while competing with one another. Islam, India, and China each became filled with a glorious culture. A broad variety of these elements came to Japan, which came under the influence of these highly developed cultures. This was likely the result of being geographically cut away from the continent.

However Japan was not unilaterally influenced; after accepting this wide variety of elements, Japan began to sublate them. Japan produced an extreme type of plain sensibility that stood in opposition to the complexity of the world. A form of ultimate minimalism began to appear around the middle of the Muromachi period, following the Onin War.

TakahashiAll manner of glorious things find their way to Japan, but in the end only nothingness remains. That is a great quality, and something which will be passed down to future generations. This may be something that Japan can send out to the global world, as we all came from nothingness and will one day return to nothingness. That may be the most natural thing in the world, and if Japan has this quality then I hope it will be careful to preserve it.

Take for example The Tale of Genji. At the time, that book was a vessel for all kinds of different cultures, and it contains a variety of philosophies and world views. The book ends with the disappearance of its main character. This is the Kumogakure (Vanished into Clouds) chapter. In the Uji Chapters which follow, the relationship between General Kaoru and Ukifune also eventually comes to naught. I believe that this can serve as a great comfort to us. I believe that we should make the understanding that everything returns to nothing an asset for Japan, and if possible an asset for all of humanity. Words exist as part of this world, and I think it proper that in the end they too will disappear.

HaraThat is what kire signifies. Each individual impression is sublimated in a single place. Words disappear like snow and new words are born, and these new words are preceded by kire. I have long thought about this subject, and so I was very pleased to hear you describe your thoughts on it.

To be certain, the more we do, the more the “nothing” principle operates. For layout work as well, really only the text is all we need. There is no need for fancy fonts; it is enough to concentrate on arranging ordinary and simple characters in such a way that the reader is not aware of the font at all. Meticulous adjustment of character and line spacing is sufficient. The more we concentrate on this, conversely the greater our receptiveness grows. I began to feel that the idea of using kire to continually sublimate ideas was to me what I felt to be Japan, like the touch of vanished snow that remains on the palm. If we can successfully apply this sense in the context of the world of the future, I think that we can achieve something wonderful.

TakahashiThree writers which I would like the young people of the future to read are Shinobu Orikuchi, Shizuka Shirakawa, and Susumu Ono. Perhaps Yoshihiko Amino as well. These persons are scholars, and they are also poets, but they have not received the recognition they deserve in the academic world. I recently read two books published by Iwanami Shinsho about the Chinese characters, and Mr. Shirakawa’s name did not once appear in the bibliography. It is because he was rejected by academism. Similarly, no comments by Susumo Ono appear in the definitions of the Nihon Kokugo Daijiten (Japanese Language Dictionary) published by Shogakukan. Although there were many scholars in the time of Shinobu Orikuchi, all of them have been forgotten and only Mr. Orikuchi is remembered. Attempt to verify any theory and you will find it is no more than a hypothesis. In the end it is the one who has the greatest faith in his assumptions who emerges the victor.

HaraThat’s right. It is a matter of how much imagination we allow to remain in the human mind. It is not a matter of deduction or induction; it is the question of how much poésie can be received by a human mind while engaging in creative action. I think this is where the value of words and the value of expression lie.

TakahashiI agree. It is important that the people who come after us contact and take encouragement from this poésie, and then develop the desire to express something. Criticism is not about making judgments; real criticism it is the power to generate something new from the subject. Otherwise it has no meaning, and is nothing more than a vent for one’s frustrations. That is something we must be aware of.

HaraThis will be my last question. I think that the “nothing” described by Lao-tse in his writings – the claim Taoism equals “nothing” – is different from the sentiment expressed by Shinobu Orikuchi that “grasping snow may leave an impression, but nothing remains behind.” I cannot say precisely how the two are different, except that what Lao-tse is expressing is something structural and not a matter of the senses. What is the difference?

When I wrote the book Shiro (White), in fact I had originally selected for the title the English word “emptiness” – a state of nothingness. However I was concerned that the resulting image was theoretically similar to the philosophies of Lao-tse and Chuang-tse, and as I searched for a different way of saying this I hit upon “White.”

TakahashiThat is a difficult question. I think it is Buddhism which has most directly addressed this matter. Buddhism teaches that all is nothing, and then denies that a state of true nothingness can exist. Describing a state of truly nothing... we are limited by the use of words.

HaraThe idea that “nothing cannot exist” is a mathematical (theoretical) concept, not one that can be understood by the senses. The story of “grasping snow” is an extremely sensory explanation, and when I heard it I was struck by how accurate it was. It seems like Buddhism on the other hand could be replaced with mathematical symbols.

TakahashiYes indeed. The foundation of the original Buddhism is more a form of logic than a religion. It was a fact of life in the Indian society of that time that there was no other way to salvation. We should not reject either one, neither the extremely human idea of Mr. Orikuchi, nor the other “nothingness,” the one that also denies nothingness is possible – a sort of perpetual motion denial. We must live with both of these kept inside us.

HaraThere is no deep emotion in mathematics, is there?

TakahashiThere is! Someone once said that if you want to know how beautiful the world is, study mathematics. Tamaki Ogawa – an authority on Chinese phonetics – was once asked, “Why are you so possessed by the subject of phonetics?” He responded, “Because the structure of a rhyme is something truly beautiful.”

HaraI think that kire is truly something very literary and beautiful.

TakahashiBecause it is the act of seeking something that has been lost.

HaraIt makes us aware of the echoes that sound in our souls. Thank you very much. This has been a very informative conversation.

October 28, 2009

Mutsuo Takahashi
Born in 1937 in Fukuoka Prefecture. Raised in Chikuho Nogata, Chikugo Yame, and Buzen Moji. Developed tuberculosis just before graduation from the faculty of Japanese language and literature at Fukuoka University of Education. After graduating two years later, went to Tokyo and joined Nippon Design Center in 1962. After leaving NDC in 1965, worked at SUN-AD while at the same time continuing with his own production work and also gaining acquaintances in poetry and academic circles. Since his youth, he has continued to write free verse and fixed form poetry (tanka and haiku), as well as prose (novels, criticisms, and essays), later adding works for the stage (stage scripts, opera scripts, noh theater, kyogen drama, joruri puppet theater, and poetry and prose for the stage). Received the Toson Shimazaki Memorial Award in 1982, the Jun Takami Award in 1987, the Yomiuri Literature Prize in 1987, the Global Japan Foundation Kenichi Yamamoto Literary Award in 1987, the Hanatsubaki Contemporary Poetry Prize in 1993, the Museum of Contemporary Japanese Poetry, Tanka and Haiku Prize in 1996, the Medal with Purple Ribbon in 2000, and the Japan Contemporary Poetry Prize in 2010. For activities in other areas, received the Oribe Award, the Japan Cultural Design Award, and the Kita Kyushu Civic Culture Award. Has published 28 books of poetry including The Mutsuo Takahashi Poetry Collection, seven collections of haiku including Yuko (Wandering), six collections of poems including Kyo-on-shu (Empty Sounds Collection), and many other works. Translated poetry collections have been published in the United States, England, Ireland, and Denmark. He also conducts readings of his own works in Japan. During April – July 2010, the “Joseph Cornell + Mutsuo Takahashi Exhibition” was held at the Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art.
Kenya Hara
Graphic designer. Born in 1958 in Okayama. President of Nippon Design Center and professor at Musashino Art University. Joined Nippon Design Center after graduating from the Science of Design Faculty in the College of Art and Design at Musashino Art University in 1983. Specializes in identification and communication: the design of “concepts” not “objects.” Became a board member of MUJI in 2001, and received the Tokyo ADC Grand Prix in 2003 for his MUJI advertising campaign. Recent productions include the Matsuya Ginza department store renewal, Umeda Clinic signage system, Mori Building VI plan, Nagano Olympic opening and closing ceremony programs, official poster for the 2005 Aichi World’s Fair, and other works representing Japan. Exhibitions which he has produced, including “RE DESIGN,” “HAPTIC,” and “SENSEWARE” have attracted attention as attempts at changing the understanding of the relationships between design and society and between human beings and their senses. His recent book Designing Design has been translated into several languages and read by many persons around the world.
*Hitoshi Anzai
Poet. Lived 1919 – 1994. Born in Fukuoka Prefecture. Withdrew from Fukuoka Normal School (now Fukuoka University of Education). Joined the newspaper company Asahi Shimbun in 1943. After coming to Tokyo, he continued to increase his communication with literary colleagues in Fukuoka and has published a vast quantity of work, including more than 10 collections of poetry. Also served as president of the Japan Poets’ Association.
*Tetsuo Deguchi
Copywriter. Born in 1931 in Chiba Prefecture. Graduated in 1954 from the French Language and Literature Department in the Faculty of Letters at the University of Tokyo. Joined Nippon Design Center in 1960. Served as director from 1974 – 1984 and auditor from 1984 – 1986.
ogoretaru Mono wa Sarani Yogoretaru Koto wo Nase
Collection of Mutsuo Takahashi poems: Yogoretaru Mono wa Sarani Yogoretaru Koto wo Nase (An Unclean Person Must Becomes even Dirtier)
1966, published by Shityosha.
Afterword: Tatsuhiko Shibusawa Design: Makoto Wada
Nemuri to Okashi to Rakka To
Collection of Mutsuo Takahashi poems: Nemuri to Okashi to Rakka To (Sleeping, Sinning, Falling)
1965, published by Sogetsu Art Center.
Afterword: Yukio Mishima Binding: Tadanori Yokoo P: Hajime Sawatari
Juni no Enkei
Mutsuo Takahashi: Juni no Enkei (Twelve Views from the Distance)
1970, published by Chuokoronsha.
Binding: Tadanori Yokoo
Collection of Mutsuo Takahashi poems: Yuko (Wandering)
2006, published by Hoshitani Shoya.
Collection of Mutsuo Takahashi poems: Kyo-on-shu (Empty Sounds Collection)
2006, published by Fushiki Shoin.
Usagi no Niwa
Mutsuo Takahashi: Usagi no Niwa (Rabbit’s Garden)
1987, published by Shoshi-Yamada.
Saku no Mukou
Mutsuo Takahashi: Saku no Mukou (Beyond the Fence)
2000, published by Fushiki Shoin.
*Shutaro Mukai
Science of design. Born in 1932 in Tokyo. After graduating from the Waseda University School of Commerce, majored in design at The Ulm School of Design in Germany. Served as a fellow at the Ulm School of Design and the Leibniz University of Hannover , before launching the Science of Design Faculty at Musashino Art University in 1967, where he is currently a professor.
Asobu Nippon: Kami Asobu Yue Hito Asobu
Mutsuo Takahashi
Asobu Nippon: Kami Asobu Yue Hito Asobu (Playful Japan: So the Gods Play and So the People Play)
2008, published by Shueisha.
Eien Made
Collection of Mutsuo Takahashi poems: Eien Made (To Forever)
2009, published by Shityosha.
Hako Uchu wo Tataete
Mutsuo Takahashi
Joseph Cornell: Hako Uchu wo Tataete (Intimate Worlds Enclosed)
2010, published by the Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art.
Translation: Jeffrey Angles
*Shigesato Itoi
Copywriter. Born in 1948. Charismatic and popular, particularly among subculture magazines, in the 1970s. During the 1980s, gained attention for advertising copy including the “I love the unusual” campaign for Seibu Department Store and the “Delicious Life” campaign. Together with others such as Takashi Nakahata and Toru Kawasaki, was one of the key figures in the 1980s copywriter boom.
*Takashi Nakahata
Copywriter. Born in 1947. Worked at Sun-Ad before founding Nakahata Advertising Office in 1981. In addition to the “Your bottom wants to be washed too” (Toto) and “Your eyes are Sharp, aren’t they?” (Sharp) campaigns, has also worked with Suntory, Sony, and other clients. Was one of the driving figures behind the copywriter boom of the 1980s.
2004, published by The Asahi Shimbun Company.
Editing: Takeo Planning/composition: Kenya Hara D: Kenya Hara, Kayoko Takeo
2007, published by The Asahi Shimbun Company.
Planning/composition: Kenya Hara + Nippon Design Center Hara Design Institute
Editing: Japan Creation Executive Committee  Exhibition director: Kenya Hara  Book design: Kenya Hara, Nobuyo Ieda
Kenya Hara
2007, published by Lars Müller Publishers.
D: Kenya Hara, Kaoru Matsuno
*Shinobu Orikuchi
Folklorist, scholar of Japanese literature, poet (pen name: Shakuchoku). Lived 1887 – 1953. Investigated the practices, beliefs, and spirituality of Japanese people in ancient times, and created the field which is now known generally as “Orikuchiism,” and which traces the origins of Japanese culture back to the two concepts of marebito and yorishiro. The Complete Collection of Shinobu Orikuchi (total 37 volumes plus three appendix volumes) is currently in publication and contains all of his written works.
*Shizuka Shirakawa
Scholar of classical Chinese texts. Lived 1910 – 2006. Known as the foremost expert in studies of Chinese characters. Published the collections Jitou (Origin of Characters, 1984), Jikun (Learning of Characters, 1987), and Jitsu (Knowledge of Characters, 1996). Asserted that early characters such as inscriptions on oracle bones and tortoise shells and bronze inscriptions were influenced by religion and superstitious magic. The Complete Collection of Shizuka Shirakawa (12 volumes plus 17 supplementary volumes, published by Heibonsha Limited) is currently in publication.
*Susumu Ono
Japanese linguist. Lived 1919 – 2008. Through research into the pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, and other aspects of the ancient Japanese language, he devoted his life to investigating Japanese culture, including the origins of the Japanese people and the Japanese way of thinking. Published many works including Nihongo no Kigen (Origins of the Japanese Language), Nihongo no Bunpo wo Kangaeru (Studies of Japanese Grammar), Nihongo Keisei (History of the Japanese Language), and Nihongo Renshu-cho (A Japanese Workbook).
*Yoshihito Amino
Historian (Japanese middle ages). Lived 1928 – 2004. Studied the world of tradesmen, artisans, and other nomadic peoples. Questioned the conventional image of Japan, and had a large effect on studies of the Japanese middle ages. Known for his accomplishments in approaching Japanese history from a folklore perspective and introducing interdisciplinary research methods to the study of Japanese history. Also questioned the understanding of Japan based on the generally-accepted theory of ethnic homogeneity. The Complete Works of Yoshihito Amino (18 volumes plus one supplementary volume) was published by Iwanami Shoten in 2009.
Kenya Hara: Shiro (White)
Published by Chuokoron-Shinsha, Inc., 2008.
Poster wo Nusunde Kudasai +3
Kenya Hara
Poster wo Nusunde Kudasai +3 (Please Steal these Posters +3)
Published by Heibonsha Limited, 2009.
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