Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Public space and no-man’s-land

The riverbank

I’ve always liked the Kamo River – walking along it, sitting down and reading a book on the riverbank, listening to the sound of its water. It’s a place for lovable eccentricities. Today I passed by an elderly man reciting some kind of incantation as if practicing for some ritual, or perhaps he did it just for fun. Once I heard a man practicing a Nô recital. Young men and women playing or practicing musical instruments can be seen and heard almost daily. In the summers children play in the water. There are performers and people doing gymnastics. Demonstrators often gather on the river bank. As it gets dark, the lovers come. And of course this is where the homeless live. For some reason the riverbed has become associated in my mind with the Ganges and I wonder if the expression “the ghats of Kyoto” wouldn’t be an apt description to describe the riverbank.

One reason I like the place is its character of no-man’s-land. By no-man’s-land I mean something different from a public space. We are apt to think of public spaces as free and open, but that is often far from the case. Let me illustrate. Whenever we venture out into the public, we often feel that we need to dress up. We need to shave, or put on make-up. The public requires us to behave in a certain manner. The riverbank, by contrast, is a place where formal dress feels out of place. Here we can behave casually, button up, and relax. Despite the eccentricities, the riverbed is a quotidian place, a place for eating one’s lunch box, for jogging or walking a dog. There is a sense of freedom here that stems from the fact that the riverbed, although not private, nevertheless doesn’t qualify as public either. What distinguishes the no-man’s-land is that it is not claimed by anybody, although it can of course formally be somebody’s property. It is a deserted land, a wasteland. Figuratively, the desert can be seen as the quintessential no-man’s-land. What I am trying to get at is rather close to the Japanese akichi which means “empty lot”, “unused or uninhabited land”, but which literally means open land.

The no-man’s-land is free and open since no one wants to claim it. Waste and garbage, things that are free to pick up for anyone who feels like it, belong to the world of no-man’s-land. Huge chunks of the Internet are a no-man’s-land, materials free to use for anyone. Everything than can be freely shared belongs to no-man’s-land. Children are the natural inhabitants of no-man’s-land. Anyone can address a child, because the law that strangers shouldn’t be addressed doesn’t apply to them. No-man’s-land is the “commons”, the riches of nature and society that are there for anyone to enjoy. In general, it is what is free, what is abundant and in free supply, or so worthless that no one wants it: the leftovers.

Wastelands and parks

Sure, the riverbank too is regulated, controlled, and under “public” care. There are imposing signs along the Kamo declaring it a “beautification enforcement area”. The lawns are mowed, the road is paved for much of the stretch near the city center, and fireworks have recently been forbidden. Worse: fences have been erected under some bridges to prevent the homeless from setting up tents or cardboard houses. I admit that the riverbanks are far from a perfect example of a no-man’s-land, but they nevertheless, I feel, possess enough of that quality to give us an idea of what a no-man’s-land might be like and how it differs from quintessential public spaces like parks and squares.

Squares are rare in Japan. Parks are more common. I truly appreciate all parks. Parks can be wonderful if you need a rest from the frenzy of comsumtion going on alongs the streets or in the malls. Anywhere a child can run freely is a good place. But it's a mistake to believe that parks are the quintessence of a free and open place. Regulations exist everywhere. Some of the more monumental or famous parks – like Yoyogi Park in Tokyo or Maruyama Park in Kyoto – have a showcase quality which tends to make people control themselves in spite of themselves. Simply being there entails a feeling of being restricted that stems from being in the “public eye”. Neighborhood parks may have a more casual atmosphere by virtue of being somewhat “out of the public eye”, but are often small and a bit cramped (space often being dominated by facilities such as playgrounds or small baseball arenas). Still these parks are a haven compared to places like Tennôji Park in Osaka, in which the ostensible defense of the public has totally destroyed the public character of the park itself, which has been turned into little but a system of fortifications to shut out the homeless, charging entrance fees and surrounding the park with high walls, taking care in the process not to leave any space for tents next to the wall. As these examples demonstrate, the fact that a space is public does not mean that it is open or free from control. Far from it. It means that it is under public administration (public usually meaning local or municipal authorities), something which is not at all incompatible with tight control. ”Even public property is defined by the right to exclude – and by the monopolity right of use. The difference is that this right is held by the state, and the monopoly is often... defined as ’the people’” (Don Mitchell & Lynn Staeheli, "Clean and Safe? Property Redevelopment, Public Space, and Homelessness in Downtown San Diego”, in S. Low & N. Smith, eds., The Politics of Public Space, Routledge, 2006, p. 149).

In writing about akichi and parks, I am inspired by a short essay by Ogawa Tetsuo, a painter living in the “tent village” of Yoyogi Park. Ogawa is one of the leading voices protesting against the “Nike-fication” of Miyashita Park in Shibuya. Nike-fication refers to the fact that the naming rights to the park have been bought by Nike. Renamed Nike Park, the new park will charge an entrance fee from visitors and the homeless who live there will be evicted. As Ogawa writes in his essay, Shibuya Ward defends its decision to sell the naming rights by claiming that the park is not used today. For instance, no kids can be seen at the playing ground. What’s interesting with Ogawa’s article is that he doesn’t defend the park by invoking the usual and quite reasonable arguments that its role as a “public garden” (the literal translation of kôen, the Japanese word for park) will be damaged by charging fees and evicting homeless, that the project amounts to opening the park only for “consumers” rather than “citizens” (and this in Shibuya of all places, which is already thoroughly commercialized), or by pointing out that it obviously wrong to claim that it is not in use today – it is often used, for instance, as the point of departure of street demonstrations. Instead he states that the reason he likes Miyashita Park “is that it is more like a wasteland [akichi] than a park”. He prefers it to be a wasteland than a park, pointing out that the character “kô” in the word kôen has strong connotations of public authority. It’s only because it has remained a wasteland so long that the homeless have been able to build their huts there. “I happen to like Miyashita Park being just like that”, Ogawa writes, adding that he things that “culture and art are born out of wastelands” (Ogawa Tetsuo 2009). While this advocacy of wastelands may seem a bit puzzling to readers at first glance, the pieces fall into place, I think, the moment we that his ideal is not that of a public space but that of no-man's-land.

Outcastes, outskirts, and water

There is one more important difference between public spaces and no-man’s-lands. Quintessential examples of the former – such as parks or squares – are often embedded in the midst of the city. Furthermore, they are officially recognized, part of the official maps, objects that very much bask in the “public eye”, being fully integrated and at home in official discourse. No-man’s-lands, by contrast, are often passed by in silence. Often they are located at the city’s margins and they are seldom given official recognition.

I think a useful comparison can be made here with the outcaste (eta / hinin) villages of the Edo Period, which were unmarked on official maps. A pattern exists in old Japanese cities whereby things and activities considered unclean or polluting were relegated to the outskirts. Thus Edo relegated its theatres and brothels (the famous Yoshiwara) to its north-eastern outskirts, where they shared space with the crematorium in Nippori and the execution grounds of Kozukappara. They also shared space with the great temple Sensôji in Asakusa (Hur 2000). The history of how Buddhism was involved in purifications and protection against pollution is long and complex and I won’t go into it here, but a fascinating tendency needs to be pointed out whereby Buddhism, far from merely protecting against pollution as its other, actually itself took on part of the quality of pollution. We can see this in the fact that hinin [non-human], a term later adopted for the so-called outcastes, was also used in a wider sense in which it included wandering monks in medieval times. Here we shouldn’t forget that it was only rather late in history – probably in the Edo period – that pollution (kegare) took on a one-sidedly negative meaning as something to be shunned and despised. For much of its earlier history, as the historian Amino Yoshihiko points out, so-called pollution was also considered a source of superhuman power, a quality close to holiness, and therefore something to be respected and awed. Thus the medieval “outcastes” were often affiliated with temples, serving as temple guards or local policemen, calling themselves “servants of the Gods and Buddhas” and sometimes led festival processions and purification rites (Amino 2001).

The literary historian Maeda Ai uses the expression “the Edo of water” in discussing the north-eastern outskirts of Edo with its closeness to rivers, the sea and the marshlands. I think it is not quite a coincidence that we encounter riverbanks here again. There was a clear connection between rivers and outcastes, as can be seen in the expression kawaramono, the people of the riverbanks, which was an old word used for the outcastes. The origin appears to be that many daimyô (feudal lords) enticed outcastes who were engaged in the leather trade – a craft that was in great demand to supply the needs of the military – to settle in their castle-towns by granting them tax-free land. Often they had to settle outside the town proper on dry riverbeds, which was considered a natural work environment for skinners and tanners since they needed water for their craft. Not all riverbank dwellers were leather workers. On the riverbanks they would intermingle with other marginalized groups such as religious mendicants, beggars, lepers and entertainers (Anderson 2000:33f).

This proves that it was not necessarily practical circumstances that had to do with leather trade that attracted them to the river. Another reason was probably that riverbanks were a comparatively free and unregulated area. The changing and unstable nature of riverbanks - which would shift each time water levels rose or fell or the river changed its course - ensured that they would remain a man's-land outside the boundaries of property.

In Kyoto too, the outcastes often settled along on river banks. Interestingly, the very first mention of a settlement of outcastes in Japanese sources (the Engishiki from 927) speak of them as living along the triangular riverbank just south of the Shimogamo Shrine, where the Takano river joins the Kamo, many of them taking the guise of monks (rôsô, later to be known as hinin) in order to escape taxes and other duties. Later a big settlement known as Amabe would appear on the Kamo riverbank near Shijô. Mentioned for the first time in 1196, it was in existence until the late 16th century when it was ordered to relocate by Hideyoshi. In sources we can again see that the inhabitants of the river beds engaged in a variety of crafts, such as selling food or catching birds (Yamamoto 2009:97f, Uesugi 1997:192f, Uesugi 2000:47ff).

Reading descriptions of these riverbed settlements, I can’t help recalling the motley scenes of the Kamo riverbed nowadays, especially near the city centre where a variety of performers use the riverbank as their stage. Take for instance this participant report after the “skirt demonstration” in Kyoto on the 19th of September last year.
After the demonstration we had a party at the Kamo riverbank. As visitors to Kyoto know, this riverbank is a favorite gathering place for young people and many other parties were also going on. The Amateur Riot’s [Shirôto no ran] street parties are much talked about today, but in Kyoto I’d like to stress that it’s part of the everyday to have parties on the Kamo riverbank. Unrelated to us, there were also guitarists practicing there, and if you listened you could hear that their level was pretty high… (Seki 2008)
In general, the freedom enjoyed by outcaste groups at medieval times seems to have been considerably greater than it would later be during the Edo period, and at this time they could still move around with relative freedom, change occupations and marry people of other social groups. We can also note that religion played an important role in undergirding the sense of freedom from surrounding society offered by the riverbanks where the outcastes lived. According to Amino, riverbanks were considered to be a place of muen, or no-relation, meaning that as you entered them you left behind all secular ties, including the hierarchies and the status system of the surrounding society. This quality of muen was linked not only to riverbanks, but also to cross-roads, mountains and trees, all of which were considered a form of “limen” or “threshold” mediating between different worlds. Muen was seen as a property of Buddhist temples, as could be seen in the fact that temples and monasteries could function as an asylum in medieval times for people escaping the law. Most famously, we see the quality of muen at work in the so-called enkiri-dera (temples for breaking off relations) where until modern times women escaping their husbands could find a sanctuary and a get a divorce if they managed to reach the temple precincts (Amino 1996).

Nature and the limits of the city

Parks are fully integrated in the cities, while no-man’s-lands exist on the margins. What’s wonderful with the river, is that it exists as a margin or a "limen" in the very midst of the city, as a place where the more or less homogeneous city surface suddenly ends, yielding up unexpectedly to a very different world. The margin, and the limits of the city’s power, are literally palpable. Descending from the noisy streets to the riverbank, you suddenly feel isolated from the rest of the city as if by an invisible wall. It is quiet, almost rural. The traffic noise has almost died away and instead your ears fill with the beautiful sound of running water. Sure, the lawns are cut, but along the water is a big stretch of wild uncut grass. The river itself is dotted with islands of unkempt vegetation. There are unexpectedly many birds: white herons standing in the water or circling above it are common, as are ducks of various kinds, kites, crows and other birds. Under the bridges are bats. Fishes can be clearly seen in the water. Signs along the way warn the pedestrians about snakes in the grass. Above all, the power of nature can be felt in the construction of the riverbank itself, which is designed as a bulwark against floodings (the Kamo regularly caused deaths by floodings even into the 1970s, Yamamoto 2009:46). Clearly, there are dangers here – something that’s not yet been totally domesticated and pacified. Looking at children bathing in the water or elderly men fishing along the shores something of the blessings that the river brings can also be felt, although these blessings must have been much more important in pre-modern times. These blessings included not just fish and water, but also the social blessing of traffic and transport. Thinking of the lively traffic of boats that must have existed here once, I am reminded again of the role of rivers as thresholds, as introducers of the other, as gateways to strange things and commodities and tidings. And the riverbanks were the places where the boats would land, and they were places for farewells too. What a difference to those domesticated parks that are safely ensconced in the middle - especially those that surround themselves by walls and shut out the disliked other!

The strange love of riverbeds

What strange attraction is it that makes the “incompetent man” (munô no hito) in Tsuge Yoshiharu’s manga with the same name spend his days at a dry riverdbed, collecting stones which he fruitlessly tries to sell to passers-by? This manga is remarkable for the helplessness and weakness of its protagonist, who dreams of success but has lost all self-respect and basically knows that he will fail whatever he does. He has a wife and a child, and in their eyes he is a worthless good-for-nothing unable to feed the family. What makes him drawn to the water? Is he a modern outcaste? Is he perhaps a ghost of Sai no kawara, the riverbank of Hell, where according to Buddhist scriptures children fruitlessly pile up towers of stones while demons constantly knock them over? Yes, perhaps a ghost – because surely the ghost is a standard literary stand-in for a traumatized person. If so, is he waiting for that magical dialectical moment when whatever traumas he is burdened with will loosen their grip and – as Sawaragi Noi prophesizes in a discussion of this manga in relation to the Shinjuku Riots in 1968 (Sawaragi 2005:191) – the stone he has picked up will turn into a stone thrown at the police? (Does this sound abrupt? Well, maybe it is. But let me add, just in passing, that at least one participant of the Shinjuku Riots describes the place of the riots as muen: "That day, that place, for a moment, became a kind of place for muen or asylum" (Kubo 2009:39). Amino himself suggests that muen may have been an important inspiration for egalitarianism of the late medieval uprisings and popular leagues (ikki).)

No-one can count on dialectics, least of all – I guess – a traumatized person. But still, it is possible to find in literature an unmistakable longing, even adoration, for no-man’s-lands. Murakami Haruki’s predilection for empty, deserted houses (akiya) is well known. Surely, there is a longing for the desert. Surely, there is relief in nothingness. Surely, we all secretly long for a place, sometimes, away from all advertisements, all TV programs, all mobile phones, all cars, all watches, all wallets.

But sometimes the dialectics works. Dear reader, what better day than today to walk out into the city without your wallet, without your watch, and of course without your mobile phone? Experience your helplessness, your feeling of irrelevance to the machine, feel like air. And then, perhaps, suddenly you will see things you wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. Things beyond the advertisements, price tags, and brands which no longer mean anything to you. You begin to hear and feel not the spectacle, but the common, the things that are free or unwanted. The sun, the air, the pebbles, the dust, the sounds of humming machines and clattering heels, all these strange wonderful faces that would have deserved to become portraits and these unforgettable voices that assail you from all sides, soft like silver. The smell of the morning light! The brilliance of dirt! You are ready to live.

How to defend a no-man's-land

The no-man's-land is part of the commons. The commons – as Hardt and Negri point out in their new book – is not just the wealth of the material world of nature, the air, the sunshine, water and fruits. It is also something social, all those things such as language and knowledge that constitute the shared presuppositions for social interaction. Interestingly, the latter form of commons, the “artificial commons”, envelops us as a new form of nature, most of all perhaps in the big city. It is a wasteland – the negative “externalities” of the market such as pollution, noise, dangerous neighborhoods or shocking encounters. But it is also a positive, generating force which we all draw on whenever we think, talk or try to be creative – languages, images, habits, stimulating atmosphere and closeness to friends. Unlike the oppressive and reified “second nature” so lamented by Lukács, this is not a mute, immobile nature against which we feel powerless. It is productive and nourishing, like real nature. It is not a nature that just exists like fate, seemingly independently of us. We can produce it – the words, the shareware, the messages, the music, the entire “commons” – and the marvelous thing is that it will still feel like nature. And it gives us relief, at least as long as it is commons and can be shared for free. And when capital expropriates it, we are not defenseless, because we can produce it anew, a new common.

Hardt and Negri warn us, however, that the negative aspects of the commons are overwhelming. The majority of spontaneous encounters with others in a metropolis are conflictive and destructive. If we react by withdrawing, closing off contact, and walking silently by, then we close ourselves off from the common as well. Shocks can come in many guises: conflicts can always occur, sometimes in the guise of strifes about space, sometimes they stem from capitalism's attempts to expropriate the fruits of its creativity, through patents and copyrights and other new enclosures. In the face of this risk of a “degeneration” of the commons, Hardt and Negri can only, rather tamely, urge us to remain open and try to maintain joy. The problem what we can really do about the shocks that make us withdraw from this shared nature remains. If it is so vulnerable, is it not bound after all to suffer the fate of constant destruction, like the “aura” described by Benjamin? How can we counteract that?

The difficulties of maintaining a no-man's-land are illustrated in an essay by Ogawa Kyôhei (1997), who together with a few friends opened a squat house called Kinji House in an empty building at Kyoto University for a few months in 1995. Reading material about this “experiment in many small loves”, as one participant put it, I can sense the strong excitement and curiosity among participants for “what will become of it”, that liminal feeling that things have suddenly become possible. Participants are there, part of it, yet things are already so big and developing so fast that no one knows what will become of it all (Bzw, I think a good maxim for life would be: Always let yourself be drawn to such places!). At the same time, Ogawa’s article is sadly honest about the outcome of the experiment. “Kinji aimed at becoming a square [hiroba] but failed and ended up as a wasteland [akichi]”, he quotes one of the participants. Part of the failure, according to this view, would be the failure to produce a genuine "public" (which I take "square" to refer to). Although I lack any personal experience of Kinji, I wonder if producing a wasteland really must be considered a bad thing. By opening up the empty building, they turned it into a commons, and whatever it was that caught their imagination, it happened in that common, it sprang from that commons, in a house which they had turned into a no-man’s-land. It may be unintended, but Ogawa Tetsuo’s words that “culture and art are born out of wastelands” almost sound like an attempt to console and give proper praise to the participants in this formless evanescent thing called Kinji.

If the no-man’s-land, or commons, survives primarily by being passed over, unused and unclaimed, then it seems that defending a no-man’s-land against appropriations or incursions is a near impossibility. Why? Because to defend it is to claim it, to define it, to seek to arrest it in a certain vision, to reify it. It means to give a form to whatever is formless and evanescent, and whenever you try to do that, strife about what this form should be are almost certainly bound to occur.

So how can we defend it? I don’t know, but perhaps the only way to really defend it is to create it, to do things that create it anew or regenerate it. Surely, there's also a bright side to the story of Kinji, since it shows how this creation can happen.


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