Monday, 12 April 2010

Kyoto: a thousand years of discrimination

It rains all day, but we decide to at least go for a walk to the nearby Shimogamo Shrine. Just as during our walk yesterday, I am overwhelmed by the beauty of lush green, the moss and the bright green of the newly budded maples. Dan splashes in the puddles with his orange boots.

As we approach the shrine, I’m reminded of the long history of discrimination in Kyoto. We pass the triangular riverbank where the Takano meets the Kami, the place from which people who were considered defiled (many of whom used to live on riverbanks) were driven away in the 10th century, according to a decree recorded in the Engishiki. The reason appears to have been that purity was considered so important for the shrine, which was the ubugami shrine of the Imperial House and the protector of the Imperial Palace from evil influences from the north-east.

The use of purity to legitimize Imperial power was one of the crucial elements in the birth of discrimination of outcastes in Japan. As can be seen in the history of this shrine, discrimination intensified with closeness to Imperial power. Even today the signs of the shrine's close relations to the Imperial House are evident. The gate, for instance, is decorated by flag-like draperies carrying the Imperial crysantemum crest.

I also notice some blatant signs of nationalism, such as a poster in one of the adjoining shrines with the exhortion to to be proud about Japan and fly the Hinomaru flag on holidays.


A few days ago I spent some time drinking coffee while looking out at the spectacle below of crowds of people moving around in the futuristic architectural landscape of Kyoto Station, designed by star architect Hara Hiroshi. There is no denying it: the north side of the station is a sensation. It is an unforgettable architectural experience to move around among its various levels and platforms and enjoy the spectacular views.

At the same time I remembered the feeling of backyard and young poverty when I took the cheap nightbus to Tokyo from Hachijô-guchi on the station's southern side the other week, the sleepy crowds tensely waiting for the bus annoucements, the backpacker-feeling...

As everyone knows who has visited the station, the north side is the ”front side” (shômen”), the architectural showcase, the entrance to Kyoto. The southern side, by contrast, is a somber affair. While the north has the feel of a bright, enormous gateway, the south has only a few small and rather dark openings that decidedly give the impression of back exits. Here white greyish concrete takes the place of glass architecture, and the comparatively low roofs create a cramped, contricted feeling that contrasts with the lofty sense of space on the ”front side”.

Taking the bus from Hachijô-guchi helped me realize that the new station building – it opened in 1997 – has preserved the old discrimination of the ”south” in Kyoto, the part of town south of the station where outcastes and Zainichi Koreans used to concentrate. I was rather amazed to realize this. After all, the municipality was said to have done much to remove the stigma of the south, but still it allowed a new showcase building to be erected that left the old division of the town totally intact.

Many have complained that the station building breaks with tradition, being too high and futuristic. People tell me that the old station building was nice, with a beautiful cupola and roof paintings. At the same time, I can personally feel that the new building hardly breaks with all Kyoto ”traditions”. In some respects, it is even stridently "traditional". To me this is the contemporary Rajômon (the name of the city gate of Heian-kyô): head straight north and you’ll end up at the Imperial Palace.  One can also think of the ambiguity of categories like inside and outside in the station, which reminds me of premodern Japanese architecture (think of Nijô Castle or the tea houses of Katsura Rikyû).

And as mentioned, the station sadly replicates the old neglect of the south. Even more than most stations, this one has the feeling of a grand, magnificent gateway, opening up to the splendours of the north while turning its back to the south. Some people appear to think that the building’s been designed according to the principles of feng shui, but shouldn’t you have a big opening southwards if you are concerning with the flow of chi? Here, by contrast, the flow is blocked. The tracks partition the town in two parts. The nice, pretty one in the north, where the tourists go, and the forgotten southern part,

Just as we reached the courtyard of the Shimogamo shrine today a wedding couple came out. There was happiness in the air. The bridegroom smiled and waved his hand at Dan.

Beauty is not bad, but nothing is more beautiful than the thing it excludes.

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