In this final lecture in the Sensing the City lecture series, we shift from the history to the anthropology of urban sensations. Our focus will be on Japan, and in particular the town of Aomori, which is the locus of a highly colourful urban festival of the senses each Autumn (August 2-7). Our speaker, Sarah Pimpaneau, has a background in material cultures studies (she holds an M.Phil in Social Anthropology from University College London, home of the Material Culture Working Group), and worked until recently as a curator at the British Museum. During that time she curated two shows, one on “Souveniers in Contemporary Japan,” and one on “Light Motifs: An Aomori Float and Japanese Kites.”

Approaching the material culture of Japan from an anthropological perspective entails a complete re-education of our senses, as well as a suspension of our conventional understanding of space (or architecture) as static enclosure. Consider the traditional Japanese home. The Japanese house is a modular structure. It does not consist of rooms with designated functions (e.g. bedroom, dining room, living room), but rather a sequence of spaces, since the same space can be used for eating, sleeping, or receiving visitors, and the walls (actually paper screens) which divide it, like the objects which furnish it, are all mobile. Furthermore, most activity takes place on the floor, on tatami mats, which themselves provide the measure of the dwelling rather than being fitted to it. The space of a traditional Japanese home is thus flexible, rather than fixed, and the placement of furniture is tied to the rhythms of daily use.

Just as the traditional Japanese house is a sequence of spaces depending on the arrangement of the moveable walls, mats, and furniture, so is the Japanese sensorium a modular apparatus which is attuned to intervals and the sequencing of sensations, rather than objects. This is apparent in the concept of ma (interval, pause, space, room). As Dorrine Kondo points out in her chapter in Empire of the Senses: “A conversation should have ma, appropriate spacing or intervals, to punctuate the rhythms of speech. One is not obliged to fill the silence with words.” Similarly, in Zen painting, the brush strokes describe spaces rather than delineate objects.

The modularity of the Japanese sensorium is also apparent in the importance attached to the sequencing of sensations in the context of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Following Kondo's sensory analysis of this ritual in the chapter mentioned above, we note the progressive movement of the guests from the tea garden to the interior of the tea hut (with its monochrome colour scheme and austerity) - a move which involves shedding the distractions of everyday life, including conversation, and absorbing while being absorbed into the atmosphere of quiet harmony and peace. All of one’s being becomes concentrated on one’s gullet as one sips the tea at the climatic moment of the rite - the tea which, thanks to its thick texture and concentrated essence - condenses the essence of the ritual experience of “emptiness” (the ideal Zen state).

The Aomori festival is a riotous event, an expression of contemporary Japanese popular culture rather than high culture, at least on the surface. If you attend carefully to the presentation that follows, however, you will see how the sensory principles of traditional Japanese culture continue to inform this event, and the space in which it unfolds. Note what Sarah has to say about the importance of intervals (between houses or shops - Japanese buildings never have common walls; between floats - one float and its accompanying troupe of dancers and musicians must never impinge on another). Note also what she says about the importance of succession (the nightly transformation of the town into a ritual space as the traffic lights and walking signals are switched off). The Aomori festival might look like a spectacle, but its actual meaning lies in its being a procession - a circular procession - which transforms all of the spectators within its circumference into participants.

Phyllis Lambert, Mirko Zardini, members of the CCA and of the public, I present you Sarah Pimpaneau. (Click here for the Sarah Pimpaneau lecture).