Haunted Nation Revisited/Reposed

Table of Contents

Japan is a nation of disasters. One-fifth of the world’s major earthquakes and a seventh of the world’s terrestrial volcanoes are concentrated on this narrow archipelago. Typhoons also ravage its lands every year and claim lives — over 5,000 people lost their lives to Typhoon Vera (Isewan Typhoon) in 1959.

Japan is a nation of war. Since ancient times, a diverse range of peoples have made their way to this island nation situated at the eastern end of the continent. Included among them were warrior clans. The Japanese kingship is a kingship of conquerors. The myths of Japan are woven from records of these conquests. The kingship continued its expansion in the medieval period by conquering its northern frontiers of the Emishi, and its people, too, took to the southern seas as Wako pirates. An anomalous era of stability and peace arrived during the early modern period, but soon times of war and chaos returned. Japanese casualties in the Second World War reached three million.

Hence, Japan is a nation of the dead. Not only that, it is a haunted nation of the dead. It is a nation that has forged ahead in its history through consoling the ghosts of those that met their unfortunate ends in calamities and wars, and were thereby kept from realizing a happy life. Since ancient times, Japanese writers and artists knew this well, as did its politicians. The oldest Japanese anthology of poetry, The Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves, contains many elegies. The traditional theater art of Noh achieved its heights by taking the dead as its protagonists. Even today, Japan has many more cenotaphs than it does museums of disaster or war memorials.

Many Japanese today have forgotten these conditions. In fact in these seventy years since the end of the Second World War, Japan has experienced an exceptionally quiet era, with no major volcanic eruptions and only a few major earthquakes. But in exchange for this peace it has lost the wisdom to memorialize the dead, appease ghosts, and press history forward. Consequently, Japan has fallen into a position of immobility as it continues to be possessed by the ghosts born from the war. It refuses to face the calamitous reality, even after the nuclear accident in 2011.

This is why we would like to propose an architectural apparatus that will summon the ghosts that have shaped the history of Japan, making them visible so that we may lend an ear to their voices, quell their anger, and return them to the other world. We wish to build a space of contradiction where one can experience the difficult relationship between the living and the dead—a place that is at once a cenotaph, disaster museum, war memorial, park, as well as a learning center, house of horrors, and theme park. A structure that is a shelter for the dead rather than a home for the living. The philosopher Takeshi Umehara argues that Horyuji Temple, one of the oldest Japanese Buddhist institutions established in the 7th century, was built to appease the ghosts of a clan that was assassinated after falling from power. If such is the case, we could also say that with this proposal we are returning to the origins of Japanese architecture.

We live in a land of calamities and ghosts. If we suppose that European architecture summons its earthly spirits, and European philosophy, using Heidegger, has made its way towards the houses of the living, then Japanese architecture, too, must summon its ghosts, and Japanese philosophy, through the Kyoto School, must also find its way towards the shelters of the dead. Our proposal seeks to submit to a world audience at Venice the idea of architecture not meant as houses for the living, but as shelters for the dead. We believe this plan may offer an alternative to the global city and market, which are customized only for the happiness of the living. At the same time, it may also provide an important intervention into the present state of our nation, which produced a catastrophic nuclear accident only to fall quickly into its forgetting.