Monday, May 19, 2008

Too Many Strokes, Too Many Folk

Tokyo is not for the psychologically feeble. The density alone is tiring if you aren't used to it, but today, as I wandered around the 'burbs, I realized that it's also the visual density that wears one out.

Just think about it. English has 26 letters in its alphabet. Each letter is made up of 1 to 4 strokes. Japanese has 4 different writing systems (one of which is the Roman alphabet -- the ABCs of English,) 50 "letters" each in 2 of those systems and 50,000 to 80,000 kanji. Why no definite number? There's always dispute over whether a particular kanji is an independent kanji or just a variation of another. Many kanji are made up of only a few strokes, but here's one with 33 strokes.
It's actually made up of 3 kanji that mean "deer." It means "coming together all at once."

But that's not the "densest" kanji. Here's one that's 64 strokes.
It's made up of 4 kanji that mean "dragon." This one means "being verbose." How apropos!

Is this the "densest" kanji? Once again, there is dispute. One writer claims that this is it:
However, it is not of Chinese origin, being a domestic creation, so some linguists claim that you can't really call it "kanji." After all, kanji means "Chinese character." And no one could tell me how one would read it, much less what it means. But, at 84, it's tops in number of strokes.

What it all boils down to is, no matter what the media, if there is text, it is bound to be stroke-heavy and visually dense. You have to be oblivious to clutter in this kind of world and Tokyoites certainly are. The city is crammed with mismatched architecture. Shops are literally stuffed to the gills with merchandise. My Very Japanese Sister-in-law is only being her Very Japanese self when she buys more than the house can possibly contain, but I've gotten too used to open space, empty houses, minimal possessions. The clutter, the density, all the strokes and all the folk are slowly wearing me down. Or out.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Bad Dog,
You have been posting more often while in Japan than when in Mexico or US. Why?
You are right about visual overstimulation. It leads to closing down the senses to a level that the brain can handle. Blinkers and earmuffs are compulsory in Tokyo I would think.
I haven't been to Japan. Would like to but fear the clamour would overwhelm me.
I am intreagued by the sentance starting "My very Japanese Sister-in-Law....". I have this image of beautiful Japenese art distinguished by its simplicity and where a landscape is represented by a a few minimalist stokes after a days contemplation. Of a Japenese household of spartan simplicity and rooms containing so few things but of exquisite beauty and artfully arranged. Is this just the classical image in tourist brochures? The famous garden of 11 stones and raked gravel with its zen message that not all can be seen from one place. Is it lost in Japan? Did you have to go to Mexico and the US to rediscover the the simple? Are you a cultural refugee?
Its OK, I dont expect answers.
Cheers, Paul

10:58 PM  
Blogger bad-dog said...

Hmmm, very interesting comments. First, I post more when I have better internet connections.
As for Japanese aesthetics, yes, the traditional aesthetic is for simplicity, minimalism, wabi & sabi, but postwar Japan is a country born out of rubble, quickly built up and hodge-podge. Contemporary pop art (as seen in Takashi Murakami-type art as well as Hello Kitty) is a whole different creature from traditional Japanese art.

Ordinary Japanese seem to like to fill their lives with STUFF. I remember visiting my grandmother's house in Kyushu. She lived in a beautiful traditional house with large, almost empty rooms decorated with a few pieces of very, very rare pottery and carvings. These rooms were reserved for guests. My grandmother and my aunt lived in the front part of the house which seemed small and cramped with clutter. I wondered how there could be such a gap between the two sections of the house, but Japan's also a land of contraditions...

7:16 PM  

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