Go to Semiotic Review of Books Home Page
Go to SRB Highlights
Go to SRB Archives


SRB Archives

This review appeared in Volume 2 (3) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Signs of Japan

by Frank Hoff

The Empire of Signs: Semiotic Essays on Japanese Culture. Edited by Yoshihiko Ikegami. Foundations of Semiotics 8. Amsterdam /Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1991. xi + 333. Includes index. (ISBN 90-272-3278-4)

A volume in the Foundation of Semiotics series (general editor A. Eschbach), the book is a collection of essays of varying lengths from more than a dozen Japanese contributors. The profile of authors, many of whom are internationally known, suggests the range of topics: a cultural anthropologist interested in Buddhist culture of Southeast Asia; a specialist in English linguistics, writing here on semiosis; another linguist who specializes in nonverbal behaviour; an environmental engineer who studies Japanese landscape types; a Jungian psychoanalyst interested in the folk tale; a practitioner of industrial design; a specialist in architecture and urban planning; a scholar of English literature and an anthropologist, both writing about theatre; a musicologist; a scholar interested in the problem of designing living space; another specialist in English literature analyzing the role of the house in two Japanese novels. The editor, linguist Yoshihiko Ikegami, contributes a discussion of cultural semiotics in the introduction to the volume and a concluding essay on comparative linguistics. He refrains, in the former, from commenting on the individual articles, preferring instead to encourage the reader, in the words of Barthes, to "make yourself at home with your preferences, your values, and your symbols intact (22)."

The essays begin with "The Notion of the Sign in Japanese Tradition" by Tomonori Toyama. The word for "sign" in technical discussions of semiotics in Japanese is kigo, written with two characters borrowed, as is natural in Japanese, from the Chinese writing system. Meanings of a native Japanese word in use even earlier overlap that of kigo. Shirushi has the basic meaning or "manifestation" (as in an omen that forebodes an event), and is etymologically associated with the verb shiru, to know or become aware of. On the other hand, early instances of kigo (in the second quarter of the 13th century A.D.) suggest "a specific intention to communicating something" and are not "used to refer to an object functioning only secondarily as a sign (29)." With the introduction of European sciences at the end of the 19th century, confusion resulted in the choice of Japanese terms for the Western concept of "sign" or "symbol."

The editor himself translated Toyama's seven page article. In fact, Ikegami may have chosen it as the lead essay for its suggestion, to readers unfamiliar with Japanese culture, of a polarity that is historically long-standing and culturally pivotal. This is one between the native mentality (here the word shirushi ) and concepts, words, a writing system, technologies that Japan has imported from abroad. Each in turn -- first, the Chinese characters read as kigo, later the Western concept of sign/symbol -- were accommodated to an indigenous thought process. In his introduction, Ikegami explains a mechanism for reconciling foreign loan words and native terms or concepts. What he calls "conditional variants" are the linguistic analogue to a more general strategy consciously applied to the assimilation of an alien element. Read in this light, the relevance of Toyama's essay to the volume is clear. In one way or another, the book itself is a documentation of the interaction of a certain group of Japanese intellectuals with the outside world.

Michiko Arima, the author of "Creative Interpretation of the Text and the Japanese Mentality," is the first of two women contributors to the book. Her preliminary remarks on textual analysis lead her to observe that, in their interpretation of texts, Japanese prefer rule-governed to rule-changing creativity. The same is true of their creative work on a larger scale. Welcoming new ideas is a characteristic of Western culture, with its preference for rule-changing creativity. In Japan, a new idea often requires the support of an influential group or the glamour of having come from abroad. Even a foreign import, idea or product, is likely to be modified as part of the process of assimilation. An enumeration of personality traits that arise from Japan's preference for rule-governed creativity includes:

  1. Uniformity. In rule-governed creativity, Japanese try to integrate personal associations with social rules, relegating the former to what Arima calls the covert level of Japanese culture, i.e. its homogeneity and adherence to fixed rules. As a result, a uniformness of rules is observable on the overt level in a semiotic interpretation. Thus it is not conformity, as Westerners tend to believe, but uniformity that characterizes Japanese culture.

  2. Passivity and dependence. These traits do not connote immaturity and childishness nor should this deeply integrated type of passivity be misunderstood as conformity. Patience, restraint, suppression, control -- each points to a positive behavioral pattern.

  3. Sympathy or politeness. The effort of both parties in a conversation to adopt the other's point of view prepares a common ground for communication and should not be construed as a reluctance to express independent opinions.

  4. Context-dependency. Drawing examples from the arts -- Noh, haiku, the puppet theatre, architecture, gardens etc. -- Arima notes: "Under rule-governed creativity, if the rule is strictly defined in every detail leaving no room for references to the context, it would be impossible for suppressed personal associations to suggest themselves on the overt level, which runs contrary to the ... semiotic nature of man (50)." The topic of context dependency is also discussed by Ikegami in his introduction, where he notes that the corollary of this, "the idea of language as embodying 'logos' or absolute truth (17)," is alien to Japanese culture.

Ikegami's introduction also mentions the advantages of a cultural type he characterizes as empty-centered, one that not only accommodates apparently diverse elements but keeps them in a state of harmony with each other. His concluding essay, " 'Do-language' and 'Become language," ' continues a line of thought that favours culture/language that is neither analytic, nor self-assertive nor man (human)-oriented. Shutaro Mukai extends this implied criticism of Western languages when he extols the Japanese character (kanji) system of writing, by enumerating differences between it and the alphabet in "Characters that Represent, Reflect, and Translate Culture."

Kanji are visual; they comprise "sounds" (various ways in which each is read in differing contexts), carry association of physical sensation and even of colour and smell. "(I)n earlier times -- up until the end of the Meiji era (1896-1912) -- one tried to read aloud, in order to call the acoustic side of language into consciousness. On the other hand, one practised calligraphy in order to evoke the gestures of written Kanji. It is a case of memories constantly accumulated by the body (emphasis my own) (76-7)." The "original form of the cosmos of a language" lives on in kanji's holistic integration of feeling. "When learning traditional calligraphy with brush and ink, the Japanese learn not only to write the character but also to incorporate the empty background as an additional carrier of meaning in the text (66-7)." Mukai contrasts this to the universalization, standardization and homogenization of the printed word, especially in Western typography, which he believes reflects a "way of thinking that reduces letters to an endless horizontal line -- similar to the geometrical thought which lies behind ... perspective (68)." The author's criticism of an alphabetical writing system continues: "(T)he increasingly hectic communication activities of western languages spurred a tendency towards anemic language. Kanji, by contrast, continues to this day to be able to absorb the poetic essence of nature, to radiate abundantly with meaning-shine (72)."

Yasuko Tohyama's "Aspects of Japanese Nonverbal Behaviour in Relation to Traditional Culture" identifies patterns of nonverbal behaviour (communication) in the use of clothing, styles of eating or drinking, in how one relates to a Japanese or to a Western style room, and in religion. Drawing on illustrative material taken from TV drama, movies, cartoons and photographs, Tohyama produces a complexly structured argument to show that cultural influence on nonverbal behaviour is much greater than expected and that despite its apparent Westernization, Japanese behaviour is still deeply rooted in traditional Japanese culture (188). Although her methodically organized discussion confirms my own understanding of nonverbal communicative activity witnessed in Japan, or in which I participated, it evokes few new discoveries, unlike, for example, Ikegami's linguistic analysis of do- and become languages, which I found intensely rewarding.

In "The Images of Japanese Landscapes: A Typological Approach," Tadahiko Higuchi writes about "...the way the Japanese people interpret their landscape with its various topographical formations, and how this imagery has become part of their everyday life (85)." His system includes: the eight-petal lotus blossom type, a Buddhist ideal; the watergate, a spot where a stream is first seen as it begins to flow down a mountain and where water is clear and unsullied; the secluded valley type; the zofutokusui type, a landscape with a mountain behind, hills on two sides, and an open space in front; the sacred mountain type; the domain viewing (kunimi) mountain type, all of which go to make up a "maternal landscape." In his conclusion, Higuchi suggests very briefly that his seven-type typography can be related to the image of rest, discussed by Gaston Bachelard (La Terre et les reveries du repos, 1948) and Jay Appleton's prospect-refuge symbolism (The Experience of Landscape, 1975)

Teruyuki Monnai's essay "Semiosis in Architecture: A Systemic Analysis of the Traditional Towntextures in Japan" resisted repeated efforts to read so I asked an architect friend, Michael Starr, to provide this summary:

The author sets out to define aspects of a sense of place as expressed in the material textures of a town using an approach based on linguistic structural modelling. He has attempted to translate the elements he believes constitute the character and qualities of small Japanese towns into a rationalized system of architectural forms. These elements form a semiotic model that is computer based and that utilizes graphics which have been abstracted from elevation drawings and photographs recorded during site visits to many small towns in rural Japan.

Concentrating almost entirely upon building facades located on picturesque streets, Monnai differentiates between the physicalistic (i.e. straight physical) nature of towns and their phenomenalistic aspects (i.e. physical + the moment, an equation that involves the observer). He then attempts to build a model which will describe in semiotic terms a town's phenomenalistic qualities, what Monnai calls its "towntexture."

Through a mode of analysis analogous to a linguistic model based on systemic grammar, Monnai sets up an extraordinary tree-like structure to code the elements of towntexture into a descending series of fragments. The essence of the model is to establish semantic rules which will allow a more detailed investigation into the meanings of towntextures from microstructure to macrostructure, that is, from the inter-relationship of architectural elements to the context within which these elements are located.

Monnai's approach to urban analysis and ultimately to urban design opens the Pandora's box of rationalizing the continuum of experience into a concrete system of formal units. This method of semantically modelling reality appears to ignore several important qualities affecting a town's space. Virtually the entire model appears to be based on the dissection of architectural facades and their settings when in fact the success of a town has more to do with its siting in the landscape, the historical evolution of its plan, the topological qualities of public and private space and the resulting cross-sectional properties of buildings.

The topological qualities of an individual building within an urban scale, I would contend, have more to do with its spatial and volumetric qualities than with an analysis of its facades. The problem with Monnai's approach appears to me to reside in the abundance of architectural minutiae at the expense of the significant larger urban patterns such as the historical spatial evolution of a town that are the normal focus of urban design because this is where a physical context can be understood and extended or revised.

In " 'The Forbidden Chamber' Motif in a Japanese Fairy Tale," Hayao Kawai spins a subtle and seductive web that frustrates a reviewer's responsibility to paraphrase. Instead I would like to quote sample passages that suggest the author's argument. The concluding section of the essay, "A woman who disappears," begins: "A Japanese cultural paradigm says that a woman must disappear to complete a sense of beauty with sorrow (176)....(1)n the world of fairy tales, we can even expect that the woman has disappeared only to come back to this world again with a newly gained strength. This woman is thought to symbolize the urge to bring something new to Japanese culture. To pursue the woman who disappears from this world sorrowfully and then comes back again is therefore a worthwhile and necessary task (178)."

At the end of the essay he adds: "...the essence of Japanese fairy tales can be seen better through female eyes rather than male eyes. ...To look at things with female eyes means, in other words, that the ego of a Japanese is properly symbolized by a female and not by a male. The patriarchal social system that prevailed in Japan until the end of World War II obscured our eyes to this fact. In fairy tales, however, 'female heroes' could freely take an active part. The investigation of those female figures will cast much light on the psyche of the Japanese (179-80)."

Kawai's discussion of differences, as well as similarities, between Western and Japanese fairy tales leads to important insights of a comparative sort. "The western story has a complete form which one can interpret or analyze without any other resources; but if we treat a Japanese fairy tale as an object in itself, separate from the subjective feelings in the reader's mind, its structure will reject any analysis. This fact makes the interpretation of Japanese fairy tales difficult and puzzles Western investigators. Insofar as Japanese interpreters rely on Western theories, they too find their task quite difficult, or decide in the end that, in comparison with western stories, Japanese fairy tales are valueless (175-6)"

Section 4 culminates in an extended discussion of "nothingness" in Japanese culture. Using the methodology of the Jungian analyst Erich Neumann, Kawai compares the hero in the Japanese tale The Bush Warblers' Home to the hero in a Grimm fairy tale. Whereas the hero's adventures in the Grimm tale clearly show " a process of ego-establishment in a culture (the West) where the patriarchal principle is dominant(173)," in the Japanese tale, the hero "does not go through any adventures and is instead led at the end to a 'situation of nothing.' Anyone accustomed to analyzing western fairy tales must have a good deal of difficulty with this type of Japanese story....Let us start by changing our attitude completely, and put positive value on the fact that nothing has happened instead of searching for that something which might have happened. In other words, nothing has happened can be interpreted as The Nothingness has happened... If one raises the question, 'What is The Nothingness?,' our tale provides an answer: 'A plum tree; a bush warbler. In yet other variants, the answer is 'The whole process of the growth of the rice plant through the seasons', that is to say, the most important thing in the life of the traditional Japanese community. This means the answer is, The Whole (173-4)."

Of the remaining articles, the distance separating Japanese author and English reader is overlarge in "intertextuality in Japanese Traditional Music." The author, Yoshihiko Tokumaru, has simply not found a way to relate his concerns to those of even a potentially interested reader. Masao Yamaguchi's "Cosmological Dimension of the Japanese Theatre" contains many fascinating though random insights, suggestive of future research, on a subject that the author holds "will give further clues to the deeper cultural identity as well as universal aspects of the Japanese (239)." If, as appears to be the case, this was originally delivered as a lecture, surely it once carried conviction as an impressive piece to listen to. But read today, the article, though otherwise rich in information, lacks internal cohesiveness. On the other hand, Yasunari Takahashi's finely crafted English essay, "The Ghost Trio: Beckett, Yeats, and Noh," is immediately accessible to the humanist reader. Toshihiko Kawasaki's "Literary Semiotics of Suburban Houses" is another example of a well turned English essay.

But still something seems lacking. It is true that in this volume Japanese scholars have engaged in a dialogue about their own culture with the Western reader.' But one senses how little most of them have to say on what is essential to the present relation -- intellectually speaking of course -- of their culture to the West. I realize that it is unfair to fault authors for failing to achieve what they never intended to do in the first place. And so to explain a shortcoming of the book that still troubles me I turn elsewhere.

Were the collection realistically marketed -and it is worth remembering that despite their tremendous commercial success, the Japanese have, on the whole, a dismal record in marketing ideas about their own culture -- its "general reader" would be one who feels a need to learn about Japan. It is unlikely that he or she would wish to formulate this in terms of understanding the "signifying (meaning-generating) activities" of a culture. More likely, potential readers (and the point here is that their number is considerable) have an entirely practical concern: to learn how they or others will have to deal with the Japanese in commerce, statecraft, finance, technology or whatever. In that sense, books by revisionists like Karel van Wolferen's The Enigma of Japanese Power (1989) have remade the intellectual landscape. And this is the new plane from which one must now read a volume (any volume) on Japanese culture. The Empire of Signs should not, then, be thought of as a book primarily for semioticians. And one doubts that it can be read (except historically) against its prestigious namesake, Roland Barthes' L'empire des signes (1970).

There is a surprising homology (a keyword in the volume under review) between van Wolferen's discussion of what he calls "malleable realities" and Ikegami's "empty center."

"In the West," says van Wolferen: "reality" is not often thought of as something that can be managed, moulded or negotiated....Heirs to various Asian traditions of thought may be less uncomfortable with the idea of multiple and contradictory truth. Yet it is clear ... that nowhere does one find as much "management of reality" as in Japan (8)....To grasp the essence of a political culture that does not recognizes the possibility of transcendental truths demands an unusual intellectual effort for Westerners, an effort that is rarely made even in serious assessments of Japan....Most authors, having dutifully mentioned that the Japanese continually adjust their beliefs to the situation they find themselves in, move on to other topics as though totally unaware of the momentousness of this observation(10).

"Emptiness," maintains Ikegami, is a "homological structure inherent in Japanese culture (10)." The 'empty center' serves to relativize any interpretation that is offered with absolute conviction. Or, as the idea is stated elsewhere in the Introduction, the empty center stands "ready to lend itself to ... all kinds of possible reorganization based on any standard of values and ideologies (15)."

"Malleable realities" is the "empty center" seen in a new perspective: Japan in the world. And though there are profound differences in the way each interprets it, van Wolferen and Ikegami alike address what one would have to agree is a central issue for anyone interested in Japan today. Other essays in the volume may partially satisfy readers in one or another area of specialization. But the idea of "emptiness" in Ikegami's introduction -- the context within which it is argued and the homologies to it found elsewhere in the volume -- carry a conviction of an entirely different order.


1 An interesting exception is Tamotsu Aoki, "A Semiotic Approach to the role of Paritta in Buddhist Ritual." In addition to its intrinsic interest, this discussion of the "ritual language" of a Buddhist practice in Thailand offers a model of a new, and much needed, interculturalism. The fact that a Japanese is writing on a cultural aspect of another Asian country for readers who are unlikely to be members of either culture seems to me even more significant than Aoki's informed used of the ideas of Western semioticians and cultural anthropologists.


Barthes, Roland (1970) L'Empire des signes. Paris: Seoul

van Wolferen, Karel (1989) The Enigma of Japanese Power. London: MacMillan

Frank Hoff is a specialist in the history and theory of the performing arts of Japan. He has just completed a book-length manuscript, Through Their Eyes and in Their Travels: Performance Ethnography in Japan of the 1920s and 1930s. Visuality in theatre is one of his ongoing interest. "Seeing and Being Seen: The Mirror of Performance," an article of his soon to be published, discusses the techniques of the observer of Noh and includes a philological reading of a classical text on the visual symbiosis of spectator and performer by the great Noh theorist Zeami (1363-1443). He teaches at the University of Toronto and is a Fellow of Victoria College.

Michael Starr is Editor of The Toronto Society of Architects' Newsletter. As an architect, he enjoys exploring the techniques of modelling and visualizing as they relate to design theory and practice.

Go to Semiotic Review of Books Home Page
Go to SRB Highlights
Go to SRB Archives