Japan: The Place that Never Existed

The French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, a man who advanced new frontiers in linguistics in the 19th to 20th century, once observed that “every language is a complete system of signs.” His work in linguistics led him to differentiate between signifiers (the symbol, or word) and the signified (the object that is brought to mind).

Nearly a century later, a Frenchman by the name of Roland Barthes would step foot onto Japanese soil. Barthes, who devoted much of his life to sociology and lexicology, was intrigued by the country.

So intrigued, in fact, that he would go on to write an entire book—Empire of Signs—on his observations of Japan in 1972.

His initial quest was simple, audacious, and fascinating; Barthes would go to Japan although he spoke no Japanese.

And thus Barthes’s journey began:

“The murmuring mass of an unknown language constitutes a delicate protection, envelops the foreigner in an auditory film which halts at his ears all the alienations of the mother tongue: the regional and social origins of whoever is speaking, his degree of culture, of intelligence, of taste, the image by which he constitutes himself as a person and which he asks you to recognize.” (p.9)

Yet Barthes could not have been ever the happier:

“What a respite! Here I am protected against stupidity, vulgarity, vanity, wordliness, nationality, normality,” Barthes notes exuberantly. He then goes on to play observant: “the unknown language, of which I nonetheless grasp the respiration, the emotive aeration, in a word the pure significance, moves around me, as I move, a faint vertigo, sweeping me in its artificial emptiness, which is consummated only for me: I live in the interstice, delivered from any meaning.” (p.9)

Eventually, Barthes reaches the conclusion that Japan is, as the title suggests, an empire of signs devoid of meaning. He arrives at this conclusion from his analysis of Japanese haiku, gastronomy, and city planning.

Starting with Haiku, he first enumerates a few such as:

I come by the mountain path.
Ah! This is exquisite!
A violet!
Basho (p.71)

Which leads him to conclude that “The haiku wakens desire: how many Western readers have dreamed of strolling through life, notebook in hand, jotting down ‘impressions’ whose brevity would guarantee their perfection, whose simplicity would attest to their profundity.”

This basic analysis leads to a much deeper observation: “there is a moment when language ceases, and it is this echoless breach which institutes at once the truth of Zen and the form—brief and empty—of the haiku.” (p.74)

What Barthes is thus talking about is haiku’s attempt to elucidate the lack of a Saussurian signifier to accurately represent the Saussurian signified. In other words, he realizes in haiku a certain form of arresting silence that talks quite loudly to the soul in the most ineffable of manners.

Likewise, in the field of gastronomy, Barthes notes Japan’s emphasis of lightness rather than the rich and creamy tastes preferred in his France:

“For us, in France, a clear soup is a poor soup; but her the lightness of the bouillon, fluid as water, the soybean dust or minced green beans drifting within it, the rarity of the two or three solids which divide as they float in this little quantity of water give the idea of a clear density, of a nutrivity without grease, of an elixir all the more comforting in that it is pure.” (p.14)

By stumbling upon Japan’s emphasis on things that are clear, pure, and silent, Barthes triumphantly lands upon one more triumphant find: the lack of a “Center” in Tokyo.

Again, Barthes begins his observations with what he’s used to seeing at home—a concentric city with the center filled with churches, offices, banks, and other key functions of civilization. In contrast, “the city I am talking about (Tokyo) offers this precious paradox: it does possess a center, but this center is empty. The entire city turns around a site both forbidden and indifferent, a residence concealed beneath foliage, protected by moats, inhabited by an emperor who is never seen.” (p.31)

Thus Tokyo’s ominous center imposes the stillness of nothing amongst the daily havoc of a typical modern city.

And thus, concludes Barthes, “daily, in their rapid, energetic, bullet-like trajectories, the taxis avoid this circle, whose low crest, the visible form of invisibility, hides the sacred ‘nothing.’ [Tokyo] is thereby built around an opaque ring of walls, streams, roofs, and trees whose own center is no more than an evaporated notion, subsisting here, not in order to irradiate power, but to give to the entire urban movement the support of its central emptiness […] in this manner, we are told, the system of the imaginary is spread circularly, by detours and returns the length of an empty subject.” (p.31-32)

Welcome to Japan—the land that has never existed.


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