Climate and Geography

What makes Japan Japan?  What makes Noto Noto?  Part 1

When I was living in Japan every day was an adventure.  After all, I wasn’t born there nor was I brought up there, so even the smallest, relatively insignificant things became part of that bigger adventure of living in what was to me a foreign country, with its very own distinctive climate, culture, history, social structure and, of course, language.  The question what makes Japan Japan was therefore always in the back of my mind all the time I lived there.  Now, of course, because I am writing this blog about the Noto Peninsula, I am drawn to ask what makes Noto Noto.  How has the geography and climate of the Noto Peninsula shaped the lives, personalities and culture of the people who live there?  Few people would question that the natural and man-made environment of where we live gets into our very being.  But what does that really mean? The first time I gave any thought to such things was on a train crossing Siberia.

My wife, Lou, and I made our first trip to Japan in 1974, flying by Aeroflot from London via Moscow to Tokyo.  We spent about six weeks touring the country mainly to look at architecture and craft but we also soaked up life, just as it is lived in Japan.

Through a grimy window on the Trans-Siberian express, March 1976
It wasn’t until we set off to live in Japan for at least a year, however, that we used the Trans-Siberian route.  London to Yokohama by train and ferry took two weeks.  Riding on the train across the steppes of the Soviet Union—yes, it was still a communist country then—we were content to play cards, talk to fellow passengers and to read.  The train moved at a steady pace and also gave us the opportunity to spend much of our time just looking out of the window.  That in itself was an unexpected bonus.

I was not the only one enjoying the view from the window.
The locomotive can just be seen in the first window.
Gazing out at the scenery, which sometimes did not seem to change for very long periods of time, was hypnotic.  It was then that my mind turned to such questions as just how does the geography and climate of where we are born and are brought up shape our very being?  After all, wherever we go on the planet we encounter the same components that make up the landscape and climate.  The only real difference between each place is in the scale, frequency, intensity, volume, shape, colours and juxtaposition of those components.

We arrived in Japan on 9th April 1976.  I enrolled at Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music as a non-matriculated student and began my studies into the history of Japanese architecture.  It was not long after this that I came across the writings of the Japanese philosopher Watsuji Tetsuro and in particular his essay on Climate and Culture:  A Philosophical Study entitled Fudo in Japanese, and first published in 1931.

This immediately reminded me of what I had been thinking about on the train crossing the immensity of Russia.  And I was pleased that someone had literally put my thoughts into words.

Watsuji took a philosophical view of our environment, in the broadest possible sense, and questioned how it shapes who we are from birth to death (Carter, Robert and McCarthy, Erin, 2014).

The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy covers the subject in great detail.  Simply speaking, however, Watsuji divided the climates of the world into three main types—monsoon, desert and meadow.  Based on the conditions in each of these climatic regions, he discusses the fundamental character of the people living in them as well as other important elements of the general environment, including events in nature, for example, that somehow resonated with people.

Although they may not show it outwardly, Watsuji feels that the Japanese respond with emotion and sentiment to certain events in nature in particular.  He cites how much affection the Japanese people have for the cherry, which blooms in profusion with apparent impatience only to wither and fall as if in votive sacrifice.

Wanizuka cherry, Yamanashi prefecture, seen against the snow capped Japan Alps.  April 2000
For monsoon regions he said that the main climatic influences on people are heat and humidity.  In such regions Watsuji reasoned that the refinement of “feeling” is best recognised in a monsoon region and people have a submissive and resigned side to their character.

High humidity helps to keep a garden looking fresh.  And plants
take root on stone.  The term uruoi in Japanese refers to moisture
and also has the meaning of "charming". 
A traditional house in Okinawa has deep
eaves, and an added lean-to roof to produce
shade and the interior is as open as possible
to catch even the slightest breeze when it is 
hot and humid.

In a desert climate, however, dryness is the key which leads to a practical and purposeful character and results in people being protective and particularly wary if not actually hostile toward outsiders.

Dwellings in hot climates have small
openings to try and keep the occupants
Arid landscape in Tunisia. May 1975

In a meadow climate, on the other hand, nature is relatively benign and has an air of logic and rationality born of its dry summers and humid winters.

Meadow climate landscape in England.

Is an English garden a formalised
piece of meadow climate landscape?

It must be remembered that these criteria are not simply applied to human nature and character.  They were seen by Watsuji as affecting everything from the temperament of the people living in such regions to the kind of dwellings they live in.

I must emphasise that these are hopelessly brief explanations of a very complex subject.  My only reason for discussing them here is to ask the reader to do what I initially did, and that is to question just how the geography, climate and general circumstances of where we are born and brought up can shape our very being.  Doing so, I believe, helps us to better understand what defines countries, places, cultures and quite importantly the creative endeavours of peoples.

Should you wish to leave a comment, please do so by clicking on the comment mark at the bottom left of this or any of the other posts.  Thank you.

All photographs Bill Tingey © Photo
To be continued

1 comment:

  1. Really interesting stuff Bill, thank you Bob king