By most economic and demographic indicators, Japan has long looked like a country in trouble, even though a foreign visitor sees signs of robust health everywhere: a refined and efficient service culture; reliable infrastructure; conspicuous displays of high technology; shops filled with an astonishing amount and variety of carefully designed products; lively packs of uniformed schoolchildren, the smallest of whom ride on the back seats of their mothers’ bicycles. The aftermath of 2011’s Tōhoku earthquake may have exposed deep and previously unsuspected societal frailties, and yet, on every one of my trips to Japan I marvel at all those well-put-together moms calmly biking their kids to school. Surely they indicate an achievement of which the rest of the developed world, no matter its wealth, can only dream — even if on paper the country itself looks about to lie down and die.
As a pioneer in the study of signs and symbols, Barthes would have enjoyed grappling with all the conflicting signals sent out by 21st-century Japan. He lived through most of the postwar years when the Japanese economy grew at an unprecedented rate, but he missed the downright grotesque inflation of Japanese asset prices in the decade after his death in 1980. By then the West, and especially the United States, nervously fixated on images of flush Japanese tourists landing in Hawaii and buying mansions in cash, sharp-suited Japanese businessmen lavishly entertaining on sinisterly vast expense accounts, and Croesan Japanese conglomerates snapping up Los Angeles’s movie studios and downtown high-rises.
Japan gave off few such signs in 1966, when Barthes accepted an invitation from his friend Maurice Pinguet, Director of the Franco-Japanese Institute in Tokyo, to teach a seminar there on the structural analysis of narrative. That stay in Japan, followed by two more that year and the next, provided Barthes with the material for 1970’s slim but rich monograph L’Empire des signes, which came out a dozen years later in Richard Howard’s English translation as Empire of Signs. “I am not lovingly gazing toward an Oriental essence,” Barthes, rooted in a monoculture of his own, assures us early in the book. “[T]o me the Orient is a matter of indifference, merely providing a reserve of features whose manipulation — whose invented interplay — allows me to ‘entertain’ the idea of an unheard-of symbolic system, one altogether detached from our own.”
Barthes traveled throughout his professional life, but not all his travels — Oriental, Occidental, or otherwise — suggested equally fruitful premises for writing. His Carnets du voyage en Chine, finally published in English just four years ago as Travels in China, records little more than disappointment with a culture “not at all exotic, not at all disorientating,” in which he finds next to nothing “to note down, to enumerate, to classify.” In Japan, by contrast, he finds a seemingly inexhaustible trove of exotic and disorienting material to note down, enumerate, and classify.
But is this Japan? Barthes takes pains to write, at first, in terms of a “fictive nation,” a “novelistic object” that allows him — “though in no way claiming to represent or to analyze reality itself (these being the major gestures of Western discourse) — [to] isolate somewhere in the world (faraway) a certain number of features (a term employed in linguistics), and out of these features deliberately form a system.” If they can overlook Barthes’s strenuous disclaiming, to say nothing of his linguistic convolutions, a reader more invested in Japanese culture than French theory will find a reasonably straightforward work of observation: if not exactly a travelogue, then at least a catalog of impressions and the observer’s attempts to understand those impressions, which for Barthes means organizing them into a convincingly coherent, machinelike whole.
Much of what captivates Barthes in Japan is what has captivated visitors since the country opened to the world in 1868, though the language with which he describes it hardly resembles that of the average tourists with their verbal vacation snapshots of well-groomed gardens, packed commuter trains, and colorful, flavorful sushi. Instead he beholds Japanese cuisine’s interpretive feast of ever-dividing heaps of white rice that “can be defined only by a contradiction of substance”; its tempura fry whereby “[t]he eel (or the piece of vegetable, of shellfish), crystallized in grease, like the Branch of Salzburg, is reduced to a tiny clump of emptiness, a collection of perforations”; its miso soup that “adds a touch of clarity to the alimentary interplay”; its succession of portions that “are not only small in order to be eaten, but are also comestible in order to fulfill their essence, which is smallness.”
The harmony between Oriental food and chopsticks cannot be merely functional, instrumental; the foodstuffs are cut up so they can be grasped by the sticks, but also the chopsticks exist because the foodstuffs are cut into small pieces; one and the same movement, one and the same form transcends the substance and its utensil: division.
This is a sentence that, whatever its other merits, fits in one colon and two semicolons. He arrives, eventually, at the observation that “no Japanese dish is endowed with a center (the alimentary center implied in the West by the rite which consists of arranging the meal, of surrounding or covering the article of food),” just edible fragments, “none of which appears privileged by an order of ingestion.”
Barthes proposes centerlessness as an organizing principle of Japanese life in a variety of contexts, including the city of Tokyo, in the middle of which stands the Imperial Palace:
Quadrangular, reticulated cities (Los Angeles, for instance) are said to produce a profound uneasiness: they offend our synesthetic sentiment of the City, which requires that any urban space have a center to go to, to return from, a complete site to dream of and in relation to which to advance or retreat; in a word, to invent oneself.
But the Japanese capital “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.”
Everywhere Barthes sees Japan not just possessing things of which the West can no longer conceive, like an Imperial Palace and its occupant, but missing things the West can’t conceive of doing without, up to and including grammatical subjects. “How can we imagine a verb which is simultaneously without subject, without attribute, and yet transitive,” asks Barthes, “such as for instance an act of knowledge without knowing subject and without known object?” A linguistically worthwhile question, though it does bring to mind the words of plainspoken translator Jay Rubin, who, in his book Making Sense of Japanese, explains that “like other sentences the world over, Japanese sentences consist of complete statements about people and things,” despite the persistent misperception, subtly encouraged even in the classroom, “that Japanese verbs just ‘happen,’ without subjects, deep within some Oriental fog.”
Describing his experience amid the “murmuring mass of an unknown language,” the non-Japanese-speaking Barthes (whose handwritten crib sheets of phrases and vocabulary appear here and there in the book) prefers the metaphor of “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,” a protection against the “stupidity, vulgarity, vanity, worldliness, nationality, normality” that presumably besiege him every day on the streets of Paris. Japan, with not just its language but its food, its urbanism, and much else besides, offers Barthes a “situation of writing” wherein an abundance of environments, objects, and actions, empty to him of inherent meaning, await his interpretation.
Barthes finds much to interpret in Japanese places with European equivalents, especially Tokyo’s rail stations, each one “a vast organism which houses the big trains, the urban trains, the subway, a department store, and a whole underground commerce,” yet despite its importance in the lives of Tokyoites is “stripped of that sacred character which ordinarily qualifies the major landmarks of our cities: cathedrals, town halls, historical monuments.” He sees pachinko players as engaged in “deliberate, absorbing labor; never an idle or casual or playful attitude, none of that theatrical unconcern of our Western players lounging in leisurely groups around a pinball machine and quite conscious of producing for the other patrons of the café the image of an expert and disillusioned god.” (Nor do those Western players enjoy the moment in pachinko, so vividly described by Barthes, when “the machine, filled to capacity, releases its diarrhea of marbles; for a few yen, the player is symbolically spattered with money.”)
“The streets of this city have no names,” Barthes notes half in despair and half in awe. Written addresses contain knowledge intended for “the postman, not to the visitor: the largest city in the world is practically unclassified, the spaces which compose it in detail are unnamed.” This condition, and the resulting reliance on hand-drawn maps and orientation “not by book, by address, but by walking, by sight, by habit, by experience,” persists today, only somewhat alleviated by smartphone mapping technology. Visitors to Tokyo can, in this fashion, still follow Barthes’s footsteps of 50 years ago throughout the city, into the restaurants and train stations and pachinko parlors and galleries and even the traditional bunraku puppet theater, which inspires no fewer than three of Empire of Signs’s chapters.
The performances Barthes watches there suggest to him nearly everything important about the divide between East and West, and especially between Japan and Europe. “In our theatrical art, the actor pretends to act, but his actions are never anything but gestures: on stage, nothing but theater, yet a theater ashamed of itself,” whereas bunraku, its hardworking puppeteers neither hidden nor highlighted, “separates action from gesture: it shows the gesture, lets the action be seen, exhibits simultaneously the art and the labor.” This form
rids the actor’s manifestation of any whiff of the sacred and abolishes the metaphysical link the West cannot help establishing between body and soul, cause and effect, motor and machine, agent and actor, Destiny and man, God and creature: if the manipulator is not hidden, why — and how — would you make him into a God?
In Japan as in bunraku, “the inside no longer commands the outside,” if ever it did. This leads into a meditation on the Japanese social custom of bowing Barthes opens by wondering, “Why, in the West, is politeness regarded with suspicion? Why does courtesy pass for a distance (if not an evasion, in fact) or a hypocrisy? Why is an ‘informal’ relation (as we so greedily say) more desirable than a coded one?” Any Western visitor to Japan might well, after a few pleasant interactions with the Japanese, start asking themselves the same questions, their experience of this country throwing the qualities of their homeland into the clarity of contrast — a contrast that underscores, to Barthes, how the person in the West, as opposed to the person in Japan, “is reputed to be double, composed of a social, factitious, false ‘outside’ and of a personal, authentic ‘inside.’”
In the West,
as soon as the “inside” of the person is judged respectable, it is logical to recognize this person more suitably by denying all interest to his worldly envelope: hence it is the supposedly frank, brutal, naked relation, stripped (it is thought) of all signaletics, indifferent to any intermediary code, which will best respect the other’s individual value: to be impolite is to be true — so speaks (logically enough) our Western morality.
That parenthetical “it is thought” alone suggests that, though a Westerner through and through, Barthes himself sees the world differently, and Japan, a land where “religion has been replaced by politeness” whose symbols and gestures don’t refer to reality but constitute it, suits his particular cast of mind better than do the cultures that stand on, or at least pretend to stand on, absolute truth and absolute morality.
Unlike such fellow famous 20th-century French intellectuals as Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Derrida, or Michel Foucault, Barthes produced nothing like a single canon of thought or unified body of theory, nor a generation of disciples to imitate him. He thus labors under no obligation to come up with a rigorously “Barthesist” interpretation of Japan. Instead, he concerns himself with surfaces as attentively and adapts to shifting contexts as readily as does that ideologically blank country itself. The Japanese, so the saying goes, are born Shinto, married Christian, and buried Buddhist, observing the proper rituals at the proper times without ever, in the thorough and uncompromising sense, “believing.” Their country, then, creates the perfect environment for a thinker who demonstrated his willingness to revise or scrap his previous thoughts with each new publication.
Captivated, toward the end of the book, by the haiku, Barthes finds most of what he considers the virtues of Japan exemplified by that poetic form. Its deliberate meaninglessness offers him an escape from the West, which “moistens everything with meaning, like an authoritarian religion which imposes baptism on entire peoples.” Though the haiku’s brevity and outward simplicity may falsely suggest to us Westerners that “we ourselves can write such things easily,” we tend, to Barthes’s mind, not to understand its very nature — which is not that of “a rich thought reduced to a brief form, but [of] a brief event which immediately finds its proper form.”
Nobody who has made a career of interpreting signs and symbols could fail to thrill to such examples, included in Barthes’s text, of form and substance aligned so closely as to render meaning unnecessary, each an attack on “the symbol as semantic operation” itself:
It is evening, in autumn,
All I can think of
Is my parents.
The old pond:
A frog jumps in:
Oh! the sound of the water.
How admirable he is
Who does not think “Life is ephemeral!”
when he sees a flash of lightning!
Barthes could have studied haiku anywhere; did he return twice to Japan so soon after his first visit because he also experienced that same perfect union of form and substance in the daily life of Tokyo itself? There, “in the street, in a bar, in a shop, in a train, something always happens,” an “incongruity of clothing, an anachronism of culture, a freedom of behavior, an illogicality of itinerary,” all “infinitesimal adventures (of which the accumulation, in the course of a day, provokes a kind of erotic intoxication).” There he could indulge all day in reading the constant, self-signifying messages sent from all directions by
the young bicyclist carrying a tray of bowls high on one arm, or the young saleswoman who bows with a gesture so deep, so ritualized that it loses all servility, before the customers of a department store leaving to take an escalator; or the Pachinko player inserting, propelling, and receiving his marbles, with three gestures whose very coordination is a design; or the dandy in the café who with a ritual gesture (abrupt and male) pops open the plastic envelope of his hot napkin with which he will wipe his hands before drinking his Coca-Cola: all these incidents are the very substance of the haiku.
A traveler can still witness this very same procession in Tokyo or any other Japanese city, everything yet nothing in them having changed since Barthes’s day. “The evergreen riddle of Japan,” writes longtime part-time Japan resident Pico Iyer in a reflection on the capital, “is that all its revolving-door fashions, fascination with the west and hunger for the new never seem to make it any less Japanese at the core; the place is like a froth of shifting surfaces and flashing images projected on an old, strangely shaped piece of wood that never moves.”
As the 20th century drew to a close, this quality made Japan, saddled with any number of inflexible practices, inefficient traditions, and unreformed attitudes, seem badly unsuited to what looked like the hypercompetitive, world-flattening, perpetually paradigm-breaking conditions of the approaching 21st. But in this, the year, according to Oxford Dictionaries, of “post-truth,” when other developed countries agonize over the meaning of political events and fret about the center’s failure to hold, Japan, which has changed its prime minister eight times in the past 10 years without social fuss, continues to demonstrate its understanding that there is no center, nor has there ever been. When absolutes break down and signs float free of deeper meanings, a long-standing rejection of absolutes and deeper meanings begins to look like an advantage.
Despite its recent reversals of fortune, all of which ultimately add up to another chapter in a long history of vicissitudes, Barthes himself probably wouldn’t bet against the existential prospects of the country he imagined — “if it is understood that these signs are empty and that the ritual is without a god” — as the Empire of Signs. The ritual will surely continue: the saleswomen will bow, the pachinko players will receive their spatterings, the puppeteers will do their visible work, the emperor (whether the abdication-minded Akihito or a successor) will occupy his empty center, the children will ride to school on their mothers’ bicycles — things will happen. As for signs, Tokyo has already begun putting up the first of a great many more in preparation for the 2020 Olympics. What astute thinker, as imaginative as Barthes and as resistant to cant, preconception, and exoticism, will come to read them?
Colin Marshall authors the Los Angeles Review of Books Korea Blog and is currently at work on the book A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City.