Japanese Landscape

Fundamental characteristics of the Japanese landscape:

1. Paucity of Idle Land
2. Scarcity of Level land
3. Compactness
4. Meticulous Organization
5. Immaculateness
6. Interdigitation
7. Tiered Occupance

Secondary characteristics of Japanese landscape:

1. Gardens with Sculptured Plants
2. Flowers along the thoroughfares
3. Lack of lawns
4. Dearth of roadside shoulder
5. Profusion of aerial utility lines
6. Pervasive vinyl plant covers
7. Walled urban areas with gates
8. Sacred spaces
9. Waning of traditional architecture

Primary characteristics

1. Paucity of Idle land: nearly 3/4 ths of Japan is mountainous and there are no major lowland areas. There are almost no unused, empty lots lying around as they tend to do in many U.S. cities. The use is so concentrated that use of rooftops is commonplace with some department stores having gardens, kiddie rides and other things on the roofs.

The department stores themselves may be multi-layered with one area being for eating, with a variety of restaurants, while another area might be for cultural activities such as a small art exhibition.

So, whereas Japanese cities may be very crowded and the architecture might not please everyone, some of the stores make excellent use of their space, offering things generally not found in American stories.

2. Scarcity of level land. About 1/8th of Japan is considered to be level land. Thus, farms will have terracing, residential areas will lack lawns, streets are narrow and there are few shade trees. This has also led to the creation of level areas by using land-reclamation projects such as filling in some bay areas. This is not so much an attack on the environment as something done out of necessity.

3. Compactness. Since there is little available, usable land, compactness and maximum use of an area is a necessity. Part of this comes about from having so many people living in the metropolitan areas (43% of all Japanese). Although there are huge shopping core areas there are also many small stories in an area. As such, much of the shopping is done near the place where the people actually live, helping to hold the community together.

4. Meticulous organization. Landscaping is highly organized. At one time this was shown mostly in the way farmers practiced agriculture, growing a variety of crops in rotation on the same land, or growing two crops in the same area. This concept of maximal use and organization was carried over into city areas. Neighborhood organizations called kumi consist of up to 15 households in an area and they work together on festivals, ceremonies and in other ways helping each other in the community.

5. Immaculateness. This is shown basically by weed-free roadsides, clean city streets, scrubbed storefronts and other ways in which cleanliness is maintained. Even in the love of Japanese for bathing and the use of a separate pair of shoes in the toilet area we can see Japanese emphasis on cleanliness.

6. Interdigitation. An area may have a variety of uses (residential, business, factories), rather than having almost separate areas as in the U.S. Also, many of the Japanese businesses are small (per capita they have twice as many wholesalers and retailers as does the U.S.), and this also has an effect on the way land is used.

7. Tiered occupancy. Some of Japan is heavily populated and some is not. Much of the agricultural area is tiered, especially due to the fact that there is so little level land.

Secondary characteristics

1. Gardens with sculptured plants. Home gardens are "the omnipresent and highly distinctive landscape feature of the nation." These will generally be very small, not due some dislike of nature, but due to the fact that there is so little space available that can be devoted to a garden.

The gardens are based on the approach of nature controlled by humans, maximizing use of limited space. Basically, the things in the garden are in the particular places they are for a specific reason, and need to be considered as a whole.

2. Flowers along thoroughfares. This can make the area appear more attractive and ordered.

3. Lack of lawns due to lack of available space. Also, the Japanese simply are not "into" the importance of lawns as are people in the U.S. Although this would seem strange to people in the U.S., a lack of lawns does avoid the necessity for mowing, helps avoid noise and other forms of pollution and helps save on water use since it won't be necessary to water lawns.

4. Lack of roadside shoulders. This can prove a problem to cars that are having trouble, of course, giving them no where to pull over.

The book also notes the presence of numerous vending machines in Japan which basically have twice the sales per machine as do machines in the U.S. This also helps free up shelf space in small stores, so having many vending machines can actually benefit the Japanese and is not necessarily something bad as one other author seems to believe.

5. Profusion of aerial utility lines. There are a lot of lines linking the various poles, but this is not something unique to Japan. It would be possible to bury the lines, but that would prove considerably difficult and expensive (and is also something not done very often in U.S. cities, either).

6. Pervasive vinyl plant covers. These can take the form of greenhouse-type coverings or ground coverings that help control the growth of weeds.

7. Walled urban areas with gates. Houses will be surrounded by walls and have a locked gate, as distinguished from houses in the U.S. which generally lack walls and fences. The difference is cultural, though, in that the U.S. houses represent individualism and the Japanese houses represent a sort of confined family unity.

8. Sacred spaces such as Shinto shrines and Buddhist statues in alleys, streets or on corners. This can include tiny statuettes along roadsides along with other structures. These are often seen in Japanese anime and movies.

9. Waning of traditional architecture. The Japanese are moving from their traditional architecture (wooden buildings, tatami-matted floors, etc.) to more Western style housing. Why? Western-style housing lasts about 50 to 70 years; post-WWII Japanese homes last only about 20. Homes can even be imported from the U.S. (over 5000 in 1995). This is thus not an attack on Japans past but is a response to a need for more modern and better-constructed buildings.

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