Cities at One with Nature

By Berque, Augustin | UNESCO Courier, December 1987 | Go to article overview

Cities at One with Nature


Berque, Augustin, UNESCO Courier


Cities at one with nature

THE urban tradition which arose in Western Asia and spread across Europe has handed down to us the image of a town or city standing out sharply against a rural or natural background. Modern urban development has blurred this contrast by extending suburbs into the countryside and increasing the number of green spaces in towns, but this trend has not gone so far as to obliterate the antithesis that Europeans unconsciously establish between the town and nature. The city is still at one pole, the symbol of a constructed and artificial environment, and it is towards the opposite pole, that of the natural world, that owners of country cottages and holiday-makers are constantly drawn--even if that symbolic pole is often, in reality, scarcely less artificial than the town they leave behind them.

However, this typically European pattern is not universal. In particular, it does not fit Japan. Japanese towns and cities, if only because they have never been systematically enclosed by ramparts, have never been as cut off from their rural surroundings as those of Europe or China. Differences in population density between town and country have, likewise, always been relatively slight.

But the crucial factor is probably the significance of towns and cities for Japanese people in the relationship between nature and culture. Towards the end of the ancient period (3rd to 7th centuries AD), the association between towns and civilization was particularly strong in Japan, since both had been simultaneously introduced from China. However, as a result of the relative suddenness of their introduction, the urban phenomenon and civilized manners (urbanity) were superimposed on an indigenous view of nature which was deeply animistic, and which represented the cultural order and the natural order as a continuum. This strong inclination was to exert a twofold influence on Japanese urbanity: symbolically, on urban manners, through the expression of a refined feeling for nature in poetry and in architecture, and ecologically, on the material components of the urban environment, and in particular the central role that vegetation would play. Over the centuries and right up to the present day, the Japanese town has always given expression to nature.

The courtly and the natural

The brilliant civilization of the Heian period (8th to 12th centuries) revolved around the Royal Court in Kyoto (then called Heian). This was a time of flowering in the arts and literature which produced the Genji monogatari,1 a masterpiece of world literature. Just as the English word courtesy is derived from "court", so the Japanese language would describe elegant manners and delicacy of taste by the word miyabi, derived from miya meaning "royal palace". The word miyako ("capital", i.e. Heian) has the same origin.

1. The Genji monogatari ("The Tale of Genji"), a masterly novel in the classical Japanese tradition, was written at the beginning of the 11th century by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady of the Heian Royal Court at Kyoto. Packed with intrigue and character studies, the novel is a remarkable evocation of aristocratic court society written with an acute "sensitivity to things", in the words of the 18th-century literary scholar Motoori Norinaga.

And yet this homology points to a radical difference of outlook. In English, words such as "politeness" (from the Greek polis: town or city), "civility" (from the Latin cives: citizen of Rome) and "urbanity" (from the Latin word urbs) suggest primarily relationships between people in the artificial environment of town or city. "Courtly" originally referred to the language of lovers. Miyabi has a quite different connotation; it concerns not the essentially polite or politic (from polis) relations between human beings, but the sensitive and aesthetic relationship of human beings with nature.

Indeed, miyabi--of which the Genji monogatari has left us a detailed description--was particularly apparent in the art of expressing a feeling for nature in poetry, in dress or in gardens. …

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