Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Hothouse Weeds: Poetic Responses to the Botanical Garden in Modern Japan

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Hothouse Weeds: Poetic Responses to the Botanical Garden in Modern Japan

Article excerpt

In the process of Japan's westernization and modernization, an herb garden within Tokyo limits is transformed into a "botanical garden"--a literal site where the Western, the imperial, the urban, and the poetic intersect. The botanical garden transcends its material confines in order to offer a literary trope for the forging of Japanese modern-style poetry and its kernel--interiority.

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In his authoritative study on the greenhouse, Kunstliche Paradiese: Gewachshauser und Wintergarten des 19 Jahrhunderts (Artificial Paradises: The Greenhouse and the Winter Garden in the 19th Century (1)), Stefan Koppelkamm demonstrates that yearning for green spaces and securing them in artificial constructions are inseparable from advancements in science that destroy nature. From the late 1910s well into the 1920s, both natural and man-made disasters reminding the Japanese of the fragility of civilization took place, including the First World War and the Great Tokyo Earthquake of 1923. Curiously enough, at the same time, an interest in the notion of "weeds" emerged on the Japanese literary scene. Tanka poetess Yosano Akiko calls herself "a weed" and her contemporary, poet Kitahara Hakushu, describes a "season of weeds" after the earthquake. This newfound sympathy for weeds was not restricted to these two poets and can be seen even as the germination of an emerging concern for ecology. Rediscovering and rethinking the emergence of ecological imagery in Japan and the world is particularly timely today, when the 2005 World Expo held in Japan is touted as a "green fair" and global destruction of the environment is at centre stage. In the early twentieth century, Hakushu's weed imagery was closely linked to the artificially secluded space of the newly popular greenhouse. Indeed, this emphasis on "weeds" effectively renders the glass walls of the greenhouse invisible, resulting in a "greenhouse" that, in ecological and political terms, expands to encompass the globe.

In the oldest extant guidebook of Tokyo's Koishikawa Botanical Garden, Yamada Hajime's Shokubutsuenorai (To and From the Botanical Garden), we can glimpse the aesthetic and even psychological meaning the space of the botanical garden provided to the citizens of Tokyo:

    From morning till sunset, the city with trains dizzily rushing
    around, cars rushing around, bicycles rushing around. Amidst this
    rushing, the city with creaking carts, creaking vans, creaking
    night-soil men's cow-carts. Going through this hustle and bustle, a
    group of people is living on life's edge--the citizens of great
    Tokyo.
      Living in the Oriental metropolis with alleys of telegraph poles
    painted with posters and electric wires drawing a spider's web along
    the initially narrow streets, breathing the turbid yellow air, one
    sometimes longs to touch the fresh scenery of fields and mountains
    and breathe a sigh of relief. (2)

The guidebook hints at the poetics of space for the botanical garden by popularizing the idea of the garden as a world of its own, a spatial incarnation of urban yearning, a dream at the heart of the city of Tokyo. The dream-space of the botanical garden would not be possible without its other--the civilization of the bustling city. Guidebook author Yamada mentions that the wilderness has gradually receded from the suburbs of the city and now painters and photographers, who until recently had gathered there, turn to the botanical garden in the heart of the city. Although Yamada's comment is casual, it reveals, nonetheless, a spatial paradox intrinsic to the botanical garden: in this paradox, natural surroundings shrink to a scale containable within the city, reversing the outside and the inside. The garden's wilderness illusion, however artificially created, is not completely artificial; after all, the vegetation is tangibly real as nature. Yet, in such gardens, the plant life is concentrated in ways that would never naturally occur. …

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