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An Easterner Faces West

'People characterize my work as very Japanese,' says fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto. 'That always surprises me. My generation has no sense of nationality. It's hard to appreciate that, unless you were born in Tokyo in 1943 and grew up in a country destroyed both objectively and mentally by the Second World War. But I believe that my clothes don't belong to any country, any religion, or any culture. They are outsiders."

We are at the Yamamoto press offices, a low-slung building in the Shinagawa district on Tokyo's waterfront. The "outsiders" are all around us, hanging from serried racks or resting on pristine surfaces. Black-clad minions float back and forth, tending to our needs and theirs and the unlikely journey Yamamoto and I are planning into the very heart of the country that his designs lay claim to disowning. International in reputation and habit, Yamamoto makes few forays into the world beyond Paris and Tokyo. In Tokyo, he leads a fiercely private life, centered on his atelier, his home, and his dogs. Rarely does he stray from his routines except to transfer his intense concentration from his work to karate and gambling—he is a black belt in one and an equally formidable opponent in the other. It's all the more surprising, then, that the trip we're embarking on is a very personal odyssey into places he has not visited in nearly 30 years.

Yamamoto's legendary equivocation toward things Japanese seems strange, coming as it does from the man whose radical clothes, when first shown in Paris in 1981, were considered so at odds with received Western taste that they were greeted by critics with horrified cries of "Hiroshima sans amour." Yamamoto, along with Rei Kawakubo (of Comme des Garçons) and Issey Miyake, spearheaded the so-called Japanese invasion of the eighties. His somber clothes defied not just convention but the very shape of the human body: some garments had missing sleeves; others, exposed seams; still others were worn as if back to front. Such scarecrow silhouettes were unlike anything ever seen before. The wearing of clothes as foreign as these seemed to require some kind of instruction—if not, as Yamamoto once joked, changes in lifestyle and partner. But for all their raggedy deconstructed appearance, the garments were beautifully made. Yamamoto's black, punky, uncompromising minimalism came to symbolize not existential malaise but glamour and sobriety and success. It was a revolution that appeared to come from nowhere, from a man who insisted, "I want to be no one."

Recently, Yamamoto's virtual refusal of a national identity has softened. In 1995, in what could be read as a move toward Japanese tradition, the kimono provided the basis for his spring collection. This spring, the presentation of his collection evoked the rituals of Kabuki, as models changed outfits on the runway, peeling away layer after layer in a series of dazzling transformations assisted by stagehands dressed in black.

So after a lull of some years, Yamamoto is back in the full glare of the fashion spotlight. Favored by the late Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, among others, his designs can be said to embody many of the paradoxes of modern Japan. At a time when traditions are more often preserved than practiced, and the promises of modernity seem exhausted, Yamamoto offers a fresh and enlightening perspective—something akin to an insider's view of a culture turned inside out.

Waiting on the platform of Tokyo station for the shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagaoka, a city in Niigata prefecture north of Tokyo, my first preconception—that Japanese schoolgirls are a perversion invented by cult photographer Nobuyoshi Araki—is disproved beyond doubt. Leaving behind questions about the semiotics of ankle socks in subtropical summer heat, our journey into Yamamoto's past begins. "I have very strong memories of Nagaoka. When I was a couturier in my mother's dressmaking shop in Tokyo, I traveled there once a month to work in the custom-tailoring division of a department store," he tells me as we glide at an ever more dizzying speed across endless suburban sprawl. "I picture it as the dark side of Japan. Where Kyoto is perfect in a way that disturbs me, Nagaoka brings together tradition and tackiness. For me it represents the two sides of Japan. There is the Pacific side, the front cover of the book—full of sunshine and brightness—and the side that faces the Sea of Japan, which is wild and visual. The scenery there is so lovely and lonesome…" I am left hanging in a long pause, wondering what dark ruminations such a landscape might elicit, when Yamamoto adds: "So we need drinks!"

Like that of many of the larger cities in Japan, Nagaoka's recent history is one of ongoing cycles of obliteration and reconstruction. Twice destroyed, once by the Boshin Civil War that deposed the shogunate government in 1868 and again by the Allied forces in 1945, it has little that recalls its past as the center of a wealthy prefecture of rice farmers, and few of the darker corners remembered by Yamamoto. The department store where he once sewed is now a pachinko (pinball-cum-slot machine) parlor catering to other coordinations of hand and eye. An evening excursion in the shopping area close to Nagaoka station produces a chance encounter with the parlor's current owner. Yamamoto, who enjoys rock star-like celebrity all over Japan, is recognized immediately, and a small gathering forms around him. Amid much deferential if somewhat inebriated bowing, the proprietor of the pachinko parlor asks Yamamoto to sign his T-shirt. It's gray and emblazoned with the distinctive logo of British designer Paul Smith. After some hesitation Yamamoto obliges with a laugh. It's a gesture that captures much of the character of our trip into semi-rural Japan: even in these backwaters it seems that modernity is written on every article of clothing and every wall.

Our guide for the next few days is Masako Nishimura, a close friend of Yamamoto's who owns a kimono shop in Kyoto. We waste no time heading out of the city for Oziya-shi, the site of the Konni dyeing and weaving studio. The traditional techniques employed here are similar to those of the Kyoto-based workshop that produced the fabric for Yamamoto's kimono-inspired collection.

A family business established in 1751, it is presently run by the charmingly self-described "manager the eleventh." Like many of the area's traditional industries, fabric dyeing flourished because of the availability and purity of the water. On top of a natural spring, latticed steel towers over shallow dye pits. All around are hues of indigo blue, from the concentrations in the dye vats to the washed-out navies of distant people working the rice fields.

At pains to explain the process, the manager tells us how a leaf crucial to the dyeing is imported from the southern island of Shikoku, whose temperate climate favors its growth. The leaves are then transformed into a liquid mash and left for six months or so while the bacteria that naturally inhabit the plant, fortified by sake, free the dye from its cellulose prison. He explains this as we watch narrow sheets of fabric disappear into deep-blue voids under the wooden floor, to emerge a light green that on contact with the air becomes one of a familiar range of blues. As this happens, the fabric, either smooth or knotted, is whisked into the rafters and thrown over waiting bamboo poles. It then unfurls into a spectacular tied-and-dyed fretwork. Shaken out of the hanging fabric, hundreds of hand-tied knots flower like white blossoms against indigo skies.

Historically, traditional economies have been propelled by water, and the countryside around Nagaoka is no exception. From the banks of the Shinano spread vast alluvial plains hedged on either side by mountains—the Higashiyama Range to the distant east, the lower Nishiyama hills to the near west. This is the sort of geography that favors rice cultivation, and with it the complex of social relations that gave rise to the feudal system Marx called "Oriental despotism."

To get an impression of the way the overlords lived, we drive a couple of miles to the Hasegawa House, one of only a few large thatched structures in Japan to have survived from the mid 19th century. Once you enter and become accustomed to the darkness, the marriage between simplicity and elegance is immediately apparent. The lower part of the house is constructed of squared and polished wood, with pillars lined up at regular intervals. About 10 feet from the ground, the structure suddenly changes. Planar wall faces—with their strict relationships and modular, tatami-mat proportions—give way to the rustic organic forms of rough-hewn rafters bearing dark, soot-blackened thatch. Such abrupt transitions are a striking feature, not just of the architecture of the past, but of a sensibility encountered all over contemporary Japan. Life seems to be lived much as soba is devoured: the intricacy of patterns noisily and pleasurably consumed.

We return to Nagaoka and delicate teas, endless shoe changes, and the boundless hospitality of the Kawakami household, where Yamamoto is staying. Adjacent to the family's sake brewery, established in the mid 16th century, theirs is a traditional house. The sliding fusuma, the dappled darkness of the sudare blinds, and the scent of cedar extend the space toward the moss-softened silhouettes of the garden beyond. The aesthetic has little to do with what we term minimalism. The house resists all Western conventions of containment; rather, it brings the outside in. "It's a very precious sort of architecture," Yamamoto later remarks over sake. "Wooden houses such as these are built on the idea of wind and air, and I like that very much." A breeze moves through the house, carrying with it the smell of nightfall, and mosquitoes eager to introduce themselves to new flesh. Like many of my best moments in foreign countries, this one is at once sublimely tranquil and itchy. A moment passes before he continues: "But for people who have been born in such a house there is no privacy." Then he adds that to be a private person does not necessitate the building of walls—it helps to have space, and in this country to have space you have to be rich.

As we leave the tranquillity of the Kawakami household and wind back to the hotel on side streets illuminated by neon signs, bright vending machines, and paper lanterns, I find myself thinking of Junichiro Tanizaki's modern classic In Praise of Shadows. Tanizaki makes the point that much of Japan's traditional art arose from the darkness in which people lived—the glossy lacquers and gilt screens that look garish in modern spaces were designed to pick up the last rays of light struggling through penumbral gloom. It was the pressure of the darkness of interior life that drove the Japanese to create cities of neon and fluorescent light.

Walking past the flashing lights of the pachinko parlor and back into the uniformly lit hotel lobby, it's easy to see how brightness has become a fundamental desire in Japan. Yamamoto's designs shun this tendency. "I felt that in a city like Tokyo, which is full of neon and advertising, at least clothing shouldn't be shouting at you as well," he once said. "It should express nothing more than just 'Leave us alone.' " But behind Yamamoto's fiercely contemporary silhouettes lies something almost nostalgic—perhaps a lament he shares with Tanizaki, that the beauty of shadow is no longer understood in modern Japan.

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