Chapter 3. Principle of Life hidden inside Traditional Architecture

SeimeiOrganisms have maintained its lineage through the process of copying and destroying oneself for billions of years. This process of life and death is how all organisms maintain their lineage.  Organisms have never experienced death at the DNA level, though individuals may have experienced death. This applies to all organisms including humans, other mammals, insects, fish, clams, and bacteria imperceptible through the naked eye. 98% of our atoms exchange out from our body in a year of time. If one meets a friend he/she hasn’t seen in a while, at the atomic level he/she is a completely different entity. However, we usually do not acknowledge that fact.

Netherlander abstract artist William De Kooning once said, “You have to change to stay the same”.  Biologist Lin Margaret commented on De Kooning’s seemingly self-contradicting quote saying, “Changing to stay the same is the essence of autopoiesis (self-creation)”.

At this Final chapter, let us talk about the Sengu (Year of Renewal) of the Ise-Jingu. The Sengu is a ritual to rejuvenate the soul of Japan every 20 years. Through the process of Sengu, “Tokowaka” [常若] is achieved. Tokowaka consists of the characters [常] (continually) and [若] (young), and has the meaning, “ever-lasting young”. As mentioned in Chapter 1, Japan is traditionally an agricultural nation. For this reason, the sun goddess Amaterasu-Ookami is the highest positioned God in Japan.  The Sengu is a process to reconstruct the house of Amaterasu-Ookami every 20 years. We live in an age where our traditional culture is forgotten in the process of globalization and modernization. Many of contemporary architecture are backed only on state-of-the-art technology and the unconventionality/uniqueness of the designer. Often times, these architecture are merely a trend of its age, and are forgotten in a very short amount of time. Architect Bruno Taut commented, “The Ise-Jingu is a ‘True Architecture’ backed by its philosophical spirituality”.  Excluding times of national crisis, the Sengu has taken place ceaselessly since 690 AD.

HinokiThe Hinoki (Hinoki Cypress) is used for the construction of the Ise-Jingu. A Hinoki is a conifer tree indigenous to Japan and Taiwan, and is considered the highest quality building material in Japan. The aroma emitted from the Hinoki is highly favored by the Japanese. A bathtub built with its lumber is highly appraised for its luxurious qualities. Being a very hardy tree, there have been cases where an architecture constructed with Hinoki stood strong for over 1,000 years. The Sengu requires trees that are over 200 years of age. For this reason, an extremely long term cultivation program is put to practice. The people who plant a sapling are bound to pass away before he/she sees that tree become used for the Sengu. Hinoki deconstructed during the Sengu is reused to construct new Jinjya (Shinto Shrine) all over Japan. It is never disposed.

SenguThe Sengu takes place every 20 years. The fact that this event takes place every 20 years has a significant meaning in terms of inheritance of skills. An apprentice experiences his first round of Sengu during his teens and 20s. At his second round, he becomes one of the senior craftsman, and at his third Sengu, he is in the position to guide the younger generation. Japan is occasionally recognized as a technologically advanced nation. If that notion is correct, this was possible through the accumulation and inheritance of skill sets. Skill sets however, are lost very quickly without inheritance. For instance, the gargantuan main gun of the Yamato Battleship used during the Second World War cannot be built today. Without the process of inheritance, skill sets become artifacts that are found only in museums and literature. The Sengu is a cultural heritage where people today can experience construction technique that is over 1,000 years old.

At the Ise-Jingu rites and festivals take place every day of the year. Sacred tools and craftworks are constructed to prepare for the next Sengu. I feel that this process of the Sengu has a similarity to how Lynn Margulis described organisms saying, “Changing to stay the same is the essence of autopoiesis (process of reproducing and maintaining oneself)”. It also seems to symphonize with De Kooning’s quote, “You have to change to stay the same”. Every design has a reason. The Sengu is designed to take place every 20 years because this time span is the best way to pass on its soul and essence to the generation.

Kumiko18th century French philosopher Voltaire said, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him”. In the 19th century, Friedrich Niche pronounced that “God is dead”. In Japan, God (synonymous to nature) created people, and people reflect God in every part of nature.  Just as a body that lost its soul loses its energy, if the inheritance is hindered and the Sengu stops, God loses its place.

Craftwork that has been treasured over a long history, is recognized as a treasure because the craftsmen’s soul is engraved in it. From small plates to architectural material, its skills have been passed along. This thought behind this process is like parents who want their child and grandchildren to prosper. It is difficult to find a rational explanation for inheriting traditional arts as an occupation. However, that is the correct thing to do, and it is something that is well worth spending one’s entire life. People who favor reformation may these people are like robots, or it is like they are not thinking. However, the essence of life is about inheritance. When one encounters and experiences traditional craftworks such as the Ise-Jingu, they will surely feel the spirit of the craftsmen that have worked to preserve its soul.


Teddy Cookswell
Cultural Facility Designer / Illustrator

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最終章: 伝統建築工芸に隠れた生命の本質





この20年ごとの遷宮には、技術の継承、伝承としての利点もあります。10-20代で見習いとして入ってきた技師は2回目の遷宮で中堅として働き、50-60代を迎える3回目の遷宮では後輩の指導的立場になるのです。傍ら、20年単位の遷宮に必要な建材である、檜の調達と言う100年単位の長期的な計画の中で、人生をかけた仕事の成果を見ずに人生を終えるのにも関わらず、自分の持ち場を徹底的に守り働く人々も居ます。 古い歴史を持つ技術国の日本ですが、わずか70年前に造った戦艦大和の主砲を現在造る事はすでに出来ないそうです。技術は継承されないと失われ文献や博物館の中の資料で想像するしか出来ないものとなります。遷宮は、宗教・哲学的な意味の他に、千年、数百年前の建築及び工芸手法を現代人が体感できる非常に貴重な文化遺産なのです。

伊勢神宮では365日、毎日何かしらの祭事が行われており、さらなる20年後の遷宮に向けて神具等の工芸品類が綿々と作られています。それはまるで「一つの存在であり続ける為に絶えず変わらなければならない」という、マーギュリスが、生命のエッセンスとして引用した抽象画家の言葉と重なる様に僕は思います。 人に目が2つある理由、鼻の穴が2つある理由、指が5本ある理由をご存知でしょうか?生命史を読み解けばしっかりとした理由があります。生命のデザインだけでなく、長い歴史を持つ全ての意匠には、その形である理由、それが受け継がれている理由があるのです。




文化施設デザイナー / イラストレーター