Bachelard and Nenzi: Comparing Spatial Perspectives

In Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, he discusses the idea of the house as a place of imagination where subconscious memories are imbued in the physical structure. In his words, ‘he [the occupant] experiences the house in its reality and in its virtuality, by means of thoughts and dreams’.[1] Thus, Bachelard envisions a space of imagination where the walls of a building can not only be viewed solely on ideas of its function but also, as an embodiment of dreams’.[2] These ideas are also reflected in Laura Nenzi’s Excursions in Identity: Travel and the Intersection of Place, Gender, and Status in Edo Japan. In it, she argues the road is a site of individuals’ dreams and gives he or she a space to imagine a version of themselves or their place in society differently as they travel outside their fixed role within it.

Most of the tourism readings, like Japan’s pocketbook of travels, outlined routes, sites, and activities as recommended by the government, with a clear agenda or push to include certain historical places in the weaving of a larger national narrative. Nenzi, on the other hand, creates what one could term the ‘choose your own adventure’ outlook where she takes the journey of travelers and contextualizes them in the wide range of possibilities enabled on the road. Nenzi’s outlook can be extended towards the Meiji era where tourism rapidly expanded as Japan opened to the west. She discusses the role of mass consumerism which sees items like trinkets becoming important indicators of the trips undertaken which she argues expands the accessible nature of travel. However, this interpretation, while interesting, also pigeonholes the experiences and perceptions of places to a singular craft, institution, etc. This offers an interesting comparison to groups like the globetrotters, where the tourists shallowly engage with the people, places, and cultures they visit, the perception of the country produced from the trip will be undoubtedly be skewed.

However, there is a degree of difference as the globetrotters were usually foreign visitors thus their understanding of the country would significantly differ from visitors from other parts of the same country yet both experiences reflect the multiple realities of a single space. Thus, as Bachelard discusses the web of consciousness projected in a house, and Nenzi discusses the endless perceptions and imaginations able to occur on the road both emphasize the versatile meanings of one space.

[1] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston 1994), p.9

[2] Ibid., p. 15

Massey’s For Space Manifested in Yokohama Woodblocks

In Doreen Massey’s For Space, she argues against a static view of space. In her first chapter, she states space is a product of interrelations, is always under construction and is ‘the sphere of possibility of the existence of multiplicity in the sense of contemporaneous plurality’.[1] In this she means, space encompasses multiple possible trajectories at once.  She asks in her introduction, ‘what if we open up the imagination of the single narrative to give space for multiple trajectories? What kinds of conceptualization of time and space and of their reaction might that give on to?’.[2] Looking at the woodblocks produced upon the opening of Yokohama in the late nineteenth century, one can see examples that resonate in the answer to these questions.

As described by John Dower, the woodblocks which emerged with the developing commercial industry reflected a ‘dream window’ where people ‘let their imaginations run wild’ as they depicted not just what they saw but what they imagined.[3] Events or situations depicting Western and Japanese ways of life were a common theme in these prints however many were imagined and varied drastically depending on who the intended audience was. Western observers focused on the Japanese population with a preoccupation for capturing their quintessential essence and the Japanese did the same. As Dower points out, these different depictions are also impacted by the different mediums used, the Japanese using colorful wood prints while Westerners used black and white photographs or sketches.[4] Western periodicals like the Illustrated London News and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper published engravings which catered towards a curious audience at home however, these publications became available in Japan shortly after the opening of the port.[5] Thus, the Japanese artists began to base their depictions off these images revising them to add their own unique style. The combination of printed foreign sources and colorful woodblocks created different perceptions of the same city which were then widely distributed to different populations within Japan and abroad, creating a variety of perceptions of not only Yokohama but the populations within it.

Artists like Sadahide (b. 1807) contributed to the growth of Yokohama woodblocks as a distinct subset of this Japanese tradition. These were widely available to regular Japanese citizens and depicted the international area and the people within it who would not be so accessible otherwise. Dower claims the city was, ‘a window looking out of Japan upon the unknown world of foreign nations that lay across the seas’.[6] Thus it didn’t matter whether or not the scenes depicted real events as they did develop a real image and perception amongst their consumers.

Here, Massey’s multiple trajectories theory is applicable to the different depictions creating different perceptions. While the city could be perceived as a drastically different place amongst these relationships, its impact was constantly shifting and changed by new works. Thus, through the lens of her theories, Western and Japanese perceptions of the city and people within it are part of the imagined space of Yokohama.

[1] Doreen Massey, For Space (Sage 2005), p. 9

[2] Ibid., p. 5

[3] John W. Dower, ‘Yokohama Boomtown: Foreigners in Treaty-Port Japan (1859-1872)’, MIT Visualizing Cultures, MIT

< https://visualizingcultures.mit.edu/yokohama/yb_essay02.html> [accessed on 10 December 2019]

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.