Under the Banner of Street Observation

Terunobu Fujimori

Reviewed by Thomas Daniell

02 Jun 2016

The official founding of the Street Observation Society, June 10, 1986.

Now, what­ev­er you might think,
The gods dwell in the streets.
To put that in slight­ly more con­crete terms, there has been a shift in the ori­en­ta­tion of the ban­ner of our era:

On paper → On the streets
Appre­ci­a­tion → Obser­va­tion
Art for adults → Sci­ence for chil­dren
Spaces → Objects

I want to explain in detail why we have end­ed up in such a state.

First, let’s take the exem­plary case of Wajiro Kon.1

Since child­hood, he was an artist. With a small body and a face like a lit­tle mon­key, he was a dunce when it came to study­ing and just liked draw­ing pic­tures. As a pri­ma­ry school stu­dent, he spent his time alone sketch­ing each build­ing along Tera­machi Street in his home­town, Hirosaki.

A child with these ten­den­cies must inevitably grow up, and it seems like­ly he would become involved in obser­va­tion. In his case, he got mixed up in the folk­lore stud­ies of Kunio Yanagi­ta.2 Dur­ing Taisho years 6 – 11 (1917 – 22), he tagged along on Yanagita’s tours of farm vil­lages and learned meth­ods of col­lec­tion and obser­va­tion while sketch­ing the thatched roofs of the min­ka (ver­nac­u­lar hous­es). How­ev­er, dur­ing those five or six years, for some rea­son, he slumped into an utter­ly nihilis­tic feel­ing” with regard to Yanagita’s folk­lore studies.

As if await­ing the right moment, in Taisho year 12 (1923), Tokyo was entire­ly destroyed.3 On the scorched earth, he began to do two things.

One was the task of using what­ev­er came to hand to dec­o­rate the bar­rack” build­ings that were being hasti­ly built to pro­vide shel­ter. He asked his art-school col­leagues to form a Bar­rack Dec­o­ra­tion Com­pa­ny,” for which they dis­trib­uted hand­bills in the street to solic­it clients and then, when­ev­er asked, they would rush with lad­ders over their shoul­ders and paint cans in their hands to apply bar­bar­ian dec­o­ra­tion as Dadaist art.”

His oth­er task was to observe the prac­ti­cal aspects of the lives of peo­ple forced to begin again in the fire-dev­as­tat­ed areas. From the signs drawn on pieces of scrap wood to the kinds of clothes worn by peo­ple pass­ing through the town, he made sketch­es of what­ev­er he saw. This is the ori­gin of today’s mod­er­nol­o­gy. If today’s authen­tic mod­er­nol­o­gy — for exam­ple, Gen­pei Akasegawa’s Thomas­son Obser­va­tion Cen­ter and his search for Thomas­sons; Shin­bo Minami’s fly­er obser­va­tions; the search for West­ern-style build­ings by the Tokyo Archi­tec­tur­al Detec­tive Agency formed by Terunobu Fuji­mori, Takeyoshi Hori, and oth­ers; Joji Hayashi’s man­hole col­lec­tion; Nobuyu­ki Mori’s obser­va­tions of school­girl uni­forms; and Tsu­to­mu Ichiki’s frag­ment col­lec­tion4—is traced back to its ori­gins, we arrive at Wajiro Kon.

So, I guess you could say that mod­er­nol­o­gy was estab­lished as a result of Wajiro Kon’s sud­den turn away from the paths between rice fields toward the met­ro­pol­i­tan streets. He him­self quit the prac­tice of mod­er­nol­o­gy once the recon­struc­tion of Tokyo was com­plete, but the term mod­er­nol­o­gy head­ed out on its own and grew up to be a com­mon word in present-day journalism.

How­ev­er, I feel it might have grown up a lit­tle too much.

In com­par­i­son with its mind, only its body has devel­oped into a word for seduc­ing men, or worse, for seduc­ing mag­a­zines. For exam­ple, the expres­sion ___ mod­er­nol­o­gy” is append­ed to restau­rant reviews, the qual­i­ty of love hotels is dis­cussed under the title Fad­dish Mod­er­nol­o­gy,”5 and today the word mod­er­nol­o­gy is, to phrase it nos­tal­gi­cal­ly, the cul-mi-nation of me-dia mani-pu-lation in the sales strat-egies of the con-sumer econ­o­my un-der the ad-vanced devel­op-ment of the glo-bal capi-tal­ist sys-tem” — which seems to be true, but put more sim­ply, mod­er­nol­o­gy nowa­days has become sul­lied by the fin­ger­prints of too many peo­ple from the world of commerce.

Street observation equipment. From Rojō kansatsugaku nyūmon [Street Observation Studies Primer] eds. Genpei Akasegawa, Terunobu Fujimori, and Shinbo Minami (Tokyo: Chikuma Shōbō, 1986).

Rather than young Yasuo Tana­ka, we should recall the dig­ni­fied fig­ure of the orig­i­nal mod­er­nol­o­gy, begun by Wajiro Kon and Ken­kichi Yoshi­da.6 They did not observe the mer­chan­dise dis­played in store­fronts, but instead observed the signs paint­ed on scrap lum­ber next to that mer­chan­dise. Fur­ther­more, utter­ly uncon­cerned with what kinds of sign­boards were bet­ter for busi­ness, they direct­ly col­lect­ed what they found to be inter­est­ing in the sign­boards as things. This atti­tude of going direct to the things is impor­tant, as it pre­vents the intru­sion of lust or hunger.

So, unlike young Yasuo, you can­not just enter a shop and pick up the mer­chan­dise, and it’s no good to stay sit­ting at a table. The team of Kon and Yoshi­da was always and only on the streets, for the streets.

Con­sump­tion is BAD, obser­va­tion is GOOD. In a shop is BAD, on a street is EXTRA GOOD.

This is the true heart of mod­er­nol­o­gy. So, for those of us who have dis­cov­ered the gaze of Kon and Yoshi­da with­in our own eye­balls, we say a brief farewell to the mod­er­nol­o­gy that has sul­lied by so many fin­ger­prints, and pro­claim that we want to use these words:

ROJO KANSAT­SU (street observation)

The sense of pass­ing through” in rojo (on the street) seems wit­ty, and the sci­en­tism” in kansat­su (obser­va­tion) seems cool. I think Kon would approve.


Well then, to com­bine rojo with kansat­su is obvi­ous­ly to launch an attack on the domain of anti-rojo and anti-kansat­su. While this is an exag­ger­at­ed state­ment, the gap between that domain and ours may appear nar­row, but I feel it’s a very deep gulf.

The hypo­thet­i­cal ene­my con­fronting us street observers is noth­ing oth­er than the empire of con­sump­tion, with which we have already bumped scab­bards7 thou­sands of times. For a long peri­od this empire’s ter­ri­to­ry was lim­it­ed to shop inte­ri­ors. They main­tained a friend­ly rela­tion­ship with our king­dom of the streets as long as we each kept with­in the bound­aries, but, recent­ly, they have revealed ter­ri­to­r­i­al ambi­tions toward the inher­it­ed streets upon which we live, and they are steadi­ly stock­ing up on weapons for an inva­sion — at least, that’s the infor­ma­tion we received. For exam­ple, the old guy in D shop on H street in Tokyo declares, If I don’t go out on the streets, I’ll go out of busi­ness,” sug­gest­ing a strat­e­gy of com­mer­cial­iza­tion across the whole city, and in one area a strat­e­gy of ford­ing the riv­er has already succeeded.

Street observation map, Ginza district. From Rojō kansatsugaku nyūmon [Street Observation Studies Primer] eds. Genpei Akasegawa, Terunobu Fujimori, and Shinbo Minami (Tokyo: Chikuma Shōbō, 1986).

Giv­en this cri­sis, we need to be cau­tious about the way that the empire of con­sump­tion has sus­pend­ed their for­mer­ly bla­tant bat­tle tac­tics, which used the prin­ci­ples of big bat­tle­ships armed with com­mer­cial weapons of mass pro­duc­tion and mass con­sump­tion, and is instead fran­ti­cal­ly try­ing to devel­op new weapons that some­how con­vey a feel­ing of the per­son­al gaze and the free­dom to drift.

So, per­haps street sen­si­tiv­i­ty” must be a major com­po­nent of the gun­pow­der packed into these new weapons. How­ev­er, a tru­ly pure street sen­si­tiv­i­ty can recall the pro­found pathos of the city in a weath­er-beat­en cast-met­al man­hole lid, see Sada Abe8 in the stump of a road­side tele­phone pole, feel the sweet inno­cence of human soci­ety in fly­ers stuck on a wall, imag­ine the entire world in the melan­choly chick­weed that sprouts inside a dis­used, rusty hand-pump — it’s those kinds of sen­sa­tions. Such triv­ial things can’t be used as weapons of con­sump­tion. If you think they can, then give it your best shot!!

Hav­ing said that so con­fi­dent­ly, it’s painful to see that much of the urban the­o­ry boom of recent years is some­how com­plic­it with the empire of consumption’s strat­e­gy of invad­ing the streets. Look­ing at news­pa­per adver­tise­ments by pub­lish­ers of books with the word city” in their titles, the stan­dard three-line blurb on the left-hand side of the page will con­tain phras­es like urban fes­tiv­i­ty” or stim­u­lat­ing the sen­si­tiv­i­ties and desires of mod­ern people…with the town as a stage for the pro­tag­o­nists of a drama…hunters chas­ing infor­ma­tion and symbols…analyzing the codes of the rich mir­ror of the city…discussing the full range of the charm of the spaces,” but this fes­tiv­i­ty” and charm of the spaces” has an unex­pect­ed­ly dubi­ous char­ac­ter. The words point in the right direc­tion, but are always dou­ble-edged swords, which final­ly, in fact, ben­e­fit the empire of con­sump­tion in more than a few cas­es. Until now, not a sin­gle one of these con­cepts has avoid­ed being con­sumed by that empire, so street obser­va­tion also must be vigilant.

Manhole covers, hydrants, and other objects observed in the Ginza district. From Rojō kansatsugaku nyūmon [Street Observation Studies Primer] eds. Genpei Akasegawa, Terunobu Fujimori, and Shinbo Minami (Tokyo: Chikuma Shōbō, 1986).

Well, accept­ing these ter­ri­to­r­i­al prob­lems between the empire of con­sump­tion and the king­dom of the streets, let’s move on to a dis­cus­sion of the next hypo­thet­i­cal enemy.

Its name is art. Well, it isn’t quite cor­rect to call that an ene­my nation. Rather than being opposed to street obser­va­tion, in his­tor­i­cal terms, art is pre­cise­ly one of the nos­tal­gic home­towns” of street obser­va­tion. Both Kon and Yoshi­da came from an artis­tic vil­lage. But even now there is a touch of obses­sive­ness with regard to this mater­nal home­town of street obser­va­tion, due to a dark past: back in the old days, when street obser­va­tion was still a young school­boy in the art vil­lage, it was bul­lied, so it desert­ed the vil­lage and lit out for the cap­i­tal city. Then again, think­ing about it now, the bul­ly­ing was, nat­u­ral­ly, unavoid­able due to the lit­tle brat’s bad habit of yelling rad­i­cal things like Demol­ish the art vil­lage!” then plung­ing into the sacred grove of the vil­lage shrine with its shoes on and kick­ing away the trea­sured beau­ty” that had been passed down to the vil­lage from great antiq­ui­ty. The chief brat, Gen­pei Akasegawa,9 con­fess­es the sur­round­ing cir­cum­stances in the open­ing pages of this book, but the stages that fol­lowed the rur­al exo­dus from the art vil­lages that began in the 1960s may be explained as follows:

The stage of art in muse­ums … an era of sculp­tur­al self-expres­sion in the city, such as the Inde­pen­dents” exhi­bi­tion.10
The stage of art on the streets … an era of phys­i­cal self-expres­sion on the street, such as the Hi Red Cen­ter.11
The stage of street obser­va­tion … an era of extin­guished self-expres­sion, such as Thomas­sons.12

After this hop-step-and-jump, the per­son­al expres­sion” that can be described as a tac­it premise of mod­ern art was obvi­ous­ly extin­guished by the sig­na­ture of R. Mutt,13 so per­haps we could also call this the longest jump that has suc­ceed­ed in going far­ther than Duchamp. It’d be a great sto­ry, but, actu­al­ly, doesn’t it just revert to kids play­ing in the streets?!

Thomasson typology. From Rojō kansatsugaku nyūmon [Street Observation Studies Primer] eds. Genpei Akasegawa, Terunobu Fujimori, and Shinbo Minami (Tokyo: Chikuma Shōbō, 1986).

Well, for street observers, art is not an ene­my, but some­thing from the past. Of course, because art is one of our nos­tal­gic home­towns, we may vis­it sev­er­al times a year to relax, but that home­town is far from the prick­ling sen­sa­tions of the mod­ern city. We may want to go back there when we get old, but while we are still healthy we pre­fer to be on the city streets.

Here I will here point out the dif­fer­ences between the father” (art) and child” (street observation).

In art, there is an author who cre­ates the art­work, and this art­work is jammed with the spir­it and thought and aes­thet­ic sen­si­bil­i­ty of its author. That is what is called an art­work. An art­work is some­thing for aes­thet­ic appre­ci­a­tion (鑑賞, kan­jō) in an art museum.

How­ev­er, in street obser­va­tion, our eye­balls are direct­ed toward man­hole cov­ers, Thomas­sons, fire hydrants, build­ing frag­ments, tele­vi­sion sets con­vert­ed into chick­en coops, and such things are not for aes­thet­ic appre­ci­a­tion, that is to say, they are not to be eval­u­at­ed (鑑, kan) — using prece­dents to pro­vide illu­mi­na­tion and allow judg­ment — or to be rel­ished (賞, ). Because an art­work is an embod­i­ment of the inten­tions of its author, it can be eval­u­at­ed and rel­ished, but unin­ten­tion­al things that are not filled with thought or spir­it, like a man­hole cov­er or the stump of an elec­tric light pole, are called noth­ing more than objects, and these objects are not to be appre­ci­at­ed, but to be observed.

Of course, I don’t mean to say that obser­va­tion is of a low­er order than appre­ci­a­tion. In the act of obser­va­tion, as may be under­stood from the typ­i­cal sum­mer vaca­tion home­work assign­ment for kids, to Observe the Morn­ing Glo­ries,” there is an inher­ent sci­en­tism. And this is not the sci­en­tism that plunges into the invis­i­ble realms of con­tem­po­rary advanced tech­nol­o­gy and elec­tron­ics, but is mere­ly a child sci­ence” appre­hen­si­ble with anyone’s eye­balls. Leav­ing the the­o­ry of child sci­ence to Aki­ra Asa­da,14 well then, if the word obser­va­tion is grasped in that way, it may be under­stood as being just as pow­er­ful as appre­ci­a­tion, those being the two most impor­tant activ­i­ties of the eyeballs.

If so, well then, which is more pow­er­ful: the aes­thet­ic appre­ci­a­tion of art­works in the world of fine arts, or the obser­va­tion of items in the streets?

Thomasson typology. From Rojō kansatsugaku nyūmon [Street Observation Studies Primer] eds. Genpei Akasegawa, Terunobu Fujimori, and Shinbo Minami (Tokyo: Chikuma Shōbō, 1986).

I have no reluc­tance to acknowl­edge the over­whelm­ing pre­dom­i­nance of art appre­ci­a­tion at the moment, but nowa­days the vis­i­tors to art muse­ums are becom­ing elder­ly, so I have often heard, and per­haps art muse­ums have become homes to art for grand­pas, grand­mas, and aun­ties. Replaced with street obser­va­tion, this would be reju­ve­nat­ed by young boys and girls. It’d be harsh if that were to be dis­missed as mere­ly infan­tiliza­tion, but any­way, youths are burn­ing with far more curios­i­ty about the won­drous items rolling along the side of the road than about West­ern mas­ter­pieces such as Van Gogh’s Cypress­es and Millet’s The Angelus, and it is pre­cise­ly this curios­i­ty about objects that is impor­tant now.

But there’s no rea­son to say that all the arts have become rel­e­gat­ed to an audi­ence of grand­pas, grand­mas, and aun­ties. For exam­ple, there is a domain of pic­tures that are drawn with the same gaze as that of street observers. These are nat­ur­al his­to­ry illus­tra­tions. As Hiroshi Ara­ma­ta15 states, nat­ur­al his­to­ry illus­tra­tions devel­oped as a descrip­tive method for nat­ur­al his­to­ry, which flour­ished dur­ing the Euro­pean Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion — doesn’t this have a won­der­ful tone?! — and while these images were drawn as a result of sci­en­tif­ic obser­va­tions of unusu­al plants and ani­mals and min­er­als col­lect­ed while walk­ing across hill and dale, mys­te­ri­ous­ly they are some­how able to tol­er­ate artis­tic appre­ci­a­tion. Of course, nat­ur­al his­to­ry illus­tra­tions are the task of one branch of nat­ur­al sci­ence, so though this might seem essen­tial­ly the same as the ori­gin of child sci­ence, like the Sketch Jour­nal of Obser­va­tions of Morn­ing Glo­ries,” in any case, when pur­su­ing an accu­rate repro­duc­tion of a sub­ject there should be no chance for self-expres­sion to intrude, but nev­er­the­less, by some unknown mech­a­nism, fla­vor is exud­ed by these pic­tures as they trick­le out of the lit­tle boat of science.

Of course, even in Japan there is a lin­eage of nat­ur­al his­to­ry illus­tra­tions that flour­ished in the lat­ter half of the Edo peri­od (1603 – 1868), dur­ing which many illus­trat­ed books on med­i­c­i­nal herbs and fish appeared. From the begin­ning of the Edo peri­od onward, many peo­ple who picked up a brush had the gaze of a nat­ur­al his­to­ry illus­tra­tor — the gaze of a street observ­er — even if they weren’t spe­cial­ized in nat­ur­al his­to­ry illus­tra­tions. Jakuchuu, Keiga, Kazan, Hoku­sai, Gen­nai, among oth­ers, were pro­lif­ic, but inter­est­ing­ly none of them had received any for­mal train­ing in the fine arts — the Kano School, the Shi­jo School, and so on16—and instead had honed their skills through street observation.

Thomasson typology. From Rojō kansatsugaku nyūmon [Street Observation Studies Primer] eds. Genpei Akasegawa, Terunobu Fujimori, and Shinbo Minami (Tokyo: Chikuma Shōbō, 1986).

Hinako Sug­iu­ra17 is a mod­ern man­ga artist in sym­pa­thy with the gaze of these Edo-peri­od street obser­va­tion painters, but it is a very inter­est­ing fact that she stepped out of his­tor­i­cal research on the nat­ur­al his­to­ry illus­tra­tion world, which pur­sued accu­rate repro­duc­tions of the sub­ject, into the domain of man­ga. And she’s also a beau­ti­ful woman.

Well, giv­en that degree of rela­tion­ship to the art vil­lage, next let’s move on to the rela­tion­ship with schol­ar­ship. This is tough.

Old-style schol­ar­ship was the result of a great deal of street obser­va­tion. To say it hap­pened on the streets is not quite accu­rate, but it did begin by observ­ing and record­ing things seen when walk­ing on the streets, or across hills and dales. Trac­ing biol­o­gy and geog­ra­phy and eth­nol­o­gy and mete­o­rol­o­gy back to their ori­gins, we reach nat­ur­al his­to­ry as the sci­ence of obser­va­tion of all cre­ation. Along with the fine arts, nat­ur­al his­to­ry is a home­town of street obser­va­tion. How­ev­er, while the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion marked the rais­ing of the cur­tain on the era known as mod­ern times, many use­ful chil­dren were born as mod­ern times pro­gressed, but nat­ur­al his­to­ry itself per­ished. At first, these chil­dren had life-size bod­ies that could be appre­hend­ed by the eye­balls of ordi­nary peo­ple, but as they became increas­ing­ly spe­cial­ized they quick­ly became invis­i­ble to the naked eye.

Well then, what to do?

After these hyper­tro­phied bod­ies spe­cial­ized into fields like engi­neer­ing and phys­i­cal sci­ences, there was nowhere else to go. At any rate, Akit­sut­sushi­ma18 (“The Land of Abun­dant Rice”) is now the land of sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy. How­ev­er, spe­cial­iza­tion in the field of human­i­ties, unre­lat­ed to com­merce, might take a short break and become avail­able for rever­sion to nat­ur­al his­to­ry. Once again, we begin to observe places on foot. If the term Street Obser­va­tion seems exces­sive­ly non-aca­d­e­m­ic, bet­ter to call it fieldwork.

Thomasson typology. From Rojō kansatsugaku nyūmon [Street Observation Studies Primer] eds. Genpei Akasegawa, Terunobu Fujimori, and Shinbo Minami (Tokyo: Chikuma Shōbō, 1986).

The rea­son that Hiroshi Ara­ma­ta, who could have undoubt­ed­ly become a great schol­ar if times were bet­ter, and Inuhiko Yomo­ta,19 who would have received medals if he had been born thir­ty years ear­li­er, have abscond­ed to do nat­ur­al his­to­ry on the streets or research in emp­ty fields” is undoubt­ed­ly to revive their liv­ing eye­balls by allow­ing air from the streets to blow through their own heads, packed as they are with aca­d­e­m­ic knowl­edge. If the eye­balls die, all thought and lit­er­a­ture will come to an end. There is no bet­ter train­ing for the eye­balls than the study of nat­ur­al history.


Which is why our own eye­balls have part­ed ways with the empire of con­sump­tion, art vil­lages, and spe­cial­ized schol­ar­ship, and tum­bled out on to the streets. Look­ing around us, we notice that some oth­er eye­balls have also rolled out here.

The eye­balls of the Space School.”20

These eye­balls have quite mes­mer­iz­ing pupils, and dur­ing these past ten years or so they have pro­duced many famous books, such as City Arcades by Takashi Hasegawa, Text and the City by Ai Mae­da, and The Spa­tial Anthro­pol­o­gy of Tokyo by Hide­nobu Jin­nai. Giv­en that their basis is street obser­va­tion, just like us, they are clear­ly our old­er broth­ers, but dif­fer­ing on one fun­da­men­tal point.

This dif­fer­ence is obvi­ous if we walk togeth­er in a place near water, such as a canal or river.

The Space School pays atten­tion to the spaces at the water’s edge, the stone walls and stone stair­ways of the store­hous­es and break­wa­ters that line the canals, fol­low­ing the flow of water. Because all these visu­al impres­sions are resolved in terms of the order that is latent in such spaces, this order must be deci­phered. The dev­as­tat­ing tech­niques of the Space School, such as read­ing a city” or read­ing a code,” are method­olog­i­cal­ly sim­i­lar to semi­otics. And what becomes vis­i­ble as a result of these read­ings is the order of the good old days. The Edo water­front was vibrant, the back alleys of the old down­town neigh­bor­hoods were won­der­ful — that kind of thing. The mod­ern era has been blamed for obscur­ing and dis­rupt­ing the order of those spaces and build­ing a new order on top. These com­plaints have enough impact to sway most eye­balls when they see state­ments like, the progress of the mod­ern era has super­seded the val­ues of the pre-mod­ern era.”

How­ev­er, alas, our eye­balls are not like that. When walk­ing by a canal, rather than the float­ing spaces, our eyes are first caught by the bro­ken dolls, scraps of wood, and bot­tles float­ing on the sur­face of the water. Shame­ful­ly, we are more sen­si­tive towards objects than spaces. One can under­stand the predilec­tions of such a gaze by look­ing at the home­work that Bigakko21 stu­dent Shin­bo Mina­mi22 sub­mit­ted to Pro­fes­sor Akasegawa23 six­teen years ago.

Because we are pre­oc­cu­pied by objects, each indi­vid­ual object leaves an inter­est­ing impres­sion as it pass­es across our eyes, but no trace of an over­all order remains on our reti­nas. Rather than the spaces, we have a direct reac­tion to the expres­sion of the indi­vid­ual enti­ty as a thing, so let us call this type of sen­si­tiv­i­ty object sen­si­tiv­i­ty.” In pre-mod­ern times — an era of uni­fied order and uni­fied space — indi­vid­ual items were embed­ded with­in the whole, so from the stand­point of object sen­si­tiv­i­ty, they were not very inter­est­ing. They pro­vid­ed only weak stimulation.

Enti­ties that are incor­po­rat­ed into the whole but stick out like art objects are restrict­ed to moments of devi­a­tion from the over­all order. So maybe, to the extent that an enti­ty projects from a space — which is anoth­er name for visu­al­iza­tion of the over­all order — it becomes an object.

This can be quick­ly under­stood when you set out the things that street observers like to col­lect. All of them devi­ate from their orig­i­nal state.

For exam­ple, among the Thomas­son objects, which devi­ate from the strongest order in the world, that of util­i­ty, you may laugh at the exam­ple of the Pure Tun­nel”: despite being a prop­er rail­way tun­nel, there’s no moun­tain or hill above the tun­nel, it just sup­ports air. Like a man­hole, there are things that sober­ly per­sist in their util­i­ty but some­times project an expres­sion that exceeds this sin­gle-mind­ed usage, and among them are also sad guys that may be exploit­ed and col­lect­ed. For exam­ple, when walk­ing in Kyoto I some­times encounter a man­hole cov­er into which the word ME” has been inscribed. That met­al cov­er stuck in the ground mur­murs, A man­hole cov­er am I.”

Thomasson typology. From Rojō kansatsugaku nyūmon [Street Observation Studies Primer] eds. Genpei Akasegawa, Terunobu Fujimori, and Shinbo Minami (Tokyo: Chikuma Shōbō, 1986).

Among these devi­a­tions, there are devi­a­tions of posi­tion as well as devi­a­tions of scale. In Kyoto, as well as the famous gar­dens such as Ryoan-ji stone gar­den and Koke-dera moss gar­den, a type of gar­den called tsub­oni­wa (spot gar­den) that almost nobody vis­its is hid­ing in the mid­dle of the traf­fic. Bright green grass grows thick in 10-cen­time­ter-diam­e­ter round holes bored into asphalt roads, some­times arrayed with peb­bles, pos­sess­ing a won­der­ful elegance.

This type of tsub­oni­wa in the old cap­i­tal was first dis­cov­ered recent­ly, and aroused inter­est as a new species, but many vari­eties became known after that, such as inside the hand pump of an old well, inside the small holes in a man­hole cov­er, and in the heel-shaped tsub­oni­wa that aris­es in the hol­low of a shoeprint left in the wet con­crete in front of a love hotel.

How­ev­er, hav­ing expressed a pref­er­ence for devi­a­tions, I want to give a warn­ing here: delib­er­ate devi­a­tions and oppo­si­tions, such as inten­tion­al par­o­dies and nov­el­ties, are no good. Because obser­va­tion is a sci­en­tif­ic activ­i­ty, we always want to engage with the unal­tered, nat­ur­al streets.

To explain why I am empha­siz­ing this point, the rea­son our eye­balls have bulged onto the streets is that we have become sick of inten­tion­al things. In art intend­ed to pro­duce beau­ty, in avant-garde art intend­ed to demol­ish beau­ti­ful art, in par­o­dies intend­ed to get a laugh, and in prod­ucts intend­ed only to be pur­chased, it is the inten­tion­al part that we don’t want. Look­ing around, most enti­ties in the world are full of inten­tions, which is tire­some. Of course, the enti­ties that exist in the world were all made inten­tion­al­ly, but through obser­va­tion, we will dis­cov­er the parts that devi­ate out­side the bound­aries of inten­tion. So in this way, giv­en that the cre­ation of an object is pos­si­ble only through devi­a­tions and pro­tru­sions from a space, even if the Space School and the Object School are described as broth­er eye­balls on the same streets, their rela­tion­ship has become slight­ly dif­fi­cult. We don’t want any antag­o­nism, but there is some ten­sion. The Space School con­ceals in its heart the desire to return to a har­mo­nious integri­ty, where­as the Object School makes a final gam­ble on free­dom by depart­ing from pre-estab­lished har­mo­ny.24 A gam­ble on freedom…that is an exag­ger­at­ed way of putting it, but to rephrase it more in line with our actu­al feel­ings, we wan­der about the town, and when we dis­cov­er a good object we begin to gain a sense of free­dom, as if our eye­balls are being revived. We feel as if that part of the city has some­how come to belong to us.

Put grandiose­ly, the Space School is Bol­she­vik, and the Object School is Anar­chist, but will this anar­cho-syn­di­cal­ism ver­sus bol­she­vism debate now roll out onto the streets…?

In any event, the time has come for peo­ple who aim to do obser­va­tion on the streets to stand in front of a mir­ror and check whether the col­or of the iris­es of their own eye­balls is red or black. Test­ing myself, I’m in trou­ble: my right eye is bright red, and my left eye is jet black. Per­haps most peo­ple have a mix­ture of red and black, and the ques­tion is in which direc­tion the mix­ing ratio leans, but far exceed­ing the timid ques­tion of ratio among ordi­nary peo­ple is Joji Hayashi,25 who has one-hun­dred-per­cent pure, unadul­ter­at­ed black eye­balls. The very rea­son we want­ed to raise this ban­ner is, in fact, that on 23 Jan­u­ary in Showa year 60 (1985), some­where near the entrance gate of Toshi­ma Park, I was con­front­ed with this per­son, who can only be described as the god of street obser­va­tion. I may have care­less­ly blurt­ed out the heavy terms Anar­chist and Bol­she­vik in a world of eye­balls, but hav­ing blurt­ed, it’s bet­ter that we devel­op this into a worldview.

Looked at with the eyes of a street observ­er, every­thing on the street is con­tained in the sin­gle word jibut­su (事物, thing). The world of the streets com­pris­es both events” and enti­ties.” The word jibut­su can be divid­ed into ji (事, event) and but­su (物, enti­ty), and attach­ing the char­ac­ter kudan 件 to each con­crete jibut­su gives the terms jiken (事件, inci­dent) and bukken (物件, object). There are some­what dis­rep­utable char­ac­ters deal­ing with each of these spe­cial­iza­tions; jiken (inci­dents) are dealt with by pri­vate detec­tives who set up an office on the sec­ond floor of a ten­ant build­ing, where­as bukken (objects) are dealt with by real-estate agents run­ning a shop on the first floor of that ten­ant build­ing — and that may be the real­i­ty, but it is a sad real­i­ty if we hear a noble word like bukken, not to men­tion jiken, only when it issues from the mouths of mid­dle-aged real-estate agents. Now that the word bukken has been debased into busi­ness jar­gon for prop­er­ty,” we want to rein­state its orig­i­nal mean­ing of art object” and once again to place it in a broth­er­ly rela­tion­ship with jibut­su (thing).

Street observers focus exclu­sive­ly on objects, but, in fact, behind our eye­balls, we are always con­scious of inci­dents. It may be said that we pre­fer to observe objects that give a sense of the inci­dents behind them. We search for objects with the eyes of detec­tives spe­cial­ized in han­dling inci­dents. For exam­ple, as with the first known Thomas­son object, the Pure Stair” attached to the Shoheikan build­ing in the Yot­suya dis­trict of Tokyo, also known as the Yot­suya Stair,” undoubt­ed­ly the dis­cov­er­er instant­ly caught the scent of an inci­dent there. Of course, the issue is not whether there actu­al­ly was an inci­dent, but it exud­ed a scent that sug­gest­ed it wouldn’t be strange if there had been some kind of inci­dent. It is the same with the stumps of elec­tric light poles known as the Sada Abe Type.”

In the water­front exam­ples, even if we sense the spaces while stand­ing on the banks, there are no signs of inci­dents because these spaces are the prod­uct of a har­mo­nious state, but, on the oth­er hand, the bot­tles, dolls, and fetus­es that we see float­ing by are redo­lent with the scent of incidents.

The Archi­tec­tur­al Detec­tives focus sole­ly on West­ern-style build­ings for the same rea­son: in the spaces of a Japan­ese town, a West­ern-style house is an alien sub­stance that becomes an art object, and, as a result, inci­dents may eas­i­ly inhab­it its struc­ture. The hid­ing places in the children’s nov­el Kai­jin nijū men­sō (The Fiend with Twen­ty Faces)26 by Ram­po Edo­gawa27 are always locat­ed in old West­ern-style buildings.


Well then, our street obser­va­tion has fine art and nat­ur­al his­to­ry as its nos­tal­gic home­towns, mod­er­nol­o­gy as the moth­er from which it was born, and it grew up to become a dis­ci­pline detached from acad­e­mia, fight­ing the empire of con­sump­tion, and yet, on a sep­a­rate blood­line from its sib­lings engaged in the study of space, we have become aware that it’s a lone­ly indi­vid­ual stand­ing trem­bling in an unknown place. The apex of the era, or the edge of a precipice — where in the world is this!

In the sky is Halley’s Comet.
On the ground are the street observers.
Under the ground are the sub­ter­ranean dwellers.

Genpei Akasegawa photographing a tsuboniwa (spot garden) in a manhole cover, in 1986. From Kyoto Omoshiro Watching (Tokyo: Shinchosha, 1988).

Terunobu Fuji­mori, Rojō kansat­su no hata no shi­ta ni” [Under the Ban­ner of Street Obser­va­tion], in Rojō kansat­sug­aku nyū­mon [Street Obser­va­tion Stud­ies Primer], eds. Gen­pei Akasegawa, Terunobu Fuji­mori, and Shin­bo Mina­mi (Tokyo: Chiku­ma Shōbō, 1986), 6 – 22.

Trans­lat­ed from Japan­ese by Thomas Daniell with Yuki Solomon.
Details of peo­ple, pub­li­ca­tions, and cul­tur­al phe­nom­e­na that would be known to most con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous Japan­ese read­ers are giv­en in new footnotes.


By Thomas Daniell

The pub­li­ca­tion of the book Rojō kansat­sug­aku nyū­mon [Street Obser­va­tion Stud­ies Primer] in 1986 marked the found­ing of the Street Obser­va­tion Soci­ety, a small group of Japan­ese eccentrics with a shared inter­est in search­ing the city streets for moments of beau­ty, inter­est, or humor in over­looked places and objects. Each of the found­ing mem­bers had long been engaged in such activ­i­ties, but the cre­ation of the soci­ety allowed a fer­tile merg­er of dis­parate yet sym­pa­thet­ic per­son­al­i­ties, his­to­ries, method­olo­gies, prece­dents, and obses­sions. The two key pro­tag­o­nists were Fuji­mori, an archi­tec­tur­al his­to­ri­an, and Gen­pei Akasegawa, a con­cep­tu­al artist and writer. Dur­ing the 1970s, while still a grad­u­ate stu­dent in archi­tec­tur­al his­to­ry, Fuji­mori had found­ed the Archi­tec­ture Detec­tive Agency, which com­prised a small group of friends who searched for and doc­u­ment­ed the prove­nance of minor West­ern-style build­ings in Tokyo and, even­tu­al­ly, through­out Japan. Around the same time, Akasegawa had begun iden­ti­fy­ing and cat­e­go­riz­ing the Duchampian ready­mades” he found in the streets. He was fas­ci­nat­ed by objects that had lost their orig­i­nal use­ful­ness but inex­plic­a­bly were still being main­tained, which he ini­tial­ly called hyper-art” but lat­er renamed Thomas­sons” in iron­ic homage to major-league base­ball play­er Gary Thomas­son; recruit­ed by the Tokyo Giants on a huge salary yet rarely man­ag­ing to hit the ball, Thomas­son was the epit­o­me of expen­sive use­less­ness. Akasegawa enlist­ed his stu­dents at the exper­i­men­tal art school Bigakko to found a group he called the Thomas­son Obser­va­tion Cen­ter. One of these stu­dents was Shin­bo Mina­mi, whose home­work assign­ments includ­ed a dead­pan report on river­side trash.

As well as being found­ing mem­bers of the Street Obser­va­tion Soci­ety, Fuji­mori, Akasegawa, and Mina­mi were co-edi­tors of the primer, for which they invit­ed in a num­ber of like­mind­ed indi­vid­u­als, notably Tsu­to­mu Ichi­ki, who had been amass­ing a huge col­lec­tion of frag­ments sal­vaged from demol­ished build­ings, and Joji Hayashi, a bizarre indi­vid­ual who finds every­thing wor­thy of close atten­tion and order­ly doc­u­men­ta­tion; he glues train tick­et chads into albums, places peb­bles that lodge in his shoes into small bot­tles, all care­ful­ly dat­ed, and has famous­ly tak­en thou­sands of pho­tographs of man­hole covers.

This inter­est in com­mon­place objects has a long his­to­ry in Japan­ese aes­thet­ics and mate­r­i­al cul­ture, but its mod­ern man­i­fes­ta­tion begins with Wajiro Kon (18881973), an archi­tec­ture pro­fes­sor at Wase­da Uni­ver­si­ty. Kon orig­i­nat­ed a dis­ci­pline that he named mod­er­nol­o­gy” (though he pre­ferred to use the Esperan­to spelling, mod­er­nolo­gio), a study of changes in social behav­iors and liv­ing envi­ron­ments as Japan under­went rapid mod­ern­iza­tion dur­ing the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Fol­low­ing field­work on ver­nac­u­lar rur­al dwellings and sur­veys of the ad hoc bar­rack” shel­ters built by peo­ple made home­less due to the 1923 Tokyo earth­quake, Kon’s inter­ests began to extend across many unusu­al themes, few of them direct­ly archi­tec­tur­al. He and his col­lab­o­ra­tors not­ed the per­cent­ages of Tokyo pedes­tri­ans wear­ing West­ern ver­sus Japan­ese cloth­ing, cat­a­logued and quan­ti­fied chang­ing hair­styles and beard shapes, item­ized every object in the house of a new­ly­wed cou­ple, dia­grammed the group­ings of peo­ple relax­ing in a pub­lic park dur­ing cher­ry blos­som sea­son (then lat­er the loca­tions of sui­cides in that same park), and so forth. This was pio­neer­ing and seri­ous work, but not with­out an absur­dist sense of humor; the mod­er­nol­o­gists also doc­u­ment­ed triv­ia such as the pat­terns of cracks in cups found in Tokyo cof­fee shops. The tech­niques devel­oped by Kon and his col­leagues have inspired and influ­enced sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tions of field­work by Japan­ese archi­tects, anthro­pol­o­gists, and soci­ol­o­gists, with a notable resur­gence from the 1970s onward. Much of this com­prised field­work and design sur­veys” of Tokyo by Japan­ese archi­tec­ture stu­dents, but it also includ­ed the stark doc­u­men­tary approach of pho­tog­ra­phers such as Dai­do Moriya­ma, the spa­tial anthro­pol­o­gy” of schol­ars such as Hide­nobu Jin­nai, and the pet archi­tec­ture” of Ate­lier Bow-Wow.

By the time Fuji­mori was writ­ing this essay, mod­er­nol­o­gy had become debased into a catchall term for more-or-less friv­o­lous jour­nal­ism on pop cul­ture trends. His inten­tion here was to return mod­er­nol­o­gy to its ori­gins in the work of Kon, to spec­i­fy its debts to art and sci­ence, its rela­tion­ship to seri­ous” schol­ar­ship, its rival­ry with oth­er urban observers who focused on spaces rather than objects, and its crit­i­cal posi­tion­ing with regard to the accel­er­at­ing con­sumerism and eco­nom­ic pow­er of Japan in the 1980s. Fuji­mori is a wit­ty, exu­ber­ant, but dif­fi­cult writer. His prose mix­es schol­ar­ly cita­tions with pop cul­ture allu­sions, uses com­plex vocab­u­lary in slang phras­ing, and is rife with word­play — puns, rhymes, in-jokes, and ety­mo­log­i­cal analy­ses of Japan­ese words. All this has been trans­lat­ed as lit­er­al­ly as pos­si­ble, though, unavoid­ably, many of the nuances have been lost. Nonethe­less, the plea­sure and amuse­ment he takes in the mun­dane, pro­fane world around him should be more than evident.



Wajiro Kon (1888 – 1973), archi­tect and edu­ca­tor, founder of mod­er­nol­o­gy (kōgen­gaku).


Kunio Yanagi­ta (1875 – 1962), schol­ar regard­ed as the orig­i­na­tor of Japan­ese folk­loris­tics (min­zoku­gaku).


By the Great Kan­to Earth­quake, Sep­tem­ber 11923.


The found­ing mem­bers of the Street Obser­va­tion Society.


A col­umn begun in 1985 by nov­el­ist Yasuo Tana­ka (b. 1956), pub­lished in the week­ly mag­a­zine Asahi Jour­nal.


Ken­kichi Yoshi­da (1897 – 1982), Kon’s col­lab­o­ra­tor in the devel­op­ment of modernology.


An insult that would trig­ger a duel between two samurai.


Sada Abe (1905 – unknown) became infa­mous in 1936 for asphyx­i­at­ing her lover then cut­ting off his gen­i­tals with a knife.


Gen­pei Akasegawa is the pen­name of Kat­suhiko Akasegawa (1937 – 2014), artist, writer, and found­ing mem­ber of the Street Obser­va­tion Society.


An annu­al exhi­bi­tion of exper­i­men­tal art held in Tokyo, 1949 – 63.


A rad­i­cal art col­lec­tive found­ed by Jiro Taka­mat­su, Gen­pei Akasegawa, and Nat­suyu­ki Nakan­ishi, active 1963 – 1964.


A term invent­ed by Gen­pei Akasegawa to describe aban­doned, use­less objects that may be appro­pri­at­ed as con­cep­tu­al art­works, which he began doing in 1972.


A ref­er­ence to Mar­cel Duchamp’s ready­made, Foun­tain.


Aki­ra Asa­da (b. 1957), econ­o­mist, art the­o­rist, cul­tur­al critic.


Hiroshi Ara­ma­ta (b. 1947), author and spe­cial­ist in nat­ur­al history.


Pre-mod­ern paint­ing guilds based on famil­ial lin­eages and apprenticeships.


Hinako Sug­iu­ra is the pen­name of Junko Suzu­ki (1958 – 2005), a man­ga artist and researcher on the Edo period.


A name for ancient Japan.


Inuhiko Yomo­ta is the pen­name of Goki Yomo­ta (b. 1953), writer and historian.


Researchers and schol­ars inter­est­ed in doc­u­ment­ing urban spaces.


An alter­na­tive art school found­ed in Tokyo in 1969.


Shin­bo Mina­mi (b. 1947), man­ga artist.


Gen­pei Akasegawa was Minami’s teacher at Bigakko.


A ref­er­ence to Got­tfried Leib­niz’s the­o­ry of har­monie préétablie.


Joji Hayashi (b. 1947), illus­tra­tor and essay­ist, famous for tak­ing pho­tographs of man­hole cov­ers, and a found­ing mem­ber of the Street Obser­va­tion Society.


The first install­ment in the Boy Detec­tives Agency” series of novels.


Ram­po Edo­gawa is the pen­name of nov­el­ist Taro Hirai (1894 – 1965).


Terunobu Fuji­mori is a Japan­ese archi­tec­tur­al his­to­ri­an and archi­tect. In 1974, while a doc­tor­al can­di­date at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Tokyo, he found­ed the Archi­tec­tur­al Detec­tive Agency, which searched for lost or for­got­ten mod­ern build­ings in Tokyo. In 1986, he joined forces with artist Gen­pei Akasegawa and oth­ers to found the Street Obser­va­tion Soci­ety, in order to doc­u­ment the over­looked triv­ia and detri­tus result­ing from con­stant urban devel­op­ment. He is the author of numer­ous books, notably Mei­ji no Tokyo keikaku (Plan­ning in Mei­ji-era Tokyo) (1982), which won the Mainichi Pub­li­ca­tion Cul­ture Award, and Kenchiku tan­tei no boken: Tokyo hen (Adven­tures of the Archi­tec­ture Detec­tives: Tokyo Edi­tion) (1986), which won the Sun­to­ry Prize for Social Sci­ence and Human­i­ties. In the 1990s, he became a prac­tic­ing archi­tect, achiev­ing inter­na­tion­al recog­ni­tion for his eccen­tric, humor­ous designs. The Nira House received the 29th Japan Art Grand Prix in 1997, and the Stu­dent Dor­mi­to­ry for Kumamo­to Agri­cul­tur­al Col­lege won the Archi­tec­tur­al Insti­tute of Japan Design Prize in 2001. Fuji­mori was com­mis­sion­er of the Japan Pavil­ion at the 2006 Venice Bien­nale, for which he dis­played his own archi­tec­ture as well as the col­lec­tive work of the Street Obser­va­tion Society.

Thomas Daniell is Head of the Depart­ment of Archi­tec­ture and Design at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Saint Joseph, Macau, and Vis­it­ing Pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Tokyo, Japan. He holds a B.Arch. with hon­ors from Vic­to­ria Uni­ver­si­ty of Welling­ton, an M.Eng. from Kyoto Uni­ver­si­ty, and a Ph.D. from RMIT Uni­ver­si­ty. A long-term res­i­dent of Japan, he is a found­ing board mem­ber of ADAN (Archi­tec­tur­al Design Asso­ci­a­tion of Nip­pon) and is co-cura­tor of Par­al­lel Nip­pon, a major exhi­bi­tion of Japan­ese archi­tec­ture cur­rent­ly tour­ing inter­na­tion­al­ly. Wide­ly pub­lished, he is a two-time recip­i­ent of pub­li­ca­tion grants from the Gra­ham Foun­da­tion for Advanced Stud­ies in the Fine Arts. He is author of FOBA: Build­ings (2005), After the Crash: Archi­tec­ture in Post-Bub­ble Japan (2008), Hous­es and Gar­dens of Kyoto (2010), Kiyoshi Sey Takeya­ma + Amor­phe (2011), Kan­sai 6 (2011), and trans­la­tor of Toyo Ito’s Tarzans in the Media For­est (2011). Also a prac­tic­ing archi­tect, his design work has been pub­lished and exhib­it­ed inter­na­tion­al­ly. Email: thomas.​daniell@​usj.​edu.​mo