The Japanese gate
Added In: Articles › Japanese crafts
A gate has inherent meaning; keep out, keep in. Here in Japan even the most modest of houses bear gates. They range from elaborate to austere, but to my eye most have been wrought formidably. The tradition of visually strong gates in Japan of course extends beyond the home, and to East Asia as a rule. Particularly famous gates such as the Kaminari Mon (雷門) in Akasuka, and the San-mon (三門) at Chion-in in Kyoto come to mind, not to mention the Meridian Gate (午門) leading to the Forbidden City in Beijing. From there of course we could easily begin to imagine the gates of medieval castles of Europe, but the application of the concept of a symbol beyond the mere function of a gate to individual homes is, in Japan specifically, both particularly elegant and not without intention.
Where I come from in Southern California, the majority of homes do not even have a fence encircling them, much less a gate. This is in part because most of them were built after the Second World War as suburban tract housing all in a lump, and only if you were to venture into an older neighborhood might you find a gate, but this is only the factual explanation. Implicitly, in Southern California, power and success are expressed by things you leave sitting on your driveway, and flaunt in public, and not by things which you hide away.
In Japan the opposite seems traditionally true, in spite of all those young hipsters blazing past you in super-sized Humvees not at all designed for Japanese roads. Wealth, prestige and power must be carefully guarded and even locked away in order to be preserved, and thus the gates. From street level perspective, the gate often towers above the small house hidden behind it when glancing at older houses. The more modern, free-standing homes accomplish the same trick not by the optical height of the gate, but rather by the intense ironwork distracting the eye and fascinating it, so that often it never gets past the gate at all. I'll bet your little slice of heaven, your 2LDK, tucked away in a building with a wonderful name like "Aurora Heights", but almost nothing else going for it, doesn't have a gate at all, unless you consider the mountain of discarded bicycles in front of it a gate. The transitional home - the flat, or mansion, or katakana transliteration attempting to imply a Parisian apartment just off the Champs-Élysées - in general will not have a gate. This doesn’t imply that you have nothing worth preserving (keep in, keep out), but rather that what loyalties you are preserving are elsewhere. They may back at your family home, or forward at your starter home, both of which will traditionally have a gate.
Before this gets you down, keep in mind that gates are not only meant to keep things out, but also to keep things in. In Japan the strictest of conformities take place and are kept inside by the gates in an attempt to preserve like a pickle any power a family possesses, and not allow an errant member to squander it out on the streets. Your 2LDK comes free of such limitations. The next time you wander through your neighborhood, keep an eye peeled for the solidity of those gates, and even as you mourn not having to hand much worth protecting, be joyous that you are at least free to exhaust your nothing in a lavish manner of your own choosing.