Maintaining Space

Today's blog post is written by Yulia Frumer, a historian of science and technology, focusing especially on East Asian history, and an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University.

Still in a post-Maintainers euphoria, I keep thinking about how the notion of maintenance plays out in my own field of expertise—the history of Japanese science and technology.

Maintenance in Japan

"Non - innovator" is a common epithet direct at the Japanese by Westerners. Numerous times my interlocutors or my students have repeated some version of the claim that the Japanese "didn't invent anything new, but just improved on things they (and it is always 'they') copied from others." We can counter this stereotype by demonstrating that Japanese scientists did, in fact, invent and innovate, and that they have historically been robbed of recognition (see scholarship by James Bartholomew, for example). Or, we can dismantle the priority of innovation altogether and focus on the notion of maintenance.

 One of the topics that came up in the coffee break discussions during the recent Maintainers Conference was the intended object of maintenance — should we focus on “things” that are being maintained or look at the maintenance of bodies in relation to their material environment? After all, we are not only tweaking the “things” that need repair or adjustment, but also changing our own movements and habits to smooth our use of “things.” However, whether we maintain “things” or “bodies,” we do so within a particular space. So here I would like to talk about space-maintenance in Japan.

In Japan, the maintenance of space is much more visible than in other countries. Space in Japan is scarce. In Tokyo, a 250sq foot apartment is not called a “tiny house,” it’s called a “house.” Even a tiny space, that may look like it is barely enough to park a car, can be used to shoehorn a building.

The notion that “Japan is small” is ubiquitous in Japanese popular culture. “Fuji in Red,” one of the episodes of Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990), describes the explosion of nuclear reactors located on Mt. Fuji. As masses of people are trying to flee the scene, one of the protagonists exclaims, “Japan is so small, there is nowhere to escape to.” (It is worth watching the rest of the episode by the way). A similar sentiment is expressed in Japan Sinks (1973, 2006), in which citizens of Japan flee the land crumbling underneath their feet until it nearly disappears. Minoru Kawasaki’s parody of Japan Sinks goes even further. In Everything but Japan Sinks (2006), Japan is the only place left above water after the rest of the world has sunk into the sea, and people from all over the world try to squeeze on to the Japanese islands.

What makes Japan feel so small is not the space itself, but the population density (6,158 people per square km in Tokyo). For such a multitude of people to cohabitate, the space itself must be rigorously maintained. And again, maintaining “space” means maintaining “things” and “bodies” in space.

Let’s start with maintaining things. If you live in a 250 sq. feet apartment, you do not have a lot of storage space, or cupboard space, or even living space. Instead, you move things around to change the function of the space — unrolling the futon in the evening turns the room into a bedroom, rolling it up and storing it in the closet turns the space into a living room. (Of course, we are talking about a Japanese futon, not the bulky American version that is rarely folded up and put away.)

The problem is not only how to make everything fit into a small space, but how to make things fit and still leave them accessible and usable. Keeping an apartment in Japan is like a perpetual game of Tetris, except the blocks never disappear, even when they are neatly arranged. There is plenty of merchandise designed to assist you in maintaining your space — vacuum storage, inner shelves, wall hooks, etc. But constant attempts to live in small spaces has also given rise to a whole genre of life hacks — creative modifications and uses devised to maintain a variety of things within your space. Should we call it innovative maintenance?

And as I mentioned before, maintenance of space also requires the maintaining of bodies. Anybody who has visited Japan probably remembers the yellow lines running along the streets and train platforms. Although they are usually identified by their color (in Japanese too, they are called “yellow lines”), color is probably their least useful aspect for their intended primary users—the blind. The lines, in fact, are not only yellow, but also textured, and thus they allow the visually impaired to feel the pavement with their canes. The texture tells the blind whether they are approaching an intersection or a dangerous edge, or guides them to an entrance or an exit. Thus, the lines are a great example of spatial infrastructure that allows visually impaired people to function within a potentially hostile (to them) space.

This creates the impression that the placement of the yellow lines is a purely benevolent act. And indeed, providing access to the blind was the main objective behind modifying all public spaces in Japan. But as the name “yellow line” implies, the beneficiaries are not the blind alone. In addition to the marginal use of yellow lines as signs (when a train approaches the station, people are asked to retreat “behind the yellow line”), maintaining blind bodies in communal spaces allows everybody to function with minimal disruption. In a country where trains arriving 17 seconds behind schedule are considered late and websites advise you which door of the train to enter in order to make a given transfer, any disruption in the flow of bodies creates a problem. It took you additional two seconds to take your subway ticket out of your pocket? —Grumble. You try to walk the wrong way against a throng of people? —You might end up in the ER. No wonder that those who commit suicide often choose to get their revenge against society by disrupting train service during rush hour. In this situation, a blind person wondering around, or (god forbid) falling onto the train tracks, is not only a pitiful sight — it is a disruption in the time-space necessary for the proper functioning of society. Maintaining blind bodies within this space by means of yellow lines, on the other hand, facilitates the flow of other bodies, and shapes the choreography of these other bodies surrounding the potentially disruptive yellow line.

Maintenance of space through constant movement of things and bodies is only visible when space is limited. Any apartment needs organization, and Japan is not the only country to create infrastructure for the blind. Yet in Japan it is not enough to organize your apartment once, as there is no one proper place for many things that move with the shifting of the function of the space. Similarly, without maintaining awareness through meaningless-to-the-blind coloring of the infrastructure, the lines might help the physically impaired, but not the rapid flow of bodies. Space maintenance is not a one-time act, but a continual process.