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Gene Kwang- Yu King


From 1998 to 2005, I was editor-in-chief of Dialogue, a Taipei-based bilingual magazine on architecture, design, and culture. In 2003, the magazine took on the task of hosting two series of international competitions for the Taiwanese Ministry of Transportation and Communications Tourism Bureau. The public agency wished to promote tourism by improving the aesthetic quality of their public works. This resulted in the "Landform Series," which included four projects located at tourist attraction sites, and the "Gateway series," which included five projects at major transportation hubs. The former competition was meant to be finished by November 2013 and the latter by March 2014. The first step was to shape a credible jury: I invited architects, academics, and critics from Japan, the US, and Europe. Aaron Betsky—then the director at the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAI)—accepted my invitation, and made plans to visit Taiwan as an extension of his visit to Tokyo. Unexpectedly, SARS broke out and he was hesitant about coming to Taipei, which had become an epidemic zone. As an alternative, I decided to meet him in Tokyo and use the opportunity to explain the competition to Hiroshi Hara and Fumihiko Maki, who had also agreed to be jury members. Betsky was giving a lecture at Axis Gallery in Tokyo, a popular venue for architecture events. I showed up fashionably late, just in time for the post-lecture reception, and there I extended more invitations to other architects who were present. Norihiko Dan was there, appearing to be a quiet, reserved, Japanese gentleman. When I approached him, he politely praised the Landform concept in his quiet, reserved, Japanese way. Only when I saw his proposal submission several months later did I know that he was seriously interested. Norihiko went on to win the Sun Moon Lake project for the Landform Series, and the Taoyuan International Airport Terminal | Expansion for the Gateway Series. In the ten years that it took for him to finish these projects, we met for countless meals and drinks, criticized our own cultures and societies, reveled in our mutual interests, and collaborated on a book, a symposium, and an essay together. I enjoy and cherish his friendship very much. Someone once asked him how we became acquainted, and his answer was: "Because of SARS." 



Norihiko and I share common interests in literature, history, and cultural observation. Coincidentally, we both spend time writing novels in addition to our architectural profession. When we chat, the shared Chinese characters of our native languages come into use, and our English conversations are often tightly packed with the "pen talk" by Kanji (written Chinese characters), a shared tool of our East Asian heritage. One year, I received a beautiful blue-covered book penned by him. I could not read the contents because I don't read Japanese, but | gathered that it was a novel about a nineteenth-century criminal imprisoned on Hachijo, an island located about 300 kilometers from Tokyo Bay. Norihiko told me that he knew this island inside out, because he spent some childhood years there. The story, which followed the prisoner's attempt to buy his way out using his knowledge of maps, was soon made into a movie. Meanwhile, I was writing my historical novel, set in fourth-century northeast Asia, which was about a Siberian nomadic tribe called Mu rong. They were of Caucasian heritage and had established a kingdom spanning current Beijing, Manchuria, and Korea, which lasted for a century. Whenever I got started on the topic, no one could shut me up. Norihiko was the only one who was genuinely interested, in stead of pretending to listen. He even found information from Japan that became my inspiration for the title of the book. Let me explain. Once Norihiko brought me a book written by an unorthodox historian who advocates that Japan is not an isolated country, but as much a part of the East Asian cultural sphere as other nations. 

There was a section about this on the Murong tribe. The historian found that there is a Japanese national treasure called the "seven pronged sword, currently housed in the Isonokami Jingu Shrine at Nara. The sword's design motif originated from Murong, and was passed down through Korea to Japan. This source coincided with my conception that there was once a cosmopolitan world with mal leable borders that allowed for cultural exchange and coexistence. I thus came up with the title of my book, The Dream of the Seven Pronged Sword Apart from our mutual interests, Norihiko has a much broader skill set in terms of hobbies. He is a very talented diver and an excellent cook. His weekends are usually spent taking a boat out to sea to hunt fish. Despite his soft-spoken manner, he is a relentless hunter with a fearsome spear. I saw photos of him in a diving suit with the prize he caught-a fish almost half of his height and half of his weight. One time he encountered a huge fish, and the struggle was similar to the finale of The Old Man and the Sea. When he travels, he always likes to check out fishing ports and fish markets, and has collected many tales about how different cultures treat fish. One day he told me solemnly that he'd had a peculiar experience: he had unexpectedly met a fish's eyes in the moment it met his spear, and he could not kill anymore. Since we are the same age, I concur it may be a sign that we are getting old, and the spear is no longer a tool but a dream. 



Even after years of chatting, Norihiko still occasionally lets something slip that is completely incredible to me. There are his family histories, like the fact that his great grandfather, the late Takuma Dan, was from a samurai family of Fukuoka and rose to become a nationally prominent figure whose life is a microscopic history of the period from the Meiji Reformation to pre-World War II Japan, and could be a fascinating novel itself. His father, the late Mr.Ikuma Dan, was a composer who wrote many Japanese house hold songs, including the theme song for one of my favorite movies Samurai: Musashi Miyamoto 宮本武蔵 . Meanwhile, some other Japanese friends of mine told me they felt nervous talking to Norihiko, since he is from an aristocratic family and that this was evident in his speech. On the other hand, there are also wild episodes-for example, how he had once raised a wild fox that eventually ran away to the call of the wild, as well as a pet python that eventually bit him on the neck. I concluded that there must be a caveman inside this nobleman. Norihiko was one of main members of the team preparing the proposal for the 2005 World Expo in Aichi, Japan. As soon as the event was awarded to Japan, the government overruled the originally eco-friendly proposal. Instead of preserving forests, the government decided to replace them with real estate developments. Norihiko, isolated from the planning team, openly criticized the decision. I believe he has been nationally labeled as a troublemaker since then, which is a fatal blow in a society that places so much emphasis on obedience and conformity. While carrying out the Sun Moon Lake and Taoyuan Airport Terminal projects in Taiwan, Norihiko hardly ever mentioned the issues he was encountering. But from a few incidents and mentions, I deduced how much bureaucratic torture and construction problems he had to suffer, which are nerve-racking even for those of us who grew up here. Sometimes I almost feel he was rolling Sisyphus' boulder up the hill, and that the end would never come; but he persevered and managed to complete both projects with admirable results. 


There is a Confucian saying: "Some causes are to be pursued, some to be abandoned 有所為有所不為." His grand disciple Men cius also states: "Go for the right cause, even when thousands of people are in the way 雖千萬人吾往也."  The class of Shi (士) in Confucian times is in a sense similar to the class of Japanese samurai (侍), and the Confucian sentiments are in many ways also applicable. The samurai were not only good at warfare, but they were also educated thinkers and not blind followers. They decided which causes to abandon and which to pursue, and when they began their pursuit, there was no turning around, no matter the hurdles. 

In the case of the Aichi Expo, Norihiko refused to go along even though the whole society was rooting for it. In the case of the Taiwan projects, he quietly and patiently fought on and on undaunted by adversity, and embraced challenges with humor, logic, and compassion-much like a true samurai.

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