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Empire of Signs

3.92  ·  Rating details ·  1,668 ratings  ·  88 reviews
With this book, Barthes offers a broad-ranging meditation on the culture, society, art, literature, language, and iconography--in short, both the sign-oriented realities and fantasies--of Japan itself.
Paperback, 128 pages
Published 1983 by Hill and Wang (first published 1970)
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3.92  · 
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 ·  1,668 ratings  ·  88 reviews

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Sep 19, 2011 rated it really liked it
Someone here on Good Reads recommended I read this, can't remember who now to thank them...

My daughter is doing her honours thesis on cute Japanese animal advertisements for eating meat and how these seem to skate incredibly close to what we in the West might consider to be food taboos. As part of that, I recommended she might read this book – which was brave of me, given I hadn’t actually read the damn thing. She returned the favour today by ‘requiring’ me to read this so we could talk about it
Let's talk about Japan. How I found Tokyo to be a maze of no-smoking signs at first, everywhere in the street... but then when you walk into a crowded restaurant, suddenly it's OK to light up, even if some dude is practically ashing in your ramen.

It's been said a million times in a million ways but Japan is Bizarro Land. Everyone knows this. Even the Japanese I know seem to appreciate their Bizarro Land status.

I should add that I don't think it really matters that Barthes is objectively wrong ab
Jonathan Chuang
Let us first agree that the post-modernists, of which Barthes can be called, were more or less all pedants, but then remember than what makes the most noise is not always an empty vessel.

Some of these passages were beautiful, chillingly accurate, sensuous descriptions of aspects of Japanese culture and Japanese life, as they would appear in the eyes of a foreigner. I particularly enjoyed the segments on the lightness of tempura, on the subtlety of beauty as can be observed only among masses of
Barthes is a master of the style of mini-essay I'd clumsily call "Things that make you go 'hmm'".
Lots to think about as I compare, in my limited way, my experience of Japan in 2019 with his in the 60s.
The bundle of essays on haiku are excellent and required reading for anyone interested in the haiku itself. Though the haiku are translated from Japanese to French, then to my English...are the words I read really the same as what is meant by the haiku Barthes discusses? And since he doesn't spea
Dec 03, 2007 rated it really liked it
Shelves: criticism
Empire of Signs is an extended thought exercise about the relations between signifier and sign. In these chapters--which read more as connected essays--Barthes examines the functions and apparatuses of a fictional country he calls Japan, a society which is in every way the real country Japan, but which operates in a reality devoid of the complications of meaning his own Western society operates in. In remarkable examinations of chopsticks, food preparation, pachinko parlors, tea ceremonies, Kabu ...more
Sharon Bautista
Sep 10, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Imagine a world where instead of Fodor's guides to cities and countries, we read Barthes and prepared only for the rendezvous of our travels!
Aung Sett Kyaw Min
Aug 18, 2018 rated it it was ok
From Japanese dishes (the consumption of dishes as a form of painting composition, Japanese meals are decentered, the chopsticks picks and chooses and composes rather than penetrate and grasp) to Haiku (haiku does not express [the moment], but illuminates with this illumination extinguishing itself almost immediately afterwards) to stationary shops to Kabuki theater, Barthes tries to make sense of how the Japanese system of signs does not "express" or "signify".
Actually a fun read, if you can g
John Allen
May 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Has the exotic feeling of a postmod yellow book
Saeedeh Asadipour
Nov 03, 2016 rated it liked it

Take Empire of Signs only as a brief exercise of contemplation in the semiotics discourse. The book allows readers who have acquired some familiarity with semiological discourse, especially as practiced by Barthes, to see variety of signifying practices in Japanese culture by the author. If you are interested in Japan and Japanese culture, probably this book has the least relevancy to your interest. The words “Japan” or “Japanese” do not appear in the title, because this is not a book about Japa
Aug 03, 2011 rated it it was amazing
A not-so-secret secret about this book: Japan isn't Japan. Japan is a screen upon which Barthes projects all his desires about escaping meaning to a pure engagement with signs. His musings on the haiku are most rewarding, giving Barthes the most capital to talk about language, where his genius really shows.
Nick Jones
I like the idea of Roland Barthes more than the reality. Maybe that’s the case with all those French Structuralist and post-Structuralist writers of the 1960s and ’70s. Empire of Sings is a semiological study of Japan...or a study of a “fictive nation” with “an invented name”...which he happens to call Japan. The book is made up of short essays (3 or 4 pages long) considering aspects of “Japan”: food, the city, writing, the haiku, acting, etc. All are treated as texts. I find the idea of semiolo ...more
Alexander Smith
Nov 18, 2018 rated it liked it
This book is excellent in its description and its balance between Barthes' experience in Japan with his own theory. As he says, it would be ethically problematic for him to call this "Japan" the actual Japan. Rather this is his experiences in it situated in his prior work.

There are chapters in this work that couldn't be written better. They explain exactly how one might think of food, for example, in a semiotic way that might at first seem alien, but later become clearly a way in which one could
Emi Bevacqua
Mar 24, 2017 rated it did not like it
Shelves: asia
I always wondered who writes all the nonsensical lines of words on the walls at art museums - this guy! This Parisian guy who doesn't actually own up to having a yellow fever obsession, claiming "he is not analyzing the real Japan but rather (a fictive) one of his own devising," but he walks and talks so much like that particular kind of duck that I can't help but draw that conclusion. He takes all the bits of Japanese culture (zen, bunraku, sechiryori, haiku, ikebana, chopsticks, pachinko, bowi ...more
Sep 08, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: essays
Hard to understand it all, and sometimes dubious. Too much theory; plus, Barthes wants to apply his structuralist theory to Japan, which is, to me, quite strange.
Jonathan Hatt
Mar 21, 2019 rated it liked it
Pretty ironic that Barthes argues against finding some universal signifier in general , while still clearly keeping one in his post-structural thought.
Carina Santos
I love Barthes, but most of what he says in here is questionable and... a reach.
Andreea H
Oct 19, 2017 rated it really liked it
Fascinating and captivating. Barthes essentially exposes what the ideal Western world looks like to him and decides to name it "Japan".
Dec 23, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Chin Jian Xiong
Feb 06, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: philosophy
I think Simon Leys has this essay on how Barthes, like the other French intellectuals at the same time, were completely bought into the whole idea that Maoist China was like a totally okay thing. At the very least, that gives some trouble to the completely aestheticized vision of Japan that Barthes has.

The writings of W David Marx, and living in a country that functions on the same kind of Confucian hierarchy, also kills some of the exoticism I have towards the place.

But Barthes himself admits t
Seán Hudson
Oct 13, 2015 rated it really liked it
What may seem outdated in our post-Said, Orientalism-savvy climate is in fact still relevant, though easily susceptible to fetishistic and (ironically) essentialist readings. Barthes's travel-book is personal; the hand-written language notes, photographs, poems, newspaper clippings, and sketch-like chapters create the impression that you are travelling through Japan with him, jotting down impressions rather than lingering on profound contemplations of difference. Nonetheless, the impressions all ...more
Jun 21, 2009 rated it really liked it
A pretty enjoyable read.... I meant this to be my follow-up to reading _Raw and the Cooked_ earlier in the summer, thinking reading them both would help me to understand structuralism better. I think it's doubtful it will work out quite that way:)

This reads like most Barthes books (and here I guess I mostly mean _Mythologies_, but you know what I mean)-- short essays on subjects delivered in a witty and self-consciously odd style. All the essays here are demonstrations of the same thing, the arb
Aug 04, 2014 rated it really liked it
I read this while very hungry. The section on sushi nearly undid me.
Barthes inciteful series of essays compares Western to 'Eastern' or Japanese culture. Japanese culture has been a source of inspiration, if I may use so vague a work, to French art and artists. Yet, Barthe's essays reveal, through a semiotic analysis, that the assimilation of Eastern culture by the French was really very limited. Indeed, he explores the dramatic arts and, as mentioned above, food. The cooked food of the west ve
Oct 21, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Roland Barthes wrote a great book about Japan. It is not a 'realistic' picture of Japan, but what many foriegners feel when they first go to that country. A collection of beautiful essays by a brilliant thinker. That's it! Barthes is a thinker, and one can learn or be exposed to another world due to his thinking.

When I first went to Japan, this was one of the books I brought with me. Him and Donald Richie are the best, with respect to a foreigner writing about another country. Because a lot of f
Oct 30, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: students of signs
Shelves: non-fiction
Japan as an unknown language. Japan that is just made up and not really real. But then again what, where, and how is the real Japan? This books seems to be a critique of western civilization by way of showing what it lacks when held up against a fictitious east. It is a book of signs and the posts or non-posts that hold them. To go downtown in the western city is to "encounter the 'social" truth" and "reality" of that city, but in this fantasy Tokyo one finds a center, "but this center is empty. ...more
May 12, 2016 rated it it was amazing
You will want to eat Japanese food after you read his fragments about sashimi. One moment I am in the library, the next I'm sitting in Japanese Canteen on Tottenham Court Road. A wonderful read and great for Barthes beginners approaching the fragment for the first time (as I was at the time). Also by far one of my favourite texts to write about, the structure is classic Barthes: fragments, non-linear and disconnected. I think the best way to approach the text is to dip straight into it and read ...more
Isla McKetta
Nov 05, 2013 rated it really liked it
One of the things I love most about reading great thinkers is learning new ways to look at the world. What I was most inspired by in this book were the layers of linguistic meaning as I read a copy in English but annotated in Japanese by another reader. This experience made me think about how meaning is constructed and I thought how much I'd like to discuss it all with Barthes over coffee.
May 14, 2014 rated it liked it
Roland Barthes writing on Japan! What could be better? Reading it now though one can detect a certain sense of anachronism, as well as suspect an orientalism at work in this series of essays. Barthes focuses on reading Japan and Japanese culture as a culture of 'empty signs', from 'bunraku' doll theatre, 'no' drama, haiku, food, and writing. Though I have my reservations, it is nontheless a very interesting read, and as always, Barthe's writing is charming and dangerously seductive.
Dec 31, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A very unique book. It is something between an anthropological study of japanese estethics, mixed with the litterature theory by which Barthes is most well known. He is trying to read japanese cultural signifiers as a text in here. The book is constantly on the verge of becoming a pretentious academic masturbation, but never crosses that fine line.
Jun 22, 2007 rated it it was amazing
i really adore this book. very little theory can be read in bed at night; this can. it reads, to me, like little fairytales about the stories we tell ourselves and the symbols we lived enmeshed in every day. i especially recommend the section on the haiku if you pick it up in a bookshop and decide not to buy it, read that section at least!
Dec 26, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Barthes is so mischevious! I found myself drawn into his writing persona as much as his strange insights. For someone who believed that the author is dead, he has quite an authorial presence. Though I'm still wrapping my head around much of his ideas, I thoroughly enjoyed this text and its quirks and kinks and gestures.
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Roland Gérard Barthes was a French literary theorist, philosopher, linguist, critic, and semiotician. Barthes' ideas explored a diverse range of fields and he influenced the development of schools of theory including structuralism, semiotics, social theory, design theory, anthropology, and post-structuralism.
“In this manner , we are told, the system of the imaginary is spread circularly, by detours and returns the length of an empty subject.” 0 likes
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