As I'm studying Japanese traditional and contemporary design at a Japanese university, I'm fortunate to have access to some amazing resources to learn about Japanese aesthetics. For one, my supervising professor is well versed in both traditional Japanese aesthetic theory (I suppose being the son of a professional calligrapher does that to you!) and contemporary product design, having worked as an industrial designer for many years. In addition, our design campus has a wonderful library with volumes in both Japanese and English, so I can read about Japanese design in both languages to get the full picture (although I'll admit it's quite challenging to read about something so ethereal in a second language). I feel so lucky to get to learn about one of my passions, Japanese design, straight from the source.
Seeing as I've had the opportunity to get a pretty good understanding of the topic, I thought I would explain some Japanese aesthetic principles in a blog post. For this post, I'm just going to stick to those principles which I find most interesting and have the firmest grasp on. I've organized them into three categories - emptiness, mystery, and the passage of time. Well, I'll get right to it!
Now, this first one is a little hard to wrap your head around, but it's arguably the most important. Once you understand the vital role of emptiness in Japanese aesthetics and culture, everything starts to make so much more sense. If you're looking for a great resource on the subject, check out White by Kenya Hara of MUJI. It's available in Japanese with an English translation.
With its origins in Zen Buddhism, Japan's view of "nothingness" has had a profound impact on its aesthetics. In fact, in Japan, nothingness is not a vacuum. Nothingness is, ironically, something in itself. Nothingness is potential - potential for... somethingness.
This principle can be seen in the Buddhist practice of meditation. Now, I'm not exactly an expert on the subject, but the idea is that emptying your mind leaves room for enlightenment. In the same way, in Japan, the absence of something is seen as an entity in itself - as a sort of vessel for potential.
In Zen Buddhist art, mu is represented by a single circular brushstroke (enso).
In Japan, the circle also signifies completion or correctness.
Negative space (ma)
Related to mu is the concept of negative space, or ma. Ma basically expresses the space in between things. In Japanese aesthetics, ma is just as important, if not more important, than the actual objects in a space. Think about a traditional Japanese tea room. It's just a room with tatami flooring and next to no furniture. The only things in there are teaware and the people invited. The important thing is the atmosphere that happens even with minimal elements.
It seems that Japanese people are always looking to pare things down as much as possible. This concept of subtraction is called hiki-zan. Basically, the ideal would be as close to nothingness as possible, so less really is more (think MUJI).
If you've spent some time in Japan and speak Japanese, you might have experienced frustration at the fact that Japanese people don't always say what's on their mind. Sometimes as a foreigner this can be completely baffling. However, I recently discovered that this is actually deeply tied to Japanese aesthetics. In Japan, things are often better left unsaid or un-shown. Just think of a haiku, a three-line poem with only 17 syllables. As a non-Japanese person it might be hard to appreciate, but to a Japanese, a haiku says volumes in only three lines.
Because Japan is a high-context culture, one indispensable skill when living here is the practice of interpretation. A vital everyday skill is picking up on subtle social cues, or kuuki o yomu. In addition, Japanese language often leaves out seemingly crucial pieces of information like the subject of a sentence (there goes that hiki-zan again), but after a few years of constant practice one somehow learns to conjure up the missing information from thin air.
Subtle grace (yuugen)
In Japan, obviousness is close to vulgarity. Things should be subtle and leave room for interpretation. Always leaving a little bit of mystery adds to the interest, refinement, and elegance of things. This belief pervades everything from everyday conversation to mainstream makeup and fashion trends.
Hidden beauty (miegakureh)
Walk around the streets of Japan and you'll notice that no one has all their "goods" on display, even at the height of summer. This is because in Japan, mostly concealing something (miegakureh) is considered to enhance its beauty. A really good example of miegakureh is the traditional kimono worn by geisha. You won't find any cleavage on display or sexy side slit. In addition, geisha would paint their faces and neck with white makeup. The only uncovered skin besides the hands was a small patch of skin left unpainted at the nape of the neck. The very fact that only one tiny patch of skin is revealed is a big part of the appeal of a woman wearing kimono.
PASSAGE OF TIME
Perhaps it's because of the presence of four distinct seasons in Japan, but the Japanese are acutely aware of the passage of time. This is reflected in the principles of mono no awareh, mikan no bi, and keinen-henka.
Transience (mono no awareh)
Mono no awareh, or transience, is the idea that the fact that something only lasts a short while is what makes it beautiful. A perfect example of this is cherry blossom season in the spring. The blossoms only bloom for a week or so every year, but crowds flock unfailingly to parks to have blossom-viewing picnics, or hanami. Although the very similar looking plum blossoms bloom earlier in the spring, no one makes too much of a fuss about them. This is because the plum blossoms last much longer and are therefore not nearly as precious. Mono no awareh expresses a certain sadness at the fact that something will end, but at the same time encompasses the preciousness and beauty of that fleeting moment.
Incomplete beauty (mikan no bi)
Time and time again when interviewing furniture makers here, I've heard the word "mikansei" - incomplete. Many designers believe that an object slowly moves toward being "complete" through years and years of loving use. An object is not finished when the craftsman stops working - on the contrary, this is just the beginning of the making of a beautiful object.
Stemming from mikan no bi is the concept of keinen-henka, or aging of a product. Think leather shoes, brass doorknobs, a well-worn pair of jeans. Japanese designers share a special appreciation of the beauty of an object aged through years of use. Maybe it's because a used object tells a story. Maybe it's because aged objects are like people. Wrinkles, spots, discoloration - all signs of aging that hint at a full and interesting life.
Well, that's my post for today! I hope it helped you understand a little more about the foundations of Japanese art, design, and just about every aspect of the culture.
I know what you're thinking. But... what? No wabi-sabi? What kind of Japanese aesthetics post is this?
I could write a brief introduction to wabi-sabi, but honestly this is the one Japanese aesthetic principle that has been written about in English time and time again, and I don't feel that I could say anything that hasn't already been said. In this post I wrote about some of the lesser-known principles about which not much English literature exists. If you're interested in learning about wabi-sabi try checking out this article for a great overview.
Until next time!