An Introduction to Japanese Aesthetics
The aesthetic qualities of Japan reach beyond philosophical ideas about art and beauty, they form a cultural world view, centered around the concept of living in harmony with nature.
There is an intensely close relationship between Japanese culture and nature, to the point where the two are synonymous. Geographic isolation of the island nation over centuries enabled cultural traditions to guide diverse and fascinating art forms. Art is incorporated and valued as part of everyday life, rather than viewed as something separate or untouchable – this is what makes Japanese culture so uniquely appealing.
As one of the world’s most seismically active islands, the Japanese people are aware of not only the beauty that comes with each distinct season but the great power of nature. Volcanic eruptions, monsoons, earthquakes and tsunamis are a constant threat to Japan yet a sense of acceptance is ingrained in the mind-set of the people. When aware that life can be taken at any moment, one develops a heightened sense of appreciation for the here and now. The traditional arts of Japan, such as Ikebana, haiku poetry and the tea ceremony reflect this feeling, placing emphasis on the present moment.
Beauty is recognised in subtle, often overlooked details and places that encompass vast emptiness. The intention is to evoke awareness through the intricate qualities of the natural world around us. Modest, refined simplicity is regarded as the highest form of beauty. This differs from the western perception where beauty is most often recognised in youth and opulence and success measured in terms of status and material attainment.
Qualities such as simplicity, emptiness and vagueness are often misconstrued in western societies as negative or lacking clarity and ambiance. In Japan however, elimination of excess and unnecessary possessions suggests maturity and spiritual richness. Take the presentation of flowers as an example – in the west, masses of flowers in full bloom are held tightly in a vase with spays of foliage to fill the spaces between. Whereas in Japan, emphasis is placed on accentuating the individual features of a single flower, leaf or branch. The surrounding empty space is as relevant as the flower itself. For space enables room to grow, adapt and change. Empty space is seen to be filled with possibilities. Imperfections, such as angular stems or faded petals are sought after and embraced, they evoke appreciation for the beauty life offers in all stages.
In 19th century Japan, with the arrival of western traders, an immense influence on Japanese culture began. In turn, the unique arts of Japan were shared with the world. We began to see aspects of Japanese design in the great works of world renowned figures including Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet and architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Modern day Japan, despite the changes brought about by westernization, has managed to develop and preserve its distinctive traditional values. The contrast between technology and nature, western consumer influence and pure Japanese tradition is clearly visible. At first glance, the high-tech city of Tokyo, filled with flashing billboards and crowds of rushing commuters appears chaotic, but beneath the urban surface, between the sky-scrapers, those tranquil treasures can still be found. Shrines, temples and tea houses with their serene gardens work in harmony with modern day life. Japan is a place where construction and nature complement one another, it doesn’t have to be an either or choice.
Today we live in an overwhelming material culture that often distances us from noticing the raw beauty around and within us. The Japanese aesthetic outlook on life can help remind us to work with and enhance the nature of who we truly are. In a time of falsities and mass production, it offers a key to exploring individuality and meaning, not only in the artistic sense but as a way of life.
For further reading, please refer to my articles on the aesthetics principles of Shibui, Wabi-Sabi and Ma.