chapter  11
6 Pages

Japanese Aesthetics with Some Western Analogues

ByAllan Casebier

There are certain concepts found in Japanese culture, which constitute a different conception of taste than those with which we are familiar in the West. Any comparison and/or contrast of these concepts, which comprise a Japanese aesthetic, with Western aesthetic notions needs to take into account three crucial features: (1) the aesthetic sensibilities underlying each culture’s aesthetic concepts; (2) the grounding of the concepts in matrices of beliefs; and (3) the ‘logics’ governing the use of terms used to mark the presence or absence of aesthetic features. In what follows, the key Japanese aesthetic concepts of shibui, jimi, hade,

sabi, wabi, miyabi and yugen will be explained and illustrated as well as set in opposition to Western counterparts. ‘Shibui’ is the highest tern of aesthetic praise for the Japanese; it will be our staring point. Where in the West, the beautiful object is often an attention-getter,1 for the

Japanese sensibility the ultimate in beauty, shibui, is anything but a quality that will attract attention. The term ‘shibui’ has its origins in a form of lifestyle that government leaders pursued during the period in the Japanese history between 1330 and 1520.2 The term was chosen to indicate a distance from the rich and ostentatious. Its literal meaning is that of the astringent. The contrast involved is between the flavour of a fruit with a sweet quality and the flavour of an unripened persimmon which is puckery, harsh and biting. From this relatively simple and clear contrast, the concept of shibui has developed over time into a complicated notion composed of a number of subtle and interrelated features. Restraint is one of the ingredients in shibui. Shibui art objects are

unobtrusive, unostentatious and modest with understatement as a characteristic style. An underlying notion is that the less powerful object will probably be the more artistically effective. Another core feature is hiddenness. The appreciator who comes in contact with shibui finds his or her taste is left unsatiated by the shibui object. Shibui’s ever hidden aspect creates a lingering attraction for more since the object is so fashioned that it reveals only enough of itself to impel one to seek additional qualities of what has been found pleasing but which are not readily perceivable. Another core element in shibui

is simplicity. Shibui designs are left unadorned and incomplete, allowing much scope for the appreciators to exercise their imagination. The would-be appreciator of a Noh play or a Zen sand and rock garden finds his/her imagination taxed to the limit by the extremely minimal suggestiveness encountered. These qualities of simplicity, hiddenness and restraint do not exist

independently in an object that is correctly said to be shibui. Indeed these shibui-making features interpenetrate one another. The simplicity in style works hand in hand with restraint; for to leave a design unadorned is to exercise restraint; for one who would incorporate a hidden aspect into a work of art, simplicity and restraint are ready-made means to this objective; the simple and restrained surface invites the appreciator to look for more, for something not readily apparent, for something hidden. While on the surface an object with shibui is simple and austere, it would be

a mistake to think that shibui in any way involves a slighting of craftsmanship. In fact, much respect for craft as well as for the material crafted is evident in the shibui object. These aspects of production value should not, however, lead one to be surprised to find also a shibui tendency to be attracted to the unfinished, the incomplete and the fragmented. Both respect for craftsmanship and a taste for the incomplete arise together in the shibui sensibility. To fall short in achieving shibui is to have the quality of jimi. When jimi is

present there is an overemphasis on the restrained, sober side on a continuum on which restraint resides. When objects are jimi, they often become too proper and too monotonous. For instance, a youth who always dresses in a brown coat, brown shoes and a beige shirt and trousers would be an ideal case for the drabness characteristic of jimi. To overshoot shibui on the other end of the continuum would bring about

an instance of hade. Bright in colour, ostentatious in design, hade commands recognition. It demands attention due to the overall effect in gaudiness and showiness. The Toshogu Shrine in Nikko, Japan is a famous instance of hade architecture, with its clashing colours, intricate carvings covering every inch of the structure and its capacity to overwhelm the onlooker. Shibui objects may have presence, an authoritativeness, but they do not overwhelm; instead their simple, restrained, austere and hidden qualities beckon the appreciator to look more deeply. Quite closely associated with shibui are the concepts of sabi and wabi. When

an emphasis on the value of ageing is added to shibui-making features, the object is sabi. The term ‘sabi’ (like ‘shibui’) has undergone an evolutionary development vis-a`-vis its meaning. The courtiers of the Heian period (7941192) particularly loved what was new and fresh. The medieval Japanese, on the other hand, developed a strong sensitivity for things which showed signs of wear and ageing – the withered bough, the broken branch, the fallen flowers, the scent of chrysanthemums with their musty quality. By contrast, one may think of the Western preference for the perfumed quality of a rose.

The medieval concept of sabi is found in contemporary Japan’s aesthetic language. One who perceives sabi quality in an object perceives it in a way associated with a quality of depth, which comes from ageing. Time may have taken its toll on the object yet in an important way it is nevertheless richer for this process. The state of mind underlying an appreciation for ageing is not simply a passive acceptance of ageing but also involves a sense of transcendence to a positive, affirmative attitude where one has a feeling of affection for the thing that is aged. Wabi centres around the attraction to an unadorned, subdued and

imperfect form. One might describe wabi as ‘the feeling of melancholy and humbleness which comes from a realization of one’s insignificance in nature’s scheme.’3 To an outsider, a tea ceremony conducted in a spirit of wabi may seem unnecessarily spare. However, wabi involves casting away all that is unnecessary in order to achieve a peaceful state of mind. Poverty of manner and expression is essential to this process. In a teahouse, one will typically find an enclosure made of bare wood with furnishing, lighting and activity shorn of embellishment. Quietness, solitude and simplicity characterize this austere ceremony, with a feeling of serenity ideally pervading the setting and the experience. In addition to spareness, wabi involves clarity of image and technique. It suggests an uncluttered and precise attitude in which the individual gains a clear awareness of nature. Examples of objects exemplifying wabi are a plain twig in a flower arrangement, the coarse black cotton of a kimono and the spare clarity of a rock and sand garden. Growing out of restraint as a fundamental aesthetic principle and closely

allied with, but distinguished from, shibui is the concept of miyabi. Aesthetic tastes so far described may give the impression of a lack of colour and lustre. There is, however, a more ostentatious strain in Japanese taste. ‘Miyabi’ stands for high aristocratic elegance, refinement and sophisticated grandeur. Paradoxically, the concept of miyabimay have its roots in Buddhism. Though mention of Buddhism calls to mind contemplative repose and severity of lifestyle, the religion gained favour among the Japanese due its resplendent ceremony and the splendour of its ornate architecture. During the Heian Period, members of the aristocratic society, enjoying the sumptuous living of the time but being somewhat restrained by the strong influence of Buddhist pessimism, expressed themselves in rich and elegant splendour without being overly immoderate. When appreciators step into the shoin of Nishi-Honganji, a shrine in

Kyoto, Japan, they will be confronted by the splendid paintings on its panels and screens, as well as the ceilings of its various chambers. Gorgeous as they are, however, they do not aim to bedazzle the viewers, for they are done in a restrained, highly disciplined manner in achieving their sophisticated elegance. Rich but not gaudy, colourful but not complex, the total effect is one of regal fineness. Many other artistic treasures of the Japanese culture may be described as miyabi – the glittering stateliness of the Golden Pavilion, the ornate but unobtrusive Nijo Castle, colourfully brocaded obi, and lacquer

ware with contrasting mother-of-pearl inlay. Restraint in the use of colour, line and design are discernible; undisciplined excess is undesirable; clash of colour and design are meticulously shunned. Finally, there is the term ‘yugen’ which of all Japanese aesthetic terms is the

most deeply embedded in the metaphysical/religious tradition of Zen Buddhism. Many writers commenting on the Japanese aesthetic have argued that Western sensibility has not been attuned to a quality like yugen because it has not gravitated towards the drawing of distinctions and the naming of qualities that would be involved in its identification. For this reason, to the Westerner, yugen is an elusive, subtle and obscure feature of things. Accordingly, a characteristic approach in explaining the meaning of ‘yugen’ has been to use metaphors and other imagery to guide thought and perception by indirect means to a certain distinctive sort of experience. Yugen was given prominence in the Japanese aesthetic by Zeami Motokiyo

(1364-1444). In his writings about the Noh theatre, yugen was referred to as a quality of gentle gracefulness. Eventually, due to the incorporation of a transcendent characteristic, the term became associated with other concepts of the Japanese aesthetic such as sabi. In this enriched state, yugen was more than simply a quality of an actor’s movements and gestures, becoming indicative of something metaphysical, hidden and profound. In the spirit of explaining the meaning of ‘yugen’ by indirection, we are told

that yugen is obscure, dark, half-revealed, and tinged with wistful sadness.4

The rock garden at Ryoanji is characterized as possessing the yugen quality in that it embraces the supposed opposites of radiance and the abysmal.5 A sense of mystery is also said to attach to yugen through its association with Zen: