Notes on the Japanese Aesthetic

I am not the world’s biggest Japanophile. I enjoy the country for its foreignness and follow The Economist, which said that the greatest experience of being foreign — for the Westerner anyway — still comes from time spent in Japan. But I don’t lust after her mysteries. I am a casual explorer. A one-night stand rather than a seasoned lover. I’m here because my friend is here and because he’s possessed of that most treasured asset: a free place to crash.

I first visited in 2001 when he was teaching English in Kyoto. (He is now a researcher at the University of Tokyo, having since completed his PhD in Applied Math.) I returned in 2013 after the dissolution of my marriage — simply because I needed to get away, and nowhere on earth is more away than Japan — and used it as a launch point for a tour of China. Eighteen months later, I returned and fell in love.

Now on my fourth trip to the country, and entangled with a native, I am just beginning to orient myself, to let slip that sense of foreignness, even if just a little, like a loosened kimono. Nihon and I have gotten to second base. She is complex.

Take wabi sabi, the difficult-to-translate traditional Japanese aesthetic. Wabi originally evoked the loneliness of living remotely in nature but has since evolved to reflect a pastoral or rustic simplicity somewhat akin to Shelley’s romanticism. Similarly, sabi, once the withering of age, now connotes its serenity — an appreciation for imperfection and the implied wisdom of experience, like the pleasing softness of the natural-worn holes in your favorite pair of jeans.

To understand wabi sabi, you need to understand a little about yourself — assuming you are also gaijin — if only to appreciate the contrast. So take a moment and feast on this painting by (arguably) the most famous artist of the Western canon, Vincent van Gogh:


It’s sumptuous, opulent, as most still lifes are, whether of ripe and rare fruits or a cornucopia of flowers, like this.

From the nude to the landscape, classical Western art is like that — nothing if not lush. Fecund. Exuberant. And what is a portrait if not a very expensive selfie? (No, we didn’t invent that.)

Willem van Haecht - The_Gallery_of_Cornelis_van_der_Geest

And we don’t need to restrict ourselves to the aristocracy, as in Willem van Haecht’s “The Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest” (above). Take this middle class Flemish home as painted by Frans Francken II, ca. 1615.


The painting at the center, which features a Madonna and child in the New World, where this man presumably made his fortune (note the feathered headdress), is clearly his prized possession, with the second being his wife and third his rare imported pets (also clues to his New World fortune).

The man’s son, who would take his name and carry on the family tradition, is naturally behind him as a successor — rather than a loved one — should be. His daughter, if he had one, is not even present, although he does manage to sneak in a shot of his bedroom. Proud of that, apparently.

Note the jewelry in the cabinet, the nod to Graeco-Roman statuary in the miniatures, the near-absence of any real religion (that being confined to themes in the paintings inside the painting rather than the painting itself, which would have been the case a century or two earlier), and finally the luxuriant bouquet on the table, which is both larger and more colorful than the man’s own offspring.

And here you thought Americans invented conspicuous consumption. Nay, we were merely handed that torch from Europe. (But I’ll admit we do it better.)

Compare that bouquet, and van Gogh’s, to this one:


Flower arranging is one of the classical arts in Japan, and you will often see more than one bloom, but this is certainly not atypical, and it is very representative of wabi sabi. The natural beauty of the flower — the wabi (rustic simplicity) — is the focus, not to be overtaken by the vase, which is itself earth-toned and “pleasingly imperfect” (sabi).

The tea ceremony, probably the most purely Japanese activity ever invented, features a simple sweet, usually in the shape of a flower, served individually before and as a complement to the bitter tea. But both are consumed on their own. Just as the vase does not detract from the flower, both the sweet and the tea are the focus of their own singular moment.


When you accept this sweet from your host, you will be seated on tatami, as in the picture, meaning there’s no chair, no table, usually no decoration on the walls of the tea house. Rather, there is only a carefully crafted view of the host’s garden, which will itself be pregnant with meaning.

The tea will be served in cups decorated, if at all, with a simple but elegant (natural, wabi) motif and — in the best ceremonies — featuring pleasing and intentional imperfections (sabi) meant to invoke the scars of experience, the patina of long use, the wisdom of age (having derived from the Buddhist concepts of emptiness and impermanence).

Note the lip:


You see the same mode of construction in every other traditional Japanese art form, from music to Noh theatre to painting to archery to jujutsu, which uses an economy of movement and an attacker’s own momentum for defense, like the flow of a river or the wind through the leaves.

瀧和亭 Taki Katei ( 1830 - 1901 ) Maple Leaves

“Maple Leaves” by 瀧和亭 Taki Katei (1830 – 1901)

That is wabi sabi. And although modern Japan has in many ways expanded and evolved it beyond its minimalist origins, it is still very much the pounded earth on which the Japanese world view is built.

For example, even now, the Japanese by and large don’t use credit cards. It’s not unusual for a merchant to not even accept them, although many do. People mostly carry and pay in cash. The packaging that wraps your purchase is immaculate. The salesperson will fold your item and place it in a bag often inside another bag and then seal it with tape. The serving sizes at restaurants are appropriate. And at grocery stores, people buy only what they will eat in the next day or two.

It may sound like I am advocating. I’m actually not. I’m merely describing. At home I buy bananas almost every week. One or more will often spoil. I tell everyone that I am not buying bananas. I am buying the option of bananas, should I want one. And that, ultimately, is the difference.

You can decide for yourself.

Adapted from an image in the Japanese design journal Shin-bijutsukai (1901-02)

(.gif adapted from an image in the Japanese design journal Shin-bijutsukai, 1901-02.)


tea bowl repaired by the kintsugi method — using gold (or other precious substance) to accent rather than hide prior damage, to celebrate the vessel’s history rather than obscure it.


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