Notes on the Japanese Aesthetic

I am not that species, the Common Western Japanophile. I first visited in 2001 because my friend, who is a Japanophile, was teaching English in Kyoto and offered a free place to stay.

I didn’t return until after the dissolution of my marriage, in 2013. I needed to get away, and nowhere on earth is more away than Japan, which, as The Economist once wrote, still offers the greatest experience of foreignness. It strikes the Westerner as a Disneyland-like nation: clean, safe, landscaped. Everyone seems to have a precisely defined role, including the foreigner, whose job it is to be foreign.

Assimilation is nonexistent. Some clubs and restaurants still advertise “For Japanese Only” (if you can even find them). Foreigners are almost never granted citizenship, even longtime expatriates living with a Permanent Foreign Resident visa who pay taxes and speak the language fluently.

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, just a little — like a loosened kimono. Nihon and I have gotten to second base. She is complicated.

Take wabi sabi, the difficult-to-translate traditional Japanese aesthetic. Wabi originally evoked the loneliness of living remotely 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. Take a moment and feast on this painting by (arguably) the most famous artist of the Western tradition:

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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 itself if not a very expensive selfie? Art in the West is meant to say more about the owner than the subject.

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And it wasn’t just 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.

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

The man’s son, who would take his name and carry the family business, is naturally behind him as a successor rather than sitting at his feet before him like a loved one. 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 conspicuously open cabinet. Note the nod to Graeco-Roman statuary in the miniatures. Note 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.

Finally, note the luxuriant bouquet on the table, which, in terms of the painting, is both larger and more colorful than the man’s own offspring. And here you thought Americans invented conspicuous consumption. (But I’ll admit we do it better.)

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

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Flower arranging is one of the classical arts in Japan, and you will often see bunches, but a single bloom is certainly not atypical, and it is very representative of wabi sabi, or “rustic weatheredness.”

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” as if from age (sabi).

The tea ceremony, probably the most purely Japanese ritual ever invented, features a simple sweet, usually in the shape of a flower, served individually before (and as a complement to) the bitter tea. Both are consumed separately.

Just as the vase does not detract from the flower, both the sweet and the tea are the focus of their own singular moment.

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When you accept this sweet from your host, you will be seated on a reed mat (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 with a simple but elegant natural decoration — that is, if they are decorated at all — and perhaps, as in the best ceremonies, pleasing and intentional imperfections meant to invoke the scars of experience, the patina of long use, the wisdom of age.

Note the lip:

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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 beyond its minimalist origins, wabi sabi is still the pounded earth on which the Japanese world view is built.

When I am in Japan, I follow the local practice of going to the grocery store every couple days and only buying what I plan to eat in the next 24-72 hours, at which time I will go to the store again.

In the States, I go to the store at most once a week and fill a small car. I will buy, for example, a large bunch of bananas, several of which will inevitably spoil.

I tell everyone I am not buying bananas. I am buying the option of bananas, the convenience of having them if I should decide I want one. I am buying the cornucopia rather than the fruit.

That, to me, is the difference.

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.)

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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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The Japanese believe there is one right way to do everything, including to be a man or be a woman, which is why gender roles are so restrictive. But it’s not all bad. Such singular dedication also leads them to strive for the perfection of above all doing one thing well: making the perfect car, for example.