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Japanese Aesthetics and Me

January 29, 2018

I am fascinated. For the last several years, I have been re-discovering Japan, mostly due to my own inquiries into the state of life within and without, which serendipitously led me back to Ikebana, which then naturally elicited my further curiosity that helped deepen my appreciation for Japanese aesthetics. 

 

I was born and raised in Japan but was never interested in the Japanese culture. For one thing, I was too young to appreciate it as I left Japan at 18 to study here in the U.S.  Even since then, I had been too preoccupied with the life in the U.S., assimilating to the culture, working and raising the "American family" of my own while being a socially conscious citizen in a hyper-politicized country. So my interests or affinity did not really include anything Japanese except the amazing food which I devoured.

 

If you are new to the concepts and terms of Japanese aesthetics, I must warn you that they can get pretty complex and somewhat mind-boggling. I will explain why in a moment. With that said however, if you want simplicity, there is only one word that can define Japanese aesthetics to a tee - that is "Subtlety."  In a nutshell, Japanese Aesthetics = Subtlety.

 

Now let's take a moment to think about the word "subtle." One dictionary defines it as "so delicate or precise as to be difficult to analyze or describe." Japanese aesthetics absolutely live up to that definition. That's where things can get fascinating and intense at the same time. How can anything be so simple, modest and seemingly minimal yet be so intense, rigorous, and complex at the same time? Here is why.

 

Japanese aesthetics are never linear. They are never overt, even when they appear to be. They are never obvious. They live in the non-descriptive world. They are this and that at the same time and in between lines.  They are ultimately "To Be Felt," even beyond our five senses by virtue of their nature - hidden and subtle. So all you are left with is your earnest never-ceasing curiosity.

 

There are several Japanese terms that best define those simple yet passionately perplexing Japanese aesthetics. It is nearly impossible to translate them properly or precisely in English or in any other languages. They are to be understood in Japanese terms but can be explained in multiple ways and with a combination of words in other languages. The reason for the difficulty in describing is because of the nuances that are embedded in those terms.  

 

The most prominent and well-known concepts/terms are: Wabi-sabi, Ma, Yugen, Miyabi, Shibui, and Iki, among others.  In the 21st century though, the fad of the Japanese pop culture gave birth to terms such as "Kawaii" (aka "Kawaii culture") as a newest addition to the Japanese aesthetics.  Personally I don't really understand it but I can see that it is kind of fun and Kawaii. It's sort of hard to explain.

 

Japanese aesthetics permeate Japanese way of living and thinking for most Japanese. They are intricately linked to their emotional and mental receptors and experiences. They are in the Japanese cuisine, arts, architecture, landscapes, fashion, and communications including the bow. In other words, for Japanese, aesthetics are not simply visual experience but physical as well as spiritual experience. 

 

For example, "Ma" means empty space, or break, or pause, or interval, and it is also not just empty space but a space of potentiality. In other words, without empty space, there is no potential. We need the space to breathe and grow in life, and we need to pause to regain, re-imagine, reinvigorate and so on. Empty simply means "non-substantiality" vs. substantiality. Thus, empty space is powerful and essential and is fundamental to Japanese aesthetics and Ikebana and also to life in general.  

 

The point is, the real beauty or the essence of aesthetic taste, according to the Japanese aesthetics, is never in the definition but rather in the realm of non-definition induced by "imperfection, incompleteness, and impermanence," and that is where one will find "the pursuit of mastery in infinite potential," which evoke the heightened senses and skills.

 

I think I finally figured out something Japanese - their piercing sense of mastery of a craft...  and I wish to pursue that in me. 

 

 

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Art & Floral Design | Chicago | Michiko Kobayashi

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