The explicit formulation of an aesthetics in the Western sense only started in Japan a little over two hundred years ago. But, by the term Japanese aesthetic, we tend to mean not this modern study, but a set of ancient ideals that include wabi (transient and stark beauty), sabi (the beauty of natural patina and aging), and yûgen (profound grace and subtlety)[1] . These ideals, and others, underpin much of Japanese cultural and aesthetic norms on what is considered tasteful or beautiful. Thus, while seen as a philosophy in Western societies, the concept of aesthetics in Japan is seen as an integral part of daily life.[2] Japanese aesthetics now encompass a variety of ideals; some of these are traditional while others are modern and sometimes influenced from other cultures.[3]

Religious influence

Shinto is at the fountain head of Japan[4] and, with its emphasis on the wholeness of nature and character in ethics, sets the tone for Japanese aesthetics. Nevertheless, Japanese aesthetic ideals are most heavily influenced by Buddhism.[5] In the Buddhist tradition, all things are considered as either evolving from or dissolving into nothingness. This 'nothingness' is not empty space. It is, rather, a space of potentiality.[6] If we take the seas as representing potential then each thing is like a wave arising from it and returning to it. There are no permanent waves. There are no perfect waves. At no point is a wave complete, even at its peak. Nature is seen as a dynamic whole that is to be admired and appreciated. This appreciation of nature has been fundamental to many Japanese aesthetic ideals, "arts," and other cultural elements. In this respect, the notion of "art" (or its conceptual equivalent) is also quite different from Western traditions (see Japanese art).


Main article: Wabi-sabi

Wabi and sabi refers to a mindful approach to everyday life. Over time their meanings overlapped and converged until they are unified into Wabi-sabi, the aesthetic defined as the beauty of things "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete" [6]. Things in bud, or things in decay, as it were, are more evocative of wabi-sabi than things in full bloom because they suggest the transience of things. As things come and go, they show signs of their coming or going and these signs are considered to be beautiful. In this, beauty is an altered state of consciousness and can be seen in the mundane and simple. The signatures of nature can be so subtle that it takes a quiet mind and a cultivated eye to discern them.[7] In Zen philosophy there are seven aesthetic principles for achieving Wabi-Sabi.[8]

Fukinsei: asymmetry, irregularity; Kanso: simplicity; Koko: basic, weathered; Shizen: without pretense, natural; Yugen: subtly profound grace, not obvious; Datsuzoku: unbounded by convention, free; Seijaku: tranquility.
Each of these things are found in nature but can suggest virtues of human character and appropriateness of behaviour. This, in turn suggests that virtue and civility can be instilled through an appreciation of, and practice in, the arts. Hence, aesthetic ideals have an ethical connotation and pervades much of the Japanese culture [9].


Yūgen (幽玄?) is an important concept in traditional Japanese aesthetics. The exact translation of the word depends on the context. In the Chinese philosophical texts the term was taken from, yūgen meant "dim", "deep" or "mysterious". In the criticism of Japanese waka poetry, it was used to describe the subtle profundity of things that are only vaguely suggested by the poems, and was also the name of a style of poetry (one of the ten orthodox styles delineated by Fujiwara no Teika in his treatises).

Yugen suggests that beyond what can be said but is not an allusion to another world[10]. It is about this world, this experience. All of these are portals to yugen:

"To watch the sun sink behind a flower clad hill. To wander on in a huge forest without thought of return. To stand upon the shore and gaze after a boat that disappears behind distant islands. To contemplate the flight of wild geese seen and lost among the clouds. And, subtle shadows of bamboo on bamboo." Zeami Motokiyo

Zeami was the originator of the dramatic art form Noh theatre and wrote the classic book on dramatic theory (Kadensho). He uses images of nature as a constant metaphor. For example, "snow in a silver bowl" represents "the Flower of Tranquility". Yugen is said to mean “a profound, mysterious sense of the beauty of the universe… and the sad beauty of human suffering”[11]. It is used to refer to Zeami’s interpretation of “refined elegance” in the performance of Noh.[12]

Alan Watts described Yūgen as "digging change."[13]


Geidō refers to the way of the traditional Japanese arts: Noh (theater), kadō (Japanese flower arrangement), shodō (Japanese calligraphy), Sadō (Japanese tea ceremony), and yakimono (Japanese pottery). All of these ways carry an ethical and aesthetic connotation and appreciate the process of creation[9]. To introduce discipline into their training, Japanese warriors followed the example of the arts that systematized practice through prescribed forms called kata - think of the tea ceremony. Training in combat techniques incorporated the way of the arts (Geidō), practice in the arts themselves, and instilling aesthetic concepts (for example, yugen) and the philosophy of arts (geido ron). This led to combat techniques becoming known as the martial arts (even today, David Lowry shows, in the 'Sword and Brush: the spirit of the martial arts', the affinity of the martial arts with the other arts). All of these arts are a form of tacit communication and we can, and do, respond to them by appreciation of this tacit dimension.

The phrase iki is generally used in Japanese culture to describe qualities that are aesthetically appealing and when applied to a person, what they do, or have, constitutes a high compliment. Iki is not found in nature. While similar to wabi-sabi in that it disregards perfection, iki is a broad term that encompasses various characteristics related to refinement with flair. The tasteful manifestation of sensuality can be iki. Etymologically, iki has a root that means pure and unadulterated. However, it also carries a connotation of having an appetite for life.[14] Iki is never cute.

Aesthetics and Japan's cultural identities

Because of its nature, Japanese aesthetics has a wider relevance than is usually accorded to aesthetics in the West. In her path making book,[15] Eiko Ikegami reveals a complex history of social life in which aesthetic ideals become central to Japan's cultural identities. She shows how networks in the performing arts, the tea ceremony, and poetry shaped tacit cultural practices and how politeness and politics are inseparable. She shows persuasively that what in Western cultures are normally scattered, like art and politics, have been, and are, distinctly integrated in Japan.

After the introduction of Western notions in Japan, Wabi Sabi aesthetics ideals have been re-examined with Western values, by both Japanese and non-Japanese. Therefore, recent interpretations of the aesthetics ideals inevitably reflect Judeo-Christian perspectives and Western philosophy.[16]

See also


  1. "Japanese Aesthetics (Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy)". Retrieved 2009-06-10. 
  2. "Teaching Japanese Aesthetics". Retrieved 2008-12-03. 
  3. "Japanese Aesthetics ([[Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]])". Retrieved 2008-12-03.  URL–wikilink conflict (help)
  4. Herbert, Jean (1967). Shinto; at the fountain-head of Japan. Stein and Day. ASIN B0006BOJ8C. 
  5. "Japanese Aesthetics, Wabi-Sabi, and the Tea Ceremony" (PDF). Retrieved 2008-12-03. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 Koren, Leonard (1994). Wabi Sabi for artists, designers, peots and philosophers. Berkley, CA: Stone Bridge Press. ISBN 1-880656-12-4. 
  7. "What Is Wabi-Sabi?". Retrieved 2007-04-01. 
  8. "The nature of garden art". Retrieved 2008-12-06. 
  9. 9.0 9.1 Script error
  10. "Zeami and the Transition of the Concept of Yugen" (PDF). Retrieved 2008-12-08. 
  11. (Ortolani, 325). Ortolani, Benito. The Japanese Theatre. Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1995
  12. Yamazaki, Masakazu; J. Thomas Rimer (1984). On the Art of the No Drama : The Major Treatises of Zeami. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-10154-X.  Cite uses deprecated parameter |coauthors= (help)
  13. Watts, Alan (2004). Out Of Your Mind. Louisville, CO: Sounds True, Incorporated. ISBN 1591791650. 
  14. "Taste of Japan". Retrieved 2007-04-01. 
  15. Ikegami, Eiko (2005). Bonds of Civility: aesthetic networks and the political origins of Japanese culture. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-60115-0 (pbk). 
  16. "Japan - the society". Retrieved 2008-12-07. 

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