Japanese design has always been of interest to me therefore I decided to do some personal research into Japanese aesthetics. Their culture balances age-old tradition with modernity harmoniously and this is shown through their aesthetics and design. My research revealed that there are 9 principles of Japanese art and culture which act as the basis for Japanese art, movies, music, pop culture and fashion.
Wabi and sabi refers to a mindful approach to everyday life, eventually the two terms were combined to form a philosophy based on imperfection, impermanence, and incompletion. The philosophy is derived from Buddhist teachings of the ‘three marks of existence’, and insight into these marks can end suffering. Asymmetry, simplicity and modesty are values also associated with this principle. In Japanese culture aesthetic ideals hold ethical connotations and therefore through an appreciation of the arts, civility can be instilled.
Hanami (“blossom viewing”) parties at Himeji Castle
Imperfection in life is what makes it interesting and this is the underlying theme present in this philosophy. Sakura blossoms fit into this philosophy as they are impermanent and imperfect, and their beauty lies in the fact that they don’t last forever and are transient. As things come and go, they leave behind signs of their coming and going which are seen as beautiful.Many aspects of wabi-sabi can be found in nature, they can also suggest human character and appropriateness of behaviour.
In Zen philosophy there are 7 aesthetic principles for achieving wabi-sabi.
- Fukinsei = asymmetry, irregularity
- Kanso = simplicity
- Koko = basic, weathered
- Shizen = without pretense, natural
- Yungen = subtly profound grace, not obvious
- Datsuzoku = unbounded by convention, free
- Seijaku = tranquility
Miyabi often translated as ‘heartbreaker’ and focuses on elegance, refine and courtliness. The aim is to eliminate anything vulgar or unsightly and to polish manners, diction and feelings to achieve grace. Miyabi is reflected in art and design, as well as society through the politeness, etiquette and helpfulness of Japanese people. This is one of the oldest principles however it is not as noticeable as Wabi-sabi or Iki. The principle is closely linked to the notion of Mono no aware which is the bittersweet awareness of the transience of things and that their decline showed a sense of Miyabi.
The Temple of the Golden Pavilion
Shibui, Shibumi or Shibusa
18th Century Tea Bowl
This ideal focuses on simplicity, subtlety and unobtrusiveness. Films such as Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki reflects Shibui with its simple storyline and art style. The subtly of the Shibui is far more pleasing and attractive than things which are loud and in your face. Like Iki and Wabi-sabi, Shibui can be applied to a wide variety of subjects from fashion to films.
Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki
A breakdown of the Shibui ideal
- Simple with subtle details such as textures, balancing simplicity with complexity
- The balance of simplicity and complexity allows a Shibui object to never become boring as new meanings can always be found in the object, therefore its aesthetic value grows with time
- Many wabi or sabi objects can be Shibui, however not all Shibui objects can be wabi or sabi. Wabi and sabi objects are often exaggerated focusing on imperfections to an almost artificial extent. Shibui objects are not always imperfect or asymmetrical although they can include these qualities.
- Shibui balances aesthetic concepts such as elegance and roughness, spontaneous and restrained.
Iki is refined uniqueness, it is not regarded as simply unique as Japanese culture does not celebrate uniqueness.
“The nail that sticks up is pounded down” – Japanese Proverb
It can be compared to Wabi-sabi due to its simplicity and temporality, yet it is also original, unique and spontaneous. It is audacious and less self conscious but is also refined, measured and controlled.
Iki can signify a personal trait or an artificial object imbued with human traits. It can be used to express appreciation for natural beauty or nature of human beings, but is not used to describe natural phenomena or found in nature. In Japanese culture Iki can be used to describe visually appealing qualities, or when applied to a person it would describe what they do or have, and is seen as a compliment.
Jo-ha-kyu roughly translates to “beginning, break, rapid”, and is a tempo focusing on modulation and movement, it starts slowly then accelerates and comes to a sudden end. This aesthetic is widely used in Japanese traditional arts, such as tea ceremonies, kendō, theatres, Gagaku, and in martial arts. More modern uses include movies, music, advertising and books (e.g. Haruki Murakami).
Kyoto Tea Ceremony
The exact translation of the word depends on the context. In Japanese waka poetry it is used to describe the subtle profundity of things vaguely suggested in the poem, what is suggested is beyond what can be said with words however is not a suggestion of another world but of our own.
“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
Yugen focuses on the beauty and profound depth in unanswered questions. The mystery of the unknown and holding back some of the answers is commonly seen in Japanese theatre, movies and books.
The Dragon of Smoke Escaping from Mt Fuji by Hokusai, 1849
This principle focuses on the beauty in ethics and discipline, which can be seen in traditional Japanese arts disciplines: Noh (Japanese theatre), Kado (Japanese flower arrangement), Shodo (Japanese calligraphy), Sado (Japanese tea ceremonies), and Yakimono (Japanese pottery). It also includes the systematised approach to apprenticeships within many Japanese traditional arts. Each of the disciplines have ethical and aesthetic connotations, and focus on the appreciation of the process of appreciate.
Japanese warriors trained in combat techniques that incorporated the teaching of the Geido in the arts through systematized practice, practice in the arts, embodying aesthetic concepts, and the philosophy of the arts. These combat techniques are now known as the martial arts.
Enso is a zen concept represented by a circle that symbolises absolution, enlightenment, strength, elegancy, infinity, nothingness, the Universe and the void. This concept from Zen Buddhism is represented by a form of minimalism, commonly seen in Japanese design and aesthetics.
“The character of the artist is fully exposed in how she or he draws an enso. Only a person who is mentally and spiritually complete can draw a true enso. Some artists will practice drawing an enso daily, as a kind of spiritual exercise.” – Unknown
Ensō by Kanjuro Shibata XX
There is debate between whether Kawaii is a new aesthetic or something that has always been part of Japanese culture. Since the 1970’s however it has definitely become the most popular Japanese aesthetic, seen in art, pop culture, entertainment, clothing, food, toys, personal appearance, behaviour, mannerisms and design. It means lovable, cute or adorable, and can be seen almost everywhere in Japanese culture and national identity.