Japanese aesthetics

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Soji-ji, of the Soto Zen school Sunriseatsojiji.jpg
Sōji-ji, of the Soto Zen school

Japanese aesthetics comprise a set of ancient ideals that include wabi (transient and stark beauty), sabi (the beauty of natural patina and aging), and yūgen (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 by other cultures. [1]


Shinto and Buddhism

Shinto is considered to be at the fountain-head of Japanese culture. [3] With its emphasis on the wholeness of nature and character in ethics, and its celebration of the landscape, it sets the tone for Japanese aesthetics. Until the thirteenth century, Shinto remained the main influence on Japanese aesthetics. [4] 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. [5] If the seas represent potential then each thing is like a wave arising from it and returning to it. There are no permanent 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).


Hanami ("blossom viewing") parties at Himeji Castle Castle Himeji sakura02.jpg
Hanami ("blossom viewing") parties at Himeji Castle

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". [5] 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. [6] In Zen philosophy there are seven aesthetic principles for achieving Wabi-Sabi. [7]

Fukinsei (不均斉): asymmetry, irregularity;

Kanso (簡素): simplicity;

Koko (考古): basic, weathered;

Shizen (自然): without pretense, natural as a human behaviour;

Yūgen (幽玄): subtly profound grace, not obvious;

Datsuzoku (脱俗): unbounded by convention, free;

Seijaku (静寂): tranquility, silence.

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. [8]


The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji) Kinkaku Snow E4.jpg
The Temple of the Golden Pavilion ( Kinkaku-ji )

Miyabi (雅) is one of the oldest of the traditional Japanese aesthetic ideals, though perhaps not as prevalent as Iki or Wabi-sabi. In modern Japanese, the word is usually translated as "elegance," "refinement," or "courtliness" and sometimes referred to as "heart-breaker".

The aristocratic ideal of Miyabi demanded the elimination of anything that was absurd or vulgar and the "polishing of manners, diction, and feelings to eliminate all roughness and crudity so as to achieve the highest grace." It expressed that sensitivity to beauty which was the hallmark of the Heian era. Miyabi is often closely connected to the notion of Mono no aware, a bittersweet awareness of the transience of things, and thus it was thought that things in decline showed a great sense of miyabi.


An 18th century tea bowl, exhibiting the aesthetics of shibui Hagi ware Japanese tea bowl, 18th-19th century, Freer Gallery of Art.jpg
An 18th century tea bowl, exhibiting the aesthetics of shibui

Shibui (渋い) (adjective), shibumi (渋み) (noun), or shibusa (渋さ) (noun) are Japanese words which refer to a particular aesthetic or beauty of simple, subtle, and unobtrusive beauty. Originating in the Nanbokuchō period (1336–1392) as shibushi, the term originally referred to a sour or astringent taste, such as that of an unripe persimmon. Shibui maintains that literal meaning still, and remains the antonym of amai (甘い), meaning 'sweet'. Like other Japanese aesthetic terms, such as iki and wabi-sabi, shibui can apply to a wide variety of subjects, not just art or fashion.

Shibusa includes the following essential qualities:

1. Shibui objects appear to be simple overall but they include subtle details, such as textures, that balance simplicity with complexity.

2. This balance of simplicity and complexity ensures that one does not tire of a shibui object but constantly finds new meanings and enriched beauty that cause its aesthetic value to grow over the years.

3. Shibusa is not to be confused with wabi or sabi. Though many wabi or sabi objects are shibui, not all shibui objects are wabi or sabi. Wabi or sabi objects can be more severe and sometimes exaggerate intentional imperfections to such an extent that they can appear to be artificial. Shibui objects are not necessarily imperfect or asymmetrical, though they can include these qualities.

4. Shibusa walks a fine line between contrasting aesthetic concepts such as elegant and rough or spontaneous and restrained.


Iki (いき, often written 粋) is a traditional aesthetic ideal in Japan. The basis of iki is thought to have formed among the urbane mercantile class (Chōnin) in Edo in the Tokugawa period (1603–1868). Iki is an expression of simplicity, sophistication, spontaneity, and originality. It is ephemeral, straightforward, measured, and unselfconscious. Iki is not overly refined, pretentious, complicated. Iki may signify a personal trait, or artificial phenomena exhibiting human will or consciousness. Iki is not used to describe natural phenomena, but may be expressed in human appreciation of natural beauty, or in the nature of human beings. 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. [9]


Jo-ha-kyū (序破急) is a concept of modulation and movement applied in a wide variety of traditional Japanese arts. Roughly translated to "beginning, break, rapid", it implies a tempo that begins slowly, accelerates, and then ends swiftly. This concept is applied to elements of the Japanese tea ceremony, to kendō, to the traditional theatre, to Gagaku, and to the traditional collaborative linked verse forms renga and renku (haikai no renga). [10]


The Dragon of Smoke Escaping from Mt Fuji, painting by Katsushika Hokusai Hokusai-fuji-koryuu.png
The Dragon of Smoke Escaping from Mt Fuji, painting by Katsushika Hokusai

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).

Yūgen suggests that which is beyond what can be said, but it is not an allusion to another world. [11] It is about this world, this experience. According to Zeami Motokiyo, all of the following are portals to yūgen:

"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 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".


Right screen of the Pine Trees screens (Shorin-zu byobu
, Song Lin Tu Ping Feng ) by Hasegawa Tohaku, c.1595 Hasegawa Tohaku - Pine Trees (Shorin-zu byobu) - right hand screen.jpg
Right screen of the Pine Trees screens ( Shōrin-zu byōbu , 松林図 屏風) by Hasegawa Tōhaku, c.1595

Geidō (芸道) refers to the various traditional Japanese arts disciplines: Noh () (theater), kadō (華道) (Japanese flower arrangement), shodō (書道) (Japanese calligraphy), Sadō (茶道) (Japanese tea ceremony), and yakimono (焼物) (Japanese pottery). All of these disciplines carry an ethical and aesthetic connotation and teach an appreciation of the process of creation. [8] 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.


Enso by Kanjuro Shibata XX
Enso ca. 2000 Enso.jpg
Ensō by Kanjuro Shibata XX
Enso ca. 2000

Ensō (円相) is a Japanese word meaning "circle". It symbolizes the Absolute, enlightenment, strength, elegance, the Universe, and the void; it also may be taken to symbolize the Japanese aesthetic itself. Zen Buddhist calligraphists may "believe that the character of the artist is fully exposed in how she or he draws an ensō. Only a person who is mentally and spiritually complete can draw a true ensō. Some artists will practice drawing an ensō daily, as a kind of spiritual exercise."[ attribution needed ] [12]

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 pathmaking book, [13] 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 contends 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. [14]

Japanese Aesthetics and Technology

As one contribution to the broad subject of Japanese aesthetics and technology, it has been suggested that carefully curated high speed camera photographs of fluid dynamics events are able to capture the beauty of this natural phenomenon in a characteristically Japanese manner. [15]


Konpeito in various colors. Kompeito konpeito.JPG
Konpeitō in various colors.

Many traditional Japanese aesthetic criteria are manifest in, and discussed as part of, diverse elements of Japanese cuisine; [16] see kaiseki for a refined expression.


A modern phenomenon, since the 1970s cuteness or kawaii (可愛い, "cute", "adorable", "loveable") in Japanese has become a prominent aesthetic of Japanese popular culture, entertainment, clothing, food, toys, personal appearance, behavior, and mannerisms. [17]

As a cultural phenomenon, cuteness is increasingly accepted in Japan as a part of Japanese culture and national identity. Tomoyuki Sugiyama, author of "Cool Japan", believes that "cuteness" is rooted in Japan's harmony-loving culture, and Nobuyoshi Kurita, a sociology professor at Musashi University in Tokyo, has stated that cute is a "magic term" that encompasses everything that's acceptable and desirable in Japan. [18]

See also

Related Research Articles

Aesthetics Branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of art, beauty, and taste

Aesthetics, or esthetics, is a branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of beauty and taste, as well as the philosophy of art. It examines aesthetic values, often expressed through judgments of taste.

Beauty Characteristic that provides pleasure or satisfaction

Beauty is commonly described as a feature of objects that makes these objects pleasurable to perceive. Such objects include landscapes, sunsets, humans and works of art. Beauty, together with art and taste, is the main subject of aesthetics, one of the major branches of philosophy. As a positive aesthetic value, it is contrasted with ugliness as its negative counterpart. Along with truth and goodness it is one of the transcendentals, which are often considered the three fundamental concepts of human understanding.

Minimalism Movements in various forms of art and design

In visual arts, music, and other media, minimalism is an art movement that began in post–World War II Western art, most strongly with American visual arts in the 1960s and early 1970s. Prominent artists associated with minimalism include Donald Judd, Agnes Martin, Dan Flavin, Carl Andre, Robert Morris, Anne Truitt, and Frank Stella. The movement is often interpreted as a reaction against abstract expressionism and modernism; it anticipated contemporary postminimal art practices, which extend or reflect on minimalism's original objectives.

<i>Wabi-sabi</i> Japanese aesthethic about beauty in imperfection

In traditional Japanese aesthetics, wabi-sabi is a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of appreciating beauty that is "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete" in nature. It is prevalent throughout all forms of Japanese art. It is a concept derived from the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence, specifically impermanence, suffering and emptiness or absence of self-nature.

<i>Bishōnen</i> Japanese term for an attractive young man

Bishōnen is a Japanese term literally meaning "beautiful youth (boy)" and describes an aesthetic that can be found in disparate areas in East Asia: a young man of androgynous beauty. This word originated from the Tang dynasty poem Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup by Du Fu. It has always shown the strongest manifestation in Japanese pop culture, gaining in popularity due to the androgynous glam rock bands of the 1970s, but it has roots in ancient Japanese literature, the androsocial and androerotic ideals of the medieval Chinese imperial court and intellectuals, and Indian aesthetic concepts carried over from Hinduism, imported with Buddhism to China. Today, bishōnen are very popular among girls and women in Japan. Reasons for this social phenomenon may include the unique male and female social relationships found within the genre. Some have theorized that bishōnen provide a non-traditional outlet for gender relations. Moreover, it breaks down stereotypes surrounding feminine male characters. These are often depicted with very strong martial arts abilities, sports talent, high intelligence, dandy fashion, or comedic flair, traits that are usually assigned to the hero/protagonist.

East Asian tea ceremony

An East Asian tea ceremony or Sadō, dado, or cháyì is a ceremonially ritualized form of making tea practiced in East Asia by the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans. The tea ceremony, literally translated as "way of tea" in Japanese, "etiquette for tea" or "tea rite" in Korean, and "art of tea" in Chinese, is a cultural activity involving the ceremonial preparation and presentation of tea. The Japanese tea ceremony was influenced by the Chinese tea culture during ancient and medieval times, starting in the 9th century when tea was first introduced to Japan from China. One can also refer to the whole set of rituals, tools, gestures, etc. used in such ceremonies as tea culture. All of these tea ceremonies and rituals contain "an adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday life", as well as refinement, an inner spiritual content, humility, restraint and simplicity "as all arts that partake the extraordinary, an artistic artificiality, abstractness, symbolism and formalism" to one degree or another.

Japanese art Overview of art in Japan

Japanese art covers a wide range of art styles and media, including ancient pottery, sculpture, ink painting and calligraphy on silk and paper, ukiyo-e paintings and woodblock prints, ceramics, origami, and more recently manga and anime. It has a long history, ranging from the beginnings of human habitation in Japan, sometime in the 10th millennium BC, to the present-day country.

<i>Ensō</i> Japanese motif

In Zen, an ensō is a circle that is hand-drawn in one or two uninhibited brushstrokes to express a moment when the mind is free to let the body create.

<i>Mono no aware</i> Japanese term for awareness of impermanence

Mono no aware (物の哀れ), literally "the pathos of things", and also translated as "an empathy toward things", or "a sensitivity to ephemera", is a Japanese idiom for the awareness of impermanence, or transience of things, and both a transient gentle sadness at their passing as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life.


Miyabi (雅) is one of the traditional Japanese aesthetic ideals, though not as prevalent as Iki or Wabi-sabi. In modern Japanese, the word is usually translated as "elegance," "refinement," or "courtliness" and sometimes to a "sweet loved one".

Iki is a Japanese aesthetical concept thought to have originated amongst the merchant classes of Edo in Edo period Japan.

This is an alphabetical index of articles about aesthetics.

Higashiyama culture Japanese cultural period

The Higashiyama culture is a segment of Japanese culture that which includes innovations in architecture, the visual arts and theatre during the late Muromachi period. It originated and was promoted in the 15th century by the shōgun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, after he retired to his villa in the eastern hills of the capital city Kyoto.


Shibui (渋い) (adjective), shibumi (渋み) (noun), or shibusa (渋さ) (noun) are Japanese words that refer to a particular aesthetic of simple, subtle, and unobtrusive beauty. Like other Japanese aesthetics terms, such as iki and wabi-sabi, shibui can apply to a wide variety of subjects, not just art or fashion.

<i>In Praise of Shadows</i>

In Praise of Shadows is an essay on Japanese aesthetics by the Japanese author and novelist Jun'ichirō Tanizaki. It was translated into English by the academic students of Japanese literature, Thomas Harper and Edward Seidensticker. A new translation by Gregory Starr was published in December 2017.

<i>Kintsugi</i> Japanese pottery repair with gold laquer

Kintsugi, also known as kintsukuroi, is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum; the method is similar to the maki-e technique. As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise.

Aesthetics of nature is a sub-field of philosophical ethics, and refers to the study of natural objects from their aesthetical perspective.

Everyday Aesthetics is a recent subfield of philosophical aesthetics focusing on everyday events, settings and activities in which the faculty of sensibility is saliently at stake. Alexander Baumgarten established Aesthetics as a discipline and defined it as scientia cognitionis sensitivae, the science of sensory knowledge, in his foundational work Aesthetica (1750). This field has been dedicated since then to the clarification of fine arts, beauty and taste only marginally referring to the aesthetics in design, crafts, urban environments and social practice until the emergence of everyday aesthetics during the ‘90s. As other subfields like environmental aesthetics or the aesthetics of nature, everyday aesthetics also attempts to countervail aesthetics' almost exclusive focus on the philosophy of art.

Leonard Koren American architect

Leonard Koren is an American artist, aesthetics expert and writer.

<i>Boro</i> (textile) Traditional Japanese textiles that have been mended or patched

Boro (ぼろ) are a class of Japanese textiles that have been mended or patched together. The term is derived from the Japanese term "boroboro", meaning something tattered or repaired. The term 'boro' typically refers to cotton, linen and hemp materials, mostly hand-woven by peasant farmers, that have been stitched or re-woven together to create an often many-layered material used for warm, practical clothing.


  1. 1 2 "Japanese Aesthetics (Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy)" . Retrieved 2009-06-10.
  2. "Teaching Japanese Aesthetics". Archived from the original on 2008-12-02. Retrieved 2008-12-03.
  3. Herbert, Jean (1967). Shinto; at the fountain-head of Japan. Stein and Day. ASIN   B0006BOJ8C.
  4. Prusinski, L. (2013). "Wabi Sabi, Mono no Aware, and Ma: Tracing Traditional Japanese Aesthetics through Japanese History". S2CID   190461627 . Retrieved 2021-07-16.{{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  5. 1 2 Koren, Leonard (1994). Wabi Sabi for artists, designers, poets and philosophers. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press. ISBN   1-880656-12-4.
  6. "What Is Wabi-Sabi?". Archived from the original on 2007-05-02. Retrieved 2007-04-01.
  7. "The nature of garden art". Archived from the original on 2008-08-07. Retrieved 2008-12-06.
  8. 1 2 Carter, Robert E. (2008). Japanese arts and self-cultivation. New York, NY: SUNY Press. ISBN   978-0-7914-7254-5.
  9. "Taste of Japan". Archived from the original on 2007-04-30. Retrieved 2007-04-01.
  10. Zeami. "Teachings on Style and the Flower ( Fūshikaden )." from Rimer & Yamazaki. On the Art of the Nō Drama. p20.
  11. "Zeami and the Transition of the Concept of Yūgen" (PDF). Retrieved 2008-12-08.
  12. Seo, Audrey Yoshiko; Addiss (1998). The Art of Twentieth-Century Zen. Stepen. Boston: Shambhala Publications. ISBN   978-1-57062-358-5
  13. 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.
  14. "Japan - the society" . Retrieved 2008-12-07.
  15. Tosa, Naoko, Yunian Pang, Qin Yang, and Ryohei Nakatsu (21 March 2019). "Pursuit and Expression of Japanese Beauty Using Technology". Arts. 8: 38. doi: 10.3390/arts8010038 .{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  16. Japanese Foodways, Past and Present, University of Illinois Press, 2010, By Eric C. Rath, Stephanie Assmann
  17. Diana Lee, "Inside Look at Japanese Cute Culture Archived 2005-10-25 at the Wayback Machine " (September 1, 2005).
  18. Quotes and paraphrases from: Yuri Kageyama (June 14, 2006). "Cuteness a hot-selling commodity in Japan". Associated Press.

Further reading