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Japanese Aesthetics

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A full and in depth appreciation of Japanese Aesthetics entails a comprehensive insight of the philosophical foundations and principles behind art and art making in Japan.  Unlike the western notion that treats art as distinct from the regular lives of people; Japanese art is a way of life. Thus, it is incorporated into ordinary experiences in daily life as in the case of gardening, ceremonies and furnishings. Because Greece is considered to be the foundation of Western civilization, the significance of art as conceived in ancient Greek came into existence to give as an account of the past in order for the next generation to understand life in a more sagacious profundity.  Hence, the fundamental objective of art is to communicate ideas/ notions and express emotions. Japanese art making however is a representation of the collective tradition of the Japanese life that has spiritual or religious functions.  Influenced by Buddhist principles of detachment or indifference in materialistic needs to achieve enlightenment, Japanese art focus on the appreciating and perceiving the beauty and value of natural objects around us.  It denotes and adheres to the nonanthropocentric perception or the oneness or harmony of man with nature.  (Beardsley)


According to Donald Keene, appreciation for the environment is at the core of Japanese art.  (Hume)  More over, Japanese aesthetics concentrates on four specific qualities namely: suggestion, irregularity, simplicity and perishability. (Keene, D) Suggestion pertains to the idea that art stimulates the inner perception of the object. Beyond empirical observation, art appreciation is about understanding the essence of an object or that which make it what it is. (Datsuzoku)  Irregularity highlights the natural beauty and meaning of asymmetrical surface.  It does not utilize illusions but places value on the natural curves and roughness of objects as elements of art (Fukinsei).  Simplicity of design places emphasis on the minimal number of art elements, the use of natural colors, the creation of quiet space and intimacy (Seijaku), and concealment of human intervention to produce spontaneity.  Finally perishability pertains to the use of life and natural objects e.g. rocks, water, plants that also demonstrate the particular qualities of the seasons.


Japanese art utilize natural objects as elements in the art and their natural state as design.  Rocks are often used element in a Japanese aesthetics especially in a dry Japanese Garden.  The selection of rocks and its placement is essential in the garden.  The natural state of the rocks including color, shape, size and texture are taken into account because the rocks will be used to symbolize things in nature.  Asymmetry is manifested in the use of odd quantities i.e. one, three or five, the difference in horizontal placement or separation. Sand and stone Zen gardens purely use rocks and stones to symbolize different elements of nature.  Rocks may represent mountains or buildings or in some cases, other living creatures i.e. animals, bugs and objects i.e. boats.  Using the Japanese style called karesansui, stones, pebbles or sand is used to depict the bodies of water by laying them in the shape of a lake or even waterfalls.  That sand is raked to create waves of the water.  (Koko) (Young et al.)

Another common element in Japanese aesthetics is the miniature tree called Bonsai.  Accordingly, it has its roots in China and was brought to Japan in the 13th century.  Bonsai are not genetically dwarfed plants but are naturally made by pot confinement and crown or root pruning. A bonsai is a representation of a tree that has naturally developed and stood in peace and untouched in a primeval forest.  Part of its pruning requires the artist to mimic its natural stance and appearance as it would be affected by natural forces of the wind, sun and rain.  Thus, shaping and growing bonsai entails a lot of patience.   Each bonsai tree like every natural tree is unique and has a distinctive persona and traits.  In its spiritual symbol, the process of sculpturing and growing the bonsai, the bonsai in turn shapes the personality and traits of its sculptor.

Space (Ma) is an element in Japanese aesthetics that not only promotes simplicity and asymmetry but the openness in everything.  It signifies the interaction and interdependence of all elements in the natural environment.  In fact, the observation of space also exists because of the presence of the object.  Space is also important in for perception (Meigakure).  All art forms have a particular angle to view in order to unveil the unseen beauty and perspective of the art.  Space is important in order to design the viewers’ experience of the art.


Japanese aesthetics especially in the field of garden designing is natural and manmade.  It is natural because it utilizes natural objects in their natural state.  It is manmade because the location of the objects were actually made and controlled by man.  Japanese aesthetics is guided by the principle of Shin, Gyo, So. (Richie).  Its literal translation is formal, semi formal and abbreviated) Shine refers to the intervention of man, Gyo denotes the natural state of objects and So refers to the harmonious combination of the two to produce an art composition that looks natural and spontaneous.  


Beardsley, John. Earthworks and Beyond: Contemporary Art in the Landscape. Abbeville Press: 2006

Hume, Nancy G. Japanese Aesthetics and Culture: A Reader. SUNY Press: 1995

Keene, Donald. The Pleasures of Japanese literature. Columbia University Press: 1993

Richie, Donald. A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics. Stone Bridge Press, LLC: 2007

Young, David, Young, Michiko, Yew, Tan Hong and Simmons, Ben. The Art of the Japanese Garden. Tuttle Publishing: 2005

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