Japanese design is often associated with the simple and minimal.
However, it is “fundamentally different from the European version of simplicity because Japanese minimalist design was not the result of pursuing the most rational, functional design,” says Kenya Hara, the Japanese graphic designer who is best known for his art direction for the Japanese brand MUJI. He continues in his book “日本のデザイン (Japanese Design)” (Iwanami Publishing, 2011): “For the Japanese, it was a conscious, strategic materialization of ’nothing-ness.’ It was a careful process of eliminating each and every excessive frill in order to create an empty vessel, at once a vacuum but with a powerful center of gravity, toward which people’s consciousness and creativity would be drawn.” Hara maintains that such aesthetics are unique to Japan, and calls them “emptiness” or “kanso (no-frills, basic and clean),” rather than “simplicity”.
…whereas simplicity in the context of modernism emerged about 150 years ago, the Japanese version of simplicity – which I would rather call “emptiness” – had already existed for hundreds of years. As can see in the “Raku ware” made by Chojiro (1516 – 1592) or in the Dojin-sai (built in 1490 – see below), the Japanese in the Middle Ages saw simple and plain design as a powerful source of beauty, countering complexity and luxury.
Below are some articles in which Hara talks about “emptiness.”
But why “emptiness” now?
Is Hara talking about a new potential that could be created by marrying traditional wisdom with modern simple/minimal design? Actually, he has a much larger vision.
He believes that locally unique aesthetics such as “emptiness” can be critical economic resources to elevate our future beyond today’s materialistic society created by the globalized economy. He reminds us that “aesthetics” – our own ability to find beauty, excellence and happiness through our own senses and behaviors – has always been the third “hidden” button, after natural resources and resources, that we push to advance technology and quality of life, especially in Japan. We just forgot the importance of aesthetics as we busied ourselves in the game of economic efficiency. Now it is time to shift our focus towards aesthetics, suggests Hara, now that the ROI of efficiency-driven economic system is rapidly diminishing and our world is starting to suffer from its side effects such as resource constraints and climate change.
Hara believes that by letting our world compete based on aesthetics, not the GDP, we could re-define affluence and happiness.
But how does that work? We can start by reviewing the origin of the “emptiness” aesthetics.
Hara discovered the origin of emptiness aesthetics in “東山文化 (Higashimaya Culture)”, which occurred during the late Muromachi era (15th ~ 16th century). It is also known as wabi-sabi culture, and represents what you might picture as Zen-inspired minimalism such as the Zen rock garden or the tea ceremony.
In Europe, people leveraged simplicity as part of the modernist movement to liberate people’s power by rejecting excessive, luxurious design dedicated to the social elites. However, the Japanese version of simplicity – emptiness – must have emerged from a totally different juncture, observes Hara. It was triggered by the unprecedented losses caused by the Onin War (1467-1477), a devastating civil war. During the Muromachi era (14th ~ 16th century), the shogun dynasty had become powerful enough to take control of most regions that constitute current Japan, and also to engage in extensive trade with China, the power center of the Asian economy. The unprecedented amount of accumulated wealth triggered an unprecedented rise in power struggles, but the then-Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436-1490) lacked the leadership to contain a series of upheavals. Much like Ludwig II of Bavaria, Yoshimasa did not like politics and wanted to retreat into the world of art. As a result, the Onin War dragged on for 10 years, during which period Kyoto, the then capital, was burned down, robbed and destroyed. People were bitterly reminded of how wealth, which they thought would bring happiness, could cause conflicts, destruction and deprive people of hope.
That despair became a driver for wabi-sabi culture which found beauty in “nothing-ness,” emptiness or even in the process of decay. Among the Zen priests and affluent merchants, oppressed by the military authority, who led the movement, Yoshimasa also immersed himself in the world of wabi-sabi, patronizing artists and creating the Jisho-ji (Ginkaku-ji, above picture) spending enormous amounts of money while the society was in a turmoil.
Top left: ikebana (traditional flower arrangement), Top Right: Ryoan-ji kare-sansui
Bottom left: The Jijo-ji (Ginkaku-ji), Bottom right: Saiho-ji. Steve Jobs practiced Zen and loved Saiho-ji.
Faced by harsh reality, Hara believes that the people of Kyoto chose not to re-create the traditional extravagant culture. Instead they tried to pursue new opportunities at the other extreme: zero, or nothing. They discovered a new approach to feel sensuous/mental fulfillment in the process of eliminating and letting go of everything they had acquired.
But how does beauty emerge from “emptiness,” when the core is left as a void?
Through heart-wrenching losses, people in the Middle Age realized that they still had their body and senses, and that they were actually the most resilient and potent sources of beauty. So they kept eliminating excess frills until the outcome neared their own existence. And what bridged and connected the object (the environment) and the subject (you) was “behavior.”
For example, people drank tea in almost every region. But the tea ceremony, which is one of the most important elements of Higashiyama wabi-sabi culture, goes beyond enjoying drinking tea, observes Hara. Tea was almost an excuse or a catalyst, because the real objective of the tea ceremony was to unleash your keen consciousness to appreciate every aspect of your daily life by putting yourself in a constrained environment. A tea room had to be small and rustic so that you could focus on your body, senses and behavior, which were the vehicle that would connect your inner self to the vast environment. Beauty would emerge when the connections were made.
Suppose that you are hosting a tea gathering in spring to “celebrate” the cherry blossoms that coming into season (the Japanese are obsessed by cherry blossoms). In order to “decorate” the tea room, you might place a small flower basin, fill it with water and scatter several petals on it, instead of displaying a gorgeous vase of cherry flowers. You have kept the cherry tree outside untouched (because they are the best in nature), but allow your guest to enjoy the “imaginary” cherry blossoms swirling in their mind by inspiring them with tiny, subtle, pink petals floating on a tranquil water surface.
As a host of a gathering, you would try to be conscious of the surrounding environment and its beauty, and find ways to share it with your guests in the most sensible manner. As a guest, you would keep your senses keenly concentrated in order to appreciate each hint of beauty and delight offered by the host. The core is empty – there is very little substance in the tea ceremony process – but the “behaviors” of each participant collectively shape a special, inspiring and enlightening encounter.
When “emptiness” is embraced, design – whether tangible or intangible – dissolves into your behavior and they become one. And that’s how Hara sees his own design. At the beginning of his signature book “デザインのデザイン (Designing Design)” (English version from Lars Müller Publishers, 2015), he states: “design means recognizing the world in which we live in a lively and vibrant fashion, through creation and communication. Such realizations and discoveries bring us pride and joy of existence.” (Translation by Mihoyo Fuji)
Then how can such behavior-driven aesthetics become the key economic resources? Hara gives an example:
Every time I come back to Japan from an international trip and enter the lobby of Narita International Airport, it strikes me how cleanly the place is maintained. Floor tiles are spic and span. Trash is picked up swiftly. Even when there are some stains on the carpet, I can see that someone has tried hard to remove them. I feel confident that staff made sure to keep every corner of the area pleasant, thinking about the people who would use it.
It is such a minor thing, says Hara, but sums up unique attitude shared by Japanese people towards work – or behavioral aesthetics if you will – that any professional job, whether it’s cleaning, cooking or maintaining fixture, has to be executed carefully, accurately, neatly and sincerely, no matter how small it is. He observes that such sensibility in executing any kind of work must have been what made Japanese products reliable and high quality: behavioral aesthetics worked as an implicit quality assurance mechanism that governed the entire process of production. It wasn’t just the quality of input (natural resources), technology, skills or management (human resources), but the third button – the resource called aesthetics – that supported Japan’s rapid economic growth after WWII.
Hara believes that the only way our society can become truly “rich” is to allow us to compete on the aesthetics front to go beyond materialistic saturation. If each region can shine by leveraging their unique behavioral aesthetics, people will feel proud and fulfilled, instead of feeling left out and forgotten, as we do now due to the fierce competition of global economic efficiency.
On this front, Hara has been directing a series of exhibitions that showcase solutions that marry aesthetics and technology to design our near future in a way that will be accessible, by engaging and inspiring everyone who wants to shape his/her own life and community by behaving consciously and sensibly.
And of course, we cannot forget about MUJI. The reason why MUJI’s aesthetics is “empty,” rather than “simple,” is because every MUJI product is designed to provide enough space so that users can be inspired and unleash their own creativity to shape their behavior – the act of living – to consciously relate/interact with the surrounding environment.
We have long believed that economic efficiency would solve most of – if not all – problems we face, and guide us to affluence and happiness. But despite this expectation, it has led to a radical globalism, which is starting to be recognized as an evil that causes massive social inequity. However, if you take a closer look, you would realize that globalization occurred because we prioritized economic efficiency above anything else. Hara suggests that we could leverage aesthetics instead of efficiency to pursue truly sustainable happiness.
If you have traveled in Japan and enjoyed its “hospitality,” it is not because they have the most technologically advanced vacuum cleaners that would suck up every single dust on the floor. It was because people dutifully executed their job, which was to welcome guests with the best they could offer. What constitute “best” shouldn’t be determined by the amount of trash left on the floor, but by behavioral aesthetics of each person involved in the process. That is why you could never automate or “AI” hospitality, and that is important. Yes, aesthetics are economic resources. We need remind ourselves of that now.
All quotes translated by Mihoyo Fuji