Japanese aesthetics are known for simple and minimalist design details and a unique appreciation of natural beauty. There have been a couple of decisive moments in history that helped cement those qualities. The “History of Japanese Aesthetics” reviews the social background of the 1). Heian, 2). Kamakura, 3). Muromachi and 4). Edo periods and discusses how these periods affected the formation and crystallization of Japanese aesthetics.
You are on 1). The Heian Era
The Heian Era (794 – 1185)
Cultural history is often difficult to trace back due to the lack of surviving records, but it would be safe to say that the first waves of traditional Japanese aesthetics emerged during the Heian era (794- 1185).
The harbinger of the Heian culture
In order to understand the Heian culture, we need to step back a little further and review the Aska and Nara periods (592-793), during which the capital was in the current Nara prefecture (about 45 km from Kyoto). The culture of Aska and Nara can be summarized in one phrase: a passion for Buddhism.
Buddhism was born in India somewhere around 4-6 BC, and slowly but steadily spread to China, where it became a highly sophisticated philosophical endeavor over the following several hundreds of years. When it finally reached Japan in the 6th century via the Korean Peninsula, it was a solid belief/value system with finely designed objects such as temples and statues, in addition to tens of thousands of intellectually advanced textbooks. Everything surrounding Buddhism was a Copernican shock to the Japanese, who were still transitioning from ancient systems both politically and culturally.
In terms of religion, they followed animistic beliefs of “eight million gods in nature,” which meant that gods resided in every element in nature, constantly changing their places. Deities were elusive and undefinable, yet so powerful that humans weren’t supposed to enter their territories except through special people or occasions. The relationships between humans and gods weren’t something you tried to spell out; you just had to listen to nature and obey its rules. Such an attitude dictated their aesthetics, which were largely about admiring natural/supernatural beauty.
But Buddhism was completely different. It asked fundamental and profound questions of what life and death was about and explored how you could be saved in the afterlife, using every single tool with which human were bestowed – physical, cognitive and intellectual. Stunned and awed, the Japanese tried to absorb its essences, which stimulated and advanced their cultural adventure. Buddhist statues and temples advanced Japanese design and architecture, and highly complex Chinese textbooks – a refined and advanced language/letter system – inspired the Japanese to craft their own by tweaking their system so that it matched the sensitivity of spoken Japanese language.
As the impetus for cultural evolution increased in Japan thanks to the influence of Buddhism, it also brought a significant dilemma for the Japanese: leaders were divided if it was a good idea to embrace it without reservation, or if they had to stick to their original value system. It was especially a difficult question because Chinese (continental) systems were usually logical, organized and assertive whereas Japanese ones were intuitive, elusive and undefinable. It would make sense to assume that the introduction of Buddhism (and Chinese culture in general) set the tone for how the Japanese developed their own aesthetics over the following centuries: they were born from conflicts between dualities such as nature vs humans’ achievements, relative vs absolute, elusive vs concrete, intuition vs logic, or undefinable vs defined..
Buddhism and mujo
In addition to the overwhelming influence in design and intellectual activities, Buddhism also influenced the worldview of the Japanese, who traditionally embraced nature as is, and accepted the fact that it was deemed to change. The concept of 無常 (mujo, or “impermanence”) in Buddhism was a natural fit because it taught that everything on Earth constantly changed, hence nothing was everlasting nor absolute. What we think is “A” today could become “B” tomorrow, even in those things whose consistency is taken for granted. Buddha further maintained that we shouldn’t rely on external possessions such as money, status, products or relationships to feel happy, because they could also disappoint you by changing or being gone tomorrow.
The notion of mujo is also expressed by the word “空 (kuu),” which is core to the philosophy of Buddhism. The letter “空,” meaning “emptiness”, “voids” or “sky” is used in Buddhism to describe the awareness that everything, including us, is empty, and can only be defined provisionally by its relative relationships to other things (read more about “kuu”). In Japanese, 空 is also pronounced “utsu” to describe things that are empty, hollow and vain. There is another noun “現 (utsutsu)” that means “reality,” and there is also a verb “移ろう (utsurou)” meaning transition or change.
In his book “日本という方法 (A Method called Japan), NHK Books, 2006,” Seigo Matsuoka, an influential editorial director observed that the Japanese traditionally considered that “utsu (emptiness)” and “utsutsu (reality)” were on the same spectrum, and used the verb “utsurou” to describe the transition from one state to another. For example, four seasons utsurou. Peoples’ feelings utsurou and love is elusive. The power could also utsurou and escape your hands.
As traditional Japanese worldview married mujo, you can assume that the feeling of “utsurou” settled in Japanese’ mindset very early, and had become the core notion of the culture/aesthetics throughout periods that followed. And the aristocrats in the Heian era were the first people that dug deep into the notion and beauty of utsurou.
Social backdrops of the Heian period
The Heian era (794 ~1192) is usually considered the end of the classical period, or the harbinger of the Middle Ages. It was when the country started functioning as a centrally-controlled state, rather than a loose coalition of regional political rivals. The Tennō (the emperor) had already been the head of the administration for centuries, and by the time of the Heian era, the aristocrats that surrounded the Tennō had established a political system with explicit laws, ethical/social rules and taxation schemes that encompassed a large part of central-western-southern Japan. As had been the case everywhere else in the world during that time, the turf war that surrounded the succession of royal thrones was intense in Kyoto. However, high ranking aristocrats were able to enjoy affluence as taxation, food, products and services, collected from peasants, ensured their status..
One curious fact about the Heian aristocrats is that they did not have private armies like the lords of the European feudalism. Peasants armed themselves in different parts of the country for self-defense and fought for aristocrats when needed, but they didn’t swear loyalty. Those paramilitary groups became increasingly powerful over the years, and eventually took control of the administration to end the Heian period. But during the Heian era, aristocrats almost solely depended on blood lines to maintain elite status, for which cultural/intellectual excellence, not armed power, played a significant role. Grace and beauty, rather than masculinity and violence, defined their lives. Under such circumstances, aristocrats indulged themselves in the world of subtle beauty and intellectual pursuits.
The emergence of Japanese aesthetics and mono no aware
As mentioned earlier, exposure to Chinese culture inspired the Japanese in advancing their own style. They did so by questioning what Japanese aesthetics really were vis-a-vis Chinese ones. The aristocrats, who ruled the country tried to blend strong, logical and structured continental values with domestic ones which were ambiguous, natural and subtle. By the 11th century, they invented their own alphabet (kana) by tweaking Chinese characters, which helped the emergence of kana-literature.
The contrast between the Chinese (top) and the Japanese (bottom) approach is obvious even in the way letters are formatted and structured: whereas Chinese ones are solid and lucid, Japanese ones, called kana, are curvy, blurry and frail, even though they were created by adapting Chinese letters. Kana was, however, still considered unofficial and mainly used by women. Men used the Chinese writing system both for official and private purposes. In a sense, the Heian era can be regarded as a collision between a Chinese/masculine culture versus a Japanese/feminine one.
Ki no Tsurayuki (872-945)
Ki no Tsurayuki, an aristocrat and a poet, played a central role in helping shape authentic Japanese aesthetics. He was involved in compiling “古今和歌集 (Kokin Waka Shu)” – the anthology of great Japanese poems – and wrote the famous “Kana-jo (see the image shown above)”, the Japanese preface, which is considered to be the first essay explaining waka (a type of Japanese poetry). It was revolutionary in that it was written in kana and emphasized the unique perspective of Japanese literature which was still considered inferior to the Chinese one. The “Kana-jo” starts with the famous phrase:
Japanese poems are the natural outcome of human emotions and feelings, which are likened to seeds that grow to become trees with abundant leaves of words. (Translation: Mihoyo Fuji)
Important points: 1). the term “やまとうた (Japanese poetry)” is defined in comparison to Chinese poetry, and 2). it is likened to flora, a natural phenomenon. The “Kana-jo” was, in a sense, Tsurayuki’s declaration that Japanese aesthetics were about observing natural changes, of which humans were part. He emphasized that this had to be the guiding principle for Japanese literature to become independent from Chinese influence.
Such determination to find beauty in natural changes by carefully observing them was elevated to the notion of mono no aware. “Aware” originally meant the “ohh” and “ahh” we let out when we feel joy, amazement, sympathy, sorrow or other intense emotions. And since “mono no” meant “of things or events”, the phrase meant the sources of amazement that were inherently embedded in things or events. The Kokufu culture, a Japanese style as opposed to a style influenced by Chinese, during the Heian era is often described as the culture of “mono no aware,” and Ki no Tsurayuki was one of the first who used this term.
Because mono no aware is elusive, you might miss it if you don’t have the sensitivity or ability to “observe” it. The aristocrats took pride in training themselves to develop such sensitivity. Tsurayuki used the term in “Tosa Nikki (A Journal from Tosa)” to criticize a boatman who kept drinking even when his customer was exchanging poems of good-bye with his family/friends upon his departure. He could not tolerate such lack of “mono no aware” sensitivity. In a sense, being of a social elite in the Heian era meant being a “licensed mono no aware detector” – it was an aristocrat/s privilege/responsibility.
It is worth adding that Tsurayuki wrote “Tosa Nikki” using kana letters, pretending to be woman, a deception to allow him, as a man, to pursue Japanese-ness in literature.
Murasaki Shikibu (978-1016)
Such sensitivity flourished in “The Tale of Genji (the Genji),” one of the worlds’ oldest surviving novels written in 1008 by Murasaki Shikibu, an intellectual woman from an aristocratic family. The Genji is often described as a culmination of “mono no aware” literature.
The Genji is an extraordinary story of “observation.” Murasaki Shikibu, with her intelligence and kana/feminine sensitivity, intently – sometimes obsessively, sometimes critically – observed and chronicled every detail of the love and life of her main character, Hikaru Genji, a handsome, aristocrat, and the people surrounding him. In Heian era, aristocrats lived in shinden-zukuri mansions. Those buildings had no walls, and were only loosely divided by screens, partitions or furniture. Women stayed behind these semi-closed partitions most of the day, making their existence almost mysterious. Men and women spent enormous amount of time and energy trying to make romantic connections, which were often elusive because of the social separateness symbolized by “open-but-closed”, or “accessible-but-inaccessible” semi-closed partitions of the shinden-zukuri mansions..
There are no clear conclusions or lessons learned in the Genji. As it is, in the sensuously detailed chronicle of mono no aware, reality is often overpowered by fantasy (people “fantasize” a lot about their men/women when they cannot see them, which happens often), and the absence, loss or failure creates more dramatic effects than success or fulfillment.
In one chapter, Hikaru Genji falls in love with the young wife of an old public servant. She is not particularly beautiful, but he becomes fixated on her behavior. Despite many barriers, Genji tries to approach her, but she eventually refuses the relationship and decides to leave one of her thin gowns on the floor to show her decision. Genji laments and writes a poem likening the gown to an ecdysis of a cicada (there are many cicadas in Japan). The “empty” gown is the climax of the story with this woman: it symbolically augments her mysterious appeal and the painful loss felt by Genji. In connection to the poem, the author named this woman “空蝉 (utsu-semi, or “vacant” cicada)”. Remember, the letter “空” is the one that appeared in the discussion of utsutsu-utsu, and also the notion “kuu” used in Buddhism.
It is mesmerizing to realize that people who lived thousand years ago had already developed a sensitivity for this deep need to feel every subtle emotion, to be involved in sensual guessing games, to use symbolism to augment lost feelings, and to let references from old literature speak for themselves. This was the world of mono no aware.
Teika Fujiwara (1162-1241)
But the power of aristocrats could not last forever. While they were immersed in the dreamy land of “mono no aware,” neglecting the difficult job of governing a country, regional military powers were steadily expanding their influence, using physical force (which is what aristocrats did not have). In 1192, the Minamoto, one of the largest military clans in Kanto (around current Tokyo area) took control of the major regions and started the “bakufu” administration, which was advertised to rule samurais, as opposed to the emperor-aristocrat regime that ruled general people. But in reality, bakufu was only to increase its national influence, against which aristocrats were forced to play losing games.
It was time for mono no aware to change.
Born in 1192, Teika Fujiwara, a high-ranking aristocrat and a waka poet, lived in an era of tectonic transition. As a young genius, he already noted down his determination to devote his life to aesthetic pursuits at the age of 18, shrugging off the brutal military invasions that were starting to damage the security of the Kyoto aristocrats. Teika kept his artistic passion and left many “experimental” poems similar in style to French symbolism. For example, he appears to have tried to erase the “subject” from his poems, whether it was the theme or the person through whose perspective the readers re-experience what was read. One famous waka reads:
Looking around, there are no flowers nor autumn leaves. Only a rustic hut harbors by the beach in the dusk of an autumn day. (Translation: Miihoyo Fuji)
Teika started the poem by using “looking around”, “flowers” and “leaves.” The readers who try to re-experience the poem try to look around and imagine the beautiful colors of flowers and autumn leaves, filling their mind with abundance. But such images are immediately denied, and readers are suddenly brought to a remote beach where only a faint sign of life is felt in the middle of vast nature, as it readies to dissolve into a complete darkness.
There is a stark contrast emphasized by “flowers” or “autumn leaves” and their absence (the most impactful word in this poem is “なかりけり”, which means “there are no -“), and also by a single, rustic hut alone in the darkening vastness of nature. All in all, even after the reader find out that there is nothing abundant in the actual scene, they would still feel the reverberation of the colorful leaves, albeit that it feels like they dissipate in the vast absence.
The poems in the mono no aware era would have talked about the real flowers and leaves, or their current status of utsurou. But Teika brought a completely new perspective in literature, which was to erase the subject of mono no aware, and by doing so, let something even more vast emerge. By boldly exploring the new potential in the absence of subjectivity, he definitely set the tone for the next waves of Japanese aesthetics.