History of Japanese aesthetics (3): Muromachi and wabi-sabi
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 3). The Muromachi period.
The Muromachi period (1336-1493)
For those who’ve read through chapters 1 and 2, this is the chapter where you finally get to wabi-sabi, the origin of simple, minimal and quiet, traditional, Japanese aesthetics. The Muromachi Era, and more specifically the Higashiyama culture, saw an unparalleled artistic culmination that focused on radical subtraction of elements and abstraction that became the signature of traditional Japanese aesthetics.
It becomes much more relatable and interesting if you compare the Muromachi Era (1336-1493) with the early Renaissance. At the same moment in historical time, two cultures on the opposite sides of the world blossomed to mark the culmination of a pre-modern era aesthetics. Intriguing fact: they were stimulated by similar social changes, but evolved into completely opposite directions.
The harbinger of the cultural leap in Muromachi period
In the previous chapter, we explained that the Kamakura era, the period that preceded the Muromachi era, was riddled by warfare and social unrest, just like the end of the Dark Ages in Europe. Not only that, but Japanese people suffered from famine, pandemics and natural disasters just like the Europeans of the same era. Because of that, we tend to believe that these were a “series of unfortunate events” suffered by ignorant and helpless people. But such a perception might be wrong. Constant warfare, epidemics and famines couldn’t have occurred without a certain level of population density, economic systems with separate production and consumption centers that achieved an economic surplus, and extended networks of urban areas through which traveled food, goods, money, information, conflict and infection. It’s more reasonable to consider that people in those days were enduring the growing pains while starting to build a culturally vibrant society. As a matter of fact, the mujo aesthetics in the Kamakura demonstrates how people these days were already sensible, alert and philosophical.
Then what was the decisive factor that transformed the “dark” ages into the Renaissance or Muromachi, the pinnacles of pre-modern cultures?
Simply put, it was money. In the Renaissance Italy, tycoons like the Medici family emerged to establish influential European-wide financial networks that accelerated international trade. With an enormous fortune, Cosimo de Medici (1389 – 1464), the father of the Medici “dynasty,” grabbed political power in the Republic of Florence and transformed it into the vibrant cultural hub of the Renaissance. By the same token, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358 – 1408), the third shogun of the Muromachi Bakufu (dynasty), aggressively promoted international trade with China and boosted the Japanese economy to an unprecedented level. He invested the money to support emerging artists who cemented traditional Japanese aesthetics as we know it today.
Well-educated and with great appreciation of art, both Cosimo de Medici and Ashikaga Yoshimasa were consequential figures to set the stage for new types of art/culture to flourish. Even more intriguingly, both Cosimo and Yoshimitsu had a grandson who elevated their respective cultures to the next level. Lorenzo de Medici (1449-1492) was the patron of the greatest artists including Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, and the artistic circle of Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436-1490) masterminded wabi-sabi aesthetics.
While the social backdrops were intriguingly similar, the direction in which the Renaissance and Muromachi cultures evolved were almost opposite: whereas the first celebrated various aspects of being human – humanism -, the latter appreciated the limitations, or insurmountable nature of being human. What made such a huge difference?
Christianity or Buddhism (Zen)
One apparent factor is religion.
Middle Age Europe was dominated by a Christian Church that imposed a rigid, uniform worldview on society, so there was not room for an individual to publicly express his/her own desire or aspirations in form of art. But that was going to change. As non-Church sectors increasingly became affluent and general living conditions improved, the overwhelming fear about the afterlife started to diminish. People began to feel that there should be more diverse values in the world other than leading a pious life in order to be saved after death. For the first time in centuries, they were ready to pursue pleasure and the unique potential that resided in them. This impetus triggered humanism, which found in ancient Greece and Rome, or pre-Church perspective, its North Star. In a sense, the Renaissance was about re-discovering the world in its “natural” state, not through the lens of Christianity. The Renaissance was about re-discovering our body and soul as it is, and nature’s body and soul as it is.
Meanwhile in Japan, people always looked at things in a “natural” state, because unlike in the Christian Church, this was the core teaching of Buddhism – although it was something more like “beyond humanism,” rather than humanism. According to Buddha, the natural state of our world was mujo: a boundless universe of nothingness (or absolute relativity), in which there was nothing permanent nor absolute, including our existence. So the Japanese found beauty in the transient/elusive quality of things – in nature, in relationships, in life.
This symbolic difference was further deepened by one event that rattled Japanese society in the middle of the 15th century, during Ashikaga Yoshimasa’s tenure.
The Onin War
Thanks to the economic prosperity brought by Yoshimitsu, Japanese society quickly expanded. And just like Italian merchants in large port cities, merchants in the ports of Sakai, Osaka (about 70km from Kyoto) quickly became rich and influential thanks to the fortunes they made from trade with China. Leveraging their powerful networks, Sakai merchants developed a semi-autonomous community and enjoyed freedom and luxury. (Sakai later became known as the Asian Venice.) Thus emerged a new political balance, in which money from commerce played a much larger role in society than in previous eras. Military leaders and aristocrats could no longer monopolize the power, and people sensed opportunities to pursue their own agenda.
Increased ambitions at different levels triggered fissures in society. After the powerful Shogun Yoshimitsu unexpectedly passed away at the age of 60, the Ashikaga dynasty struggled to find successors to match his decisive leadership. The administration became weak, and rivals took advantage of it. Small fights and conflicts here and there became increasingly intense, and they grew into a significant civil war that broke in 1467. Called the Onin War, the conflict was extensive and prolonged: it lasted 10 years and led to the burning down of Kyoto, the “capital of flower,” causing excruciating sufferings among the people. Joy caused by wealth transformed into the pain of brutal conflict, and people were reminded that any power, beauty or happiness, would eventually go away no matter how stable they appeared.
With broken hearts, people had to come back to Buddhism for consolation and redemption. As we’ve reviewed in the previous chapter, six new Buddhism schools had already emerged during the Kamakura era, responding to people’s despair. They played significant roles, helping shape social sentiments during those days, and one of them was especially instrumental in helping cement the aesthetics and cultural qualities of the Muromachi era: the Rinzai-shu school.
By the Onin War era, Rinzai-shu had already become the religion of elite samurais and was incorporated as part of the political system. High ranking Rinzai-priests were influential mentors, diplomats, and more importantly for this article, artists who received broad recognition from people in power. It is reasonable that the priests were in high demand as political advisors because they were the intellectuals who could even read/write Chinese, as China was Japan’s major political counterpart. But why had they also become significant artists?
It was because Rinzai-shu was Zen, which focused on meditation in order to attain religious truth. Zen priests spent enormous amounts of time meditating in the depths of nature, in the mountains, by waterfalls or beside the ocean. When they finally freed their body and mind and completely dissolved into nature, they found profound beauty and truth. They recorded it in what became highly abstract pieces of art.
Text or no text
As you might have guessed by now, the turning point that transformed the mujo culture of Kamakura into wabi-sabi culture in Muromachi was the departure from words and texts. If you remember from the last chapter, the brilliance of Kamakura culture largely resided in literature; in essays, stories and poems. But if you look at wabi-sabi, the forms have noticeably shifted to non-textual ones: The Zen rock garden, Noh theater, ikebana (flower arrangement), ink painting or sado (tea ceremony). None of them rely on a text as a medium to convey beauty.
It’s interesting to compare such tendencies with the Renaissance. As we discussed, both Cosimo de Medici and Ashikaga Yoshimasa enthusiastically supported cultural endeavors. Cosimo famously founded the Laurentian Library of Florence, an enormous public library that boasts the most important and prestigious collection of antique books in Italy. Since the Renaissance was about re-discovering humanist culture, manuscripts and books were instrumental to access the North Star that was ancient Greece and Rome. The Renaissance artists went on to use Latin to write poems, essays and books.
On the other side of the world, Yoshimitsu enthusiastically supported Kan-ami and Zeami, the father-son dancer/play writer/producer who elevated the then-minor, regional dance company into what we know today as Noh theatre. Noh is unique to any other form of performing arts because it relies on restricted moves that are accompanied by no spoken lines. Audiences read through substantial “ma (temporal and special intervals or silence),” and beauty can come from unconventional characters such as ghosts, spirits or old people that blur boundaries between our world and the world of dead.
Clearly, the point of diversion between Europe and Japan was text versus no text. Whereas the Renaissance re-discovered the power of language as a means to freely and adequately express their own emotions, ideas or natural beauty, the Muromach Japanese found freedom in freeing themselves from the power of words and texts.
This distrust of text – human’s creation hence prone to misinterpretation – was one of the core characteristics of Zen, which taught that religion’s enlightenment could only come through one’s body (training such as meditation), not from studying books. If the Renaissance eagerly observed the physical/substantial manifestation of the elements that constituted our world to find beauty, the Japanese in Muromachi searched a truth that was beyond physical existence.
Same approach/attitude, different directions.
Empowered discriminated people
In the previous chapter, we reviewed the “Ippen Hijiri-e,” a picture story that celebrated the life of Ippen, the founder of Jishu, another new Kamakura Buddhist. You may remember that the drawings included many people from the discriminated social class, since Ippen sincerely attempted to open the door of Buddhism to oppressed people. Ippen traveled around the country to spread his teachings, and enthusiastic followers followed him. These included entertainers such as traveling dancers or singers, who were also often sent to battlefields to cheer/console soldiers and take care of the dead. Soon Jishu followers became one of the prominent artist groups that increasingly overcame social prejudice.
As discussed earlier, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu ardently supported Kan-ami and Zeami, the father-son dancer/playwright/producer who elevated their dance company to create Noh theater. They were from the discriminated class but Yoshimitsu did not care, even when his entourage weren’t happy about it. Those artists from discriminated classes typically added “ami” at the end of their names, suggesting that they were Jishu priests – although they actually weren’t in many cases. Kenya Hara, one of the most prominent industrial designers in Japan, wrote in this book “Designing Design” that these “ami” artists were the first designers in Japan, using their creative senses to elevate things around them – the interior of a house, tools, gardens, decorative items, anything you can name – into artistic creations. Look for “ami” names when you browse through traditional Japanese culture.
So far we’ve reviewed social factors that helped the emergence of what we perceive as traditional Japanese aesthetics – minimalist, simple, a quiet yet powerful artistic manifestation, or wabi-sabi. In summary, it was the transformation of the mujo concept into a highly crystallized form of abstraction. Every single element was examined and trimmed until only essential elements remained. Zen was the guiding principle of the painful subtraction process to reveal true beauty.