H

HAIKU

Haiku, as it has come to be known as world’s shortest form of poems, consists only 17 syllables (5+7+7). Although it was established in the 19th century, obviously it’s based on long history of traditional poems – waka, renga and haikai. Haiku has a kigo (a word that suggests the season)

I

IKI

Unlike mono no aware or wabi-sabi, which were cemented in the Middle Ages, iki is a product of Edo period (1603-1867). Edo is the current Tokyo, to which the Tokugawa shogun dynasty moved national capital from Kyoto. Unlike Kyoto, which is defined by miyabi aristocrats, Edo was Japan’s first modern metropolis inhibited by samurais, merchants and citizens that engaged in a variety of commercial/service industries. Whereas mono no aware and wabi-sabi were driven by aristocrats who were into aestheticism and Zen priests, Edo culture was supported by emerging citizens in a new, rapidly growing big city. Naturally, they found aesthetic coolness in things that were subtly off-tone, anti-authentic or wild-mannered. You may find some similarities with street fashion of today, but iki was a bit more spiritual in that people found iki in emotions or design details that were held back and unpronounced. Japanese philosopher Shuzo Kuki, who wrote an essay on iki using Western analytical approach in 1930, said that stripes perfectly defined the spirit of iki because they consisted of parallel lines that never converged despite their desperate desire.

K

歌舞伎 KABUKI

簡素 KANSO

Kanso is a Japanese term for simple, but there are subtle differences in between the two.

かわいい KAWAII

If wabi-sabi symbolized traditional Japanese aesthetics and iki represented the spirit of Edo culture, kawaii is the face of Japanese pop culture today. As it means “cute,” Japanese – especially young women – love to use kawaii to describe things that they like. It could be said that cuteness is a product of modern economy because things that are cute have smaller chance of survival in the harsh environment. A society that can afford to enjoy cute things is the one that is affluent. It makes sense that kawaii came to represent Japanese modern culture as its economy grew very rapidly during post WWII era. Kawaii things need guardians who support them physically and financially. As nature is transient and kawaii-ness of anything will be lost at some point, Japanese may be going on the opposite direction on this one and trying to stay kawaii so that they could keep relying on others. Kawaii is a double-edged sword.

枯山水  KARE-SANSUI

Kare-sansui is what you picture when you hear Zen rock garden, or simply Zen. Kare-sansui means “mountains and water bodies made of dead plants.” It is believed to have started at remote Zen temples with limited access to water, and was cemented by prominent Zen priest Muso Soseki.

N

能 NOH

Nou is traditional Japanese theater that cemented its current style in the 15th century by Kan-ami and Zeami, a father-son dancer/screenwriter/producer. Noh is incre

M

間 MA

Ma means blank/silent intervals planted in between elements.

もののあはれ MONONO AWARE

Mono no aware is an aesthetic term that defines Heian-era culture. It was the era during which Japanese established their own writing system by combining Chinese writing system (which was logical and systematic – masculine, if you will) and Japanese language (which was often ambiguous and perceptive – feminine, if you will). Interestingly enough, as it happened during the 9th ~ 11th century, female authors including led literature. Murasaki Shikibu wrote world’s oldest surviving novel “The Take of Genji,” and Sei Shonagon wrote “Makura no Soshi (The Pillow Book),” a collection of essays.

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 (a Japanese style, as opposed to a style influenced by Chinese) Culture 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 didn’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 a social elite in Heian era meant a “licensed mono no aware detector” – it was an aristocrat/s privilege/responsibility.

無常 MUJO

無常 (mujo), meaning nothing is permanent, is a term imported from Buddhism. Buddha maintained 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 taught that we shouldn’t rely on external supports 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 resonated with Japanese, who chronicled the state of mujo in literature, poems and various forms of art.

Y

幽玄 YUGEN

The term yugen was imported from ancient Chinese philosophy, but it ended up taking deep roots in Japanese culture sometime around the 12th century as it was picked by the aristocrats-led waka society, the most acknowledged cultural activity back then. Japanese aristocrats were unique in that they didn’t have their own military. Keeping themselves away from brutality, they devoted themselves in finding natural beauty, and waka played a primary role in that endeavor.

 

W

わびさび WABI-SABI

和歌 WAKA

Waka is the oldest form of Japanese poems that consists of 31 syllables (5+7+5+7+7), which inspired the emergence of renga, haikai (5+7), haiku (5+7) and tanka (5+7+5+7+7). Almost as a national art, waka had been written by a wide range of people, and the “Manyoshu,” the oldest surviving waka compilation dates back to the 8th century. As the time went by, aristocrats devoted themselves to crystallize waka’s aesthetics to the point

U

浮世絵 Ukio-e

Ukiyo-e is woodblock prints and paintings that flourished from the 17th through 19th centuries to capture the “pop culture” of Edo era, favoring subjects such as female beauties, kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers, people’s everyday life, landscapes as well as ghosts and other peculiar themes. Ukiyo-e had unique two dimension-looking perspectives, techniques to emphasize key elements, almost modern cartoon-like color choices and effects. You can find iki in Ukiyo-e.