Japanese Aesthetics

Carol Steinberg Gould
Mara Miller

Editor’s Note: Carol Steinberg Gould and Mara Miller collaborated on this article, which is presented in alternating sections by each author, as indicated.

On Being Drawn to Japanese Aesthetics – CSG

Like many Anglophone Western-trained philosophers, I had only the vaguest idea of Japanese aesthetic principles, let alone their complexity. I associated Japanese aesthetics with appealing things like the minimalist architecture and concise interiors filled with negative space, the fashion-forward, edgy couture that I encountered in the sensual origami of an Issey Miyake skirt, and a meticulously assembled plate, colored with slices of sushi. In contrast to this elegance, I also noticed the ubiquitous Hello Kitty and more cloying tokens of kawaii (cuteness), such as the disturbing Lolita fashion subculture. What is important here is that all of these turn up in everyday life, which the Japanese see as worthy of aesthetic appreciation. The principles of Japanese aesthetics also govern persons, their bearing, their actions, their erotic nature, and their interactions with others. Although the principles are too numerous to probe here, even this brief discussion shows how they enrich life and art in the West, as well as in contemporary Japan.

Many roads would lead me to Japanese aesthetics, which is ancient and fascinating, even as it continues to transform with the cross-fertilization of Western and Japanese traditions. First, it was French modernism, which I would discuss often with a colleague in French at Florida Atlantic University, Professor Jan Hokenson. The story could begin in various places at different moments, but one legendary, if not mythic, moment is when Hokusai prints turned up in Paris c. 1856. When some of the avant-garde artists such as Manet, Whistler, and Degas saw these Japanese prints, they saw new escape routes from the classical ideals of verisimilitude, symmetry, balance, perspective and shadow, and the integrity of space. Thus in their works we see them use some of the Japanese standards of highly saturated color, spare use of line, asymmetry, irregularity, simplicity, and most importantly for the direction of Western painting, the flattening of the picture space. This led to the birth of Japonisme in France, a term coined in the late nineteenth century. As more Japanese artifacts and artworks appeared in the West, the interest in Japanese art and trinkets ignited, exemplified in the writings of Proust and Huysmans, the music of Satie and Debussy, and of course in the work of the painters who would explicitly depict figures in Japanese clothes or interiors cluttered with Japanese artifacts. Almost certainly, Courbet’s L’Origine du monde (1866) reflects the prominent genitalia depicted in much Japanese erotica. Artists were keen to look at more ukiyo-e, as more became available and by artists in addition to Hokusai, such as Utamaro and Hiroshige (see illustration, next page. Consider, for instance, Van Gogh’s La Courtisane (1887) or Monet’s Madame Monet in a Japanese Costume (1875). These prints emerged in the Edo period in the urban pleasure-seeking culture, or what was called “the floating world (ukiyo), ” an ancient Buddhist term suggesting a world of transitory pleasures and pain and the flux of existence.

We could say that globalization has given rise to a new Japonisme in the West. Film enthusiasts flock to anime and new Japanese cinema; Japanese cosmetic lines command substantial prices in high-end shops and spas. Interior designers are crazy about Zen décor. Japanese architects attract international attention: Toyo Ito is yet another Japanese awarded the lofty Pritzker Architecture Prize (2013). The exclusive line of Louis Vuitton has collaborated with two Japanese artists: Takashi Murakami, who designed the now-discontinued cherry blossom pattern, and Yayoi Kusama, who designed a line using irregularly sized and placed dots. Sushi shops appear in all Western cities, and miso soup has become the chicken soup of the twenty-first century.

Some Thoughts for Comparative Aesthetics – MM

Few cultures have thought and written more or for longer about aesthetics than the Japanese (Tsunoda et al.’s two-volume Sources of Japanese Traditions anthology contains an aesthetics section for each period). The sheer number of aesthetic concepts was very large, and their variety greater yet. (Concepts like wabi have multiple interpretations.) They continue to proliferate: superflat, kawaii, (cute; Borgreen 2011, Hasegawa 2002; Yano 2013); “pink” (pinku), iyashi (a sense of comfort, a peaceful tranquil state of mind); the fascination with contemporary ruins (haikyo, “abandoned places”) (Katsuno 2013); what I call “radical traditionalism” of contemporary artists’ return to Neolithic methods and/or materials; moe (a euphoric response to fantasy characters or representations of them (Galbraith 2009).

Japanese arts and aesthetics operate differently than Western in that there is a tendency not to abandon older aesthetics when something new comes along. New and old coexist – partly due to intrinsic values, partly because the systems for paying for the arts and for training new artists are essentially conservative, passing on traditions as themselves highly valuable.  While Europe and America repeatedly found new uses for Greek architectural and literary aesthetics – which had been appropriated by Romans, then re-introduced in the Renaissance, utilized again in the 18th century and after, their uses of their traditional arts selective and discontinuous.  Also, as the Japanese keep reinterpreting their aesthetic pleasures, so the reasons for continuing these traditions vary accordingly.

Japan has the longest history of women’s voices occupying the literary mainstream of any literate culture. The apex was the Heian period (794-1185), with Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji, Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book, and a hundred other female poets and diarists (Miller 2013), whose works were some of the first printed when mass printing for the middle class began (by 1604). The influence of women began in prehistory, when women were sometimes rulers, and were the transmitters of the earliest oral traditions later written down. One fascinating study of selfhood is Yoda’s study of Heian-era women’s diaries (Yoda 2004) and their contribution to the articulation of the modern self, (Suzuki 1996, Washburn 1995). Philosopher Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801) argued the aesthetic concept of aware that was elaborated in Genji held the key to ethics. Along with translated novels by Natsuo Kirino, Fumiko Enchi, and Sadako Ariyoshi, Japanese women today write in English, too: Kyoko Mori’s Yarn, Hiromi Kawakami’s Manazuru.

The importance of the female Gaze also originated in prehistory; Japan has the only tradition of pre-agricultural pottery, the Jōmon works made by women, who continue to influence ceramics (Shigaraki Ceramic Art, 2007). It continues today in the ways women’s voices and Gaze appear in film, even if directed by men (Mizoguchi, Ozu, Itami, Kei Kumai), even Kurosawa, whose innovative integration of the woman’s point of view of her rape in Rashomon contributed to that word’s vernacular use in English. (The 2010 Honolulu International Film Festival premiered Hisako Matsui’s Leonie, about Isamu Noguchi’s mother.) Yayoi Kusano, Yoko Ono, Reiko Mochinaga Brandon, Kazue Sawai and other Japanese women played prominent roles in the New York visual, musical, and theatrical avant-garde during the 1960’s and after (Munroe 1994).

Zen Buddhism and Japanese Aesthetics – CSG

My next route to Japanese aesthetics was through a friend and scholar of Zen Buddhism, Professor Steve Heine, internationally distinguished for his work on Dōgen, a thirteenth century Japanese Buddhist monk. Steve accepted an invitation to speak to the students in my Japanese Aesthetics class. He explained to the students that Dōgen made ample use of poetry, but maligned it frequently. As a Plato specialist, I was curious as to whether it was a coincidence that Plato presents the same paradox. Here were two thinkers, who appeared to have nothing in common except a paradoxical belief about poetry. I set out to understand why, which resulted in an APA paper and then an article in Japan Studies Review, and most of all, my enduring interest in Japan and Zen Buddhism.

By looking at Dōgen in relation to Plato, one grasps how Japanese philosophy, particularly, Japanese aesthetics, illuminates the Japanese emphasis on everyday life and the ethos of respect evident in traditional Japanese manners. This is the same respect the Japanese people displayed in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami when displaced people living in shelters did not encroach on one another’s personal space and dignity, kept their own spaces tidy, and cooperated with authorities. This attitude and their aesthetic appreciation of the everyday is embedded in their Buddhist tradition, as is an appreciation and regard for nature and the aesthetic of being human.

The contrast between the two canonical figures, Dōgen and Plato, helps one see Zen Buddhism anew. Plato and Dōgen agree that natural language is misleading in that its terms refer to only fleeting sensory entities that violate the law of identity. The referents of terms in natural language are Heraclitean. Both thinkers insist that enlightenment (or wisdom) begins by grasping the imprecision of ordinary language. For Plato, however, natural language conceals an elegant ideal language, the terms of which refer to transcendent entities. The philosopher on a path to enlightenment aspires to understand these Forms, which requires her to disengage from others – which she does happily--and from the inconveniences of everyday life to which she is tethered by the body and senses. A philosopher finds beauty in the enduring transcendent Forms.

For Dōgen, natural language is messy, but conceals nothing beyond perception. The problem is that identity of self or any other thing is illusory. Because it is fraught with ambiguity, language is ideal for poetry. Poetry can capture a poet’s aperçue, but once it is uttered or written, its meaning has already vanished. Moreover, the poet has vanished, for the self is like any other thing – transitory, ephemeral, and thus, personal continuity is an illusion. The self, conscious but not privileged by consciousness, is like everything else that exists.  Zen Buddhism admits no hierarchy of being. Hierarchies are illusion. For Dōgen, there is no difference between a nobleman and a snail or a CEO and a twig. Zazen (sitting meditation) is the path to enlightenment--grasping that our ordinary experiences are illusory because they bury reality beneath strata of concepts. Zazen discloses the futility of desire, thus releasing the self from the illusion of ego.

Zen Buddhism is at the heart of what many – notably, Donald Keene – consider distinctive to the Japanese aesthetic: suggestiveness, irregularity, asymmetry, simplicity, and perishability. The first three qualities pique the imagination, while emphasizing the individual uniqueness of each thing and non-existence of fixed essences. Simplicity allows us to appreciate the quality and craftsmanship of something, the grace of a gesture. The last, perishability, is key for evoking the aesthetic experience, for it includes an element of sadness at the brevity of things. The cherry blossom, so iconic in Japanese life and art, blooms for just a few days. Thus, the Japanese will be as sensitive to the buds and to the fallen (or falling) petals as to the flowers in full bloom, both of which are suggestive and irregular. Clearly, the perishability of cherry blossoms makes us aware of our own perishability, our own death.

The reality of change and difference allows us to understand the Japanese notion of a we-self, in contrast to the atomic, individualistic self of Westerners.  This makes it quite natural that the Japanese artistic tradition has not excluded women, as Mara notes.

Thoughts on Recent Developments in the Field – MM

We are past the point where Japanese aesthetics can be understood as eternal and unchanging, participating somehow in a pure realm beyond politics. They were born in a period when the cultures did not have as much knowledge of each other, and the needs of both were different (and what we could all get away with was very different). Such constructions, familiar from Okakura Kakuzo’s The Book of Tea, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, and D. T. Suzuki’s Zen and Japanese Arts, and so beloved of undergraduates, are now recognized as ideologically motivated – on both Japanese and American/ European sides – and as having political effects. Japanese literature specialists and art historians have demonstrated the politicized situations and motivations of some of the loftiest-seeming poets and diarists (Faure 1996; Huey 2002; LaFleur 2003; Marra 1991, 1993). The loftiness seems transcendent because it is interpreted from a Western perspective, but the split between the profane and the religious, the “things that are Ceasar’s …and the things that are God’s” comes out of the Judaeo-Christian and Platonic traditions; it is not Japanese. (Inaga’s 2010 anthology offers a number of jumping-off points useful to philosophers.)

The plethora of new contributions since Miller’s 1996 ASA Newsletter article on teaching Japanese aesthetics is exciting. Michele (aka Michael) Marra edited several books of essays on hermeneutics and philosophical aesthetics (Marra 1999, 2001, 2002), making recent and contemporary Japanese philosophers easily accessible. Alfred Haft has a new work on three popular new aesthetic concepts in the “Floating World” pictured in Ukiyo-e prints (Haft 2013). Timon Screech (1996) explored the impact of the scientific gaze learned from the West on this same world, while David Bell (2007) examined “The Articulation of Pictorial Space” in Hokusai’s prints. Robert E. Carter (2008) addressed the implications of art as process for the development of the person/self. Alan Tansman tackled the thorny relations between aesthetics and Japanese fascism (Tansman 2009), relating it to theories of Western fascism – an issue that has also been raised in regard to Kuki Shūzō’s aesthetics of iki (Nara 2004; Pincus c. 1966; Tansman 2010). Japanese architecture and design had an enormous effect on Modernism. Dominic Lopez’s 2007 study of Ise contrasts Western and Japanese ontologies of architecture, and their implications for cross-cultural studies. Sherry Fowler’s and Greg Levine’s studies of two temples and their relations to their artworks and their sites develop issues that are understood quite differently in their native context than Western philosophers are used to (reviewed in JAAC Miller 2010). Jacquet and Giraud’s new anthology From the Things Themselves: Architecture and Phenomenology (officially 2012, but just released) carries a number of Japan-related articles.

Aesthetics of the Person – CSG

Since the time of Lady Murasaki, Japanese culture has focused on aesthetic properties of persons as much as on artworks. Just as a poem or hand-wrought bowl should suggest rather than state, so a woman should suggest refinement and imagination by the fabric of her dress as it falls around her, for example, and a man by the language he uses in communicating with a love interest. An insensitive, coarse gesture can erase the beauty one might have seen in a person’s form or face. A person’s elegance, manners, sensitivity, attunement to nature, to art, and to other people, one’s careful way of performing the most insignificant daily acts or of expressing a mundane thought can arouse both aesthetic and erotic experiences. The philosopher Kuki Shuzo, who studied with Husserl and met Heidegger, Bergson, and Sartre, in The Structure of Iki (1929) analyzed ‘iki’ as a distinctively Japanese characteristic. ‘Iki’ means something like ‘chic,’ ‘flirtatious,’ or reminiscent of an earlier meaning, ‘detached.’ He discusses persons and relationships as ‘iki.’ and so extends a concept applied to artworks to persons.


Bell, David. Hokusai’s project: The articulation of pictorial space. 2007.

Borggreen, Gunhild. “Cute and Cool in Contemporary Japanese Visual Arts.” Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies. Vol. 29, No. 1, 2011.

Blocker, Gene H. and Christopher I. Starling, Japanese Philosophy. SUNY Press, 2001.

Cheok, Adrain David. “Kawaii: Cute Interactive Media.” In Imagery in the 21st Century. Oliver Grau, ed. 2011.

Faure, Bernard. Visions of Power: Imagining Medieval Japanese Buddhism. 1996.

Galbraith, Patrick W. “Moe: Exploring Virtual Potential in Post-Millennial Japan.” Electronic journal of contemporary Japanese studies. Article 5 2009. <http://www.japanesestudies.org.uk/articles/2009/Galbraith.html>

Gould, Carol S. “Towards a Theory of Aesthetic Properties of Persons,” Contrastes, Suplemento 17: 157-169, 2012.

Haft, Alfred. Aesthetic Strategies of The Floating World: Mitate, Yatsushi, and Furyu in Early Modern Japanese Popular Culture. 2013.

Hasegawa, Yuko. “Post-Identity Kawaii: Commerce, Gender and Contemporary Japanese Art.” In Consuming Bodies: Sex and Contemporary Japanese Art. Fran Lloyd, ed. 2002.

Heine, Steven. Shifting Shape, Shaping Text: Philosophy and Folklore in the Fox Koan. 1999.

Heine, Steven. White Collar Zen. 2005.

Heine, Steven. Did Dōgen go to China? What He Wrote and When He Wrote It. 2006.

Heine, Steven. The Koan: Metaphor and Meaning. forthcoming.

Huey, Robert N. The Making of Shinkokinshū. 2002.

Hume, Nancy (ed.). Japanese Aesthetics and Culture: A Reader. 1995.

Inaga Shigemi. Questioning Oriental Aesthetics and Thinking: Conflicting Visions of “Asia” under the Colonial Empires. 2010.

Jacquet, Benoît and Vincent Giraud, Eds. From the Things Themselves: Architecture and Phenomenology. 2012.

Katsuno, Hirofumi. “Chasing Paradise Lost: The Boom of Modern Ruins in Contemporary Japan.” Unpublished paper, 2013.

Keene, Donald. “Japanese Aesthetics.” In Nancy Hume, pp.27-41.

LaFleur, William R. Awesome Nightfall: The Life, Times and Poetry of Saigyō. 2003.

Leech, P. “Freedom and formula: An inter-cultural problem of Western and Japanese aesthetics.” In M. Hussain & R. Wilkinson (Eds.), The pursuit of comparative aesthetics. 2006.

Lopes, Dominic McIver. “Shikinen Sengu: The Ontology of Architecture in Japan.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 65, 77-84, 2007.

Marra, Michael F. ed. A History of Modern Japanese Aesthetics. 2001.

Marra, Michael F., ed. Japanese Hermeneutics. 2002.

Marra, Michele. The Aesthetics of Discontent: Politics and Reclusion in Medieval Japanese Literature. 1991.

Marra, Michele. Modern Japanese Aesthetics: A Reader. University of Hawaii Press. 1999.

Marra, Michele. Representations of Power: The Literary Politics of Medieval Japan. 1993.

Miller, Mara. “Early Feminist Aesthetics in Japan: Murasaki Shikibu, Sei Shonagon, and A Thousand Years of the Female Voice,” Ryan Musgrave, ed., Feminist Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art. 2013.

Miller, Mara. “Japanese Aesthetics.” Oxford Handbook of World Philosophy. 2010.

Miller, Mara. “Teaching Japanese Aesthetics: Whys & Hows for Non-Specialists,” American Society for Aesthetics Newsletter, 16, 2, 1-3, 1996.

Mitsukuni, Yoshida, Tanaka Ikko, and Sesoko Tsune, eds. Tsukuru: Aesthetics at Work. 1990.

Munroe, Alexandra. Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky. 1994.

Nara Hiroshi. The Structure of Detachment: The Aesthetic Vision of Kuki Shuzo, with a translation of Iki no Kōzō. 2004.

Nguyen, Minh. New Essays in Japanese Aesthetics. Rowman and Littlefield, 2013 or 2014.

Pincus, Leslie. Authenticating Culture in Imperial Japan: Kuki Shuzo and the Rise of National Aesthetics. 1966.

Saito, Yuriko. Everyday Aesthetics. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Sakamoto, Dean, Karla Britton and Diana Murphy. Hawaiian Modern: The Architecture of Vladimir Ossipoff. 2007.

Shigaraki Ceramic Art, ed. Soaring Voices – Contemporary Japanese Women Ceramic Artists. 2007.

Silverberg, Miriam. Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times. 2006.

Suzuki, Tomi. Narrating the Self: Fictions of Japanese Modernity. 1996.

Tansman, Alan. The Aesthetics of Japanese Fascism. 2010.

Tsunoda, Ryusaku, Wm. Theodore De Bary, and Donald Keene. Sources of Japanese Tradition, 2nd ed., Volumes I, II. 1958, 1964.

Washburn, Dennis C. The Dilemma of the Modern in Japanese Fiction. 1995.

Yano, Christine R. Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty and Her Trek Across the Pacific. 2013.

Yoda, Tomiko. Gender and Literature: Heian Texts in the Constructions of Japanese Modernity. 2004.


PRINT     2013 © Carol Steinberg GouldMara Miller