March 16, 2007
Japanese aesthetic ideals are very different from ours but they’ve being influencing the rest of the world since a long time ago. For example, traditional ukiyo-e woodblock prints inspired many european impressionists and expressionists. Even Frank Lloyd Wright was a ukiyo-e’s fan. But not only Ukiyo-e is fascinating occident; geishas, Japanese gardens, literature, poetry (haikus), manganime, bonsais adn so on. What do all this things in common? Why are they liked by many people all around the world?
Did you noticed that when you read japanese literature, when you are walking around a Japanese garden, when you read some haikus or even when you eat good sushi you feel something similar? Too abstract, let’s say that that they are different ways to reach a similar mind state. Is the same as when you watch 10 movies from the same director, even if they are very different they will make feel something similar.
Japanese aesthetic uniformity can be explained understanding two important terms: Wabi-sabi and Iki.
Iki was born during the Edo period (1603 to 1867) inside the samurai code; it was used to address those who where honorable and valuable. The word started to be used by common people and got the meaning of elegant but without being arrogant or exuberant, Japanese like sobriety. We could say that someone or something is Iki if its original, calmed, exquisite and sophisticated but without being perfect or complicated. We could translate as “chic”.
For example, Audi A8 is Iki but a an off-road car is not iki. Talking about people, a posh is not Iki even if he is elegant, on the other hand a well educated person with carrier that is outstanding not because he has a family with money but because his/here environment stands out him as someone worth.
In the Japanese world Geishas are Iki. They are beautiful, sophisticated but the don’t have the intention to stand out. Japanese architecture is Iki, houses with tatamis are Iki, Haruki Murakami’s novels are Iki, eating sushi is Iki, ukiyo-e is Iki… If we get in contact with any of those we will arrive to a similar mental state.
Iki is a word that is also used nowadays, mainly to describe people. If a japanese tells you that you are Iki, that’s really good, but be careful because the antonym is Yabo/Busui (vulgar, rude, simple).
This is Iki
If you want to learn more about Iki: An Aesthetic of everyday life is the best essay I found on the Internet.
Wabi-sabi represents the imperfect, the impermanent, the incomplete(From Wikipedia). Wabi-sabi derives from the concept of impermanence and constant flux from Zen Buddhism. Wabi-sabi is also about simplicity, and sobriety like Iki; two values that are very in Japanese culture and can be found everywhere.
For example, a cup of tea that has some cracks is Wabi-sabi, an old sculpture is Wabi-sabi, a ruined castle is Wabi-sabi, an asymmetric glass is Wabi-sabi and so on. In the Japanese world, the Shakuhachi music is Wabi-sabi, ikebana flower arrangement with its asymmetric layouts is Wabi-sabi, the japanese zen gardens with eroded rocks and furrows representing the continuous flux of matters is Wabi-sabi, bonsai art is Wabi-sabi, Haiku poems are Wabi-sabi and also tea ceremony. All these are examples of “imperfect” arts that produce a similar mental state of melancholy and connection with your immediate environment.
A Wabi-sabi garden.
If you are further interested, Wabi and Sabi: the aesthetics of solitude is the best essay I found on the net. There is also one book: Wabi Sabi for artists designers and philosophers. that is pretty good. More links: Wabi Sabi and Web2.0 and Wabi-sabi / Iki related to occident.
Iki and Wabi-sabi have many things in common, both are fundamentals of the nowadays Japaneses aesthetic values and also the way Japanese behave. Finishing, let me ask you something personal, Don’t you have the sensation that when you are experiencing Iki or Wabi-sabi they are trying to communicate us wisdom through silence? When you read a tale, or you watch a Japanese movie usually at the end you ask yourself where the message(the moral of the story) of the film/book was, they don’t tell you straightforward, but the message when directly to your mind. Examples are any manga from Jiro Taniguchi, any book from Murakami or filrms from Kurosawa Akira…
“Be Wabi-sabi, be Iki my friend…”