Discovering Japanese Aesthetics

A review of Donald Richie’s “Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics ‘

Moon, Swallows and Peach Blossoms by Hiroshige (1850)

It is still believed [in Japan] that, although the elements found common to beauty are perhaps universal, it is their reception (the universal standard) that creates the excellence of the art.

Donald Richie, Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics (2007)

The relativity of any “universal standard” is best exposed at the cultural boundaries, so it is prudent to investigate as many such boundaries as possible, in good light and good faith.

Finding an appropriate guide can be tricky.

Indeed, when seeking introduction to unfamiliar topics, I am wary of two types of books: the highly technical, impenetrable beasts dense with signs and shortcuts aimed at experts in a neighbouring field, and the colloquial, jokey-breezy anecdotal stories filled with mental candyfloss aimed as those desiring educational fairgrounds. Once in a while, I find myself in either readership, but usually the fairest, quickest route lies through the middle ground, and even then I require a particularly fortuitous path that caters to my strengths.

An introduction to Japanese aesthetics has been long in the planning, and only recently did I find an apt foothold.

Donald Richie’s Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics (2007) is a brief but serious text, and one which can be read quickly, read for pleasure and insight, and at a later stage, read with a view towards references and synthesis.

Take the following quote:

If aesthetics in the West is mainly concerned with theories of art, that of Japan has always been concerned with theories of taste. What is beautiful depends not upon imagination (as Addison thought) nor qualities proper in the object (as Hume said) nor in its paradoxes (as Kant maintained) but rather on a social consensus.

You may be unfamiliar with the philosophies of Addison, Hume, and Kant, yet the gist of what Richie is saying remains intact. On the other hand, familiarity with the names only enhances the experience. Continue reading “Discovering Japanese Aesthetics”