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.

Richie covers a lot of details—factual, etymological, cultural, historical, and philosophical—though this is an eighty-page treatise, not a textbook or systematic study, so it may appear structurally haphazard. However, in such a vast subject as the aesthetics of another culture, following a strict learning curve can be discouraging for a newcomer. Following the Tractate’s informal structure of zuihitsu—casually recorded thoughts rather than strictly planned layouts—allowed me to get a feeling for the ideas, without having to master volumes of terminology and history. (Though, do not be mistaken: casual does not mean disorganised. More on that below.)

Choice anecdotes help concretise the more abstract spirit of foreign, bygone eras:

Simplicity—this was something that Rikyu tried to teach his pupil, Hideyoshi, at whose “court” he was arbiter. One famous anecdote illustrates his method.

Rikyu’s garden of morning glories was known for its beauty. Hearing of it Hideyoshi demanded that he be invited to visit. So he was, but when he arrived all the morning glories were no more; they had all been scythed. Perturbed, Hideyoshi retired to the nearby tea house, and there the modest flower arrangement in the alcove was a single morning glory, the only survivor, superb in its focused simplicity. The warlord is supposed to have stared, then nodded, and said that he understood the lesson.
Sudden Shower over Shin-Ohashi Bridge at Atake by Hiroshige (1856)


The Glossary at the end of the text succinctly defines the terms mentioned throughout. Only a number of those terms were discussed in more detail and I list them here, excerpted from the Glossary and in the order they’re encountered in the book. Such lists, when available, can offer insight that is harder to gain from more poetic, discursive reviews: for example, if you’ve heard of wabi-sabi, you might care whether it’s discussed, but you might also latch onto some other “interesting-looking” terms in the list, like shin-gyo-so. 

furyu: refined manners as reflected in things regarded as tasteful or elegant.

shibui: astringent, dry, subdued.

jimi: good taste in an understated, plain style.

hade: loud and showy, but not necessarily garish.

sabi: a slightly bleak quality suggesting age, deterioration, and the passage of time.

hie: chill beauty, somewhat like sabi.

wabi: a cultivated aesthetic that finds beauty in simplicity and an impoverished rusticity.

aware: the aspects of nature (or life, or art) that move a susceptible individual to an awareness of the ephemeral beauty of a world in which change is the only constant.

yugen: rich and mysterious beauty, now largely associated with Nō drama.

shin-gyo-so: a tripartite pattern of formal, mixed, and informal styles. 

ten-chi-jin: a tripartate pattern of “heaven,” “earth,” and “human” as an embodiement of different styles, especially in flower arrangeming. 

jo-ha-kyu: a tripartite pattern of introduction, development, finale.

iki: an urbane, chic, bourgeois type of beauty with undertones of sensuality (as defined by Ueda Makoto).

A slight worry is that cross-cultural initiation, more so than other introductory books, could come across to the reader either as clinical because the author is sterilising the transaction for fear of committing a faux pas, or as weak and personalised because the author seems to doubt their own authority on the subject. Donald Richie steers clear of both extremes: the exposition is warm, and the level of hedging felt appropriate for a subject as slippery as his.

If I may tentatively attempt to use the terms I’ve learned in a fashion that Richie suggests (applying them beyond art and to Western concepts too), I would say that the Tractate has a so-no-shin writing style (informal-formal) and a shin-no-so structure (formal-informal).

Though the words in the Glossary and my application of them in the previous sentence may give the appearance of simplicity, any simplicity—to use the word deliberately for its underlying importance in Japanese aesthetics—is deceptive. The anecdotes, quotes, and knowledge that Richie has beautifully woven into the narrative of the Tractate hint at depths only a further study of the subject could reveal. Depths that—thanks to this text—I am ever keener to see revealed.
Katsuwonus pelamis by Hiroshige

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

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