On Japanese aesthetic code.

Approaching the culture

through its aesthetic code, the images and words.


   As we read Japanese poetry, as we view the ink paintings, as we listen to Japanese classical music, as we take in the impressions of viewing a Japanese garden, as we sense the play of light through paper screens dividing carefully thought out wooden structures of a Kyoto villa, as our sense of wellbeing is soothed with a cup of elegant kukicha tea, we cannot escape the observation that all these expressions emanate from the same profound stylistic source. A thought arises: all those manifestations are homogeneous, complementary and synergetic because they are stemming form the core of their culture's sensitivity.

 But can we, the outsiders, go beyond the superficial understanding of these complex communications and grasp the essence?

   So, we absorb the works of great poets trying to understand. We study great painters, trying to assimilate their language. We witness the craft of performers, musicians and actors who have been practising and perfecting their art for many years, often passing their knowledge from generation to generation within one family or in guilds, and we observe that certain sensitivities cross the lines of practised genre and go beyond the outlined field. It seems that various arts’ stylistic cohesion is a consequence of a grander wave than just a momentary artistic trend. As we let ourselves be overwhelmed by the magnitude of Japanese arts’ heritage, the artwork created by devoted artisans and writers in the space of a whole millennium, we can only assume that if these genres coexisted for such a long time they must have not just complemented, but inspired and reinvigorated one another. In what way did this take place?

   To give an example: we can read about the Japanese literati, who through the centuries cultivated a deep appreciation of calligraphy and ink paintings of Chinese and Japanese styles. What made this art so vocal, besides the refinement of the brushwork, was the dialogue between the purely visual, direct message of the ink painting, not devoid of emotionality and symbolism, and the hidden wording with the lyricism of the greatly minimalised poem placed next to it. The art of haiga, because this is what I am referring to, was practised with great gusto for centuries. The poems and images have been created on the same scroll of paper or sheet of silk by either one artist individually, or as a result of a collaboration. Both the poem and the image were independent creations that could stand on their own, both able to reach heights of artistic expression, but being put together they created a new dimension, a new form.


   The poems' appearance in contexts other than the book form or haiga painting was not at all unusual in Japan. Poems could be seen on the sleeve of a Noh actors’ costume, or engraved on stones and placed in public places, and their often thought-provoking message could be dwelled upon in an unexpected setting. That overwhelming presence  should not surprise us, since practising poetry was a part of a courtier’s education and was expected to be used as a language of everyday communication on many levels of social interaction, reaching its height in the Heian period 8th-12th c.1.1

 The haiku and tanka, so eagerly practised, being richly woven with picturesque images were often an inspiration for a painting but also, in reverse, a drawing would serve as suitable theme for a poem. 1.2


This observation, that there is a strong relationship between different disciplines has made me, a person who encountered Japanese culture mainly through poetry, consider a closer look at the role of the poems’ visual aspect and its connection to visual art. 

Although it seemed reasonable for me to assume that Japanese poetry could be understood to a far greater extent by observing other forms of arts as unavoidable co-creators, how was I to avoid a superficial interpretation of a matter as complex as poetry in a language I do not speak? What did I have to do to make a culture so foreign to me, approachable? Was there, in my understanding of a poem, a dimension beyond the obvious?


This dilemma of an enchanted stranger who wishes to capture and assimilate the New was very well worded by prof. John McVittie (of Meiji University in Tokyo) in his introduction to Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “Japanese Short Stories” published in 1961.


   “(...) every day, writers and publishers, fashion designers, producers, artists, do arrive in Far Eastern cities searching for the exotic, - old themes in new make-up. In coming to the East they too are searching for “inspiration”, for “atmosphere”, without knowing what to expect they are conscious of the cliché that “the East is mysterious”. If they remain long enough to solve the mystery, they discover that what they want is in the very succinctness of Japanese art; they find that art is not in what is spoken, what is written, but rather in what is implied1.3


"What Is Implied" is for myself a crucial point. Not that that is clearly formulated, not what is there presented before our eyes, leaving no doubt for interpretation. But in what is left to the imagination.

So, how to catch that “implication” in music? And shall we ask what could possibly be implied?

 To try answering that I had to find out what that one source that all Japanese classical poetry and painting flow from could be? What could constitute that essence?

Could there be a set of rules that connects these arts? What would it  be? And if so, what can we, the 21st century Westerners relate to? What can I, modern, improvising musician take in?

 The unravelling began...


 Japanese Aesthetic Code

One of my quests was to find, define and try guiding into my music those principles, which infuse all genres. I have identified the following concepts to be a canon of culturally omnipresent elements in a broad scope of Japanese decorative arts and artistic expression at large. I have found them in prose writing, poetry, theatre and film and all it encompasses such as music, acting styles, choreography, scenography, tea ceremony, calligraphy, garden design, but also in furniture and object design etc. It seemed worthwhile to me to look closer at these directives in order to understand what could be the essence of Japanese artistic identity.


Mono no aware- literally: the pathos of things (pathos- Greek for “suffering” but also “experience”, a quality that evokes pity or sadness), also translated as “an empathy toward things”, “a sensitivity of ephemera”, “transient gentle sadness", “awareness of impermanence”


- from a philosophical point of view it is a celebration of impermanence, acceptance of the fact that all that surrounds us is in a constant movement, in a perpetual change. The change being the only constant. Strangely it doesn’t lead to “nihilistic despair" but (following the Buddhist tradition) to great appreciation of the present, although fleeting, moment. Impermanence and beauty, impermanence in beauty.


Wabibeauty in simplicity, understatement, “modesty”, “less is more”- imperfection desired, understatement, subdued quality, and essence over embellishment, moderation but not ascetic, space, emptiness, silence.

Sabi- patina, “tooth of time”, quality of being aged, insightful, associated with the word sabishi- solitary, lonely, not shiny, paled down, aged gracefully, pensive, of natural origin (materials like wood, stone, grass) non- imposing. Worth mentioning: the term Sabi is often, in one breath, called out with Wabi.


Wabi-Sabi- standing for a concept of withdrawal, melancholy, playful at times yet always perfectly imperfect embodiment.


Yugen- profound grace (in Chinese, profound, dark, mysterious).


Iki- refined style, chic, coquette, refine, Sehnsucht. From Iki - bitai (seductiveness)+ ikiji (brave composure) + akirame (resignation) – this last one from Buddhist concept of non- attachment. Expressed in art and fashion, behaviour (conduct).


Kire- cutting, Kire-tsuzuki : cut- continuity,  juxtapositioning (dramatic effect, high impact). 1.4



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