Japan: The Cult of the Aesthetic

I’m not an artsy kind of guy. But in college I studied under a philosophy professor who liked to describe Japanese society as “the cult of the aesthetic”. He actually wrote a book titled, “The Japanese and Suicide” (Stuart Picken). One of the fascinating conclusions in his book, was that traditional Japanese views of death had a deep aesthetic dimension: namely, the notion of dying a “beautiful” death, particularly in the case of ritualized seppuku practiced by Samurai warriors.

Those who saw “The Last Samurai” (before Tom Cruise jumped on Oprah’s sofa and fell out of favor) might remember the scene where Tom Cruise is helping his Samurai buddy kill himself in the middle of the battlefield. As life is draining from the gritty old warrior, the dying man looks up and sees the spring winds blowing  cherry blossoms off the tree, and says, “perfect, perfect”. Then keels over. It was a poignant scene, all about dying a beautiful death. (For more on Japanese attitudes toward death, check out Samurai Justice for AIG Executives?)

Japanese aesthetics are rooted in Shinto’s love of natural beauty. But the infusion of Buddhism and its Chinese-flavored version of Buddhist art brought it to an entirely new level.

I remember taking a course on the history of Japanese art in my 3rd year of college. The professor started by showing us pictures of art in pre-Buddhist Japan, and how it evolved after Buddhism was “officially” adopted in the early 7th century. At first it had a distinctly Chinese flavor: lots of bright (dare I say gaudy?) colors, including the symmetry that the Chinese love so dearly. But in ensuing centuries you see the gradual “Japanization” of Chinese art. By Japan’s Middle Ages they had taken this purely Chinese Buddhist art form and thoroughly made it their own: Shinto’s “natural” sensibilities took over, the gaudy colors were replaced with more subtle earthy colors, and the symmetry replaced with the natural “imperfection” of nature. Classical Japanese art is often described as understated elegance. I love it.

Well, last year I was in Japan on business and took my family along to visit the in-laws. My wife and her family are from Atami, a coastal town on the Pacific ocean famous for hot springs. During the trip I took a video of the shopping district near Atami train station. The clip gives you a glimpse at the Japanese love of beauty in terms of how they package gifts (omiyage), display food in restaurants, even decorate cakes! (See clip and more pictures below.) Hopefully the pictures give you a feel for Japanese aesthetics. Enjoy. 🙂

Copyright Tim Sullivan © 2010

8 responses to “Japan: The Cult of the Aesthetic

  1. Aloha Tim! I wonder if these elements of Japanese “art” can also be used to describe elements of Japanese relationships? When you talked about how Chinese art gradually became more Japanese it brought to mind the differences in relationships desired by the Chinese, Koreans etc. compared to Japanese relationships. The Koreans I have worked with who have been living in Japan for decades gradually become truly Japanese in their relationships…very much appreciated your posts!

  2. Grif,

    IMHO, I think it reflects the historical tradition of the Japanese consciously borrowing culture and knowledge from foreign countries while still keeping their sense of “Japanese-ness”. They do it by Japanizing everything they can get their hands on. I see the introduction of Buddhism, Buddhist art, Confucianism–even the Chinese writing system–as the first historical examples of this “borrow-then-Japanize” process. And the tradition continued, certainly in the Meiji period (thanks to Cmdr. Perry and American gunboat diplomacy), when Japan embarked on the “learn from, catch-up with and surpass the West” initiative. The Japanese imported all this knowledge from the West, flavored it with shoyu, and called it their own. Ditto for manufacturing in post-War Japan (Henry Ford style morphed into “Lean Manufacturing”, etc.) Even today…Japanese took Rock ‘n Roll from us and gave it their own distinct flavor. And the beat goes on…

  3. Oh man I loved the tour, You know when you go somewhere different and the sunlight has that completely different cast on things, wakes this desire to travel in me.
    The tub picture is gorgeous, is that a functioning bath? And the ceramics too, the way they’re displayed reminds me of the way the sweets are displayed. 😉 Beautiful aesthetic indeed!

  4. Aloha Tim san,

    Thank you for the wonderful lecture you gave us HAL employees.
    It was very insightful and my light bulb kept lighting up.
    In order not to stain our “Brand”, we must act “shoshin ni kaette ganbarimasu”. Mahalo again and hope to see you in future flights!

    • Yukiko-san,

      Thank you so much for your kind words, it made my day. 🙂 I really enjoyed doing the session–what a fun group!

      If you ever make it to the Hilo area we sure hope you’ll give us a call. We’d be honored to give you a tour of our little corner of paradise 🙂


  5. Nice modest selection of pictures about all the things I love about Japan.

  6. The Japanese culture is a beautiful model for philosophy of “Yin & Yan”. Yes, I totally agree that the culture draws a huge amount of knowledge from other cultures and re-invent many ideas to fit the Japanese taste. I would say many things here are parallel with Chinese culture or various cultures. I was very suprized ( if not shocked)when I was confronted by this realization. The Japanese culture portrays beauty in many areas but, the perfection in borrowing from other cultures I thought such actions should be a total contradiction since often one can hear Japanese who speaks ill of the Chinese of borrowing ideas from the Japanese culture( vs.versa). A very ironic view which sure reflects Yin & Yan.

    • Cher, thanks for posting. The irony didn’t escape me, especially considering the current state of relations between Japan and China. In the 6th/7th centuries Japan was a primitive culture in the shadow of China, at the time the most advanced civilization on the planet. The Holy Roman empire was (at the same time) in steep decline, while primitive Japan was well below Europe in its development. Exposure to Chinese culture inspired the Japanese to “raise their game”. They did so by borrowing various elements of Chinese culture: Buddhism was viewed as a kind of “magical religion” that would help them get to the next level. Ditto for Confucianism and the Chinese writing system. According to Reischauer the Japanese were indeed so successful at absorbing Chinese “high culture” that just a few centuries later they managed to leapfrog Europe in terms of social, political and cultural development. The irony (as I see it) is rooted in Japan’s aggression in World War II. The Japanese have since moved past the war but the Chinese have long memories: no surprise that bad feelings linger in the Middle Kingdom, a reality that just makes the Japanese more defensive and resentful (those trips to Yasukuni Shrine by Japanese politicians don’t help matters either). And the escalation continues. Methinks Japan and China are in dire need of a group hug, but that’s just wishful thinking…

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