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