The following document was prepared by Frieda H. Blackwell as a reading assignment for students participating in World Cultures III (BIC 2334) at Baylor University.

[Bracketted material added by James Orr for East Asian Studies Courses at Bucknell University.]

Japanese Aesthetics

This summary of the major principles of Japanese aesthetics has been adapted from:

Keene, Donald. "Japanese Aesthetics." The Pleasures of Japanese Literature. New York: Columbia University, 1988, 3 - 22.

Trying to explain in a few paragraphs the wide range of Japanese aesthetics is impossible. However, some of the most important and enduring aesthetic principles were laid out by the priest Kenko in his work Tsurezuregusa (Essays in Idleness), a collection written mainly between 1330 and 1333. He came from a family of hereditary Shinto priests. Somewhat surprisingly, he became a Buddhist. Although these two religious systems are antithetical in many aspects, both were accepted by the Japanese. It seems that Japanese have turned to Shinto for help in this life and to Buddhism for salvation in the life hereafter.

Kenko, although in the lower ranks of Shinto priests, secured a place in the court because of his skill at poetry writing, an ability highly prized in the Japanese nobility. At age 41 in 1324, Kenko became a Buddhist priest, after the death of the Emperor Go-Uda . He was not typical of Buddhist monks in the medieval period who generally lived in monasteries or as hermits, withdrawn from "the Burning House of this world." Kenko lived in a city and knew as much about worldly gossip as he did Buddhist doctrine. The Buddhist beliefs, such as the impermanence of all things, are reflected in Kenko's essays, but he did not totally condemn worldly possessions. He seemed to be saying that, although this world ultimately is not enough, while we are here we should try to enrich our lives with beauty.

Essays in Idleness consists of 243 sections. They offer no systematically organized presentation nor philosophy. The zuihitsu tradition of "following the brush," of allowing one's writing brush to skip from one topic to another in whichever direction it was led by free association, was the predominant literary style of Kenko's day. Although some sections contradict others, the concern for beauty predominates, and this aspect, rather than its Buddhist message, has influenced Japanese taste profoundly. Essays in Idleness was unfamiliar to Kenko's contemporaries, and did not become widely read until the seventeenth century. Since then it has become a classic. Kenko's tastes simultaneously reflected those of Japanese of much earlier eras, and contributed significantly to the formation of aesthetic preferences of Japanese in the following centuries.

Section 81 of Kenko's Essays in Idleness illustrates his style and concerns:

A screen or sliding door decorated with a painting or inscription in clumsy brushwork gives an impression less of its own ugliness than of the bad taste of the owner. It is all too apt to happen that a man's possessions betray his inferiority. I am not suggesting that a man should own nothing but masterpieces. I refer to the practice of deliberately decorating in a tasteless and ugly manner 'to keep the house from showing its age,' or adding all manner of useless things in order to create an impression of novelty, though only producing an effect of fussiness. Possessions should look old, not overly elaborate, they need not cost much, but their quality should be good.

Donald Keene has chosen four characteristics from Kenko's work, reflective of Japanese taste, that seem particularly important: suggestion, irregularity, simplicity, and perishability. Obviously, one does not have to look far in Japanese culture to find contradictions. Noh drama reflects Japanese love of understatement, muted expression, and symbolic gesture, while Kabuki drama uses larger-than-life poses, fierce declamations, and brilliant stage effects. The Katsura Palace's clean lines typifies Japanese architecture, but the garishly decorated mausoleum of the shoguns at Nikko, built about the same time, has also been highly praised by Japanese critics. Obviously, like all generalizations, these four characteristics are not always applicable, but they do offer a starting point for examining Japanese aesthetics, and their search for beauty.


Kenko's most revealing writing about the principle of suggestion is in Section 137 of Essays in Idleness.

Are we to look at cherry blossoms only in full bloom, the moon only when it is cloudless? To long for the moon while looking on the rain, to lower the blinds and be unaware of the passing of the spring -- these are even more deeply moving. Branches about to blossom or gardens strewn with faded flowers are worthier of our admiration. . . . People commonly regret that the cherry blossoms scatter or that the moon sinks in the sky, and this is natural; but only an exceptionally insensitive man would say "This branch and that branch have lost their blossoms. There is nothing worth seeing now."

In all things, it is the beginnings and ends that are interesting. Does the love between men and women refer only to moments when they are in each other's arms? The man who grieves over a love affair broken off before it was fulfilled, who bewails empty vows, who spends long autumn nights alone, who lets his thoughts wander to distant skies, who yearns for the past in a dilapidated house -- such a man truly knows what love means. The moon that appears close to dawn after we have long waited for it moves us more profoundly that the full moon shining cloudless over a thousand leagues. And how incomparably lovely is the moon, almost greenish in its light, when seen through the tops of the cedars deep in the mountains, or when it hides for a moment behind clustering clouds during a sudden shower! The sparkle on hickory or white-oak leaves seemingly wet with moonlight strikes one to the heart . . . .

And are we to look at the moon and the cherry blossoms with our eyes alone? How much more evocative and pleasing it is to think about the spring without stirring from the house, to dream of the moonlight though we remain in our room!

The Japanese aesthetic of suggestion which focuses on beginnings and ends stands in direct contradiction to Western ideals which focus on the climactic moment. Like all people, Japanese enjoy blossoms in full bloom, but unlike most other cultures, they also enjoy barely opened buds and fallen flower petals. What the Japanese understand is that, however wonderful, the climactic moment leaves nothing for the play of the imagination.

This principle of suggestions appears in collections of Japanese poetry, in which the lover yearns to meet his beloved or realizes that the affair is over, rather than expressing joy over actually culminating the relationship. Japanese painting of Kenko's time carried suggestion to great lengths. A few brush strokes serve to suggest a range of mountains or a single stroke suggests a stalk of bamboo. The Japanese painter generally used black ink and paintings of the period were monochromes, not because the Japanese did not like color or understand its use, but because of their awareness of the power of suggestion. A mountain painted green will always be green, but a mountain suggested by a few strokes of black ink can be any color the viewer's imagination desires.

[See Clifton Olds' Ryoanji website; almost any sumie ink painting from 14th c. Japan, e.g., "Priest Cian-zi catching shrimp", by Kao.]


Kenko explains irregularity, a second notable aesthetic feature in Section 82 of Essays in Idleness.

In everything, no matter that it may be, uniformity is undesirable. Leaving something incomplete makes it interesting, and gives one the feeling that there is room for growth. Someone once told me, 'Even when building the imperial palace, they always leave one place unfinished.' . . . People often say that a set of books looks ugly if all volumes are not in the same format, but I was impressed to hear the Abbot Koyu say, 'It is typical of the unintelligent man to insist on assembling complete sets of everything. Imperfect sets are better.'

Japanese have had a special appreciation not only for incompleteness, but for another type of irregularity, asymmetry. The Japanese's most prized historical structures seem to cluster to one side. Japanese poetry has irregular numbers of lines per verse -- three for haiku and five for tanka. The rest of the world seems to prefer four line stanzas. When Japanese children are taught to write characters, they are instructed to cross a horizontal line with a vertical one somewhere other than in the middle. The writing most admired by the Japanese tends to be lopsided or somehow askew. Japanese ceramics also feature irregularity. Bizen or Shigaraki wares, so valued by collectors, are almost never regular in shape. Some are lopsided or bumpy, and the glaze may have been applied so that there are bald patches. Roughness caused by tiny stones in the clay is greatly admired. The Japanese are quite capable of making flawless porcelains, but they are not as loved as those with irregularities.

Japanese love of irregularity is nowhere more evident than in flower arrangements or a garden. A Japanese of the past would not have found relaxing the geometrical precision of the famous gardens at Versailles. A Japanese garden insists on irregularity, a prime example being the sand and stone garden of the Ryoan-ji. It is the product of a philosophical system, Zen Buddhism, as serious as that which inspired the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. As Keene expresses it, "the Sistine Chapel is magnificent, but it asks our admiration rather than our participation; the 15 stones of the Ryoan-ji, irregular in shape and position, allow us to participate in the creation of the garden. . ."

[See tea ceremony ceramics, e.g. this water jar from 17th c., or other irregularly glazed Japanese ceramics. Or Sesshu's ""Landscapes of Autumn and Winter," 15th c. Following the Metropolitan Museum of Art (NYC) web analysis, compare Kano folding screen, "The Old Plum," ca. 1645, attributed to Kano Sansetsu; and Degas "Dancers in the Rehearsal Room with Double Bass," ca. 1882-85.]


Kenko spoke most extensively about the third characteristic of Japanese aesthetics, simplicity. Section 10 of Essays in Idleness contains some of his views of simplicity.

A house, I know, is but a temporary abode, but how delightful it is to find one that has harmonious proportions and a pleasant atmosphere. One feels somehow that even moonlight, when it shines into the quiet domicile of a person of taste, is more affecting than elsewhere. A house, though it may not be in the current fashion or elaborately decorated, will appeal to us by its unassuming beauty -- a grove of trees with an indefinably ancient look; a garden where plants, growing of their own accord, have a special charm; a verandah and an open-work wooden fence of interesting construction; and a few personal effects left lying about, giving the place an air of having been lived in. A house which multitudes of workmen have polished with every care, where strange and rare Chinese and Japanese furnishings are displayed, and even the bushes and trees of the garden have been trained unnaturally, is ugly to look at and most depressing. How could anyone live for long in such a place?

We as Westerners flock to the homes of the great, rulers and rich people, whose dwellings are characterized by just those things which Kenko finds so unappealing -- polished and highly carved wood, carefully groomed gardens, and every sort of luxury decorations. Kenko further explains in Section 18:

It is excellent for a man to be simple in his tastes, to avoid extravagance to own no possessions, to entertain no craving for worldly success. It has been true since ancient days that wise men are rarely rich.

Perhaps, this disdain of possessions stems from Buddhist teachings. However, one must live somewhere, and that usually implies a house of some sort. In Section 55, Kenko describes his ideal house.

A house should be built with the summer in mind. In winter it is possible to live anywhere, but a badly made house is unbearable when it gets hot. . . People agree that a house which has plenty of spare room is attractive to look at and may be put to many uses.

The kind of simplicity in a house which Kenko valued is certainly not inexpensive. The unpainted wood of the tokonoma required the builder to use the highest quality since there was no paint or gilding under which imperfections could be hidden.

The famous Japanese tea ceremony is perhaps the most extreme example of the Japanese love of simplicity, or unobtrusive elegance. The ideal sought by the great teamaster Sen no Rikyu (1422-1491 was sabi, related to the word sabi, for "rust," or sabireru, "to become desolate." The sabi so esteemed by Rikyu was not the enforced simplicity of the man who could not afford better, but a refusal of easily obtainable, luxury, a preference for the rusty-looking kettle to one of gleaming newness. Even today Japanese are quite willing to spend a great deal of money on utensils for the tea ceremony, such as earthenware cups, which, to Western eyes, look quite ordinary.

Japanese food offers another example of their aesthetic of simplicity in its variety and lack of spices which give other cuisines their intense flavor. Just as the faint perfume of the plum blossom is more appreciated than the strong scent of the lily, so are the slightest differences in flavor among varieties of raw fish, as prices reflect.


The last of the four qualities of Japanese aesthetics, perishability, is probably the most alien to Western sensibilities, where permanence is so valued. In the Western world, men have built huge stone monuments, such as the Great Pyramids, precisely so that their memory will not perish with their earthly existence. A Westerner traveling in Japan in the late 1800's, Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), reflected on these aesthetic differences between Japan and the West in his work entitled Kokoru (1896):

Generally speaking, we construct for endurance, the Japanese for impermanency. Few things for common use are made in japan with a view to durability. The straw sandals worn out and replaced at each stage of a journey: the robe consisting of a few simple widths loosely stitched together for wearing, and unstitched again for washing; the fresh chopsticks served to each new guest at a hotel; the light shoji frames serving at once for windows and walls, and repapered twice a year; the mattings renewed every autumn, -- all these are but random examples of countless small things in daily life that illustrate the national contentment with impermanency.

Kenko addresses the aesthetic of perishability in Section 82 of Essays in Idleness.

Somebody once remarked that thin silk was not satisfactory as a scroll wrapping because it was so easily torn. Ton'a replied, "it is only after the silk wrapper has frayed at top and bottom, and the mother-of-pearl has fallen from the roller that a scroll looks beautiful" This opinion demonstrated the excellent taste of the man.

Signs of age and wearing would send Westerners off to the refinishers. In Japan such signs would be most valued since they show that a work has passed through many hands, a long chain of human hands. These flaws and age spots give the work a more human quality, a certain character, and thus make it more aesthetically appealing to the Japanese.

Kenko especially believed that impermanence was a necessary element in beauty, writing,

If man were never to fade away like the dews of Adashino, never to vanish like the smoke over Toribeyama, but lingered on forever in this world, how things would lose their power to move us! The Most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.

The fragility of human existence has been a constant theme in world literature, but has not generally been recognized as a necessary component of beauty as the Japanese have done. The Japanese's special fondness for cherry blossoms is undoubtedly connected with their aesthetic of perishability. Some fruit blooms remain on the tree for a week and others up to a month. Cherry blossoms remain on the trees for the briefest time-- only three days, a fact lamented by numerous Japanese poets. Also, ornamental cherry trees produce no edible fruit and attract caterpillars and so many annoying insects that one should carry an umbrella when walking beneath them in late summer. Yet the Japanese avidly plant cherry trees wherever possible for their three fleeting days of beauty.

In modern Japan one finds the usual assortment of neon signs, traffic jams and screaming stereo systems. Yet, the past survives in aesthetic preferences that may appear in surprising ways -- a box of sushi, a display of lacquered zori sandals, branches of artificial maple leaves along a commercial street. As Keen affirms, the Japanese aesthetic past is not dead. It accounts for the magnificent profusion of objects of art that are produced each year, and its principles, -- suggestion, irregularity, simplicity, and perishability-- are not forgotten, even in our modern world of incessant change.

[See the following water jar example of Shigaraki ware, 16th c., or this Mino ware tea bowl from the 16-17th c.]

Summary prepared by Frieda H. Blackwell

Return to the World Cultures III Syllabus.