Archive | May, 2011

Japan — An Ascetic Aesthetic

27 May

“Everyone has a body.  It is the spiritual you keep secret, the things of the mind.”

 — Makiko Minagawa, Textile Designer

There is an elegance, a sense of nobility attributed to Japanese culture that I have always found fascinating.  Japan is a unique synthesis of the old and the new – a country that, while at the forefront of technology continues a reverence for ancient tradition that pervades every aspect of society.

My first introduction to Japan was in the early 1980s, when Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garcons, along with Issey Miyake, shocked the fashion cognoscenti with their first Paris runway presentations.  Kawakubo’s

Comme des Garcons

shredded edges and Yamamoto’s somber layers were initially dismissed as ‘bag lady chic’ by critics and editors alike.  But they gained a rapid and loyal following with artists, architects and those working in creative fields, and were soon heralded as visionaries presenting a truly new approach to design.

The world’s fascination with these designers lay in their unique approach to clothing – in an era that heralded conspicuous consumption and blatant displays of wealth, these three individuals were presenting garments that were the antithesis of ostentatious European high fashion.  Soft, ragged layers, inky hues, intentional holes and exposed seams – these were not the clothes of a Wall Street kingpin or the ‘ladies who lunched’.  These were garments for intellectuals and poets, artists and scholars.  These were garments that challenged the wearer to think – a concept heretofore unheard of in the presentation of fashion.

Yohji Yamamoto

It was this shocking yet understated approach – lacking in overt sexuality and brazen showiness – that came to be the quintessence of Japanese fashion.  Yet at the time, Japan and its people were still shrouded in mystery.   As the 1980s continued these designers and their unique vision began to infuse all aspects of design.  The world turned its attention to what had been, since the end of World War II, an insular (and consequently fascinating) society – for many Japan had become the ‘undiscovered country’ where all things newly creative sprang.  Only then were the unexpected parallels between Japan’s most cutting-edge creators and the millennia-old artistic ideals of Japanese culture revealed.

Issey Miyake

There is a notion of modesty and subtlety, a respect for ceremony and procedure, an approach to duty and honor – that is unique to Japan.  To the western eye these values are construed as anything from hopelessly anachronistic to downright obsessive – yet they contribute to a reverence for aesthetics that is utterly unique and exquisitely complex.

This distinctive approach to all that appeals to the senses has, over centuries, imbued the Japanese with a veritable omnibus of terms that define everything from the simplest idea of placement (shibui: austerity of taste – not concealing the true nature of an object – a vase is a vase, a toaster is a toaster…) to the most esoteric concepts of shaping space (aji: where the incongruity of the object speaks of the congruity of the whole – the idea of sleeves filled with nothing, of space filled only with color…)

Entire volumes have been written about these concepts, with books devoted quite literally to one basic notion.  It is impossible to dissect and document the whole of Japanese visual culture, but there are two concepts in particular that everyone can understand, appreciate and apply on some level to aspects of their own surroundings:


This is an amalgam of two separate but similar concepts – wabi and sabiWabi speaks of truth to materials – respecting wood for being wood, allowing stone to be stone.  Wabi sabi takes that same concept a step further.  It is a deep respect for the effects of nature on these natural materials – rust as opposed to polish, patina instead of perfection – the raw edge, the weathered plank, the water-worn stone.  Conceptually, it is the acceptance of the effects of age and time nobly demonstrating the impermanence of all things physical.

Think of the coloring of an old copper roof or the weathering of the wood shingles on a seaside home – these are not things that can be made at will, they must instead simply happen with time.  Hence our love of antiques – objects that have not only a visual sense of age but a ‘history’ behind them that lends an aura of comfort and intrigue.

WABI SABI in a grouping of asymmetric ceramics

Wabi sabi also celebrates the subtle imperfections of those objects created by the human hand – the uneven glazing or intentional asymmetry so prevalent in Japanese pottery and ceramic work – a calculated reminder of time and nature.


This is a unique abstraction that roughly translates as “understanding the appeal of objects to the human heart.”

The Japanese lifestyle, particularly in highly populated urban areas, does not allow for a tremendous amount of living space.  So, one must learn to live with less – the inherent love of simplicity, lack of clutter and appreciation of the simplest object that is the hallmark of most Japanese homes honestly has as much to do with simple lack of space as it does to minimalist Zen traditions.

Consequently the things that one does choose to surround oneself with are chosen because they provoke thought, express an individual aesthetic and appeal to the soul – objects and items that have both function and meaning for the owner.

MONO NO AWARE — using those objects that speak to the soul

When one can understand what motivates Japanese culture it’s less difficult to understand how a country that can turn out the finest high-performance computers can concurrently embrace the ancient subtleties of the tea ceremony – how a people whose attention to detail can produce the tiniest of complex microprocessors with the same finesse as it does the simplest stick of fine incense.

Perhaps Japan can be regarded most succinctly by Frank Lloyd Wright – an architect whose work was greatly inspired by this culture of disciplined creativity and graceful restraint.  When asked what he felt was the key to perfect design, he simply replied “It is the elimination of the insignificant.”

Thanks for reading, all.  Be well…

Christopher Forte