Developing a natural aesthetic

by David Burleigh

JAPAN AND THE CULTURE OF THE FOUR SEASONS: Nature, Literature and the Arts, by Haruo Shirane. Columbia University Press, 2012. 311 pp., $29.50 (hardcover)

The starting point for this illuminating study lay in the author’s curiosity about the formation of the saijiki, or seasonal almanacs, that have been in use in Japan since the early 19th century, and are still employed by haiku and other poets for reference. What is unique about them is that the seasonal references are all meticulously codified, with explanations. Any haiku poet writing today will possess a copy, if not several different ones.

I have two editions myself, one a pocket version, the other a large unwieldy volume, with tiny print but profusely illustrated, that I dislodge from the shelf with some effort. Descriptive of a poetic sensibility, such works nonetheless embody and express an entire consciousness of the natural environment, its changing imagery. It can be found everywhere, even in modern urban life, but above all in literature and the other arts, including cakes and architecture, and the patterns on cloth.

This conception has a long history and two original sites: the artful garden attached to a rich man’s dwelling or a palace, and the fields and farmland of the country village. A high point in its development was reached in the aristocratic culture of the old capital, Kyoto, but it was then transformed in the Edo period, by way of haikai, or short-verse composition, in what became the new capital of Tokyo. From the earliest times two seasons, spring and autumn, were prominent.

The reasons for the focus on spring and autumn, Shirane suggests, derived partly from their importance in the farming cycle, and partly from the influence of China. By the eighth century, “a larger grammar of seasonal poetry” began to emerge, according to which emotions were not expressed directly, but implied through seasonal references instead. This required a sophisticated understanding of their usage and became what we think of now as Japan’s traditional poetic art.

It developed slowly over centuries, shaped first in the early poetry anthologies, in which seasonal topics began to displace more miscellaneous ones, like love. The cycle of the seasons represented there “is not a reflection of the natural environment,” the book explains, but part of a developing aesthetic. Thus, certain flowers, like plum and cherry blossom in the spring, were given prominence, while others were more or less ignored. Sometimes they were paired with birds.

A major shift in this whole sensibility occurred quite early on, when spring was gradually reduced in significance as compared to autumn. The sense of loss, change, pathos, mutability that we now recognize as key to Japanese aesthetics comes primarily from this. At the same time, natural images became invested with human feelings, such as longing. This was essentially “a cultural construction” since birds or animals associated with one season might be present all year round.

This seasonal consciousness also affected dress: aristocratic women wore different layered colors according to the season and the hues were often named after plants. The effect is still visible in the seasonal variation of flowers used for textile design. Waka, the short poems that encapsulated this, affected painting subjects, too. Changes of emphasis did not interfere with the fundamental continuity, so that virtually the same categories and associations informed later poetic forms, such as renga, or linked verse, from which haiku then emerged.

The misty distant landscapes of Chinese painting contributed to this, in allowing a space for imagination. In a country once riven by civil war, the practice of poetry, like the later tea ceremony, offered a kind of “respite.” But what is most remarkable perhaps is the tenacity of the tradition, the fact that “with some variation, the same fundamental categories continue to appear over a 1,400-year span.” This broad cultural conception is still very much around today.

Early in his discussion Shirane makes an important distinction between “primary” and “secondary” nature, the latter referring not to the forests, rivers and mountains given so much attention in the writings of conservationists, but to the representation of nature in the arts. And it is not until he begins to discuss architecture, and the decorative use of secondary nature indoors, including in flower arrangement, that the word “harmony” appears. It is an idea much mooted in design, where its effect can be easily observed.

It is the different conceptions of harmony, often exquisite, that govern the most highly developed arts of Japan, many now justly famous throughout the world. The beautiful images that enhance costumes and ceramics for everyday use, and the woodblock prints depicting a common and less elevated world, derive from this. The elegance of its origins yielded to other influences, in the playful and parodic culture of the eastern capital, absorbing even new botanical and medical awareness.

It is not all one thing. Sometimes nature had to be propitiated as a hostile force, especially by farmers, while there were also elements of anthropomorphism and animism in the use and understanding of it. And Shirane observes that “the pervasiveness of secondary nature in Japanese culture,” remarkable as it is, is not to be “mistaken for a closeness to or a belief in Japanese harmony with primary nature.”

The book offers a comprehensive view of the subject, replete with fascinating detail, and full scholarly apparatus. The closing remarks help to explain why this long tradition does not necessarily translate into ecological concern, even if one feels it should.