‘Beauty’ as beheld in Japan through the ages

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

In July 2006, Shinzo Abe published a book titled “Utsukushii Kuni e” (“Toward a Beautiful Country”). At that time he was Chief Cabinet Secretary under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. In September 2006 he was elected president of the governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). A week later he became prime minister. He resigned within a year, having failed to pull his country or his party out of the doldrums. His career seemed over. His triumphant return to the prime ministership last December, and the stellar approval ratings he has enjoyed since, are warnings against hasty conclusions. Maybe they warn us that all conclusions are hasty.

What does he mean by “beautiful country”? His book, defying expectations the title raises, gives no clear answer. The title phrase scarcely occurs in the text. Lately he speaks more often of a “strong” rather than a “beautiful” Japan. Perhaps, in his mind, strength and beauty are one.

“Toward a Beautiful Country” is above all a celebration of the conservative and patriotic ideals Abe has long championed.

In one revealing episode, the official Prime Minister’s Residence is surrounded by some 300,000 angry demonstrators. The year is 1960. Abe’s maternal grandfather, Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, is under attack for having renewed the unpopular Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. In the besieged residence, Kishi and Abe’s great-uncle, Finance Minister (and future Prime Minister) Eisaku Sato, are sipping wine, and Kishi says, “I am not wrong. If I am killed, that is my dearest wish.”

Abe, looking on, was 6. The scene made a deep impression on him. Imagine a 6-year-old child suddenly confronting his beloved grandfather’s readiness to die. Perhaps the two men had forgotten the boy was in the room. How aware would he have been, at that stage in his life, of old, supposedly discredited samurai ideals, whose classic summation, contained in the 1882 Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors, is: “Duty is heavier than a mountain, death is lighter than a feather”?

We don’t know, but in 2012, fighting to rebuild his shattered career as Japan struggled to overcome its worst postwar disaster, Abe proudly invoked the same samurai spirit of willingness to die. He had seen it, he said, in the individual heroes who sacrificed their lives to help other victims of the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake and the dreadful tsunami and nuclear meltdowns that followed.

He saw it too, remarkably, in Japan’s most famous modern suicide, the author Yukio Mishima.

In an interview posted in May 2012 on the Asahi Plus website, Abe cited, with evident admiration, an essay Mishima wrote four months before his seppuku (ritual samurai disembowelment) at a Tokyo army base in November 1970. “Japan,” Mishima wrote, “is no more. In its place is a spiritless, empty, neutral, rich, calculating, economic superpower.”

It is odd to hear Abe apparently sharing Mishima’s distaste for this new (or non-) Japan, given his emphasis as candidate and prime minister on economic recovery. Can a rich Japan be a beautiful Japan? Few Japanese have ever thought so. The traditional equation was of beauty with poverty.

How far back should we take our story of Japanese beauty? We could, theoretically, take it very far back indeed — some 12,000 years, to the start of the prehistoric Jomon Period (circa 10,500-c.300 B.C.) and the emergence of the figurines known as dogū. These rank among the world’s oldest ceramic sculptures. They are starkly, shockingly beautiful; starkly, shockingly ugly too, as the nakedly primitive cannot help seeming to the civilized eye. Most of the figures depict pregnant women. Experts say they were probably fertility symbols — embodied prayers (to who knows what supernatural powers) for enhanced fertility.

Were they meant to be beautiful? Did the notion of beauty even exist then? A glimmer of it, perhaps? There is simply no knowing.

When Japanese civilization eventually awoke, it was to a sense of its own beauty. That’s unusual. Most early literature celebrates power rather than beauty.

But Japan was a “beautiful country” from infancy, a kind of Garden of Eden from which there was no Fall. Shy god meets shy goddess; they mate, and the goddess gives birth to “the Great-eight-island Land” — Japan.

Then, says the eighth-century chronicle “Nihon Shoki,” “Izanagi no Mikoto (the god) said: ‘Over the country which we have produced there is naught but morning mists that shed a perfume everywhere!’ So he puffed them away with a breath, which became changed into a god named Shina tohe no Mikoto” — the wind god.

“Moreover, the child they procreated when they were hungry was called Uka no mi-tama no Mikoto” — the food god. “Thereafter they produced all manner of things whatsoever” — a vast profusion of gods and goddesses, until Izanami, the mother-goddess, was horribly burned giving birth to the fire-god. But life was triumphant even in death, for Izanami’s putrefaction and Izanagi’s tears themselves became gods and goddesses, the “Nihon Shoki” recounts.

To the earliest Japanese whose minds are at all penetrable today — perhaps also to the Jomon people; certainly to their descendants, the Ainu of Hokkaido — the land was sacred. Rivers, trees, mountains, soil were worshiped before gods were.

“Our poetry appeared at the dawn of creation,” says the preface to the “Kokinshu,” a 10th-century poetry anthology. It was a poetry of beauty. “Poets praised blossoms, admired birds, felt emotion at the sight of haze, and grieved over dew.” Note the past tense; the writer (Ki no Tsurayuki, a poet himself) is praising poetry that already in his day was one, two or three centuries old — dating back almost to the very birth of Japanese literacy.

“The song of the warbler among the blossoms, the voice of the frog dwelling in the water — these teach us that every living creature sings. It is a song that moves heaven and earth,” said Ki no Tsurayuki. Birdsong is sound. Human song is poetry.

“Japan has become arguably the world’s ugliest country.”

That verdict is writer and conservationist Alex Kerr’s, in a noted book titled “Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan” (2001).

Kerr was born too late.

“These islands were once lovely in a way we can scarcely imagine,” writes historian Hiroshi Watanabe in his 2010 book “A History of Japanese Political Thought, 1600-1901.” The few Western visitors who saw it before pell-mell modernization began in the late 19th century, he says, “spoke almost universally of feeling that they had been transported to a dreamlike and enchanted land, like something in a fairy tale. … Edo (renamed Tokyo in 1868) was already one of the world’s most populous cities. Yet in it there was neither a single horse-drawn carriage nor a single steam engine to be seen. It must have been remarkably quiet, even in daytime. … There were no gas lamps or electric lights. On clear nights the sky above Edo was ablaze with the Milky Way; on nights when moon and stars were obscured, the streets were plunged in darkness. As a rule, people got about on foot.”

Kerr, some 150 years later, indicts and convicts the “state-sponsored vandalism” of the postwar “construction state” — a nation 40 percent of whose budget funds public works projects, as against 8-10 percent in the United States, 4-6 percent in Britain and France.

He highlights the resulting ravages: “Across the nation, men and women are at work reshaping the landscape. … Builders of small mountain roads dynamite entire hillsides. Civil engineers channel rivers into U-shaped concrete casings. … The River Bureau has dammed or diverted all but three of Japan’s 113 major rivers. … The seaside reveals the greatest tragedy: By 1993, 55 percent of the entire coast of Japan had been lined with cement slabs and giant concrete tetrapods.”

And all this, Kerr laments, in a land whose native Shinto spirituality “holds that Japan’s mountains, rivers and trees are sacred, the dwelling place of gods.”

The Liberal Democratic Party, father and custodian of the “construction state” through 54 years of nearly unbroken rule beginning in 1955, fell to a wave of popular disgust in 2009. The incoming Democratic Party of Japan promised “people before concrete.” The “construction state” seemed doomed. But the novice government fumbled, surviving a mere three years. The resurgent LDP under Abe now touts an old policy dressed up in a new name: “Abenomics.” An early manifestation was a ¥20.2 trillion emergency economic stimulus package. Concrete is back. Is concrete beautiful? Two decades of economic stagnation can make it seem so, if Abe’s approval ratings — consistently between 60 and 70 percent — mean anything.

In the beginning, the Japanese worshiped nature. Most infant cultures do. To them everything is alive, everything partakes of birth and death; anything may call forth awe, fear, reverence. The Japanese were rich in awe and reverence but not in fear. They tamed nature in their thoughts long before they tamed it physically. They tamed it in their poetry.

The early Japanese domesticated nature as other, more rugged early cultures domesticated wild horses and cattle. Poetry was Japan’s bridle and yoke.

Japan’s first poetry anthology is the eighth-century “Manyoshu.” Its more than 4,000 poems were written over 300 years beginning in the fourth century.

Has any other embryonic culture ever been so quick to shake off the primal terrors? None surface in the “Manyoshu.” The nature portrayed is innocent, unthreatening, defanged. It is quietly, serenely beautiful:

“Many are the mountains of Yamato [Japan],/ but I climb heavenly Kagu Hill/ that is cloaked in foliage.” “I remember/ our temporary shelter by Uji’s palace ground, when we cut the splendid grass on the autumn fields.” ” ‘Kuan kuan’ cry the osprey on a sandbar in the river.” “A splendid land/ is the dragonfly island/ the land of Yamato.”

Naturally, there is sadness, too:

“… my girl,/ who had swayed to me in sleep/ like seaweed of the offing,/ was gone/ like the coursing sun/ gliding into dusk,/ like the radiant moon/ secluding itself behind the clouds …”

But the sorrow of bereavement fades into the tranquil and consoling motions of the natural world.

Nature as depicted by the “Manyoshu” poets “was not lofty mountains, not desolate plains, not great oceans and not forests filled with wild beasts,” observed the literary historian Shuichi Kato (in “A History of Japanese Literature,” 1979), “but gentler places such as Kagu Hill, … fields, bays where boats passed to and fro between islands, and shallows where cranes made their cries. … Nature to them was not something vast and wild, but something small, gentle and intimate.”

Is that true without exception? How could it be, with cone-shaped, snow-clad Mount Fuji towering over the land?

“Even the clouds of heaven, struck with awe,/ Dare not pass over that steep peak/ …It is a god that watches over Japan — / Over Yamato, the Land of the Sunrise …”

Much later there was a “back-to-Manyoshu” movement, led by 18th-century nativists who deplored the corruption they attributed to foreign thought.

One of them, Kamo no Mabuchi (1697-1769), in an essay titled “Thoughts on Poetry” (1764), wrote, “In ancient times people’s hearts were direct and straightforward. … But then the ideas and words of babbling China and India were introduced into our country.”

Under what he perceived as the baneful influence of Confucianism and Buddhism, “things became complex, so the hearts of those here who used to be straightforward were blown by a wind from the shadows and turned wicked.”

The remedy? We must, says Kamo, “each morning face the sacred mirror of old,” to see reflected there a world “without human artifice,” ruled by “gods who, with the ancient and tranquil great Way of this peaceful country, governed in accordance with heaven and earth and without regulation, fabrication, force, or instruction. The poetry of the ancients makes this clear, and our own poetry should be the same.”

Suggestion, irregularity, simplicity, perishability: These are the characteristics of Japanese beauty identified (in “The Pleasures of Japanese Literature,” 1988) by Donald Keene, the eminent U.S.-born Japanologist who last year, at age 89, acquired Japanese citizenship.

The first of these attributes possibly excepted, the list conveys a sense of Japanese beauty as something of a world apart. Other cultures admire the very opposite qualities: symmetry, opulence, permanence. Japan got it right, in Keene’s view: “No people are more sensitive to beauty than the Japanese.”

The canon of Japanese aesthetic taste down the centuries has been a little book of casual jottings by a 14th-century Buddhist priest named Kenko. The book’s title is “Tsurezuregusa” (“Grasses of Idleness”), and to it we turn (as Keene did himself) for an elaboration of the four qualities.

On “suggestion,” Kenko has this to say: “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.”

On “irregularity”: “In everything, no matter what it may be, uniformity is undesirable. Leaving something incomplete makes it interesting, and gives one the feeling that there is room for growth.”

On “simplicity”: “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.”

And on “perishability”: “If man were never to fade away like the dews of Adashino, never to vanish like the smoke over Mount Toribe, 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.”

Could Kenko have suspected that his whimsical reflections, hardly noticed in his lifetime, would set the standards of Japanese taste for centuries to come? In them are rooted the most inscrutable and most characteristically Japanese of aesthetic principles — wabi (contented poverty), sabi (lonely beauty), yūgen (ineffable depth) and fūryu (a love of nature so overflowing it eclipses all personal concerns).

They blend into one another, so that to cultivate one is in a sense to cultivate all. What is wabi? “Wabi means lacking things, having things run contrary to our desires, being frustrated in our wishes.” So wrote tea-master Jakuan Sotaku (in “Zen-cha Roku,”1961, quoted by Koshiro Haga in “The Wabi Aesthetic Through the Ages,” 1989).

It seems at first blush faintly dispiriting. We read on: “Always bear in mind that wabi involves not regarding incapacities as incapacitating, not feeling that lacking something is deprivation, not thinking that what is not provided is deficiency. To regard incapacity as incapacitating, to feel that lack is deprivation, or to believe that not being provided for is poverty, is not wabi but rather the spirit of a pauper.”

Haga elaborates: “Wabi means to transform material insufficiency so that one discovers in it a world of spiritual freedom unbounded by material things. It means not being trapped by worldly values but finding a transcendental serenity apart from the world.”

The Zen master D.T. Suzuki (in “Zen and Japanese Culture,” 1959) said of yūgen that it affords “a glimpse of things eternal in the world of constant changes: that is, we look into the secrets of Reality.” He quotes a haiku by the 17th-century poet Basho:

“Fleas, lice,/ the horse pissing/ near my pillow”

— and cites a comment by British haikuist R.H. Blyth: “If there is any feeling of disgust and repugnance … Basho’s intention is misunderstood.”

Blyth adds, “Basho’s verse is to be read with the utmost composure of mind” — the composure, presumably, that is the fruit of a life of wabi.

But is Japanese beauty all wabi and sabi? It is not. “The gorgeousness of her wearing apparel almost defies description. Her dress consists of a long robe of richly embroidered silk brocade. Her head is ornamented by a dazzling glory of hairpins that glitter around her head like the lambent aureole of a saint, while her ravishing beauty is such that the mere sight of her face will steal away one’s very soul.” Thus the 17th-century novelist Shozan describes a courtesan of the Yoshiwara, Edo’s licensed pleasure quarter.

“Dazzling glory,” “glitter,” “ravishing beauty” — what would Kenko have made of that? But Yoshiwara and the other pleasure quarters in urban centers large and small were worlds apart — “floating worlds” — walled-in islands of love and pleasure bought and sold. Courtesans aside, “Women were beautiful in their invisibility.”

Junichiro Tanizaki, whose observation that was, is one of Japan’s most celebrated novelists. He lived from 1886 to 1965; his career spans and reflects a turbulent half-century. An essay he wrote in 1933 is titled “In Praise of Shadows.” Shadows are its theme, naturally — shadows, and a longing for a vanished, shadowy past.

“Daughters and wives of the merchant class,” he writes, “wore astonishingly severe dress. Their clothing was in effect no more than a part of the darkness, the transition between darkness and face.” This was “typical of most Japanese women of the past. The chest was flat as a board, breasts paper-thin. … But in the past this was sufficient. For a woman who lived in the dark it was enough if she had a faint, white, face — a full body was unnecessary.”

For Tanizaki, darkness is beauty’s friend — and brightness its enemy. “There may be some who argue that if beauty has to hide its weak points in the dark it is not beauty at all. But we Orientals … create a kind of beauty of the shadows.”

Here, as in many of his works, he ventures where others might hesitate to tread. He ushers us with aplomb into a traditional Japanese toilet — abode par excellence of wabi, he seems to be saying — and invites us to savor its quiet beauty.

“Every time I am shown to an old, dimly lit, and I would add, impeccably clean toilet in a Nara or Kyoto temple, I am impressed with the singular virtues of Japanese architecture. The parlor may have its charms, but the Japanese toilet truly is a place of spiritual repose. … No words can describe that sensation as one sits in the dim light, basking in the faint glow reflected from the shōji (paper window), lost in meditation or gazing out at the garden. … I love to listen from such a toilet to the sound of softly falling rain. … Here, I suspect, is where haiku poets over the ages have come by a great many of their ideas. … Our forebears, making poetry of everything in their lives, transformed what by rights should be the most unsanitary room in the house into a place of unsurpassed elegance, replete with fond associations with the beauties of nature.”

“Beauty,” wrote the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-81), “is a terrible and awful thing! It is terrible because it never has and never can be fathomed.”

Yukio Mishima quotes at length that passage from “The Brothers Karamazov” in his autobiographical novel, “Confessions of a Mask.” He was 24 when it appeared in 1949. It is the first of his numerous paeans to the erotic beauty of seppuku. Many of his fictional heroes commit this particularly agonizing form of suicide. Three years before he himself did, he confers that gift — if that’s what it is — on his young hero in “Runaway Horses” (1967): “Isao drew in a deep breath and shut his eyes as he ran his left hand caressingly over his stomach. Grasping the knife with his right hand, he pressed its point against his body, and guided it to the correct place with the fingertips of his left hand. Then, with a powerful thrust of his arm, he plunged the knife into his stomach. The instant that the blade tore open his flesh, the bright disc of the sun soared up and exploded behind his eyelids.”

Terrible indeed is such beauty. Is there wabi in seppuku?

In 1966, Mishima said in a speech at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Tokyo, “I cannot believe in Western sincerity because it is invisible, but in feudal times we believed that sincerity ‘resided’ in our entrails, and if we needed to show our sincerity, we had to cut our bellies and take out our visible sincerity.”

Prime Minister Abe, in the aforementioned 2012 Asahi Plus interview, follows his praise of Mishima with this remark: “In schools there are teachers telling children, ‘Only fools put their lives on the line for their country; just value your own life.’ ”

In “Toward a Beautiful Country,” Abe defines the conservatism he espouses in terms of protecting “Japan’s long history” and its accumulated traditions. He writes, “I was born in this country and I want to live in it with pride. Doing so means remembering past ages in which our elders lived earnestly.”

Is Abe’s “earnestness” the same as Mishima’s “sincerity”? Is Mishima’s “sincerity” related to Kenko’s “perishability”? Will the “beautiful country” that voters have invited Abe to build reflect the “terrible” beauty of Mishima, the beautiful beauty of wabi — or the ugly prosperity of the “construction state”?

In January, speaking of his economic plans at the inaugural meeting of the Industrial Competitive Council, Abe said, “Regardless of past discussions, we’ll aim to become No. 1 in the world.”

That’s not an answer, but it could be a clue.

Michael Hoffman’s two latest books are “Little Pieces: This Side of Japan” (2010) and “The Naked Ear” (2012).

  • James Berryhill

    The study continues as Anime and Manga…

    • eiffe

      Except, there is no beauty in them. Maybe a few, but for the most part they are all based on the same stereotypical style.

  • kyushuphil

    Nice writing — “zui-hitsu” — rambling, essaying by Michael Hoffman.

    He doens’t have an agenda — no thesis towards which he’s hammering — but instead a series of questions, all based on love for themes set by earlier souls.

    But I miss one thing. Michael Hoffman can ask questions. He cites others, including many Japanese from long-ago eras, who also raised piquant questions — and who were satisfied with but tantalizing glimpses of possible answers. Or, more properly, were gently aroused by further twists and layers to their own questions.

    But I miss some discussion of how, and why, none of this happens at all anywhere in Japanese schools today. All that cramming of short-memory factoids. All that regimentation. But no preparation, no skills, no enjoyment for anyone ever to ask any questions.

    Amazing, given Michael Hoffman’s fine hymn to a great culture, to see its national schools all set in the greatest betrayal possible of that culture.

  • Blair Reeve

    And so we get Haruki Murakami who has stated emphatically that he doesn’t like traditional Japanese notions of beauty. Yet doesn’t his writing present a realist’s disappointment in Japanese post-modernity?