The philosopher Kuki Shuzo (1888-1941) was among the first to interpret traditional Japan through the context of Western aesthetic theory.
As noted by Nakano Hajime, “he analyzed Japanese sensibility using Western scholarship and, in experiencing Europe, tried to receive Western culture by employing a Japanese sensibility.”
A kind of cultural anthropologist as well as a philosopher, Kuki went to Europe in 1922, studied under Edmund Husserl and was acquainted with Martin Heidegger. He also met Henri Bergson, and his French tutor was the very young Jean-Paul Sartre.
This lends his work a tone that critic Atsushi Tanikawa has called “aesthetic existentialism,” a style that stresses the priority of the individual in determining the nature of his existence in the face of collectivism and systematization. It also gives his writings a freedom, even a daring, not usually associated with Japanese scholars.
Kuki is most famous for “Iki no Kozo (The Structure of Iki),” a 1930 inquiry into traditional aesthetic taste, but he also wrote a number of other pieces that are of equal importance. Some of these have now been gathered and translated by Michael Marra, a leading aesthetician and author of the 1999 “Modern Japanese Aesthetics” and other books important in the field.
Among those gathered by Marra are Kuki’s two important essays on poetry, “The Genealogy of Feelings” and “The Metaphysics of Literature.” There is also a large collection of the philosopher’s own poetry and a number of essays including an account of a talk with writer Fumiko Hayashi about music; a little-known set of pieces on contingency; and recollections of Okakura Kakuzo, a family friend, and Bergson, whom Kuki found “the world’s greatest philosopher of the first half of the twentieth century.”
Certainly Bergson’s influence on the young Japanese was seminal — much more than that of Heidegger, the controversial German philosopher whose “collaboration” with the Nazi Party has become notorious.
Postwar critics, particularly Kojin Karatani, have said that Heidegger’s speculations on “national spirit” led to the Third Reich in Germany and that Kuki’s intense interest in tradition led equally to the Great East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere.” This complaint has since been often heard, perhaps because Japan’s wartime expansionist aims have never been disinterestedly studied.
Kuki himself later said he wrote “Iki no Kozo” “at a time when Marxism was at its height and I felt I had the whole world against me.” Even now when Marxism is no longer at its height, the association of Kuki with wartime aspirations stands — although now, thanks to the efforts of Marra, Hiroshi Nara and a few others, and despite the persistence of several other American academics, it may finally collapse.
A big push is given by Jon Mark Mikkelsen in his excellent essay in Nara’s edited volume “The Structure of Detachment.”
“Iki no Kozo” itself is an extended essay seeking to elucidate the qualities of the 18th-century aesthetic term, iki. The fact that there is no standard translation into other languages is the first of many problems. English has to make do with the French “chic” to suggest its primary quality.
Nara enlarges this to mention “urbane stylishness” and draws a similarity to dandyism in the West, since “both sensibilities maintained tacit codes of dress and behavior and flourished around the same time.” He also uses “detachment,” which works (sort of) but only if you remember the vernacular and realize that iki also meant what we now call “cool.”
One of the best descriptions is Makoto Ueda’s. Iki represented an ideal: aesthetically, an urbane, chic type of beauty with undertones of sensuality; morally, the tastes a person who had some money but was not attached to it, who enjoyed sensual pleasures but was never carried away by carnal desires — in other words cool.
Attached to this popular quality were a number of attributes, an agreed-upon iki color (a certain shade of brown), a decided-upon pattern (a certain combination of checks), a personification (the kabuki hero Sukeroku), and long lists of what iki was not.
For example, “the intoxication of the so-called amour-passion of Stendhal is truly contrary to iki.” Instead, Nagai Kafu is quoted with approval: “There is nothing more pathetic than having a woman after trying to have the woman.” This implies that coquetry is an end in itself, and so it seems to have been.
Kuki writes that “like Verlaine ‘we wish not for color, only its shades.” ‘ Rather than the experience itself, iki prefers the overtones of that experience. In his excellent essay on reading “Iki no Shuzo” as literature, J. Thomas Rimer draws a brilliant parallel to the methods of Charles Baudelaire, whose “sense of the visual image” that stimulates the male gaze is mirrored in Kuki’s remark that “colors expressive of iki offer inactive afterimages that accompany a luscious experience.” ‘
All of this, and much more is fully discussed, but the going never gets tough thanks to the lightness that Kuki cultivates: many examples, many asides, many drawings in the notes to show what he means.
Although Nara is certainly entitled to speak of the “exquisitely demanding Edo sensibilities typified by iki,” these emerge plain and clear in his translation. (As indeed they did in the first English translation of the work, that of John Clark, edited by Sakako Matsui and published in Sydney in 1997. Both are excellent, though Nara’s volume has the advantage of the three general essays and much greater availability.)
Hermeneutics (a big word for “interpretation”) in the Heideggerian mold is here applied to a single cultural phenomenon — a butterfly scrutinized by an entire philosophical apparatus. But so light is the touch of Kuki, the first Japanese cultural anthropologist, that it lies there before us, its wings shimmering, still quite alive.
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