A TRACTATE ON JAPANESE AESTHETICS by Donald Richie. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 2007, 79 pp., $9.95 (paper)

In the preface to this new, much-needed book on Japanese aesthetics, Donald Richie points out, “In writing about traditional Asian aesthetics, the conventions of Western discourse — order, logical progression, symmetry — impose upon the subject an aspect that does not belong to it.” By doing so he underscores a suspicion that we must have all had — while wondering why so much attention can be given to a cracked tea-bowl, for example — that there must be a lot more to Japanese culture and how it is perceived than is immediately apparent.

Indeed there is, and Richie helps us more than anyone else has before in the English language, by explaining many of the essential aesthetic concepts needed for understanding and appreciation. For this he gleans from a variety of Western and Japanese sources, accumulating his pensees on the understanding of beauty into this thought-provoking treatise structured in the form of a zuihitsu — the traditional Japanese, free-ranging assortment of ideas that follows its own intuitive direction.

He quotes aesthetician Teiji Itoh — “The dilemma we face is that our grasp is intuitive and perceptual rather than rational and logical” — to clarify from the start the fundamental difference between Japanese and Western aesthetic values. Proceeding to apply his six decades of experience in Japan, Richie then games intelligently to clear the mist surrounding those indefinable perceptions of taste and beauty, and bring them into some sort of focus for those who are fascinated but often mystified by Japanese culture.

Japanese aesthetic values were much shaped by both Buddhism, and the (once) sublime nature, and as examples we see impermanence like that of cherry blossoms, and asymmetry as is apparent in nature. In the Japanese mind, such aesthetic considerations reflect not only a keen observation of natural surroundings and the passing of the seasons but link to the belief in the cycle of reincarnation. For Japanese, one of the most compelling aspects of beauty is the bitter-sweet awareness that it is only transient and always dies.

Some of the more obscure aesthetic concepts already embedded in Japanese consciousness can be sensed in early poetry, but were only codified during the Muromachi Period (1333-1573) with the pervading influence of Zen and the artistic values of the tea ceremony. Shibui (restrained, understated, dark), sabi (worn, patinated), wabi (lonely, abandoned, beauty born of poverty) are discussed with revealing examples. Even the illusive yugen (barely glimpsed mystery and depth) — much-associated with noh theater — is considered here at the far end of the spectrum, opposite to furyu (elegant and refined). Seen separately these might all seem to be a bit bewildering, but they are all expressions of a variety of tastes and as Richie points out, “Japanese aesthetic terms not only lie like strata, one on top of another, but combine with each other.”

After carefully digesting this tractate, one is likely to arrive at the disquieting realization that much of what one reads about Japanese culture in English is purely left-brain stuff and is of little use unless one is able to draw on the far greater depths of subjective perception.

Even Japanese today often get their own traditional culture woefully wrong as can be seen in almost all the museum exhibits that are illuminated from overhead light sources (my own personal bleat) by which art was neither seen nor ever even envisaged by its creators. I can’t help feeling that this book could do very well in translation and would certainly help the Japanese rediscover so much of what really matters in their own culture that they have lost or rejected.

For those whose aesthetic ideal is found in a perfectly centered clock between two exactly spaced candlesticks on the mantelpiece, and matched porcelain, sets of glasses, or a parterre garden, quite a shift in perceptive gears will be needed. Those who prefer handmade pottery and rustic antiques will find much that they already feel well-articulated here, but as Richie points out in referring to the beauty of simplicity, “This beauty is both the expression and the result of an awareness that comes from a highly self-conscious regard of nature, as well as from an accompanying discipline that is one of the reasons the arts are rarely casual in Japan.”

This is no “How to look at Japanese Culture Lite,” and Richie neither condescends nor dumbs down. He presumes that his readers are able not only to think for themselves, but also intuit the subtleties of Japanese aesthetic sensitivities clarified in his concise prose. So concise in fact that with fewer than 80 pages this little book is, in itself, a distilled demonstration of “less is more” — one of the prime tenets of so many Japanese arts. It provides essential and profound reading for anyone having even a passing interest in Japanese culture, and is small, portable, and affordable enough for ever-present reference.

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