Books that try to "explain" Japanese culture to others tend to fall into one of two camps. Either they try to cash in on the latest zeitgeist, a quick fix for stressed Westerners looking for self-help with a veneer of the exotic — Marie Kondo, ikigai (reason for living) et al. — or they present superficial representations of otherness, thinly disguised Orientalism packaged as a coffee table book.

Zen in Japanese Culture, by Gavin Blair.
208 pages


Gavin Blair thankfully plots a third path in his excellent book. Gorgeous photos of temples, gardens and arranged flowers are present, but are justly there to illustrate the point he is making about how the spirit of Zen has infused Japanese aesthetics throughout history. Blair's somber but sprightly prose perfectly matches the subject matter as he delves into calligraphy, origami and martial arts. His approach avoids the pitfalls of cultural tourism and instead enlightens aspects of Japanese culture known only superficially by most. His excavation of wabi-sabi aesthetics — a touchstone here — is, for once, clear and concise.

The chapter focusing on how Zen aesthetics have translated into modern abstract art is particularly fascinating but also serves to highlight a missed opportunity, or perhaps a question unanswered: How much is Zen still present in Reiwa Japan? The architecture examined is traditional, the temples ancient, the bonsai timeless. How about modern housing? Less classical art forms? Sport even?

This book serves both as exculpatory introduction and a relaxing, meditative guide through Japanese aesthetics and, like all good books, suggests many paths for future study.