Among the greatest of Japan’s gifts to the world is surely the gift of design.

I am not referring here to the borrowed word dezain, a noun that indicates the arrangements of parts of something into a whole, but to the English verb “to design” — meaning to fashion in the mind and invent; to formulate or devise a plan for something; to plan out systematically in graphic form; to create for a particular effect or in a highly artistic manner.

It is these nuances that I have come to realize apply to Japanese creativity in its multifarious facets.

From the time Japan opened its doors to the outside world at the end of the feudal Edo Period (1603-1868) — after more than 200 years in which it was a capital offence to leave or enter the country without authority from the very highest level — people in Europe, America and China, in particular, became bewitched by the culture of Japan.

This was because they saw how Japanese culture brilliantly combined the abstract design of scale and the passage of time itself with a level of mastery in technique that had not been seen before. Indeed, to me, Japanese design is no less than design of space and time itself. This may sound rather obtuse, so let me explain.

A Japanese meal, for instance, is not just a mixture of tastes and visual delights. Its very presentation is a theatrical design of the passage of time, from one dish to another; a combination of colors and textures that takes you through the meal as in a journey.

In addition, the presentation of food on a plate or in a bowl also blends or contrasts with the color and shape of the receptacle. Lids are lifted to reveal a surprising smell or arrangement of ingredients. In a sense, the very composition of the dishes suggests a certain rhythm of consumption, generally slowing it down, begging you to take a bite and put your chopsticks down for a moment or two.

Hence the design and presentation of a dish, or the dishes comprising a meal, actually imposes a design on the time needed to take it in and consume the fare.

But what are the principles of design involved in such creation?

One feature of Japanese aesthetics that redesigns time is totsuzensa (suddenness). Japanese culture is full of the unexpected, the unpredictable. In the traditional performing arts of kabuki and bunraku it can take the form of an instant transformation from one state or form to another — as when one character becomes another, such as a ghost. In ukiyo-e (woodblock prints), it is often evident in the poses and grimaces in the scene, capturing an unexpected instant of high drama.

The art of the haiku, too, which has become a universal symbol of Japanese emotional expression, beautifully illustrates the design of space and time in the engineering of scale.

Consider Issa Kobayashi’s (1763-1827) haiku that jumps from the face of a traveler to the sky above:

Asleep with a fan

Across the face

The moon on the sea

Another poet who, in his haiku, presents startling images that redesign the spatial relationship between things was Shiki Masaoka (1867-1902). What is big? What is small? It all depends on your perspective and your personal viewpoint.

Sometimes, Shiki would present a spatial stretch of the imagination, but always in the presence of nature:

The snail is enticing

Rain clouds

With its antennae

Or sometimes he would offer a painterly scene in which the changing light plays a part:

Locusts buzz

The paths between the rice fields

As the daylight dims

Another characteristic of Japanese aesthetics, as is so sublimely evident in the following two haiku by Shiki, is the manipulation of color in order to achieve incongruity, contrast in scale and visual starkness:

The mountains in summer

All creation green …

But a red bridge



Pale blue in the rain

Bright blue under the moon

I would define haiku as “the redesign of space and time in 17 syllables.” By redesigning space in this way, Japanese culture places humans (including us who read the haiku, view the picture or observe the performance) properly in nature, as one small element with a highly personal viewpoint.

Only art can slow or prolong the ticking of the clock and allow people to appreciate their place in the scheme of the world; and Japanese art has demonstrated this ability in ways no other civilization has done.

The Japanese garden, to take another of this culture’s best-known platforms of creative design, is essentially a redesign of landscape in a limited space. The simplicity of the design is important, as is its absence of the nonessential. Japanese opulence is shibui (understated); and it is this seeming contradiction that people in the West have been both puzzled and overwhelmed by since, to a Japanese sensitivity, the more understated a design, the more lasting its force; the greater the silences, the more reverberating the sounds.

The design of the erotic is yet another of life’s dimensions the Japanese have engineered to their own predilections. Even though this is a society where decorum, propriety and prudence play a very big part, there is no religious sense of shame linked to the body as there has been in the West. It may be shameful to show the body, but it is not a sin.

It may seem a paradox, for instance, that there are no public nude beaches in Japan as there are in most countries of the West; and yet the culture is, and has for more than a millennium, been full of amazingly erotic images and practices.

Certainly, though, along with the Restoration of the Meiji Emperor in 1868 that marked Japan’s arrival into the modern world, there did come a new sense of morality borrowed, in part, from straightlaced Victorian England. On the surface this infused the very bawdy Edo Period culture with a certain prudishness — but rest assured, the old ribald culture is still alive and tickling under the skin.

This paradox struck me when I visited a Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) exhibition at the Tokyo National Museum in 2005. The museum shop sold two versions of the catalog of the works of this master artist, one in Japanese and the other in English. They were alike in all ways except one: The English version contained Hokusai’s shunga (erotic works), while the Japanese version didn’t.

Seemingly, a committee somewhere had decided that it was too shameful to display these in the vernacular catalog — but not so in the foreign-language version. Yet if Japanese society was now truly horrified by the pornographic images in the shunga, they would not have tolerated the latter.

Similarly, the poetry of Akiko Yosano (1878-1942) may be unique in the world, given the era, for its openness toward the female body. The kind of frankness and honesty expressed by her in some of her poems constitute a Japanese design of the erotic. The erotic message is feminine, sensual and forthright:

My blood burns

To give you one night

In the shelter of heightened dreams

God, do not look down

On one who passes through spring

All of this adds up to a unique design of time and space, through the juxtaposition of scale, colors and textures.

The elements of suddenness and incongruous space, the grand flights of time, and the potent mixture of the erotic, the sensual and the ordinary are evident everywhere in Japanese culture today, from manga and anime to cosplay and the cuisine.

Let’s hope that the Japanese will be as skillful in designing the future as they have been in the past.

All translations appearing here are by Roger Pulvers.

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