Japanese Aesthetics

Okashi (をかし)

おかしい is the modernized spelling

There is a slight distinction between the premodern version and modern version of this term.

Something that is charming, amusing, delightful. In some cases, there is relevance to an appeal towards the intellect. More commonly, it is perceived as something that is amusing in a humorous way. Most importantly, the aesthetic of okashi has a prominent emphasis on a large appeal to the eyes. As opposed to describing the things that trigger the emotional response, the essence of okashi is the actual feeling one gets when seeing these things, in other words, the cheerfulness, or more corporeally, the nascent of a smile, triggered by the remarkable or endearing qualities of these things that deserves appreciation.

*Not to be confused with the common modern day term可笑しい that describes something uncanny, unusual or strange in a way that is unsettling or difficult to grasp

Traditional Works (inclusive of):

The Pillow Book – The context in which the text is written, wherein a court lady records her observations and musings of the court during her time serving the Empress Consort, should invoke enough of an idea of the aesthetic’s background; in one section of the text, entitled “pleasant things”, she paints the imagery of a boat gliding downstream towards the bank of a river, and conveys the emotional response that regardless of it being empty or not (and thereby fulfilling its function as a vessel for transport) or it being beautiful in the traditional sense or not, it is a charming occurrence and oddity for it to be making a simultaneously nondramatic yet exalted entrance, relative to the forlorn individual at a riverbank focusing all attention upon it.

 

Miyabi (雅)

Miyabi is the aesthetic concept of courtly beauty associated with constructed artistic conventions, particular speech patterns, and other such behaviors and or attitudes that reinforce the complexities of the court while eliminating all traces of vulgarity and obscenity. To a degree, comprehending the presence of miyabi in one’s surrounding is an expectation of the aristocracy exactly because it show’s one’s education and honed knowledge in the shared ways of thinking and behaving amongst the nobility. This adherence reflected in the history of the aesthetic itself. During its greatest movement, practitioners of miyabi would defy such highly cultivated works such as the Man’yōshū, that contained poems written by authors of all walks of life, by limiting how artworks could be created, preventing the courtiers trained in the traditional sensibilities of artistic expressions from conveying their actual feelings, if represented of even the slightly crude, in their works.

Traditional Works (inclusive of):

Tale of Genji

 

Mujōkan (無常観/無常感)

無常観 is associated with the viewpoint of Buddhism that deems everything as ever-changing.

無常感 is associated with the experience and feeling that all is ever-changing accompanied with an astonishment of uncertainty about the world.

Mujō is a Buddhist term (or law, even) that emphasizes the emptiness of all things, because of their intrinsic impermanence. The teaching is heavily used as backing to the claim that the world that we inhabit is a world of suffering, because the unenlightened human response to change is suffering.

As commonly used in Japanese culture:

An awareness that all things are transient; even the purest, most beautiful existences in this world, such as the love between two people, cannot be counted upon to endure. The idea that cherry blossoms are painful because of their exquisite beauty is barely with-lasting is a traditional and famous example of this concept. Hanami (花見), literally translated as “flower viewing”, is the customary Japanese partaking of viewing and enjoying the transient beauty of flowers. The “flower” in this case almost always refers to cherry blossoms, or sakura, which only last in blossom for one to two weeks. The Japan Meteorological Agency announces a blossom forecast for the public to properly plan their flower viewing every year.

Traditional Works (inclusive of):

Tale of Genji – Characters are depicted as of a transcendent mindedness through their acknowledgement of impermanence and their expressions of anxiety about their love ultimately falling victim to deterioration.

Tale of Heike – The central theme of impermanence is the first element established within the text with the opening passage, “the sound of the Gion Shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sāla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline…” (Chapter 1.1 of Helen Craig Mccullough’s translation of the original Japanese text), which foreshadows the inevitable downfall of the eponymous Heike, or Taira, clan.

 

Uchi / Soto (内外)

Literally translates to “inside-outside”.

Indicates the contrast between the values that maintain group identity and bonding and the impact of exile. It associates with the Shintō severance of the impure and polluted.

A more modern interpretation and implementation nullifies the concept’s scope into literary texts and construes it more through the lens of sociology. The basic concept revolves around dividing people into inner groups and outer groups, in which there are distinct protocols for interacting with those of the inner group and or outer group, with the fine line between these parties being susceptible to instability, in that an individual from the inner group can overlap into the outer group indefinitely and vice versa.

*A less than sufficiently conscious Western interpretation of the concept as a roundabout way to depict social cliques and an elementary extent of their reciprocal actions, such as school bullying, would be wrong. It extends to include an abundance of social concepts such as hospitality and unorthodox servicing, in which the uchi-soto relationship can lead an individual to making great personal sacrifices to honor an individual of an out-group, at times regardless of which group holding a higher social status.

It provides the framework for the more nuanced twin-concept of omote-ura (the public face and the private face), in which the two adversities parallel quite finely the concept of a facade. Omote refers to the surface, or outer image, that one performs as a representative of something within; but that which lies within is the performer’s individuality imposed by compromising feelings and opinions that needs to be repressed and or tactfully represented to align with the group structure. Omote is valued, and because of the connotations behind words such as “performance” and “tact”, its description can be taken to somewhat artful measures. Ura is the reality that is covered by the omote surface; when if it is suddenly exposed, what tends to follow is great disturbance and or embarrassment because the unreality of the omote is exposed for all to see.

Real life application(s):

The Japanese dominance of etiquette and politeness. The universal mannerisms that have been ingrained through everyday teachings is the public face, or omote, that the individual puts forth. This is evident in the Japanese language itself, which prides itself to a degree of its deferential patterns of speech (honorifics, the duality of verb-conjugations in their formal and an informal forms, etc.). In this scenario, what can most inarguably be deemed the ura side is the household, in which individuals can become relaxed and speech forms that would have expressed rudeness in the outside world can be interpreted instead as familiarity despite being the exact same words. In a more recursive example, in a company’s working setting, the employees of one department or division may be considered one group, the inner group led by the division manager, and may be spoken to in casual speech by said manager. However, employees of other departments are considered of an outer group and should be spoken to politely. Furthermore, in relation to another company, all employees of the company act as one entity that is an inner group treating the other company as an outer group. In this interaction, if the aforementioned manager of the aforementioned department was speaking to a department manager of the other company, it is considered acceptable for him to speak of his own company in non-honorific speech, even when referring to his own superiors, who would otherwise be considered an outer group. This type of dynamic would also apply if he were to talk to an individual not at all associated with his company, or even any company at all. To take the concept even further, if the manager were to address his own department subordinate, it would be perfectly acceptable for him to use casual speech and omit all usage of honorifics; however, if he were talking to that same subordinate and addressing the subordinate’s household, he would be expected to use honorific speech, because the household is the subordinate’s inner group, but not the manager’s.

Personal example:

In the summer after my first year of university, I asked a long-time since junior high friend to form an artist collective with me. He was the only person I knew well whom I admired as both a friend and an artist and in our senior year of high school, we really got into the artistry of hip hop music together. For that reason, when we first started out, our focus was producing beats and writing raps, despite the fact that, as artists, we were only illustrators since junior high until then. By due course, a second friend, whom I could’ve considered by best friend during my entire high school career, ended up joining us after witnessing our activities first-hand. I casually urged him to join us in our endeavors the night we slept-over at the first mentioned friend’s house to watch The Dark Knight Rises the day after; because he was tuning in to us talking about music production and because he was a member of the high school band, therein making him more experienced than both of us in any kind of musical theory even if not by a long shot. But as spur of the moment as the invitation was, my gut feeling tells me that he inevitably would’ve joined our crew anyway considering how close a friend he was and how frequently we had him around regardless of anything. At some point, the focus of our crew transitioned into making videos and posting them online via YouTube and so we spent that entire summer, or at least the period when all our respective schools’ vacations converged, filming one video, our first video, a summer compilation of how to live out the transient time of freedom known as summer and not stay cooped up at home with regrets by the end of it all. The project was a far cry from what I would consider the current work-demanding projects of the collective, because it was quite simply us arranging fun-ass things to do and doing them, with a camera on hand. We would drive up random hills and hike, we would challenge each other at all-you-can-eat restaurants, we would trespass into closed off territories, and the like. Even failed attempts like plans to go camping would result in memorable times of improvisation, such as setting up a tent on someone’s roof and spending the whole night watching movies. To say the least, it was a much lived summer, and I was personally sentimental to hear one of them, nearly tearbound, say that it was the happiest summer of his life, confirming the unison of our feelings. But as The Roots’s 1999 album eponymously dictates: things fall apart. Fast forward two years, and the narrative takes place after a handful of other such gratifying projects and heartfelt shared experiences but also begins to loom into the territory of tragic transpirations. I can blame it on the distance of each of our school-grounds or plenty of other things, but through some course of action, or inaction, our harmony began to deteriorate and our priorities split. Two summers after the beginning of it all sees the opposite kind of occurrences. Summer school sessions, personal family vacations, and again, different school schedules, prohibits us anywhere near as much time as the first summer to finish any project whatsoever, and this conflict of punctuality is addressed by me beforehand, before it turns into a conflict of interests. From there, a hearty plot details but in succinctness what comes to ensue is that that summer, of the three, one refused to return contact to the rest of the group throughout the whole season; one began his period of availability with the others the latest because of an extended internship and ended it the soonest because of a family vacation; and one began his period of availability with the others the soonest, tried to plan out the time in which the three actually could meet before he would have to return to school the soonest of the three, but was ultimately not met with compliance. That latter one being me. So, regarding the omote-ura conflict at hand here, I know far too well the situation I’m in and the dynamics at work. Much like the couple who’s too afraid to address the problems of their relationships lest they end up breaking up and stop being even friends, much like the friends-come-roommates who have come to detest each other through their everyday annoyances of each other yet repress their contempt to maintain the domestic partnership as well as the friendship at stake, I do find myself torn at maintaining this semblance of hard work based upon the foundation of friends doing things that they passionately love together when I stand alone. Clearly the passion has changed, or was never real to begin with. Yet what makes me uneasy most of all is the potential paradigm shift. The omote of my situation here is everything that is presented in name, from the group logo that is digitally produced from a photograph of all three of our faces to the website that I have constructed to equally include all three of our online presences, despite the fact that two out of three of them link to empty profiles. In concept, every project title that I have succeeded with a “presented by becauseofdreams” donned the feeling that I attributed the works that I had put forth my greatest efforts into to not only myself but also to my dear friends. They belonged to us, collectively. It is because of this devotion that I can’t help but feel there to be a breach of the inner group’s protocol. To give all that you have, have it not be noticed, and then get nothing in return isn’t an experience much people ask for, I expect. But what the next step entails is something than even more painful. In this case, to reject those of the inner group and to send them to an outer group is one in the same as isolating and exiling yourself into an outer group. The performance that continually goes on as of now, representing that group identity yet feeling no support from the group itself, while it may not be the healthy thing to do, its process definitely has its layers. By the standards of Western media, just about everything would tell me to take the opposite course of action and act upon my most immediate emotions. Unfortunately for me, the standards of traditional Japanese aesthetics veer towards the more masochistic paths of life. I can’t deny that I think it romantic for any one of the three story’s friends to be able to overcome the outlined struggle, or perhaps something even more daunting, and in the end secure success for the whole cast and crew. I do know that I what I want is to keep these friends as my own; and even if my image of them is not who they are now, there’s no telling what an inspiring adherence to the group’s identity may revert them back to or change them into anew. Perhaps this anecdote has long since cued the inclusion of the impermanence of mujōkan, a symbolic idealism of Western literary devices, and other variables, but to a degree I believe it still retains an expression of beauty towards playing your part.

 

Omote (面) / Ura  (裏)

Paired opposing concepts, very much like two sides of the same coin.

Example(s):

  • An omote-doori is a busy main street and an ura-doori is a forlorn back alley.
  • Omote-ji is the material used for a kimono or a business suit and ura-ji is the material used for the inner lining.
  • Omote-gei is a performer’s principal art and ura-gei is his or her hidden talent.
  • Ura o miru is an expression that means being able to see beneath the surface. Ura o kaku is an expression that means to attack from the rear.

Omote and ura correspond deeply with the other Japanese inverse relationship of uchi and soto, in which omote can be considred what is presented to the soto (outside) and ura is what is kept hidden inside (uchi) oneself. In classical, almost antiquated Japanese language, omote means face and ura means mind or heart or soul.

Example(s):

  • The phrase omote o ageru means “raise the face”.
  • The “ura” in the common verb “urayamashii”, which means to be envious or jealous or yearning, directly connects to the literal translation of the word as “sick of mind”.
  • Another common word, “uragirimono”, which means “traitor”, literally translates to “cutter of the mind”.
  • The Japanese verb “uramu”, which means “to bear a grudge” or “to think ill of another”, literally translates to “to see another’s hidden mind” and is directly related to the historically and culturally rich word and concept of “urami”.

In establishing the omote as the face and the ura as the mind, the concept of the performance of the mind through the face is also established. Generally speaking, it can be said that one’s face, or expression, is literally an expression of the mind, heart, and or soul. In that case, if the eyes are referred to as the windows to one’s soul, than the entirety of one’s face is the whole front yard of the house. In conceptual symmetry to that however, it can also be said that the expression one makes is an intentional deception as to one’s actual, innermost feelings; and in this case, the face is very much more like a facade than a trustworthy front-yard exterior. Regardless of both cases, it can be said that the face, omote, is what expresses ura, the mind.

*Examples are from Omote to Ura (The Anatomy of Self: The Individual Versus Society) by Takeo Doi, and translated into English by Mark A. Harbison.

 

Tatemae (建前) / Honne (本音)

Tatemae and honne are contrasts that represent the individual’s behavior and outwardly expressed opinion as they are expected by the public-group’s conventions and the individual’s true, innermost feelings and desires, respectively. The concepts of tatemae and honne draw from the relationship of omote and ura, which in turn closely corresponds with the dynamic of uchi-soto; however, tatemae and honne are Japanese values that have perhaps the most relevance to modern day Japan. Social issues that can be linked to the concept of tatemae and honne include phenomena such hikikomori-ism. Etymologically, the word “tatemae” refers to the term “tatemae” as it was used in Japanese architecture, meaning “raising of the ridgepole”. The term tatemae is also used in the traditional Japanese practice of tea ceremony, representing the formal movements of the tea ceremony host in presenting utensils and in serving the tea. In reference to these two culturally-rich practices, the tatemae is crucial, serving as the infrastructure that allows these two activities to be performed. From a more general perspective, tatemae refers to the conventions mutually established by a group of persons on the basis of consensus. This structure is what also allows honne; for given any group of persons, even though each individual may conform and abide by the tatemae as a member of the group, each individual also has his or her own opinions that are distinct from it. Takeo Doi argues that these individual ways of interpreting the tatemae is exactly what the honne, the real truth, is.

* Referenced Omote to Ura (The Anatomy of Self: The Individual Versus Society) by Takeo Doi, and translated into English by Mark A. Harbison.

 

Urami (恨み)

An English word that quite perfectly matches the denotation of urami is “rancor”. Other definitions include anger, hatred, or resentment.

There is a fairly established parallelism between the concepts of urami and amai in that urami is what amai transform into if not reciprocated properly.

Traditional Works (inclusive of):

Tale of Genji – The Lady Rokujō is an infamous example of this concept so much so that her character is commonly portrayed with the appearance of the Hannya (般若) mask (a jealous female demon that possesses two horns, convex and leering eyes, and a haunting smile that splits from ear to ear) in adaptations of the cultural work. In the narrative of the text, the Lady Rokujō is a prideful lady of high birth and the widow of a former Crown Prince who would have had her become his Empress had he not met a premature end to his life. This is established as the first instance of tragedy in her life, but it is not until Genji engages in an affair with her that her anger, jealousy and humiliation enter the folds of urami. Despite not attaining the status of Empress, the Lady Rokujō had the birthright of an esteemed socialite and was treated as such until Genji neglected their relationship that he initiated. Genji’s disrespect and the rumors of his other affairs betrays Rokujō’s feelings of amai and invert them into urami. A possessing spirit that subsequently appears throughout the narrative is identified comparatively to Rokujō’s contempt and goes on to possess (and inflict the demise of) three of Genji’s other lovers: Yūgao, Aoi, and Murasaki.

 

Yōen  (妖艶)

A romantic and idealized beauty that is dreamlike in its qualities, such as the descent of an exquisite and heavenly maiden to Earth on a spring night with a beautifully dewy milieu. It is a idealization that is elusive, much like an actual dream, and associates itself with the forlornness of the bittersweet and nostalgic, such as love’s parting or the ephemeral sighting of a beauty not of this world.

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