Despite my obsession with studying Japanese language for a major chunk of my life, I’ll admit to a weakness of knowledge when it comes to Japanese culture. Though I feel I know many of the basics, especially concerning modern Japan, I know very little of Japan’s history and there are many areas of their culture which I have more to discover.
One of the reasons I decided to read “Japanese Design: Art, Aesthetics, and Culture” was to start filling in some of these gaps. The book is fairly recent (published in late 2014), and also features an attractive cover that caught my attention. In addition, the idea of learning about “design”, as opposed to just art, seemed like something I would enjoy and appreciate.
In the preface, the author discusses how this book is an attempt to supplement the large pre-existing body of literature on Japanese design and related concepts, and is mostly targeted at those unfamiliar with such topics. She also states that one of her goals is simply to entire readers to further explore about Japanese design, and I liked this honest, no-nonsense approach of hers.
The book is divided up into three major sections: components that make up Japanese design, key characteristics and religious values in Japanese design, and early promoters of artistic Japan.
Most chapters in the first section are centered around one or more Japanese terms, and go on to explain what that term(s) means and give examples of art that embodies it. Examples include “shibui” (“subtle elegance”), and “iki” (“stylish, sophisticated elegance”). If you happen to know some Japanese, you can connect these ideas to words you already know, but the book doesn’t assume and prior knowledge of Japanese vocabulary. In fact, some of the words (for example “Noutan”) were not actually created in Japan, and others (“kazari”) take on a life of their own beyond their everyday definition.
As I read through this section I began to feel a mild frustration with the fact that each term was not clearly defined, and sometimes it was hard for me to understand the connection between the example artworks and each term’s explanation. But on further thought, I reazlied this was no fault of the author. Rather, I was thinking about art – a field with inherent contradictions and vagueness – with my technical, critical thinking mind, and this was the wrong way to go about things. After that, I began seeing things in a more humanistic way, accepting that oftentimes aspects of art and culture cannot be cleanly organized into perfect little boxes. Instead, there was a large body of many types of artwork created by the Japanese people, and many people (artists, historians, etc.) have tried their best to categorize and interpret things as best as they could.
The second section begins with a discussion on how Japan’s two most prominent religions, Shintoism and Buddhism, helped shape Japanese design and art. Following that is an analysis of ten characteristics to help define and distinguish Japanese design, including appreciation of the changing seasons and tendency for emotional extremes. The latter especially rang true to me, where the author posited that extreme violence and humor in Japanese culture may stem from the formal nature of their lifestyles and demands of a tight-knit social order. This part reminded me of Japanese Anime, with it’s extremes that surpassed what I had seen in most American cartoons, and was one of the reasons I originally got into Japan’s culture. With distinctions that seemed more logical, this second section was a bit easier for my mind to digest, and I enjoyed many of the art photos throughout it (the book contains over 200 in total).
The last section covers 28 people who have written about Japan’s art, culture, or design, and helped promote it throughout the world. Being more into art and design, and less into history, I found this section a bit dry and lost interest partway through. However, I will acknowledge that Graham’s employment of these peoples’ histories is unique, and provides many avenues to pursue for those so inclined to do so.
I feel that overall this book was a great success achieving Graham’s goal of acting as a unique primer of Japanese design for the uninitiated.
Ultimately, I feel that mastering a foreign language shares much with mastering a foreign country’s culture, especially a process of feedback between one’s inner mind and the external world, as a deep understanding of fundamentals gradually is established over many years. The seeds that “Japanese Design” has planted in me (for example a vague awareness of various design characteristics) will surely grow over time, leading to a significant shift in how I perceive Japanese art, design, and culture.
This book was published by Tuttle, which I recently discovered is the world’s largest publisher of books on Asia. It can be purchased in E-book or hardcover format, from either Amazon, or Barnes and Noble.