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Teaching Japanese Aesthetics: Whys and Hows for Non-Specialists
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Mara Miller

Japanese aesthetics introduces a whole new set of basic concepts outside the familiar Western aesthetic framework of beauty, sublimity, disinterest. As the history of Western arts over the past century or two attests, these concepts have proven powerfully rewarding for Westerners, especially artists. But they have gotten less philosophical attention than they deserve, considering their provocative philosophical premises and implications.

Most distinctive is the insistence on overcoming dichotomies, especially between cognition and emotion, body and mind, self and other, and individual and group. Several topics are particularly illuminating within aesthetics: virtually any writing on calligraphy will deal with the body/mind problem, and Japanese architecture and gardens pose interesting challenges to the art/nature, inside/outside, and public/private dichotomies so crucial to ethical and political analysis.

But other features of Japanese aesthetics are equally deserving of philosophical scrutiny: the ways in which arts and aesthetics are integrated with daily life, the emphasis on process rather than product, the different views of originality and obsolescence, the length of time involved in creativity (usually a lifetime, but at least “a thousand times” or “ten years”), and the relation of the artistic process to the self, which is seen as a development or construction of the self, rather than self-expression. And because the Japanese did not separate art and aesthetics (as we have done) from ethics, religion, and daily life, there is also an overlap with other philosophy courses such as environmental ethics, ethics, and philosophy of the person.

All of these are good reasons for philosophers to teach Japanese aesthetics. Additional reasons are motivated by the increasing pressure from both students and administration to open our curricula to non-Western resources and approaches. Japan and Asia are of rapidly increasing importance in the world, so that from the point of view of self-interest, it behooves us to learn about them. And of course, as with any culture, Japan deserves to be known and understood in its own right. The Japanese themselves feel this most keenly, and so there are better resources – translations, interpretive studies, videos, slide sets, and computer software – for teaching about Japan and Japanese aesthetics than any other non-Western culture.

But in addition, Japanese culture is probably as different from our culture (however you defne it) as a culture can be. So if you want to challenge students to understand other viewpoints, stretch their minds, give them a sense of how diVerent human experience can be, Japan is a good place to start. I also think Japan puts the usual challenges of studying “the Other” (and learning about ourselves in the process) into a whole new perspective because the scale of diVerence is altered when you introduce Asian material. Compared to Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and Shinto, for example, Islam suddenly seems very close indeed to Judaism and Christianity.

The paradox is that in spite of these worlds of difference, when you work with Japanese arts and aesthetics, there will almost always be something for the students to fall in love with. This is the biggest kick for me, and it may be addictive. If you teach this stuff, you will get to watch the students fall in love. And while Japanese culture is far from monolithic or uniform and most people (including many Japanese!) find some of it infuriating or incomprehensible, there is so much that is compelling, and in so many different ways, that, provided you teach some range of material, everyone will be melted by something.

There are also benefits for the teacher that pay off spending time to learn something new. Students are wonderfully naive and open about Japan – nobody ever makes the mistake of thinking they already know everything there is to know about it. Most students, even (or especially) Asian students, approach the topic with a little timidity and a good deal of respect and want you to tell them everything. It is an especially good topic to teach the toughies and cynics and know-it-alls. (They won’t know this stuff!) It’s also useful for the culture snobs, since half an hour with an up-scale magazine like Architectural Digest (the ads as well as articles) will demonstrate how thoroughly Japanese aesthetic values and arts have pervaded hegemonic American culture.

There is a downside, however. First, students often assume they can’t understand anything on their own, without your telling them what to look for and giving them lots and lots of information. This is untrue, though widespread, and not only among students. Unfortunately even some scholars and writers on Japan give the impression that Japanese culture exists to be decoded, formally, with rules and algorithms and pre- and proscriptions – there’s a sort of desperate grabbing on to rules and facts. I’d encourage you to help your students learn to perceive, and make sense, as much as possible from within their culture, to develop empathy first, and then to analyze as a second step, and go back for more information as a third. This works well with Japanese arts and aesthetics, partly because Japanese arts value the indirect and implicit, placing heavy demands on the reader or viewer to complete the work, as it were, and to empathize in order to understand.

What I’ve said so far applies equally to all students. But Japanese material can be especially helpful to two Asian-American and African-American students. Asian-Americans will find their own upbringing, their family’s divergences from mainstream America, suddenly making sense. I often get the comment, “Now I understand my mother.” This will often be true for non-Japanese Asians as well, since the religious values and artistic traditions influencing aesthetics are not restricted by national boundaries. (However, it takes someone with the perspective of a Nakamura Hajime or Amanda Coomaraswamy to get a grip on the similarities across Asia without losing sight of the equally crucial diVerences within the distinct cultures – beware those pan-Asian generalizations! Asian cultures are not only less similar to each other but also embrace far more intra-cultural diversity than Americans like to think.)

For African-Americans, there is I think a special value in discovering an arena in which difference and sameness, culture and the Other, and race itself can be discussed outside the context of white/black polarizations. (Actually the value is equal for all races but the need is more apparent to African-Americans.)

Asian Studies gives a relatively safer, less explosive arena to explore dehumanization; we can witness it, and listen to the voices of those who witness it, see what they saw, without getting caught up in tangles of guilt and blame, because this has little to do, historically, with us. Many of the best examples, from the Heian through the early Edo period, have little to do with modern Japan either, so this “us” is a fairly inclusive one. A discussion of Japanese perceptions of the Japanese lower class, or Koreans or whites leads to questions about whether it isn’t in fact human – as opposed to white – to look down on other people.

This brings us to another advantage of studying Japanese aesthetics: its long history of reflection on consciousness, memory, art, and aesthetic matters. In some ways this history, as we see it emerging in the fiction, diaries and poetry of the classical Heian period (794-1185) feels quite modern, and is easy for students to relate to. (This can lead to discussions about what makes it possible for us to understand these voices in the first place. The Heian is the great period for aesthetics, and it is also is the period in which ethics and personal identity are explored for the Wrst time outside the context of religious texts – most conspicuously in the work of two women, Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon. Although this literature is a great distance from our time, it has remained crucial to Japanese thought and feeling and behavior – even today there are made-for-TV videos and comic book versions of the most important work of Wction, Murasaki’s novel The Tale of Genji, as well as several complete translations into English and Japanese. This novel has also inspired large bodies of work in other arts, especially painted hand scrolls, wood block prints, and Noh theater, which illustrate it or develop it further. Finally, this early literature is part of a long line of explorations of self-consciousness that emerges at the turn of the last century as the so-called I-novel, which is closely related to contemporary Russian and later Existentialist novels.

Japan is the only major world power where women’s voices were integrated into the canonical “mainstream” at an early stage. Given Japan’s success at industrialization, modernization, democracy, and capitalism (but not “Westernization”), it makes it all the more important that we understand precisely what women’s role in creating Japanese culture has been.

The important role of women’s voices in the formative stages of mainstream Japanese culture has barely begun to be explored for its implications for feminist (and other) theory. Students can have a lot of fun here, especially in conjunction with Luce Irigaray and Margaret Whitford, Julia Kristeva, and Monique Wittig. Theory aside, it is liberating for female students to encounter work by women the importance of which has been taken for granted for a thousand years.

I recommend organizing material on Japanese aesthetics and art into thematic units. Since my teaching is motivated by the desire to liberate thinking from some of the ruts we’ve been in, I’ve developed units around themes such as women and the female voice, sexuality and homosexuality, father-son relations and definitions of masculinity, representations of the “Other,” selfhood, gardens, nature and the environment, and war, violence and resistance. The wealth of material available makes it easy both to create whole courses on Japanese aesthetics and to integrate modules into courses with a larger focus. These thematic units are not mutually exclusive. The first three or four especially can be integrated into larger units on gender construction and “selfhood” dovetails nicely with any of them.

In teaching about Japan we start with three problems: the complexity and subtlety of Japanese experience, our own timidity, and the students’ American habits of mind which insist not only on mastery of a subject, but speedy mastery, where mastery is understood as the processing of information. These problems can be countered by using a phenomenological approach, teaching students to get involved with the material on their own, from their own starting point – their own perceptions and knowledge about the world. This approach is supported by the Buddhist (and Deweyan) pedagogical principle of “expedient means.” Don’t be afraid to start with where they are – and where you are!

1996 © Mara Miller

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