Nara

Some aspects of Japanese arts

Japanese, or Nihon-go, is an isolated language with an unique structure which can not be easily comparable to other languages. Its origin is not known but thought to be formed over a long period of time within a relatively stable exclusive society. The Japanese were first aware of writing in the 5th century borrowing Chinese characters known as ‘Kanji’. They devised the characters by altering the pronunciations to satisfy particular usage which led to the creation of their own unique characters later in the Heian Period (794-1185). Those alternative sounds were transcribed and visualized into two different phonetic characters known as ‘Hiragana’ and ‘Katakana’. Since then the imported Kanji and these two vernacular characters have been used as the national language occasionally altering styles and usages.

Japanese is indeed a very unique and intricate language and such idiosyncrasy coincides with its isolation which makes up particular traits of the people. Typically their seemingly vague and ambiguous attitudes relate to the abbreviated characteristics of the language and such attitudes realize a communication without assertion and less contention. This almost telepathic interaction is the reason for not only a cozy relationship of the people but also hindering of the development of a critical attitude towards the social as well as the cultural injustice.

However, such elusive characteristics often lies at the root of aesthetic sensibility of Japanese arts. A typical example is one of the most frequently cited ones called ‘Yugen’. One may detect Yugen behind the words, objects and even sounds as a device to amplify mystic and profound beauty attaching subtle delicacy to the work. Yugen literally means a ghost like phantasm and plays an important role to express emotion and deep feelings notably in performance arts. It also resonates with an abbreviated fragmental expression found in Japanese art whose meaning abides in its outside. Yugen also supports the Japanese poetics per excellence the way in which it encourages us to awake the truce of the world depicted behind the simple and taciturn expressions.

Although various art forms exhibit the notion of Yugen, a performing art called ‘Noh’ reveals its effect more clearly in its bright and phantasmagoric expressions. As the oldest form of Japan’s musical theater, the origin of Noh dates back to the ancient times but the current style was established in the 14th century by Kan-ami and his son Ze-ami by putting various classical performing arts together under the name of ‘Sarugaku’. Noh consists of a simple plot and story and is spoken in a chanted recitation which often laments souls of the dead. The principal role called ‘Shite’ is usually masked to erase facial expressions and together with bystanders called ‘Waki’ who represent subtle and profound notion of Yugen in their mysterious gestures associated with highly emotional complexities. The performance on a whole is accompanied with monotonic music played by a bamboo flute and drums in three different sizes as well as a chorus often made up of eight singers called ‘Ji-utai’.

Noh has been one of the most well performed classical theaters along with famous ‘Kabuki’, a ballad drama performed as a puppet theater called ‘Bunraku’ and other works of recitation (story telling). These theatrical performances, however, also rely on another aesthetic concept called ‘Ma’. This another particular aesthetic sensitivity has originally been derived from the art of music. By placing a subtle blank or interval in time, Ma plays an important role in authentic Japanese time based arts. In the art of theater, peculiar rhythms and breathings are interpreted into a margin of spoken lines or performer’s gestures applying Ma along with the suggestiveness of Yugen. In fact almost all Japanese arts, include modern architecture, hardly rejects the notion of Ma. In Japanese painting, for example, Ma frequently appears as a spatial blanking especially in the background. Mostly because of its philosophical underpinning it represents the object quite differently from the Western output. This difference is clearly visible in the traditional landscape art called ‘Sansui’.

In the West the landscape implies a genre of painting which conveys a certain context behind its picturesque layer in which the scenery is represented allegorically, mythologically or politically. It parallels to a system of discreet order the way in which the work manages its aesthetic and ideological contradictions. This concept is supported by the self sufficiency of art and it is this autonomous feature which separates Japanese traditional art from the Western outputs.

Japanese Sansui, for example, typically lacks such a critical function as well as the self contained feature. The purpose of Sansui is prudently to trace the notion of Eastern philosophy through its rather disintegrated representation of the scenery. Rejecting the objective view and the realism, it represents the landscape rather discursively like an unfinished fragment. In this Japanese practice the painting is considered as a space where the artist and the beholder, the self and the other, are mediated following a Buddhist doctrine called ‘Engi’. For the Japanese, art had been a device which caters the way to illustrate the contemporary religious ideals rather than to transmit worldly ideology.

In returning to the language, the buds of such distinctive sensibility had already been observed in the art of letters collected in Japan’s oldest anthology of poems published in the 8th century. The anthology, called ‘Manyoshu’, contains about 4,500 poems in 20 volumes and those called ‘Tanka’ occasionally bears similar aesthetic sensibility. Tanka is a lyrical poem established around the mid-seventh century as one of the prime form of Japanese arts. Among many styles, the most typical one is structured in 31 syllables divided into two parts: a group of 5, 7 and 5, and another 7 and 7. Following the structure, a poet expressed an impression about the court life, romance, natural beauty or mourning to the dead often utilizing dexterous technique.

The notion of Yugen had already been discernible in those ancient poems, adding an effect of mystery and depth, creating an atmosphere which is distinct from the words and their configurations. Although the anthology contains poems of all classes of people, works of aristocrats and the court nobles also exhibit the allure of courtly beauty expressed as ‘Miyabi’ in Japanese. The lively good taste of Miyabi, together with almost the opposite effect of Yugen, lifts Tanka poems up to the special position.

The tradition of Tanka was further developed in coming centuries featuring Hiragana. Compiled in the early 10th century as the first government-led anthology, ‘Kokinwakashu’ contains about 1,100 poems in 20 volumes. Due mostly to the patron’s status, poems of this anthology often emphasize the notion of Miyabi along with other aestheticism of Japanese poem. The national anthem of Japan called ‘Kimi-ga-yo’ features a Tanka poem to its words taken from the anthology. The poem, which wishes the omnipotence of the Emperor’s reign, amplifies its solemn atmosphere with its subtle melody line which readily provokes Miyabi, Yugen and Ma. The anthem seems to satisfy its aim to implant righteousness of the reign to the heart of the people in its distinctive expression.

Along with those subtle sensibility of art, however, the Japanese art reaches ultimate authenticity attaining a set of expressions known as ‘wabi’ and ‘sabi’: the former implies humble spirit of poverty and the latter gratified solitude. These terms are the most typically represented and perfected in ‘Haiku’, poems in seventeen syllables, which was wholly invigorated and renewed by the 17th century poet called Basho. He was a poet tinged by zen philosophy and asserted ‘muga’, the way in which the poet forgets the self to achieve a real unity of art and life. For Basho, haiku was a versatile medium to realize a status of non-attachment; one of the principle concepts of Buddhism.

Sabi has especially been favored by tea ceremony called ‘Cya-no-yu’ or ‘Sado’, the way of tea. There had been a habit to drink tea in Japan since ancient times but the formalization of its aesthetic appreciation had to wait until the appearance of Murata Juko in the 15th century. Although Juko, the tea master and a Buddhist monk lived in Nara and Kyoto, did not particularly emphasized zen as Basho did, he was provoked by the status of non-attachment as the seed to arrange the concept of Cha-no-yu. The simplified grace peculiar to this art even extends to the architecture and the garden which follow the plainness and quietude rejecting decoration and gaudiness. Cha-no-yu was further enhanced and perfected by Sen-no-Rikyu in the next century.

With the notion of wabi and sabi, Japanese art often tinted by sentimentality and nostalgia while showing the allure of courtly beauty expressed as Miyabi. Miyabi, however, indicates not only inherent lively good taste but also ironic state of the past glory. Showing an interest in the latter, Japanese art thus implicitly links up with the Western Romanticism preoccupied with pathos and melancholy. This would more palpably be illustrated after the end of Japan’s feudal society in the mid 19th century. Japanese art in the Meiji period made a daring appeal to the contemporary Western art in which various new styles were paralleled and the buds of modernism was evident notably in the art of impressionism, which has been one of the most favorable art expressions for the Japanese since then.

Note that the picture above shows the ‘Sazare-ishi” recently created and installed at Kashihara-jingu Shrine. Sazare-ishi literally means small pebbles and the picture illustrates rocks made by such pebbles. This monument is a sheer representation of the tanka-poem of Japanese anthem; it suggests that small pebbles, a metaphor of the people, get together to be a strong rock and enjoys the life under the eternal reign of the emperor of Japan.

Also note that unlike other pages of this website, the article above focuses on neither Nara’s special nor worthy visiting spots but contains useful information to appreciate Japanese creative culture in general. Concepts and terms mentioned above are attached to Japan’s classical high-art and Nara is a precious place which still preserves both the treasure and atmosphere of the times. Traveling Nara, visitors inevitably experience them through five senses; even the modern cuisines of Nara may make use of the aesthetics of the past.

Guides and Tours

Guided tours are provided by Kenichi Nakatsu who is an official tourist guide interpreter of Nara Prefecture. Living in the north western edge of Nara, Kenichi works as a guide to introduce relatively unknown along with the famous spots of this insightful region of Japan. Special tours will be made according to the request. For more information and queries, please contact Kenichi Nakatsu.

This website is created and maintained by Kenichi Nakatsu.

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