Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
button Contents button Archives button About Simply Haiku button Submissions button Search button
Winter 2009, vol 7 no 4

A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics
by Donald Richie
A Review by Robert D. Wilson


In writing about traditional Asian aesthetics, the conventions of a Western discourse—order, logical progression, symmetry—impose upon the subject an aspect that does not belong to it. Among other ideas, Eastern aesthetics suggests that ordered structure contrives, that logical exposition falsifies, and that linear, consecutive argument eventually limits.

As the aesthetician Itoh Teiji has stated regarding the difficulties that Japanese experience in defining aesthetics: "The dilemma we face [the Japanese] is that our grasp is intuitive rather than rational and logical."

Donald Richie: Preface

Today, many mainstream Western poets are redefining the Japanese poetic genres, tanka and haiku, to fit into an identity they can identify with, at the same time, questioning what makes a haiku a haiku and a tanka a tanka, seeing the aesthetic tools the Japanese incorporate into said poetry, through a different lens.

This experimentation with form, the West seeking its own identity and voice, can be a reckless path for those with little knowledge of tanka and haiku in regards to the Japanese concept of aesthetics used in poetic expression. One should comprehend the traditional to be credible in his exploration.

Donald Richie's book, A Tractate of Japanese Aesthetics, is an 80 page primer on Japanese aesthetics. Since Aesthetics affect almost all art produced in this island nation, Richie's book is an important introduction to the tools that make haiku, haiku; tanka, tanka; haiga, haiga; and their effects on other means of poetic expression.

Richie's Tractate by no means advocates that English speaking short form poets should disregard experimentation adapted to their own cultures, nor does the author advise them to glue themselves to Japanese aesthetic concepts. He sees Japanese aesthetics as tools and explains why they are used and what Westerners can learn from them.

Writes Richie, "For any consideration of aesthetics, East or West, the quality of apprehension is sensibility—an awareness, a consciousness, a sensibility. It is alive and often unfriendly to interpretation, and if it is to be pinned to the page, the feints and indirections are some of the means."

Take, for example the use of kigo in haiku. I am a strong advocate of the use of kigo in haiku but the points regarding its usage by Ritchie are cause for thought and evaluation as to how Occidentals should view and make use of kigo. Some of Japan's kigo words were encoded to mean something other than the obvious because of the political and social upheaval at the time they were used. Other kigo words in the Japanese sajiki relate to names, places, events, food, dress, and cultural beliefs most Westerners have not experienced.

To be authentic, those of us who are Occidental poets need to use kigo reflecting our own environments and cultural memories. Richie explains that to the Japanese, "the nature of Nature could not be presented through literal description. It could only be suggested, and the more subtle the suggestion [as in haiku] the more tasteful the work of art." Ritchie goes on to posit that in Japan, "Art was thus something to be experienced subjectively by the artist, not something to be regarded objectively. Similarly, appreciation emerged from the intimate depths of the artist (or patron) and not from any scrutinizing at a distance." To Europeans, "Nature as a guide was there, but its role was restricted to mimesis, realistic reproduction." Perhaps this aesthetic belief is influenced by the Buddhist belief that a man-made world is an illusion. Impermanence is stressed in Buddhist doctrine. Many of the aesthetic tools used to formulate a haiku, such as wabi, sabi, yugen, states Richie, "all indicate a quality that finds permanence only in its frankly expiring examples." On the other hand, mimesis (realistic reproduction) does not reflect the Occidental mindset and the use of mimesis ends up as sounding like we are writing from a cultural viewpoint we know little or nothing about. Richie, in his book, doesn't see a need for Occidental mimesis, as it contradicts the reality of Occidental poetry and instead serves as a contrivance or at the least an artful reproduction of another's artistry. As Richie points out, "The Western concept [in regards to aesthetics] finds beauty in something we admire for itself rather than for its uses, something that the philosopher Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804) called 'purposiveness without a purpose.'" Later in the Tractate, Richie elaborates on the Western mindset in regards to its conceptualization of aesthetics, stating that said conceptualization "elaborates into a doctrine insisting that, whatever the basic principles of beauty are, they are basic since all other principles (the good, the right) are derived from them." Reality does not play a major role in Japanese poetics. Most Japanese artists focus on indication, suggestion, and that which is below the surface, unsaid, yet sensed. Or as "Makoto Ueda has phrased it, a distinctive feature of traditional aesthetic thought in Japan was a tendency to value symbolic representation over realistic delineation," thus the void in their art of mimesis. Since Japan opened up it ports and opened itself up to the influences of Western thinking, and as this influence due to computer technology, media, movies, music, dress, etc. (nothing is a closed book anymore) increases, it permeates the thinking of a less traditional Japan. Western and Asian thinking are forming new frontiers of symbiotic ideation. Traditions on both sides of the ocean are becoming less and less exclusive due to exposure and intercommunication via the use of internet and television.

Back to Richie's minimalistic yet point on description of traditional Japanese aesthetics.

Richie's explanation of yugen, a much debated term among both Western and Japanese poets, is insightful and gives clarity to the word's true meaning.

Yugen as a concept refers to 'mystery and depth.' Yu means 'dimness, shadow-filled' and gen means 'darkness.' It comes from the Chinese term, you xuan, which meant something too deep either to comprehend or even to see. In Japan, the concept became (in Brower's words) "the ideal of an artistic effect both mysterious and ineffable, of a subtle, complex tone achieved by emphasizing the unspoken connotations of words and the implications of a poetic situation." Howard Rheingold describes yugen as "an awareness of the universe that triggers feelings too deep and mysterious for words."

Japanese aesthetic terms like yugen suggest impermanence, perishability, the unseen, the unspoken, that intangible something many Westerners immersed in realism find it hard to fathom, nor do they feel a need to. Donald Ritchie quotes David Boardwell: "The artistic concepts purportedly shaping all Japanese art (wabi, yugen, iki, mono no aware) often turn out to have complex and ambivalent histories, during which they were defined for various purposes. . . ." Boardwell ascertains that where some may posit that while many Westerners are losing touch "with premodern customs and ways of thinking, the Japanese have retained a living relation to theirs. Yet this idea itself is no less an invented tradition, with sources in twentieth century Japanese ethnology and cultural theory."

Ritchie, although a resident of Japan for over 40 years, goes on to explain and compare other aspects of traditional Japanese aesthetics in this "tractate" (treatise)—wabi, sabi, aware, and others—illuminating their uses and meaning in an objective, unbiased manner that neither emphasizes nor de-emphasizes how they are to be used in our own individual compositions.

Ritchie's summation at the end of the book states eloquently, in regards to aesthetics both Japanese and Occidental, "To enjoy good taste we only have to decide for ourselves what good sense is."


A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics
by Donald Richie
Stone Bridge Press
ISBN 978-1-933330-23-5

Donald Ritchie is widely admired for his "incisive observations on Japanese culture." Author Tom Wolfe describes Richie as "the Lafcadio Hearn of our time, a subtle, stylish, and deceptively lucid medium between two cultures that confuse one another: the Japanese and the American."