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Kuki Shūzō, , . The Structure of Iki
2004, In Hiroshi Nara (ed.). The Structure of Detachment: The Aesthetic Vision of Kuki Sh?z?. Univeristy of Hawai’i Press.
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Summary: One of the most important and creative works in modern Japanese aesthetics. Kuki develops a description of a uniquely Japanese sense of taste (iki) that brings together characteristics of the geisha, samurai, and Buddhist priest.

Comment: Best used by a reader with at least an introductory knowledge of Japanese aesthetics. Could be used comparatively with work on disinterest in western Aesthetics, e.g., Kant.

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Toshihiko Izutsu, , Toyo Izutsu. The Theory of Beauty in the Classical Aesthetics of Japan
1981, The Hague: Martibus Nijhoff Publishers.
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Publisher’s Note: The Japanese sense of beauty as actualized in innumerable works of art, both linguistic and non-linguistic, has often been spoken of as something strange to, and remote from, the Western taste. It is, in fact, so radically different from what in the West is ordinarily associated with aesthetic experience that it even tends to give an impression of being mysterious, enigmatic or esoteric. This state of affairs comes from the fact that there is a peculiar kind of metaphysics, based on a realization of the simultaneous semantic articulation of consciousness and the external reality, dominating the whole functional domain of the Japanese sense of beauty, without an understanding of which the so-called ‘mystery’ of Japanese aesthetics would remain incomprehensible. The present work primarily purports to clarify the keynotes of the artistic experiences that are typical of Japanese culture, in terms of a special philosophical structure underlying them. It consists of two main parts: (1) Preliminary Essays, in which the major philosophical ideas relating to beauty will be given a theoretical elucidation, and (2) a selection of Classical Texts representative of Japanese aesthetics in widely divergent fields of linguistic and extra-linguistic art such as the theories of waka-poetry, Noh play, the art of tea, and haiku. The second part is related to the first by way of a concrete illustration, providing as it does philological materials on which are based the philosophical considerations of the first part.

Comment: The authors clarify key aspects of what they consider to be the Japanese sense of beauty and artistic experience in terms of their philosophical structures. The first part of the book theorizes the major philosophical ideas related to beauty, while the second part is an illustration of these ideas by way of representative Japanese arts, including waka-poetry, n? drama, the art of tea, and haiku. This text provides a sophisticated overview of beauty in the classical Japanese aesthetics. It is accessible to readers without familiarity in aesthetics or Japanese philosophy, however it would be optimal for readers to have introductory knowledge in these areas.

Related reading:

  • Dōgen, Sanshōdōei. In Steven Heine, Japanese Poetry and Aesthetics in Dogen Zen. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1989.
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Yoshida Kenkō, , . Essays in Idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō
1998, Columbia University Press.
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Publisher’s Note: Despite the turbulent times in which he lived, the Buddhist priest Kenkō met the world with a measured eye. As Emperor Go-Daigo fended off a challenge from the usurping Hojo family, and Japan stood at the brink of a dark political era, Kenkō held fast to his Buddhist beliefs and took refuge in the pleasures of solitude. Written between 1330 and 1332, Essays in Idleness reflects the congenial priest’s thoughts on a variety of subjects. His brief writings, some no more than a few sentences long and ranging in focus from politics and ethics to nature and mythology, mark the crystallization of a distinct Japanese principle: that beauty is to be celebrated, though it will ultimately perish. Through his appreciation of the world around him and his keen understanding of historical events, Kenkō conveys the essence of Buddhist philosophy and its subtle teachings for all readers. Insisting on the uncertainty of this world, Kenkō asks that we waste no time in following the way of Buddha. In this fresh edition, Donald Keene’s critically acclaimed translation is joined by a new preface, in which Keene himself looks back at the ripples created by Kenkō’s musings, especially for modern readers.

Comment: The writings of Kenkō, a 14th century court poet turned Japanese Buddhist priest, reflecting on a wide range of ordinary and extraordinary subjects in the random style of zuihitsu (“follow the brush”) Japanese composition. His essays were highly influential on Japanese aesthetics, especially the value placed on impermanent, irregular, and imperfect beauty, and the place of understatedness in a turbulent world. This text is best accessed by a reader with a basic understanding of Japanese aesthetics and Buddhism.

Related reading:

  • Robert E. Carter The Japanese Arts and Self-Cultivation. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008.
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Yuriko Saito, , . The Moral Dimension of Japanese Aesthetics
2007, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 65(1): 85–97.
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Summary: Saito presents the moral dimension of Japanese aesthetics in terms of two design principles: respect for the quintessential, innate characteristics of things and honor and responsiveness to human needs. She analyzes the sensitivity to objects and people at work in a wide range of Japanese arts and crafts, including garden design, haiku, painting, pottery, and food, emphasizing that the cultivation of a moral attitude toward things is often practiced through aesthetic means.

Comment: This text is appropriate for a course on Japanese aesthetics and/or philosophy. It would work well in a cross-cultural discussion of everyday aesthetics and the relationship between ethics and aesthetics.

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Zeami Motokiyo, , . Zeami: Performance Notes
2008, New York: Columbia University Press
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Publisher’s Note: Zeami (1363-1443), Japan’s most celebrated actor and playwright, composed more than thirty of the finest plays of no drama. He also wrote a variety of texts on theater and performance that have, until now, been only partially available in English. Zeami: Performance Notes presents the full range of Zeami’s critical thought on this subject, which focused on the aesthetic values of no and its antecedents, the techniques of playwriting, the place of allusion, the training of actors, the importance of patronage, and the relationship between performance and broader intellectual and critical concerns. Spanning over four decades, the texts reflect the essence of Zeami’s instruction under his famous father, the actor Kannami, and the value of his long and challenging career in medieval Japanese theater.
Tom Hare, who has conducted extensive studies of no academically and on stage, begins with a comprehensive introduction that discusses Zeami’s critical importance in Japanese culture. He then incorporates essays on the performance of no in medieval Japan and the remarkable story of the transmission and reproduction of Zeami’s manuscripts over the past six centuries. His eloquent translation is fully annotated and includes Zeami’s diverse and exquisite anthology of dramatic songs, Five Sorts of Singing, presented both in English and in the original Japanese.

Comment: A compilation of writings on performance by the Japanese playwright, actor, and aesthetician, Zeami Motoyiko. His work addresses the principles of nō theater, including dramatic imitation, music, and movement, as well as ideas from Japanese philosophical aesthetics such as yūgen (“dark” or “mysterious”). Zeami also maintains a focus throughout his writings on jo-ha-kyū, a style of movement found in many Japanese arts, including theater, tea ceremony, and martial arts. This text is best used in a course on aesthetics, especially theater and cross-cultural aesthetics.

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