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This is a past article published in Hiragana Times. Each Japanese paragraph is followed by its English translation or vise versa, and furigana are placed above each kanji to make Japanese study even easier. [Magazine Sample] [Subscription Page]

Less is More – The Philosophy of Emptiness Embodied in Japanese Aesthetics

[From August Issue 2012]

201208-6

Contributor: Wang BAOSHENG (China)

During an excursion I took the other day with my friends to Roppongi, Tokyo, we came across an interesting scene: an area of lawn was encircled by a boundary made of chains. This little example of Japanese wit deeply impressed us and warned us not to cross the boundary; it was a more powerful and effective deterrent than strong words or high fences.

Indeed, the philosophy of emptiness, or “less is more,” can be seen in many aspects of Japanese life. For instance, the Japanese national flag is simply a red dot in the middle of a white square, but can interpreted in a variety of different ways.

If you have ever been to a Japanese teahouse garden, you might have seen a sekimori ishi or tome ishi stone, bound in a cross made from bracken or palm frond and placed on a path of stepping stones. This stone is not decorative, neither has it been left on the path by a lazy worker. Instead, it conveys the subtle message that a tea ceremony is underway and no one is allowed to enter. This method is much more appealing and persuasive than a straightforward “keep off the grass” sign.

With its tatami flooring, sliding doors and windows, the teahouse is a Japanese style room; devoid of furniture, it is a completely empty container. Yet the imagination of both the host and guest can fill this enclosed tranquil hollow space; in this peaceful atmosphere beautiful scenarios can be called to mind.

Owing to modernization, traditional Japanese houses have been gradually disappearing. Fortunately, during a field trip to Kyushu last year, I lodged at a traditional Japanese minshuku – a private home providing meals and lodging for travelers – giving me a good opportunity to observe and study the layout of a traditional Japanese building.

My attention was drawn to a space called the tokonoma. The tokonoma, or alcove, is a recessed space built into a traditional Japanese room, in which articles, such as calligraphy and pictorial scrolls, ikebana (flower arrangements), ceramics, or bonsai, are displayed. The items displayed are carefully chosen and their number kept to a strict minimum.

According to Japanese custom, the most important guest should be seated with his or her back facing the tokonoma, while the host should sit on the opposite side so that he cannot be accused of showing off the items displayed in the tokonoma to the guest. My Japanese friend, who had accompanied me on the visit, told me that the tokonoma is an integral part of a traditional Japanese room. It is no exaggeration to say that the tokonoma is the soul of a Japanese building.

The philosophy of emptiness is particularly reflected in this sacred space. Just imagine the light seeping in through the paper doors onto these carefully chosen objects that sit quietly in their special place, and, as the light gradually changes, a mysterious atmosphere is created. In this narrow empty space, a beauty can be sensed that is hard to put into words.

It seems that, from the Japanese perspective, an inconspicuous space is more meaningful, formidable and instructive than a flashy space crowded with ornaments. It is plainness and simplicity rather than adornment and complexity that count in getting your message across. In other words, “less is more.”


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