Aesthetics in Japanese Arts

Japanese aesthetics is closely tied in with what is considered beautiful in Japanese culture. An astonishing and unsurpassed aesthetic sense is grasped, yet one can be bewildered as to how to make sense of it. This is particularly obvious in traditional music and theater such as Kabuki and Noh. There is a pace and distinctiveness in these arts unlike Western music and theater. This difference is such that by viewing Japanese arts from our typically (and I would even say, to a large extent hegemonic) Western viewpoint, we might miss the point, although we can greatly enjoy them, and acknowledge their unmistakable aesthetic.

In this article, I would like to briefly present three of the main principles of the Japanese aesthetic, principles that also play a role in other aspects of Japanese lives and minds, in the hope to give to travelers and enthusiasts of Japanese culture a way to better enjoy and aesthetically grasp Japanese arts.

These three concepts are the following: naru, which means "becoming", ma, which is translated as "space", but which means much more than a bare physical space, and jo-ha-kyû, an aesthetic concept which structures most forms of art and which is closely related to naru.

Naru means "becoming", but a becoming dependent on time, in which all events of life flow progressively from one to another, or more specifically, in which each event is created from the previous one in an unbroken time span. The notion of becoming in Japanese philosophy is a creative process controlled by a vital energy called musubi (literally meaning the spirit of fecundity), which propels the events of life from one state to another through time. In this line of thought, time is viewed as a natural process through which life evolves. It is not an abstract concept distinct from life as is the case in Western cultures. Time is viewed as fundamentally fluid; it cannot thus be fixed and strictly organized. Time in this particular sense cannot be controlled or manipulated; it can only be grasped through its motions. It is a time impregnated with all that it brings to life. Time is thus perceived as a dynamic and evolutionary flow of life, each event being a creation or an outcome of the previous one. The concept of naru has its origin in traditional Japanese society before its main contacts with China and Chinese influences in the second half of the first millennium, predating the advent of Buddhism.

Ma, for its part, is generally translated as "space," but it can also mean "time." It refers to the space between events, as it is being perceived by someone, as well as being expressed by an artist. It is not an abstractly calculated space, as is conceived by Westerners, but rather a sensory, and I would even suggest, a "sensually" perceived space. For musicians and actors, ma refers to the expressive space between musical events; it becomes in this sense a measure of artistic expression. For art lovers, it is that space between oneself while perceiving, and what is being perceived in the flow of time. This space is sensory because it determines how our senses ar

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