Glossary of Japanese aesthetics

From SamuraiWiki
Jump to navigationJump to search

A number of terms appear time and again to describe certain elements or aspects of Japanese aesthetic creativity and appreciation.

  • Aware (哀れ) - pathos, something which is emotionally "moving." See also mono no aware. Associated especially with the Tale of Genji.
  • Basara (婆娑羅) - early in the Muromachi period, a term referring to the extravagant and excessive behavior and tastes of the newly wealthy (nariagari); by the time of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, however, the term came to refer to a somewhat more tempered aesthetic, incorporating both Yoshimitsu's showy style (as epitomized in the Kinkaku-ji) and a love of exotic objects (especially karamono).[1]
  • En (艶) - "charming," or visually beautiful. Associated especially with the Tale of Genji.
  • Fûryû (風流) - used frequently in the titles of ukiyo-e works, especially mitate-e (clever reworkings of famous scenes), where it is often used somewhat interchangeably with terms such as yatsushi ("reworking") and fûzoku (風俗, "customs" or "popular/folk culture"). Tim Clark suggests the translation of "elegant" for fûryû, which might more literally be translated as "stylish" or "in the style," marking the way a classic theme, characters, or scene is depicted in a mitate-e work in a contemporary, fashionable, up-to-date way (e.g. by portraying characters from the Tale of Genji in the most up-to-date current fashions).[2] The term fûryû is also used in fûryû nô, a form of Noh theatre which emerged in the late 15th to early 16th century, featuring more elaborate, complex, and lively plots than earlier Noh plays had.[3]
  • Ga (雅) - see Miyabi below.
  • Makoto (誠) - sincerity
  • Miyabi (雅) - refinement, elegance, courtliness, sophistication. Miyabi could incorporate or refer to other aesthetics, including things which were aware, en, or okashi, but miyabi includes an implication that the person appreciating these things in this way is educated, cultured, and possesses the refinement or sophistication to appreciate such things correctly, and to understand, or feel, the more profound symbolic resonances or emotional connotations of the thing being appreciated. The court music of the Nara and Heian periods is known as gagaku (lit. "refined entertainments" or "elegant music"), with the character for miyabi being read as ga. In later periods, especially in the Edo period, the character for miyabi, read as ga, came to be commonly used to refer to elegance and refinement in contrast to zoku (俗) - things vulgar or mundane.
  • Okashi (可笑し) - though related to the modern word okashii, meaning "strange" or "weird," the classical term okashi referred to things which were cute, delightful, or amusing. The term is used extensively, in particular, by Sei Shônagon in her Pillow Book (Makura no sôshi). The term is not used to describe sad, tragic, or moving things, except ironically, parodying the effort by the aesthetic of aware to find profundity and pathos in the simplest of things.
  • Sabi (寂) - the aesthetic of possessing a patina of age, an antique appearance
  • Wabi (侘) - an aesthetic of finding appeal in rustic simplicity, extending into the attraction of imperfections or imbalances
  • Yûgen (幽玄) - an aesthetic of mysteriousness, associated especially with the Noh theatre.


  • “The Vocabulary of Japanese Aesthetics I,” in William Theodore de Bary et al eds. Sources of Japanese Tradition 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia U. Press, 2001), pp. 197-204.
  1. H. Paul Varley, "Ashikaga Yoshimitsu and the World of Kitayama: Social Change and Shogunal Patronage in Early Muromachi Japan", in John Hall and Toyoda Takeshi eds., Japan in the Muromachi Age, University of California Press (1977), 202.
  2. Tim Clark, "Mitate-e: Some Thoughts, and a Summary of Recent Writings," Impressions 19 (1997), 6-27.
  3. Beng Choo Lim, "Performing Furyû Nô: The Theatre of Konparu Zenpô," Asian Theatre Journal 22:1 (2005), 33-51.