The aesthetic harmony of Japanese nature

In Japanese culture, nature is more than simply the natural world: it is an aesthetic, ethical, and sacred concept.
The Iris Gardens by Hiroshige, 1857 . Credit: Picturenow/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
The Iris Gardens by Hiroshige, 1857 . Credit: Picturenow/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
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In Japan, aesthetics is based on a relationship with nature. We recognise Hokusai’s wave, images of Mount Fuji, ink paintings of insects, flowers, and birds. Nature is never perceived as a simple object. The relationship is more profound – it is about an attitude, emotions of awe, and reverence for a cosmic interconnectedness.

The concept of nature in Japan differs from how it is comprehended in the West. Shizen, which is used to translate the word ‘nature’, is seen as ‘the spontaneous self-development and what results from that power.’ It is about the power of life that manifests itself as forms in nature: stones; steep mountains; rivers and rocks. Each and every flower and plant expresses its own character; the abundance of beauty in cascades of hanging wisteria, or pale pink cherry petals. The iris expresses itself as a slender form. Moss expresses itself as nuances of softness. The characteristic sounds of cicadas, fireflies, and dragonflies express life as being ephemeral.

Nature manifests itself as storms, dynamic volcanoes, tsunami, mist over a meadow, or as white shimmering moonlight. Nature expresses itself as well in non-form, spaces in the background of visible things – both the sunny side and the shadowy side of a hill.

The Chinese characters for the Japanese term shizen literally mean ‘from itself thus it is.’ It expresses a mode of being rather than the existence of a natural order tout court. Nature manifests itself in characters, inclinations, and forces. The artist, as well as the beholder, are trained to listen to these manifestations of powers, and attune to it. In so doing, something of an invisible, formless insight is evoked in the mind. There is nothing intellectual, or even sayable, about shizen. In traditional arts, like flower arrangement, calligraphy, and pottery, the artist works in silence, in deep concentration as in a meditative flow. This translates into the artwork. Sensitivity, delicacy, poetic feeling, these are only clumsy words. In shizen, the artwork itself evokes these kinds of emotions in shapes or structures, in details, in small scales.

Japanese flower arranging, known as Ikebana. Shoka arrangement by the 40th headmaster Ikenobo Senjo, drawing from the Soka Hyakki by the Shijo school, 1820. Credit: Creative Commons.

The ancient Japanese people recognised every phenomenon in nature as a manifestation of the kami (god or gods), sacred powers within nature. Although views of nature differ somewhat between Shinto and Buddhism, there are some general patterns. Nature is revered for its sacredness and for beauty in its own right. It is revered not so much as an abstract entity, but concretely in terms of specific mountains, rocks, waterfalls, and trees in particular locales. An intimate relationship is developed toward certain things in nature, because they are believed to manifest particular powers or places for a certain deity. Both religions posit that human life and kami dwelled together in nature, sharing the same land. There was no opposition between humanity and nature. The dark sides of nature, calamities and disasters, were sides of deities and their powers as well – another aspect of duality. A slope has two sides. In a three-dimensional world there cannot only be goodness. Suffering, opposition, and conflict are part of the world. In a similar vein, ambiguous human inclinations were seen as effects of malevolent kamis and their influence on emotions.

Amaterasu, one of the central kami in the Shinto faith. Utagawa Kunisada (歌川国貞; b. 1786, d. 1865). Credit: Creative Commons.

In Japanese culture, nothing is too small to study. By observing a a petal, a leaf, or a shell, a pattern becomes visible. It reveals a metaphysical law of nature – a snowflake is a fractal pattern, a shell reveals the pattern of the golden section. Each part can be understood as reflecting the whole. The part contains the whole as much as the whole contains the part.

Holism maintains that reality is a differentiated one. The ancient Japanese worldview is congruent with the Daoistic yin and yang continuous relation in motion, in flux. Yin and yang are powers in a relational tension that affect each other. By observing nature in whatever form or non-form, metaphysical principles are revealed in an organic manner. Nature becomes an integral part of human knowledge of life, wisdom beyond words and intellectual analysis. Contemplation of nature and the power of nature evokes feelings of interconnectedness.

In ancient Japanese thinking and attitudes, feelings of awe towards all living things were important to cultivate. Heart, in Japanese kokoro, means the heart-mind, not only the heart as an organ, but the seat of emotions. In all East Asian cultures the seat of the mind is the heart, not the brain. The relation to nature and land is based on an intimate relationship with life, with nature in all its forms.

The sacred land

Japanese gods are not seen as individual physical bodies. Both form and body are seen as temporary and transient. In Shinto, people sensed dwelling places for kami in beautiful rocks or mountains. High mountains are diffuse with supernatural forces. Shinto’s polytheistic view says all gods are interconnected and spring from a single source – the essence of Shinto. Kami are both many and one, individual entities and parts of the whole. Iwakura, sacred rocks, were perceived as concentrated energy where the divine was present. The most well-known iwakura in Japan is the Meoto iwa, the twin rocks in the sea outside Ise, in the south-east of Japan’s main island.

Meotoiwa, ‘husband and wife cliff’, Futami, Mie, Japan 夫婦岩、三重県二見町. Credit: Creative Commons.

Sacred spaces and places became so because of their beauty. The deities manifest in beautiful places as an expression of a high and valuable power. Beautiful things and places were naturally worth reverence, and Shinto shrines are just such places. The difference between a Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple can be discerned by the Shinto torii, a vermillion coloured gate, and shimegawa, a plaited straw rope tied around an old tree or stone indicating sacredness. Yuniwa, literally meaning ‘purified court,’is the name of the sacred space where the kami are welcomed to be present, with a rock at the centre. Sakaki, an evergreen tree, serves as an invocation of the kami, a spiritual antenna for themto descend. These ideas derive from a very ancient source, the history book The Chronicles of Japan [Nihonshoki], dating from 720 AD.

Shinto priestesses performing a sacred dance during a joint memorial service to mark the 10th anniversary of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. Credit: Satoshi Takahashi/LightRocket via Getty Images

Rites of purification are expressed in many ways. White paper, when cut and folded in special sacred forms called hakuhei, do not depict kami. Rather, they serve as purification objects, expressing pristine purity, and such rituals have influenced aesthetic heritage in Japanese culture. Purification is a crucial act in Shinto. Kegare, or impurity and uncleanness, has to be transformed into physical, mental, and spiritual purity. The evoked feelings of sacredness are abstract. Origami is a well-known everyday art of paper folding. Paper as a material, in different types qualities, is used frequently in Japanese arts and everyday objects.

The interconnectedness and sanctity of all that exists is also a fundamental part of Japan’s Buddhist heritage. Saichō (766-822 AD; the founder of Japan’s Tendai school of Buddhism) proclaimed the ‘Buddha nature of trees and rocks’. Kukai (774-835 AD) affirmed that sentient and non-sentient beings alike were the body of the Buddha, the great divine. The Zen-master Dōgen wrote a remarkable essayKeiseisanshoku, ‘Valley Sounds, Mountain Sights’, that emphasises that everything animate and inanimate in nature speaks, and they all speak, in their depths, the truth of existence. ‘Mountains and waters of themselves become wise ones and sages, they become our teachers.’

Landscape gardens and rock gardens

The background of Japanese landscape gardening is also influenced by Shinto, while Buddhism, and especially Zen, provide concepts for sacred spaces that influence stone and gravel gardens.

Such stone and gravel courts, kare-san-sui, dry landscape gardens in Zen temples, also elaborate another concept, that of emptiness: ku. One of the most well-known abstract gardens is Ryōan-ji in Kyoto. Fifteen stones are carefully arranged on white gravel, a sea of emptiness. The garden is a meditation place.


Cherry blossom at the rock garden of Ryoan-ji Temple in Kyoto, Japan. Credit: Didier Moïse

In Buddhism, the highest and richest of all spaces in the cosmos are also expressed as ku.The metaphysical theory posits that emptiness is in the background of reality, the negative form; the positive form is objects, the trees and flowers, stones and birds. This expression of emptiness emphasises a search for a symbol for that which is beyond our visible reality. The empty courts with rocks and gravel represent the higher values in life, seen as more valuable than the living world of animated life and colours.

The garden of the Silver Pavilion, Ginkaku-ji, built by the eighth Muromachi shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimasu (1436-1490), in the eastern hills of Kyoto, is another place where ku is manifested, this time in relationship between background and foreground. We experience the coolness of straight raked lines of white gravel, there are no rocks, simply an abstract, strict form made of sand. Even if the place is characterised by its simplicity, it is asymmetrical and varied in different textures and materials. The colours are sparse and monochrome. The evoked feeling is awe and reverence for nature in another form, that of an astringent and perfect imperfection.

Ikebana – arrangements of Flowers and Plants

The sense of awe towards nature is manifested in a close relationship towards some of its elements. In ikebana, the art of flower arrangement, for example, this is seen in two aspects, the metaphysical and the practical. The idea of ikebana is to be intuitive, listening to plants, being attentive and in harmony with each one, recognising its character. In so doing, one cultivates an understanding of reality – nature becomes a silent teacher. While making a flower arrangement, something else is achieved – self-cultivation. The art of flowers evokes – and requires – a slow inward transformation and maturation. This transformation seeks a union of heart with the flowers’ heart, and in extension, with the universal heart.

In ikebana ‘the principle of three’ is a concrete way of relating to three different but interconnected levels of reality, human (so), heaven (shin) and earth (gyo). The human being is in the middle, an essential position for connecting with heaven and earth, communicating with the plants and the whole universe. This is manifested as a rule of composition while making flower arrangements. The principle of three can be modulated in many ways, as a kind of basic frame.

Gustie Herrigel who lived in Japan just after the Second World War with her husband Eugene Herrigel, describes her way of learning ikebana from a master. ‘The Ten Virtues’ give us a feeling of what ikebana does to the practitioner and how it  transforms both the artist and the beholder.

  1. Flower-setting brings high and low into a spiritual relationship.
  2. Carry ‘Nothing’ in the heart, it is Everything.
  3. Quiet, clear feeling. You can reach solution without thinking.
  4. Freedom from all cares.
  5. Intimate, sensitive relationship with plants and the essence of Nature.
  6. Love and esteem all men.
  7. Fill the room with harmony and reverence.
  8. ‘True spirit’ nourishes life. Combine flower arrangements with feeling of reverence.
  9. Harmony of body and soul.
  10. Self-denial and reserve; freedom from evil.

In ikebana, empty space also belongs in the picture. It helps to make an image of the invisible, a form of the formless. Freedom from all cares means to accept even the merciless blows of fate, like earthquakes and other natural catastrophes.

Hana-no-kokoro, the flower-heart, has a great power to transform. The atmosphere in a room can be transformed by the presence of a flower, it animates the space. ‘Being together with flowers sensitizes the whole atmosphere. People could not behave meanly in the presence of flowers.’ As Herrigel says, a current of love flows from the flower-heart into the human and back to the universe. Study of flowers is as important as the study of life itself, in its variety. Flowers have a power to teach humankind, without words, without doctrines or rules. To let flowers be present in children’s lives, for example, is a way of teaching them responsibility. Flowers evoke feelings of protection – connecting with them helps to naturally develop an emotional and ethical life that springs from a personal relationship to nature.

This attitude towards flowers is not a mood, it is not a decoration, it is not about merely looking at flowers. It is to live with flowers and plants. To attune to flowers is to attune to the harmony of nature as it is expressed in itself. It is a kind of tuning fork for ethical awareness. To let the power of flowers transform oneself and their surroundings is a way to make use of beauty as knowledge.

Japanese culture embraces a holistic view of nature not simply in a academic, theoretical terms, but as a profoundly practical form of life rooted in ethics.

Elisabet Yanagisawa Avén

Elisabet Yanagisawa Avén has a background as independent fashion artist. She has been lecturer in fashion/costume at Konstfack, Stockholm. Yanagisawa is doctoral student at Gothenburg university in Artistic Research. Her thesis “Proximus sensibilis – the Abyss of the Surface” is about non-representation and artistic processes, intuitive concepts in Japanese aesthetics and congruent aesthetic ontology and epistemology – Spinoza, Bergson and Deleuze. She is curator of historical and contemporary art: at Värmlands Museum she has curated the exhibition of the art collection “Insight & Outlook” (2019); “The Cloud of Unknowing – abstract contemporary art with Sophie Tottie, Madeleine Hatz, Sigrid Sandström, Nina Roos and Martin Erik Andersen (2017); “Japan and Racken” (2017). She is currently teaching at Beckman’s School and works as an independent artist and writer.

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