Tuesday, September 08, 2009

On Japanese simplicity and aesthetics in Adbusters

This is a short series of three related but discrete meditations on simplicity, minimalism and recycling commissioned by my editors at Adbusters magazine. The series was published to accompany a longer feature by my friend Amelia Newcomb, senior editor at the Christian Science Monitor, exploring the Japanese concept of wabi sabi, what some call 'the art of impermanence,' celebrating the bare essentials, humbleness and eloquent ruin. Amelia visits the town of Kamikatsu, whose residents seek to banish all waste by 2020. You can read her excellent feature story here.

Some readers of the online version of this series understandably seem to think the three segments comprise an organic whole, but that's not the case. The three independent short pieces were interspersed with Amelia's feature in the magazine's print edition, just as intended, and should be read separately. Had I written them as a single, coherent article, they would contain many more segueways and qualifications that the brief of 250-word shorts did not allow.

Here's the opening salvo, so to speak:

Japanese Simplicity

"Japanese architect Tokujin Yoshioka compared his native sense of design to a cube of tofu. Upon first encounter, the smooth, white, slightly pocked surface might appear inorganic or even inedible. But the first bite unleashes a richness of flavor and exquisite texture that can only come from hours of careful preparation.

From the outside tofu looks simple, almost unassuming: a block of soft pale stuff defined by its absences. There is no color, distinctive shape or scent to associate with it. But the act of eating fresh tofu – from the delicacy required when selecting a bite-sized cube with your chopsticks to avoid squishing it into bits, to the patience demanded of your palate to savor the subtleties of its taste – is unique and unrivaled.

So it goes with Japanese aesthetics, which are so often characterized by what’s missing. In traditional Noh theater (which dates back to the 14th century), the near lack of movement on the stage is critical to the desired dramatic effect. And there are no garish bouquets in ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement: just spindly stems and the hollow spaces between them, accentuating the occasional touches of floral color. In a three-line haiku, the white spaces surrounding the text are as eloquent as the printed aspect of the poem’s expression.

It has become de rigueur in our age to speak of leaving “small footprints” on the planet. In Japan, an archipelago slightly smaller than the state of California, “less is more” has been a tenet for centuries. As a senior professor at the University of Tokyo once told me, “the only way to leave a smaller footprint would be to die.”" [read the other two here]


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