Boyé Lafayette De Mente
When Westerners first began to visit Japan in the mid-1500s they were struck by the refined beauty of the country’s arts and crafts. It was a kind of beauty that they had never seen before.
As noted in my book The Japanese Have a Word for It there was a character about Japanese-made things that gave them a look that was distinctive from similar things made in Korea and China, from which the original technology had come.
This special quality of Japanese things was so commonplace that the Japanese themselves did not consider it unusual. Everything they made, including simple household utensils, had the same quality.
Japan’s traditional arts and crafts owed their special character to a merging of cosmic and Shinto concepts of harmony, sensuality and spirituality—a cultural factor that remains very much in evidence and in force among Japanese artists and craftsmen in present-day Japan.
The Shinto concept of harmony included the size and shape of things, how they were to be used, and their relationship with people. The spiritual element in Japanese things incorporated the essence and spirit of the materials used, and was based on both respecting and revering these inherent qualities.
The sensual element in Japanese arts and crafts was reflected by the things that people automatically find attractive—harmony in shape, in size, in the relationship of the parts, in the interaction of colors, in their feel when touched, and in the vibrations they project.
After generations of refining their designs and techniques, Japan’s master artists and craftsmen achieved a kind and quality of beauty that transcended the obvious surface manifestations of their materials—a kind of beauty that was described as yugen (yuu-gane), meaning “mystery” or “subtlety.”
Again quoting from my book, “Yugen beauty referred to a type of attractiveness—beneath the surface of the material but in delicate harmony with it—that registers on the conscious as well as the subconscious of the viewer. It radiates a kind of spiritual essence.”
The skill and techniques that were going into Japan’s arts and crafts by the 10th century became so deeply embedded in the culture that they were not distinguished from daily life, and were reflected in everything the Japanese did, from designing and building castles, gardens, homes and palaces to the creation of hand-made paper.
Despite the mostly Western façade that today’s Japan presents to the world yugen beauty is still very much in evidence in the arts and crafts, in traditional restaurants, inns, shops, wearing apparel and elsewhere in many unexpected places.
Yugen is another Japanese word I recommend that other people learn and use because it clearly identifies a concept that in other languages requires several sentences to explain—and in itself is an example of the traditional Japanese propensity to refine things down to their essence.
This compulsive reduction tendency of the Japanese is also dramatically demonstrated in their ability to design and manufacture miniaturized hi-tech products and in using nanotechnology to create new processes and new materials.
For a definitive look at the Japanese view and creation of yugen beauty, see my book, Elements of Japanese Design—Key Terms for Understanding & Using Japan’s Classic Wabi-Sabi-Shibui Concepts.
Copyright © 2007 by Boyé Lafayette De Mente
For a more definitive discussion of yugen and more than 450 other key Japanese terms see the author’s The Japanese Have a Word for It (McGraw-Hill) and Japan’s Cultural Code Words (Tuttle Publishing); both available from Amazon.com, other online booksellers, and bookstores worldwide. To see a full list of his cultural-insight books on Japan, Korea, China and Mexico, go to his personal website: http://www.phoenixbookspublishers.com/.