An Overview of The Beauty Principle in Japanese Art

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Words: 3062 |

Pages: 7|

16 min read

Published: Mar 14, 2019

Words: 3062|Pages: 7|16 min read

Published: Mar 14, 2019

In Japan, a country known for its creativity, art and its concepts can be put in one category called aesthetic. Aesthetic is the philosophical approach towards art. (Basinski, 2009) It is concerned with its beauty and value as well. Thus, there are different approaches towards art and that depends on each nation. Each country has its own traditions and culture that narrows down to a certain view on different aspects of life, and one of these view is regarding art. Back to Japan, it is very important to understand how Japanese view art and what were they influenced by in order to know and understand the concepts they used to produce “art”. Many say that Japanese aesthetics and art were not just influenced by Buddhists and Chinese but by the Western world as well. (Basinski, 2009) Since, throughout the centuries, Japan became more interacted with foreign members which yielded a more diverse art. The word “art” can be translated to Katachi in Japan, which basically means “form and design”. (Basinski, 2009) Therefore, one can understand that art is considered somehow living, has a purpose of functionality, and some spiritual simplicity. One of the art concepts used in Japan and that this paper will be discussing is “Yūgen (幽玄)”, which is part of the Japanese aesthetic. Furthermore, this paper will explain the symbolic meaning behind the name of this concept and where did it derive from. As well, it will clearly analyse this concept and discuss how it was influenced by the Japanese culture through the photography/paintings and theatres.

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One of the most important concepts found in the Japanese aesthetic, is definitely Yūgen. The word can be interpreted depending on the context. For example, some philosophical texts that were written in China say that Yūgen means “deep” &/or “mysterious”. (Wool, 2012) On the same hand, Japanese waka poetry suggests that Yugen means something that is “vague”. (Wool, 2012) From this, we can somehow understand that this concept is about art that is unclear or uneasy to understand. Additionally, probably art that has different interpretations, views and can be controversial when analyzed. In other words, mystery that is infinite and unknowable to our tiny human brains. Therefore, Yugen initiates our curiosity. Zeami, Motokiyo, a Japanese aesthetician, once wrote that Yūgen clearly means, “A profound, mysterious sense of the beauty of the universe… and the sad beauty of human suffering”. (Wool, 2012) From this quotation, one can say that Yūgen is a type of art that includes nature that is hard to understand and falling in love with it. It is nature in astonishing moments that one cannot find words to describe. To conclude all that in one sentence, Yūgen is showing the existence of real beauty, whether in nature or not, with only a few words or few brush strokes that can explain what is happening. (Basinski, 2009) That is because life is boring when all the facts are known. The silence that is found in most of Yugen’s art forms is the key part of the work because it allows us to look for the essence or the core of the subject. (Park, 2008) This will awake many inner thoughts and feelings. This concept believes that the more an art piece is clear the less interesting it is.

Examining the name of this concept, one can notice that Yūgen compromised from two characters (in the Japanese language). The two characters are 幽 and 玄.(Park, 2008) The first character 幽 which is the yū part of the word, means “shadowy-ness” and “dimness”. (Park, 2008) On the other hand, the other character 玄 which is the gen of the word, means “darkness” and “blackness”. (Park, 2008) Thus, from the name of this concept we understand that it has something to do with mystery and the unclear art.

Yūgen comes in different forms of art. Photography, painting, theatre and poetry are types of art that have used the concept of Yūgen. In photography, this concept can be noticed with details that make you take a second to observe. Innovating the viewer to start thinking, since the photograph is usually unclear. Usually a natural scene that has depth and mystery in it is widely used to represent Yūgen. For example here are two photographs that use the concept of Yūgen.

The first photograph shows many traits of Yūgen. First we have depth from the ocean to the flying birds in the sky to the rocks at the back. The rocks at the back are covered or hidden by fog which creates a dark and mysterious sense due to the fact that we are unclear of the rocks shape, size, and what it holds. The viewer stops for a couple of seconds to study the photo which is a piece of beauty and tranquility. On the other hand, the second photo as well uses the concept of Yugen. It uses this concept by the shadows and darkness effect which gives it a nice classical feeling. As well, there is depth in the photo. The mountains in the back lack detail and are solid black which give it a mysterious feeling since we do not have a clear understanding of its real appearance. Photographs capture a precious moment, and when the concept of Yugen is added, these moments become mystical, and full of elegant beauty. Photographs that use this concept are said to reveal in a way, the mystery behind the world for a very brief moment.

On the other note, paintings that use Yugen also follow similar steps or notes of that of photographs. The two following paintings of Japanese art focus more on the mysterious traits that Yugen is famous for.

The first painting is done by the great Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. It is called “The Dragon of Smoke”. (Spacey , 2012) The painting first has depth especially with the volcanic mountain and the smoke that is behind it. Furthermore, the mysterious part in this painting lies in the smoke that is rising in the background. What is mysterious about that is the fact that we do not know the real source that is producing this smoke. (Spacey , 2012) It may be another volcanic mountain, or forest burning. The fact that there are a lot of options and interpretations to this painting, it gives it a sense of mystery and initiates viewers brains. According to Zeami Motokiyo, an actor, Yugen can be seen as sad human suffering as well. Looking at the second painting we can see that clearly. The use of the red color gives the painting an anger and dangerous feeling. Plus the color red represents blood. In this ocean of red we see serious, mad faces blended in, pouring sad emotions. This creates a sense of darkness and mysteriousness. That is because we do not know the reason behind the suffering of these human faces. On the other hand, the use of color and variety of forms gave this painting a sense of depth.

The concept of Yugen can be widely seen in traditional theatres all around Japan. Yugen first originated in the Noh theatre. Zeami Motokiyo used the concept of Yugen in order to establish aesthetic principles of art. (Tsubaki, 1971) He first inherited this concept from poetry where it was first called yojo meaning overtone. (Tsubaki, 1971) He used this concept as his central idea for the rest of his plays and he further developed it. He wanted the concept to represent beauty of gentle gracefulness. Additionally, he combined the concept of Yugen with other concepts already used in the Noh theatre just as; monomane and hana. (Tsubaki, 1971) He did out of respect to his late father. At some point, the Yugen has become more then gentel grace onto something called Sabi. Sabi according to Zeami “is the serene simplicity of the aged or the feeling of tranquil loneliness”. (Tsubaki, 1971) Yugen was never appreciated in the West, thus no other concepts compete or were parallel to it, making Yugen the key existence of the Noh theatre. The reason why Yugen was very successful in theatre and still is, is that artist were able to feel it at once and more than scholars and interpreters. The plays in the Noh theatre were both responsive to the insubstantiality of the natural form and to the beauty. They tend to express an idea found in Taoism and Buddhism. (Tsubaki, 1971 According to Zeami, Yugen in theatre is acquired by; speech comes from the language of the nobility, the music is found in the smooth movement of song; in dancing it appears when the dancer’s figure and gestures are full of grace; in acting it is attained when the actor performs with taste and refinement. As well, if the actor is taking on a role of an aristocrat, he should dress as realistically as possible. On the other hand if he is impersonating a lowly person he should dress so to merely suggest the role. (Tsubaki, 1971) Zeami says that Yugen suggests that the performance of any actor should be colourful and brilliant. As well to all that, there is a certain type of speech that follows the concept of Yugen. The speeches by the actors must be spoken in “untranslatable words”. (Tsubaki, 1971) That is because they want to relate back to the original meaning of the concept of Yugen, which is mysterious grace. Thus, by speaking untranslatable terms the actors kind of confuse the audience allowing them, at the same time, to initiate their thinking to what the actor meant. After all, Yugen is all about one having the curiosity of understanding something that is not understood directly. Thus Zeami’s theatre plays required logic analysis which made it more and more interesting and challenging for the public.

Along with theatre play, the actors recite many poems that also follow the concept of Yugen. These poems add a graceful atmosphere and a unique addition to the play. A poem that has the Yugen concept in it is usually compromised of a word that is compressed from many meanings. A Yugen poem is when the depths of feelings are exhausted yet not expressed and when the words are too few will the poem be expressing one’s feelings. (Tsubaki, 1971) A poem should be approximately thirty-one syllables. (Tsubaki, 1971) A famous poet who adopted the concept of Yugen was Fujiwara Teika (1162-1241). He was inclined more towards the quality gracefulness and heavenly charm. His poems evoke feelings of gentleness and elegance. (Tsubaki, 1971) A philosopher named Sangoki once explained that poems that used Yugen usually deal with the theme of love. Putting it in other words, Yugen was seen, in poetry as a quality of love. (Tsubaki, 1971) It was because of poetry that Yugen rose to a point where it was used in daily life by the public. It was used as a term to praise something that is beautiful, elegant, and tasteful. The following is part of poem written by Zeami Motokiyo.

"To watch the sun sink behind a flower clad hill. To wander on in a huge forest without thought of return. To stand upon the shore and gaze after a boat that disappears behind distant islands. To contemplate the flight of wild geese seen and lost among the clouds. And, subtle shadows of bamboo on bamboo." (Tsubaki, 1971)

This piece of poetry is considered a Yugen for many reasons. One of which is that it emphasizes on the beauty of nature. Furthermore, the poem does have some mysterious grace in it. Some key terms that indicate that are; without thought of return, disappears behind islands, lost among the clouds and shadows of bamboo. Finally, the term Yugen has seen drastic improvements and change throughout the play and poetic scenes. However, no matter how much it changed its key meaning did not.

Just like the rest of the art forms, Yugen is widely used in architecture. Through filtration of space and ways to bring in light mystically, Yugen have brought architecture into a new meaning/stage in Japan and other Asian countries. In Japan, they do not just open a window to bring in light, but even with this process they use art. Since to them, light a sign of purify and if it entered in certain ways, it will create a peaceful atmosphere in the room. Furthermore, light makes the room more inviting and energetic. The following examples define greatly the process that Yugen forces the mind to go through, to wander and look inwards. It is like looking on towards an outside garden, it does not tell the viewer how and what to feel, but it simply guides the viewer to an introspective state of mind. This building is situated in Hiroshima overlooking a street with many passing cars. (DesignBlog, 2013)

  1. In order to obtain a sense of privacy and tranquility, a virtual garden and optical glass facade was placed on the street side of the building. You can view the garden from all rooms and the peaceful soundless scene of the passing cars. Sunlight entering through the glass creates a magnificent light pattern. (DesignBlog, 2013)
  2. When it rains, the raindrops hitting the skylight manifests water patterns on the entrance floor. Plus, the light that gets filtered through the virtual garden trees flickers on the floor of the living room. This enables the residents to enjoy this mystical change of light as the day passes and live in awareness of the changing seasons. (DesignBlog, 2013)
  3. A facade of some pure-glass blocks was installed. The pure-glass blocks, effectively shut out sound and enable the creation of an open, clearly articulated garden. Glass casting was put to produce glass of extremely high transparency, which is the raw material for optical glass. (DesignBlog, 2013)
  4. The facade was so large that it could not stand by itself if constructed by laying rows of glass blocks. Thus they created holes into the glass blocks and strung them to stainless steel bolths suspended from the beam that is placed about the facade. (DesignBlog, 2013)
  5. The flat bar is seated within the 50mm-thick glass block to render it invisible. The result was a transparent facade when seen from either the garden or the street. The facade appears like a waterfall flowing downward, scattering light and filling the air with freshness. (DesignBlog, 2013)

This magnificent and elegant building – The Optical Glass House -- brings two worlds together, the outside and the inside. (DesignBlog, 2013) Sitting indoor you feel like you are sitting outdoor and vice-versa. The glass blocks bring in mystical patterns of light creating a peaceful and graceful atmosphere. Along with buildings, the use of the concept Yugen is as well used in tea rooms. In this example, a tea room in the city of Hiroshima called Mikulan was built using the concept of Yugen. And it focuses widely on filtration of space and light into the room.

The plan of this tea room comes in a long-cherished form with a special program of four tearooms. (Nomura , 2008) Each of the tea rooms is independent and separated from each other. However, they can easily be opened to each other by light sliding partitions that are made out of rice paper called shoji. (Nomura , 2008) This emphasizes the interaction between in and out, & between the artificial and natural. The material was treated by playing with their thicknesses in order to play around with the shadows and lightness perception. (Nomura , 2008) Despite its tight connecting paths and tiny voids, the residence succeeded by combining the art craft mastery and the contemporary lifestyle. Materials like the cedar boards, concrete and tatami mat cover the inner spaces. (Nomura , 2008) These interact greatly with the light that goes through the many opening. The rest of the light that is coming in gets filtered by screen translucent walls. The two translucent boxes that are placed on the second level allow homogeneous daylight to penetrate through their double layered glass and rice paper membrane. (Nomura , 2008) They become light bright lanterns when the day goes dark. This way the sense of privacy in the house shifts towards an outstanding self-appreciation.

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In conclusion, Yugen which primary means something that is half revealed, and mysterious. But at the same time this concept emphasizes beauty and elegance of any piece of art. It’s like transforming the viewer into art and initiating his curiosity towards a work. Yugen has been transformed and defined slightly different in each art form. In painting/drawing, and photography is well, this concept is used in many ways. An art in these two forms that makes a view stop for a second to admire and understand that piece of art than it is considered Yugen. Yugen is usually translated in the beauty of nature that is found in photography and paintings. The paintings tend to be more mysterious and sending an unclear message which allows the viewer to provide different options and formulates a number of opinions. In theatre, the concept was first adopted in the Noh theatre. Certain natural background and uniforms parallel the meaning of the concept of Yugen. Everything in the play from the speech to the acting all the way to the music must be made in a certain way that relates to Yugen. From theatre, the level and importance of this concept was increased. A new form of art started to use this concept, poetry. On the other hand, the word Yugen became a daily used word throughout the society. The termed came to define anything that is beautiful, elegant and tasteful. Finally, architecture does have its share with this concept. The use of material and the playing around with natural elements to filter light that penetrates a structure are key points of the Yugen concept. Some use patterned material to create mystical patterned light reflecting on the floor of a certain function. These materials and concept is also used in tea rooms creating a tranquil atmosphere for the guests/users. Yugen is the unclear and not defined aspect of art, which triggers the mind to start thinking. And what is life without curiosity and without mind challenging factors, especially in art.

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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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An Overview Of The Beauty Principle In Japanese Art. (2019, March 12). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 11, 2023, from
“An Overview Of The Beauty Principle In Japanese Art.” GradesFixer, 12 Mar. 2019,
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