A New Aesthetic

Japanese Simplicity

The only way to leave a smaller footprint would be to die.
Photo: Noh Mask, Koomote

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.”

Karin Bubas - 
Green Trees
Photo courtesy http://philip.greenspun.com

Seventeen lines and no mouth can equal global domination. If you’re a little Japanese cat with a big red bow, that is.

In just over 30 years Hello Kitty has become a multibillion-dollar model of resourceful minimalism within the global juggernaut of Japanese pop culture. From Tokyo to Tehran, her expressionless, barely sketched visage adorns key chains, backpacks, toiletries and even a Hello Kitty-themed airline jet. Late last year an entire maternity hospital with Hello Kitty imagery adorning bedspreads and birth certificates opened to great fanfare in Taiwan.

But why is she mouthless? Because when you look at Hello Kitty, or “Kitty-chan,” as she is affectionately known in Japan, she will feel just like you do. As Japanese anime critic Hideki Ono says: “Your brain projects the missing information, then your imagination fills it in and feels the pleasure of participation.”

The interactive nature of Japan’s pop culture aesthetic is integral to its worldwide appeal. Since anime and manga pioneer Osamu Tezuka began sketching his first characters in the barren ruins of postwar Japan, the nation’s producers of pop cultural icons like Kitty, Pikachu (Pokemon) and Totoro have excelled at creating unforgettable imagery with a few well-drafted lines, little or no color and astonishingly low overhead. As they did with seemingly unappetizing foodstuffs like seaweed and preserved raw fish, the Japanese use what few resources they have at hand to craft a culture that now commands global appeal and respect.

Take the jerky, hyper-fast motion in anime features that can look like Disney on speed. It’s the result of too few yen to match the super-fluid style of Bambi and Snow White, but Japanese animators have transformed what was a limitation into a vivid, edgy and über-cool 21st-century aesthetic. Think of the innovative patchwork street fashions from Tokyo and Osaka that are leading today’s fashion trends. Most of them were pieced together by kids from bins of western vintage wear with their own native sense of lean, clean lines.

Make the most of what you have, keep your costs low and lose the excess – even if it’s a mouth.

Karin Bubas - 
Green Trees
Karin Bubas - Green Trees

Among the first bits of advice I offer to friends visiting me in Japan is this: hang on to your trash.

One element of urban blight peculiarly absent from Japan’s cityscapes is the smelly, overstuffed and often butt-ugly garbage can. Yet Japanese streets and sidewalks are notoriously pristine, swept daily by shopkeepers and residents alike of the cigarettes, snack wrappers, calcified wads of chewing gum and other detritus that litter the landscapes of most cities around the world. A friend from New York visiting Tokyo for the first time was understandably baffled by the cleanliness of the crowded metropolis. “What do these people do?” he asked me, only half-joking. “Eat their trash?”

Not quite. But they do take very good care of it. In Japan the concept of kirei, or beauty, is analogous to being supremely clean: like the long, rectangular and perfectly unblemished tatami mats stretching away from the entrances of local temples. And if cleanliness is godly, then recycling is angelic.

The bins that you do find in Japan, usually outside convenience stores or in train stations, are explicitly labeled: combustibles, non-combustibles, plastic bottles, aluminum cans, et cetera. They’re also often colorfully painted, some featuring cartoon images of smiley faces urging people to separate and dispose.

Urban residents in Japan comply by stuffing their bits of garbage into briefcases, pockets and backpacks and carrying them until they arrive at a recycling corner, where they methodically drop each item into its assigned receptacle. I have four such bins in my Tokyo apartment: one each for plastic and glass, two for burnable trash.

It might sound like a pain, but once you become accustomed to the ritual, it’s actually quite welcome – a breather in a busy day and a nod to beauty that just might help save our beleaguered earth.

Roland Kelts is a Contributing Editor at Adbusters, a lecturer at the University of Tokyo and the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the US. His forthcoming novel is called Access.

62 comments on the article “Japanese Simplicity”

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Anonymous

I was struck by the same thing when I moved from California to D.C. 9 months ago: littered with plastic bags and styrofoam, cigarette butts everywhere, even just a foot away from a trash can. In CA, at the supermarket, 7-11, gas stations, malls there are recycling cans which people adhere to. Recycling is profitable there; gives needed income to the homeless, or helps to support the budget of the Los Angeles Conservation Corps. D.C. residents appear contemptuous, or totally ignorant of the consequences of their litter. I think it's an east coast thing.

Anonymous

I was struck by the same thing when I moved from California to D.C. 9 months ago: littered with plastic bags and styrofoam, cigarette butts everywhere, even just a foot away from a trash can. In CA, at the supermarket, 7-11, gas stations, malls there are recycling cans which people adhere to. Recycling is profitable there; gives needed income to the homeless, or helps to support the budget of the Los Angeles Conservation Corps. D.C. residents appear contemptuous, or totally ignorant of the consequences of their litter. I think it's an east coast thing.

Anonymous

Funny. Everytime I'm in California, I catch myself thinking what an amazing place it must have been before all of the damned Californians got there to trash it.

Anonymous

Funny. Everytime I'm in California, I catch myself thinking what an amazing place it must have been before all of the damned Californians got there to trash it.

Anonymous

I lived in Japan several years, and this article is optimistic at best. Tokyo is indeed a delightfully clean city...lacking in green areas and completely separated from nature, where people are so alienated from the environment that even a tiny mosquito will send girls into shrill screams of panic (followed by a hearty cloud of toxic insect spray and a healthy dose of chemical repellent). And "kirei" does not necessarily mean "healthy" or even "environmentally friendly". I lived in a small city in the south, and unfortunately things are not very different (as 80% of the population lives in urban areas). It is also a lot dirtier. Kids will go out camping or to the beach and leave tons of rubbish lying around. It's usually an elderly person who will clean up later on...but when they die, who will deal with the pollution? I did a little experiment with my 10 year old class once: I wrote three words on the whiteboard, "concrete", "tree", and a neutral one like "book", and then asked them to write adjectives suitable for each of these nouns. The results were something like this: Concrete: Safe, clean, efficient, pretty (kirei!). Tree: Dirty, dangerous, smelly Book: Interesting ("interesting" in Japanese can also mean fun or enjoyable), boring, long, pretty (?). It seems I strayed from the subject, but it shows you how the mentality of the Japanese nowadays is hardly the romantic, eco-loving culture most Japanophiles like Mr. Kelts will lead you to believe. In fact, the Japanese determination to make everything as asceptic as possible has led to huge environmental and overconsumption problems (don't forget Japan is just another colony of the US in economic terms). Products are wrapped in 50 layers of plastic, and the use of chemical cleaners is one of the world's highest. As for recycling, yes, recycling laws in Japan are very strict, and each neighbourhood has its own rubbish nazi (usually in the form of an old lady from the neighbour's council), making sure that you separate and dispose of everything the right way. But I ask myself, rather than recycling so much (which is great), shouldn't they try to produce less rubbish in the first place?

Anonymous

I lived in Japan several years, and this article is optimistic at best. Tokyo is indeed a delightfully clean city...lacking in green areas and completely separated from nature, where people are so alienated from the environment that even a tiny mosquito will send girls into shrill screams of panic (followed by a hearty cloud of toxic insect spray and a healthy dose of chemical repellent). And "kirei" does not necessarily mean "healthy" or even "environmentally friendly". I lived in a small city in the south, and unfortunately things are not very different (as 80% of the population lives in urban areas). It is also a lot dirtier. Kids will go out camping or to the beach and leave tons of rubbish lying around. It's usually an elderly person who will clean up later on...but when they die, who will deal with the pollution? I did a little experiment with my 10 year old class once: I wrote three words on the whiteboard, "concrete", "tree", and a neutral one like "book", and then asked them to write adjectives suitable for each of these nouns. The results were something like this: Concrete: Safe, clean, efficient, pretty (kirei!). Tree: Dirty, dangerous, smelly Book: Interesting ("interesting" in Japanese can also mean fun or enjoyable), boring, long, pretty (?). It seems I strayed from the subject, but it shows you how the mentality of the Japanese nowadays is hardly the romantic, eco-loving culture most Japanophiles like Mr. Kelts will lead you to believe. In fact, the Japanese determination to make everything as asceptic as possible has led to huge environmental and overconsumption problems (don't forget Japan is just another colony of the US in economic terms). Products are wrapped in 50 layers of plastic, and the use of chemical cleaners is one of the world's highest. As for recycling, yes, recycling laws in Japan are very strict, and each neighbourhood has its own rubbish nazi (usually in the form of an old lady from the neighbour's council), making sure that you separate and dispose of everything the right way. But I ask myself, rather than recycling so much (which is great), shouldn't they try to produce less rubbish in the first place?

Anon.

I saw a lot of the same in Japan. Maybe because I worked in a mall. But there were pointless (cute! kawaii!) trinkets everywhere. By the tonnage. You would buy one item (already packaged) and they would wrap it before putting in the plastic bag. Binders and notebooks were covered with stickets, every cellphone had at least one little charm (often more) attached. Sure a lot of things were cute and simple (my tiny pink plastic vaccuum for instance) but everything was also cheap and disposable. I'm surprised that a culture of such mass consumption is seen as having such a small carbon footprint?

Maybe we're just fetishizing traditional Japanese art forms the way a lot of western commercialism is fetishized there?

Anon.

I saw a lot of the same in Japan. Maybe because I worked in a mall. But there were pointless (cute! kawaii!) trinkets everywhere. By the tonnage. You would buy one item (already packaged) and they would wrap it before putting in the plastic bag. Binders and notebooks were covered with stickets, every cellphone had at least one little charm (often more) attached. Sure a lot of things were cute and simple (my tiny pink plastic vaccuum for instance) but everything was also cheap and disposable. I'm surprised that a culture of such mass consumption is seen as having such a small carbon footprint?

Maybe we're just fetishizing traditional Japanese art forms the way a lot of western commercialism is fetishized there?

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