What is JAPANESE AESTHETICS? As with any claims regarding some underlying national characteristics, the responses can vary endlessly depending on the answerer and the context. However in the case of Japan, two distinctive aesthetic traits seem to rise above the others. They are called KAWAII and WABI-SABI.
The elusive aesthetics of WABI-SABI can be found in the austere calmness of a Japanese garden, or the sparse, regulated beauty found in a traditional Japanese house with tatami floors and sliding doors of paper. The same sense of effortless harmony is evoked by the refined traditions of TEA CEREMONY and IKEBANA, or the earthy simplicity of handmade pottery and artless objects crafted from bamboo, wood and paper. It can be found in the somberness of wilted flowers or in the solitariness of an old pine, in a chipped cup or in the modest intimacy of a humble tea hut.
As an aesthetic category wabi-sabi is not easily translated, and the implications of it’s coefficients, WABI and SABI, have changed over time. It is usually described as the beauty of things impermanent, imperfect, incomplete and irregular, characterized by simplicity, austerity, modesty and intimacy. While the roots of wabi-sabi lay deep in the tradition of ZEN BUDDHISM, it can be seen almost as a world view on its own accord: A seminal concept of beauty indigenous to the Japanese culture.
The second distinctive concept of Japanese aesthetics is KAWAII: The bright, noisy and cluttered cuteness manifested in popular culture, seeping through advertisements, merchandise, fashion, music and entertainment. Kawaii exists in the medium of adorable plush toys and mascots, doe-eyed MANGA and ANIME characters, meticulously produced pop idols and girls dressed in porcelain-doll-like LOLITA fashions. Anything charming or desirable from a Hello-Kitty-embellished toaster oven to a cupcake can be described as kawaii, hence the multitude of kawaii-style products available in Japan, characterized by pastel hues and plushy forms, often bedazzled with ornaments and frills, and predominantly adorned with the conspicuous use of cute characters. The aim of kawaii is to give the impression of adorable childishness, playfulness and innocence, so much so that the kawaii style does not only involve clothes and commodities, but also specific mannerisms and language. Kawaii characteristics have become so popular in modern Japan, that it seems impossible to even separate it from the contemporary culture.
Like wabi-sabi, the definition of kawaii is elusive, but it definitely is idiosyncratic to Japanese aesthetics. So how come these two aesthetics traits both seem to be unique to Japan, but at the same time are worlds apart? Even though the understated naturalness of wabi-sabi could not be farther from the lurid artificiality of kawaii, could there still be some common nominator between them? VACANT PLASTIC tries to answer that question by searching for the unpredictable comparabilities between kawaii and wabi-sabi.
Kawaii and wabi-sabi both exist predominantly in the material world which is visible to the eye. Nonetheless they do not describe only these external qualities, but are actually more concerned with the feelings evoked by the physical characteristics than the characteristics themselves. “If an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi,” claims Andrew Juniper in his book Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence (2003). The same applies to kawaii: The cuteness of an object lies in fact in the feeling of adoration, tenderness and pity experienced by the beholder, not in the object itself.
Both kawaii and wabi-sabi are obsessed with objects. A tea ceremony master honing their collection of ceramic bowls is not unlike an OTAKU obsessing over merchandise of their favorite anime series. Moreover, as a specimen of an aesthetic category these objects are assigned a value they would otherwise not have. Kawaii and wabi-sabi appreciate objects overlooked by the common standards, and recognize the beauty in the mundane: Plastic knick-knacks turn into precious collectibles, and modest, roughly made ZAKKA to expensive antique.
Neither kawaii nor wabi-sabi are about beauty in its common sense. Beauty is something grand, perfect and almost unattainable, while kawaii and wabi-sabi are more concerned with personality, flaws, and pathos. Wabi-sabi emphasizes the desolate humility of transience, things imperfect and on the rough, while kawaii accentuates infantile weakness and endearing vulnerability. It is not important if these imperfections are genuine or not: An emperor could remodel his house to look like a humble shack, or a grown woman could dress and act like a small girl. Poverty and weakness can be refined into curated flaws, the same way melted gold is used to repair cracked ceramics in the art of KINTSUGI.
Tangible materials are important for both kawaii and wabi-sabi, though in opposite senses. Wabi-sabi appreciates rough and coarse textures in unadorned, natural and stark materials, while kawaii is concerned with everything endearingly soft and fluffy or artificially slick and smooth. In wabi-sabi natural materials that age, such as bare wood, paper and fabric, become more appreciated as they exhibit changes over time. In the plastic artificiality of kawaii such ageing only happens in the inhumane scale of millions of years, which is as unrealistic as the world which its objects depict.
While wabi-sabi emphasizes old age in the form of patina and authenticity, and kawaii youngness and newness in the form of juvenility and consumeristic novelty, they both have also contradictory traits. In wabi-sabi new things can also hold a kind of spiritual pureness: Some tea ceremony utensils are only ever used once, and the practice of ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement, utilizes only freshly cut plants. Parallelly in kawaii, history can hold romantic values. Many kawaii-style objects imitate old-fashioned Western designs, like the elaborate lolita costumes with their 18th century rococo frills. The concept of MONO NO AWARE is also crucial to wabi-sabi. It describes the awareness of the impermanence of life and transience of things, and the wistfulness aroused by the realization. Maybe the forced and exaggerated naivety of kawaii is a similar reaction to the fleeting childhood, an attempt to grasp some of its foregone innocence?
Both kawaii and wabi-sabi are comprehensive ideologies with their own rules, set ways and traditions, albeit very different from each other. Wabi-sabi has been influenced by the all-encompassing lifestyle of Zen Buddhism, where every action can be considered as a meditative form of art. The traditional tea ceremony takes in account every aspect of existence from the tiniest gesture to the most minute detail of the room, and is full of hidden signifiers. Kawaii has its own set of rituals and signals too, like the peculiar poses in PURIKURA booths or the subtle language of EMOJI and KAOMOJI. In Zen Buddhism it is said that the way to perfection is more important than perfection itself, and the same applies to kawaii: Your flawless “cute style” can never be complete, so you have to consume more kawaii merchandise. Unlike perfect beauty, kawaii and wabi-sabi are not something you have to be, they are something you can do.
Although they are seen distinctively Japanese, the ideals of kawaii and wabi-sabi have been strongly influenced by other cultures. The fundamentals of wabi-sabi originate from China, as does most of the Japanese cultural heritage, and the highly influential Buddhism as well. Kawaii on the other hand borrows a lot from the West, assuming everything even distantly Western the status of fancy cuteness. It is not uncommon to see kawaii merchandise decorated with pseudo-French or English text which more often than not translates to semi-nonsense.
Event though an observer would not be familiar with the concepts of kawaii or wabi-sabi, they communicate aspects that can be universally and innately perceived. The seeming irregularity and asymmetry of wabisabi can often be reduced to universal principles such as THE GOLDEN RATIO, which many find intrinsically pleasing. In kawaii the cuteness of big-eyed and stump-legged characters with round, soft bodies can be thought to derive from the evolutive urge to nurture our descendants.
Objects are often considered to possess some kind of intrinsic personality in both kawaii and wabi-sabi. In wabi-sabi this intimacy and appreciation of the ingenuous is achieved trough age and faults, in kawaii with literal persona. It can be human-like, anthropomorphic, fantastic or only suggestive: We need only the slightest hint of facial features or limbs to project an animistic persona to an lifeless object. In SHINTOISM lifeless natural forms, like rocks and trees are believed to possess a spirit or soul, and the object-worshiping animism of kawaii can be seen as its direct descendant.