Appreciation of beauty in Japan

Last week, I returned from a fantastic holiday in Hokkaido. I’ve never seen so much snow and it was wonderful!

Shikotsu-Toya National Park, Hokkaido.

Shikotsu-Toya National Park, Hokkaido

One part of the holiday which I found really interesting, and which to me seemed to reflect a complex aspect of Japanese culture, was the Snow Light Path Festival in Otaru, a port city near Sapporo, more information here: As you can see from my photograph, the beauty and attention to detail in this festival was incredible.

Delicate candle holders made of ice in the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival

Delicate candle holders made of ice in the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival

This sensitivity to beauty is something which is reflected throughout Japanese culture. From ice lit up by candles, to immaculate displays of food, quirky soft toys and exquisite flower arrangements, visual displays are paramount in Japanese life. The wonderful thing about living in Japan for the year is that I can stumble across uncountable beautiful displays, in the most unlikely of places. This delightful plant arrangement was one of those unexpected surprises.

I had to look again to see this perfect miniature garden, complete with tortoises!

I had to look again to see this perfect miniature garden, complete with tortoises!

With many restaurants and cafés having plastic replicas of their meals displayed outside, it is clear to see the importance of composition in Japanese cuisine. With the food models looking incredibly realistic, and, most of the time, oddly delicious, this attention to beauty must work in attracting customers, particularly those who cannot read the Japanese menu! This importance of the look of the food is fascinating, particularly as the food nearly always looks exactly the same as its plastic replica. Japanese cuisine is famous for its impeccable arrangement and it certainly lives up to this expectation!

This concept of beauty is vibrantly expressed through Japan’s kawaii culture. As is explained in Manami Okazaki and Geoff Johnson’s Kawaii! Japan’s Culture of Cute, ‘roughly translated as ‘cute’… it is synonymous with beautiful, loveable, suitable, addictive, cool, funny, ugly but endearing, quirky and gross.’ This fantastic book explores the diverse aspects of this concept with incredible photographs. I am accumulating more and more kawaii items, from a Hello Kitty pencil case to a soft toy of a seal dressed up as a fish… What I find most fascinating about this commitment to all things cute is that my own taste is being influenced by this culture. I know that things which I now find kawaii I would have found downright strange a few months ago!

By the end of the year I will be inundated with kawaii characters!

By the end of the year I will be inundated with kawaii characters!

This appreciation of beauty is profoundly linked with nature. With hanami (cherry blossom) viewing parties, and seasonal sweets and products, the natural world plays a central role in the Japanese appreciation of beauty. Last semester I studied a fascinating module which provided an introduction to classical Japanese literature. In this class we were introduced to a number of key concepts vital in understanding Japanese views of elegance and beauty. Although key to understanding the texts we were studying, it is also, of course, appropriate to apply these ideas to present day Japan. Miyabi, one of these concepts, is a notion reflecting the individual’s sensitivity to beauty. It seems that the current appreciation of beauty in Japan has originated from this traditional ideal. It seems that the appreciation of beauty has always been of utmost importance in Japanese life, it is only the focus of this appreciation which has evolved. The notion of miyabi is closely linked with the concept of mono no aware. This is the appreciation of bitter-sweet transience, most clearly linked with the incredible beauty of the cherry blossoms, made even more beautiful by their short lived presence. Here is a poem which we studied which encapsulates this concept:

Kokinwakashu, Scroll 1, Poem no. 53 Ariwara no Narihira

‘On seeing cherry blossoms at the Nagisa no In

yo no naka ni                         Ah, if in this world

taete sakura no                     there were only no such thing

nakariseba                            as cherry blossoms –

haru no kokoro wa               then perhaps in the springtime

nodokekaramashi               our hearts could be at peace.’

From Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology, translated with an introduction by Steven D. Carter, Stanford University Press (1991)

Plum blossom, Osaka Castle Park

Plum blossom, Osaka Castle Park


My year in Japan is definitely something which can also be seen as mono no aware, especially as it is flying by so quickly!

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