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ESSAYS / architecture

Looking East.

A Cultural Analysis Of The Japanese Aesthetic and Its Significance To Architecture

words:  Jian Yong Khoo

Essay originally written in 2016

A Traditional Tea House, Sankei-en, Yokohama, Photograph: Jian Yong Khoo


A cultural oddity, the sense of mysticism surrounding Japan has captivated us for generations; and in it we seek to decipher this elusive quality, of which is believed to somehow offer profound ‘answers’ to life’s toughest questions. This fascination is curiously unusual: with the ever-expanding wealth of knowledge available in the virtual environment, a culture so distant is instantaneously made accessible. The relentless flow of images and anecdotal accounts on mainstream media allows one to transport one’s self into a culture thousands of miles away. A fleeting immersion, which no doubt sows the seeds for preconceived notions and judgements.

In truth, like many before1, this study represents a personal admiration and affection towards the Japanese aesthetic2. In doing so, by scouring the abundance of information readily available through writing and images, consequently fusing it with personal interpretations and experiences, I wish to establish a clarity of thought which might begin to shed light on what ‘Japan-ness’3 truly means.

The study aims to first identify the contrasting perceptions which exist between the East and West, understanding the foundation for these sentiments, and perhaps belie the reductive one-liners which often claim to represent wholly an understanding of the Japanese aesthetic. In attempting to define and set out the precepts and values which encapsulate it, I am seeking to understand how this ineffable concept manifests itself in a physical form; with an emphasis on Japanese Architecture, tracing its lineage from traditional to contemporary; and how it can inform the discourse of the field in general.

From the promontory of pebbles, Photograph: Yoshiharu Matsumura, 2011

Perceptions Across The Pond

It is not unusual that a person develops preconceived ideas on any particular subject, it is interesting however, to observe the striking polarity in thought which emanates from the exposure to different circumstances. The prevailing Western attitude towards Japan can be traced to the antiquated categorisation of Japan as ‘other’4, which demonstrated a denial in acknowledgment of Japan as a progressive nation, steeped with culture and tradition much like Europe. This alienation and exclusion of Japan’s unique cultural strata of over a thousand years,5 has insinuated a preconceived stereotype of Japanese beauty: merely appreciated for its visual and compositional qualities. 

Minimalist’, ‘Integrated With Nature’, ‘Transparent’, ‘Light’: these are qualities predominantly associated with Japanese Architecture which further highlights an innate fixation never going beyond surface representation. This fetishisation and appropriation of Japanese cultural forms betrays the consumer, whom passively adopts the proliferated opinions, rendering the authenticity of the Japanese aesthetic irrelevant. And yet, it is through this narrow lens, that the seemingly contradictory preoccupation and obsession with everything ‘Japan’ exists.

To provide a better understanding, it is crucial to also note the ambivalent sentiments of the Japanese people which paralleled their nation’s gradual conversion from a powerful feudal past, moving into a modern industrialised society and the now familiar pattern of a technocratic digitally reliant society. These feelings of ambivalence can in simplistic terms be identified as a linear progression beginning with resentment, referring first towards the technological assimilation from the West into the day to day lives of its citizens.

So benumbed are we nowadays by electric lights”, writes Jun’ichirō Tanizaki in his book In Praise Of Shadows, “that we have become utterly insensitive to the evils of excessive illumination.”6

The naive compulsion and anxiousness from some camps to imitate the West was seen to pose a threat towards the cult of utter simplicity and austerity which had been refined over centuries of time within itself. Curiously enough, this attitude of resentment was turned on its head in the early twentieth century, with young Japanese exasperated with the self-imposed economy of means, revolting against the lifestyle of “noble poverty”, seen as a symbol of failure to provide more comfort and convenience.7 This inclination towards indulging material pursuits and shallow addiction to change for change’s sake might perhaps have contributed heavily to today’s obscure manifestation of the elusive Japanese aesthetic.

Interior of Servants’s Quarters, Photograph: Yoshiharu Matsumura, 2011

The Japanese Aesthetic

So what exactly is this conspicuous Japanese aesthetic which entices us so? Known to some as ‘Wabi-sabi’, it represents a comprehensive aesthetic system, an innate way of life which has become so deep-rooted and ramified that the plain man or farmer of today would still exemplify it subconsciously. A conceivable way-in for one to grasp this ephemeral concept would be the identification of the visual qualities of wabi-sabi, typically exemplified by things ‘rustic’: simple, artless, or unsophisticated. However, in doing so, one must then imagine this as representative of more than a physical manifestation; that it transcends into the realm of metaphysics, and of spirituality; a state of mind and morality which governs unabated; in essence, a feeling of things.

It is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.

It is a beauty of things modest and humble.

It is a beauty of things unconventional.8

Wabi-sabi finds its roots in Chinese Zen Buddhism9 and is intrinsically associated with Zen’s core spiritual and philosophical tenets. Derived from the atmosphere of desolation and melancholy reflected in 9th-century Chinese art, it advocates strident anti-rationalism with an emphasis on the innate and basic in search of transcendental truth beyond all intellectual conception: “Develop an infallible technique, and then place yourself at the mercy of inspiration”.10 A mantra which has thoroughly permeated and shaped the living habits of Japanese society, influencing everything from their emotional well-being down to the general look and feel of things.

It is believed that the development of the tea ceremony into an eclectic art form represents the zenith of wabi-sabi, in which every aspect of the ceremony is seen to exemplify the virtues and ideals of the aesthetic: a refined orchestration of the skills of architecture, interior and garden design, flower arranging and performance, among other things. Through a reading of this secular ritual, it becomes clear to us the manifestation of this Japanese aesthetic in the physical realm: its sense of materiality and approach encompassed by the tools used and the architecture of the tea house. Modelled after the primordial prototype of a farmer’s hut of rough mud walls, thatched roof, and misshapen exposed wood structural elements,11 the traditional tea house embodies a noble austerity, exuding a simple and modest persona, rid of any preoccupation for excess ornaments.

And so it has come to be that the beauty of a Japanese room depends on a variation of shadows, heavy shadows against light shadows – it has nothing else”, proclaimed Tanizaki, whose articulation displays a conviction uncannily reminiscent of the Zen way of thinking.

Herbert Spencer12 writes of ceremonial succession:

Adhering tenaciously to all his elders taught him, the primitive man deviates into novelty only through unintended modifications. Every one now knows that languages are not devised but evolve; and the same is true of usages.

Spencer is alluding to the belief that entrenched within progress is the innate past, which acts subliminally and informs future decisions. In the context of this study, I believe this to be true of the Japanese aesthetic, which is inherently ingrained in the architecture of Japan, from traditional to contemporary.

Katsura Imperial Villa, Kyoto view from the pond, Photograph: Yoshiharu Matsumura, 2011

Katsura Imperial Villa

The growth of the Japanese tradition has been surprisingly democratic in character in spite of its strong feudal past, where any sense of hierarchy was supplanted by the virtues of wabi-sabi, that of humility and modesty. And thus, the same spirit of approach can be observed be it in the house of the common man or that of the monarch.13 A prime and illustrious example of this egalitarian spirit is the Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto, a building which paradoxically belonged to an imperial prince but exhibits no superfluous luxury or vanity; only great simplicity and restraint. 

The building deviates from conventional conceptions of space,14 renouncing strict symmetry and direct axial compositions, instead integrating its immediate surroundings into one homogeneous space composition. Care is given to the promenade through the space, with each turn intending to surprise, directing one’s attention to the main objective in a natural, unassuming manner. Aligning with its modest roots, the rooms all adhere to the human scale: the subdued walls (most commonly shōji)15 deliberately accentuating its nothingness – not seen just as an empty space, but instead alive with possibility. The human figurer is placed at the forefront; his actions defining and enhancing the space; the room acting as a sympathetic background.

In the case of the Katsura Imperial Villa, but not limited to, the strongest and most striking asset on display is expressed by Tanizaki, “…what strikes the eye is the massive roof of tile or thatch and the heavy darkness that hangs beneath the eaves. Even at midday cavernous darkness spreads over all beneath the roof’s edge, making entryway, doors, walls, and pillars all but invisible.16 There is a palpable inclination towards the articulation of clear contrasts. Against the serenity and ‘emptiness’ of the room – the movements of the human figure or exuberance of a scroll painting; against the seemingly weightless house construction – the heavy, sculptural roof. The careful consideration of these distinct elements, results in a mutual fluidity, each element complementing one another, evoking a sense of serene equilibrium, a sense of peace.

The Katsura Imperial Villa is now recognised by many as the quintessence of the Japanese aesthetic: idiosyncratic, ambiguous and contradictory. Strangely enough, it was the prominence of the Modernist movement in the early 20th century, with architects travelling East (in particular Bruno Taut),17 which put the spotlight on the villa, incorporating it as part of the architectural discourse of the time. At a quick glance, it is not readily discernible what the two prominent aesthetic sensibilities had in common; wabi-sabi, an embodiment of things unconventional and intimate; modernism, an emphasis on purity and universality. However, the villa was adjudged to be a precursor of Modernist tendencies, incorporating elements now associated with the Modernist style; of which include complete flexibility of movable exterior and interior walls, thus creating stimulating indoor-outdoor relations between house and garden; changeability and multi-use of spaces, resulting from an open floor plan; and modular coordination of the building parts, lending to prefabrication.

Kenzo Tange, Plan for Tokyo, Plan View, 1960

Continuous Flow

A commendable aspect of Japanese tradition is its opportunistic tendencies and knack for absorbing different cultures and ideas, synthesising accordingly to its roots, in an attempt at elevating them to a higher level. In the context of architecture, contemporary Japanese practices are decidedly the coalescence of traditional spatial and material considerations and the precepts of Western modernism.

As such, the Modernist movement, with Le Corbusier at its forefront, had a significant impact on the development of a progressive architectural movement in Japan which paralleled its nation’s postwar cultural resurgence. This avant-garde movement, known as Metabolism, drew on fertile ground in the late 1960s, proposing visionary utopian projects in an effort to radically reconfigure the modern city, leading to a new order deemed critical for a society entering the post-industrial age.18 Consequently, several distinct evolving lineages have instigated from the Metabolist movement; for the purpose of this study, I have chosen to focus and expand on that which SANAA is deemed to be a part of.

In his essay Relations, Florian Idenburg characterises Japanese architecture as a series of continuous flows. “Concepts and attitudes are not copied blindly, but adapted, developed, reinterpreted, and modified. The relationship between the master and apprentice generally remains respectful and the exchange occurs over time.”19 In the case of Sejima and Nishizawa, this master-apprentice relationship has Kiyonori Kikutake at its source, leading onto their direct engagement with Toyo Ito. Kikutake, as part of the Metabolist movement, sowed the seeds for a discourse which involved the integration of technocratic elements and ideals of social progress, in the speculation of future environments.20 Ito, in turn, adapted and redefined his master’s exploration, identifying new relations between technological advancements, urban life and nature.

The exploration of both Kikutake and Ito in the mid-20th century displays a refreshing stance towards the role of architecture in responding to the social complexities which inherently exist in a place. Their research arguably demonstrates an inclination towards an architecture which wholly embodies the virtues and ideals of its contemporary society, not dissimilar to the traditional architecture which unequivocally evoked the spirit of its time. With this in mind, it is here that I intend to suggest a subtle and understated relationship between the work of SANAA and that of traditional Japanese architecture.

The appropriation of the contradictions exemplified in traditional Japanese architecture: in which careful restraint is exercised to craft a space of austerity, in the interest of amplifying the transient nature of human interrelations and events.

21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Photograph: Iwan Baan, 2006


Sejima, a direct apprentice of Ito, in a climate of economical distress, sought to define a new architectural language which was more restrained and personal.21 Approaching the work of Kikutake and Ito from a fresh perspective, stripping away overarching dogmas, Sejima alongside Nishizawa infused new architectural possibilities into the investigation of spatial and social relationships.

The champions of SANAA’s work claim to see some modernist version of Zen simplicity; the sceptics reply that some of the projects are thin and without underlying meaning; that they lack expressive presence.22

This statement represents a typical critique published in the media, which perhaps can be dissected in order to expose its shortfalls in representing the work of SANAA (victim of their visually dominant architecture). ‘Modernist Version of Zen Simplicity’, ‘Expressive Presence’; it can be implied from these conclusions, an emphasis on the aesthetic qualities of a building; of its shape and form, with no allusion towards an understanding of the spatial decisions made.

This distinctive approach23 to spatial planning is reflected in the realisation of the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa.

From the outside, the building appears as a thin wafer, seemingly hovering in tranquility, only to be punctured by the sight of countless distinguishable pure white blocks: a modernist’s wet dream. Indeed, it could be said that the building upon first encounter ‘lacks an expressive presence’, however further reading into this bizarre aesthetic leads one to notice an articulation of its internal spatial organisation in the roof plan.

This represents SANAA’s methodical use of the plan and diagram in the identification of spatial complexities, transcending their conventional functional role, and elevating the diagram to an aesthetic level.24 Consequently, the building appears almost as a pure extrusion of its plan, in which every space or activity within is imbued with a sense of significance.

The hierarchical dissolution that results from this approach allows the incidental and unpredictable nature of human interrelationships to flourish. The overall experience of the space is the amalgamation of uncertainty: of its users, actions and events. A place is regarded as a success as an environment only through the activation by its user. In the case of the museum, visitors are enticed to enter into the transient experience, each one taking their place in a complex of perception and cognition.25

With each participant, an extra layer of complexity is added to the perpetually changing environment, further generating interest and excitement. And in this there is an innate predilection for clear contrasts; the space representing the blank canvas; its users, the painter.

Not unlike the evolution of traditional Japanese architecture which responded to the atmosphere of frugality of its time, SANAA’s works playfully respond to the condition of today, that of an egalitarian society. Unlike the utopian agenda of their predecessors, they seek to simply ‘learn to inhabit the world in a better way’,26 responding to the perceived problems of society with subtlety and care. 

As Idenburg so fittingly put it, “Maybe the architect should not relentlessly try to reinvent the tree but rather become a constant gardener, who weeds and nurtures.27 

However, in an age where technology evolves at an alarming rate, architecture now has the challenge of responding to the needs of an increasingly virtual society. Perhaps there may still be some clues to be discovered within the enigmatic yet elusive Japanese aesthetic…

1  El Croquis, Sean Godsell 1997-2013 (El Croquis, 2013) Sean Godsell confesses that Japanese culture has had a decisive influence on his thinking.

2  Koren, Leonard, Wabi-sabi: for artists, designers, poets & philosophers (California: Imperfect Publishing, 1994) The term “aesthetic” refers to a set of informing principles for making artistic discriminations.

3  Isozaki, Arata, Japan-ness in Architecture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006) Japan-ness, a term used by Isozaki to describe the Japanese style.

4  A term used by the West to maintain a sense of dominance over the East.

5  Fletcher, Bannister, A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method (London, B.T. Balsford Ltd, 1896) Fletcher relegates Japanese architecture to the peripherary, describing it as a place where no real concept of architecture existed.

6  Tanizaki, Jun’ichirō, In Praise Of Shadows (Sedgwick, Leete’s Island Books, 1977) pg 36

7  Phaidon, Katsura Imperial Villa, ed. Virgina Ponciroli (London: Phaidon, 2011) pg 352

8  Koren, L. (1994) pg 7

9  Koren, L. (1994) pg 15

10  Phaidon (2011) pg 353

11  Koren, L. (1994) pg 33

12  Lethaby, W. R, Architecture, Mysticism and Myth (New York, Macmillan & Co, 1896) pg 2

13  Phaidon (2011) pg 354

14  Phaidon (2011) pg 355, These conventions can be found in Chinese Buddhist temples.

15  Shōji is a room divide consisting of translucent paper over a frame of wood which holds together a lattice of wood.

16  Tanizaki, J. (1977) pg 17

17  Phaidon (2011) pg 319, Bruno Taut is considered the ‘discoverer’ of the Katsura Imperial Villa, the first to understand the universal significance of the 17th-century complex.

18  Lie, Zhongjie, Kenzo Tange and The Metabolist Movement: urban utopias of modern japan (New York: Routledge, 2010) pg 1

19  Idenburg, Florian, Relations, in The SANAA Studios 2006-2008. Learning From Japan: Single Story Urbanism (Baden, Lars
Muller Publishers, 2010) Idenburg writes of the mutual respect that the master and apprentice share for one another.

20  Lin, Z. (2010) pg 25, Kikutake involved himself in a number of speculative projects, including Ocean City, as well as his experiments with Group Form

21  Idenburg, F. (2010)

22  Curtis, W. (2010) This statement appeared in a critique of SANAA for the Architectural Review, just after the announcement of the Pritzker Prize.

23  Idenburg, F. (2010) Sejima uses the plan as more than an organizational tool.

24  Idenburg, F. (2010)

25  Idenburg, F. (2010) Idenburg states that the goal is less about social interaction than a deliberate activation of the social.

26  Idenburg, F. (2010) Idenburg writes of a more restraint approach, leaving behind any megalomaniac tendencies.

27  Idenburg, F. (2010)


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