Japan | Culture Corner

  • Catherine Kelly
  • 25 Mar 20

Japan is a culturally diverse country with many ancient and beautiful art forms, both protected and promoted as national treasures. Let us give you a crash course on some of their many art terms.

Cha-no-yu (or sado), the art of the Japanese tea ceremony

It can take years to master this art form. Ceremony styles are distinct from one another and there are many different configurations of tatami (straw floor mats), utensils and temae (the preparation) which all have different meanings.

The hanging scrolls are chosen with attention to the season and theme. The chabana (floral arrangement) that displays the wild, unruliness of nature is purposefully selected. The kimono worn by the host is used to further display respect and good etiquette.

Wabi sabi, the acceptance and contemplation of imperfection and impermanence

Influenced by Zen and Mahayana philosophy, the wabi sabi aesthetic can be found in Japan’s gardens (a good example of this is at Kanazawa’s Kenroku-en Gardens) and within the omotenashi hospitality style.

Japanese pottery often exemplifies the wabi sabi aesthetic where imperfections in the surface are fundamental to the object’s beauty.

Haiku, a short Japanese poem evoking a fleeting moment in nature

These poems are short at just 3 lines and contain a strict number of 17 syllables.

Light of the moon

Moves west, flowers’ shadows

Creep eastward.

(Yosa Buson, late 1700s)

Ikebana, the art of Japanese flower arrangement

Kyoto is the birthplace of this aesthetic pursuit which has a spiritual significance influenced by Buddhism. Silence is required when practicing Ikebana. This is in order to connect with and appreciate nature.

Ikebana places emphasis on shape, line and form rather than the colour of the composition. The structure of the composition is based on a scalene triangle, utilising the principle of ten-chi-jin where man reconciles heaven and earth. This is represented in the longest stem (heaven), the shortest stem (earth) and the reconciling stem (man).

(Image courtesy of Joe Mabel)

Kabuki, a highly stylised traditional Japanese play

Kabuki is performed exclusively by males and contains singing and dancing. It has existed since the 1700s.

Major role types include aragoto (rough style), wagoto (soft style) and onnagata (where male actors specialize in women’s roles).

The plays themselves are typically about historical events and moral conflicts. The stage can revolve and include trap doors and the actors speak in monotone voice, accompanied by traditional instruments.

Geisha, a female artist trained in classical music and dance

The performance art of the geisha has been misrepresented in western culture since the 20th century. In its most traditional form, geisha art constitutes the performance of a stylised, more subtle form of Kabuki theatre, similar to Noh theatre.

Each dance uses small, subdued gestures to symbolise big emotional story arcs and is accompanied by traditional music.