Japanese Aesthetics

Naturality in Japanese Aesthetics, from Cooking to Calligraphy

The zen aesthetics has been very well explained by a Japanese philosopher: Shin’ichi Hisamatsu. In the 7 guiding principes that he mentions, there isshizen (自然). Which theorically means Nature, but …

Here, we make a distinction between nature and culture, nature and nurtur. In Asia, it’s different.

  • The nature there represents the whole universe. And anything is a part of it, whether it’s biological (fauna, flora, …) or not (minerals, sky, …). So, man also. Said otherwise, man is an element of nature among all the others.
  • Nature -man included- is in permanent evolution. What brings a fully different view re. nature / nurture.
  • All what we could qualify as “supernatural” (eg mind, spirit, …) is also a part of Nature. Even if it can be explained or is intangible.

What we are going to see in this post, is that Shizen, somehow, it’s about joining man and nature, nature and nurture.

Shizen: from Sport to Cooking, via Art and Fashion

Pour see that concretely, let’s talk about sport first

Nadia Comaneci is the first gymnast who reach the 10 perfect score in Olympic games (Montreal, 1976). Thousands hours of work, for a unique moment, where everything is fluid, and seems so simple, so spontaneous, so … natural

We find this as well in calligraphy. Here, the performance is about the stroke, its originality, its rythm, its energy. In calligraphy, like in sports, there is, after hous of training, a moment of truth, when you start without a possibility to correct … the repetition of the gestures leads a certain mastery, than can even be later surpassed to reach a level where execution becomes spontaneous, creative, elegant, balanced, full of life, …

From this perspective, there is, in Shizen, the idea of a self-accomplishment, with the meaning of completing our own nature.

The Japanese gardens show another side of shizen. Finally, they are fully artificial, but seem so natural. Here, the goal, is to make the nature even more beautiful, to complete it, to enhance it, to help it.

Here, we may also see in shizen a search for symbiosis and harmony. Because if man “helps” nature, nature also helps man. Of course, a garden is a self-accomplishment for the gardener, but beyond, a beautiful garden brings a lot to the person looking at it: a certain energy, serenity, refuel, re-balance, …

This form of symbiosis has to been in its widest perspective, since Nature includes all … so, between us and the garden .. between us and anything that is around us … in action or contemplation … with a kind of obviousness, spontaneity, rightness … Say in a natural way …

Shizen can be opposed to trick, lure, seeming, concealment, … this quest for authenticity can also be found in Japanese cooking. With different aspects:

  • the priority given to freshness, and then to the respect of seasons
  • The increased importance of cutting, to magnify the products
  • many naturally fermented products (miso, natto, sake, … + vegetables)
  • fast / light cooking
  • several vegetables

It should not be believed that the final result is a bit tasteless. The dish here above comes from a restaurant that is recognized as 1 of the best in the world (Den in Tokyo, Japan).

Our western cultures are more about long cooking, stews, soups … ie many things mixed and cooked for a while.

If we talk about a person, the idea is both to build and be oneself. That it is, or seems, totally natural … at work, in the couple life, in the family life, with friends … to feel at ease, and that others feel also at ease with you … in short, all seem natural …

If we talk about fashion … the idea of shizen is to be clothed like we truely are. Meaning not like what we want to be, or what others expect from us. So, get clothed in a way that expresses our personality, with rightness, including in the eyes of others. With choices that match our body shape … so that all becomes a kind of obviousness that naturally imposes itself to others. Simple to say, terribly hard to achieve … Between our need to hide what we dislike in us …what we imagine in the thoughts of others … or the fashion trends … Further, indeed, get clothed like we are, that is an opposite to the concept of fashion

This said, attention: get naturally clothed does not mean to wear, say linen with neutral colors … this can be, if this corresponds to you, but if you are exuberant, seductive, go-getter, or eccenctric, or … then, best is to forget about linen and neutral colors … except if you want to provoke or go against ;-)

Un peu d’histoire …

China is historically taoist and confucianist. They progressively integrated the Buddhism from India, starting from the first century. And they brought this melting pot -and many other things- to Japan, between the 4th and 6th century.

In short, there are 2 ideas: Tao, and Energy. Tao is the “mother”, the matrix of the Universe. Universe to its broadest extent, including whant can’t be explained, what is invisible or unknown. So, the spirit, or the belief, are also part of the Tao. Same logic for energy, whether it’s domestic (eg electric current), or not (a bolt of lightning, life, thinking, …).

And all this arrived in Japan, where were mixed different beliefs in deities (Kamis), and certain forms of chamanism and animism. The latter being linked with the spirits and powers of nature. Indeed, Japan has a special relationship with nature: it’s a harsh environment, 80% inhabitable.

A bit of Etymology

“Nature”, that’s 自然. In Chinese: Zìrán. In Japanese, Shizen. The first logogram is oneself, meaning the deep nature, the order of things, “naturally” so, spontaenous. The second one is burn, fire, so energy. So, the “nature” is somehow the energy of things … the energy which makes, creates, … Whether we talk about a person, a tree, a wind, …. And above the whole, a “something” that comprises all, and gives it logic and order to things.

In Synthesis

Maybe could we say that Shizen means to use and perfect what makes us unique, in harmony with the rest of the world?

To Illustrate

Shizen can be translated by natural, with a connotation of spontaneity. But what means spontaneous? Let’s take this painting from Van Gogh:

When looking at it, the emotion of this scene takes us … and what is fascinating, that’s the brush stokes … somehow, they give the impression that he wanted to pain in a few seconds what he felt at that precise moment … those strokes are together so simple and so resolute, naked, without the faintest window dressing.

For me, that’s shizen


Beyond using, almost exclusively, natural fibers …

Beyond my personal attraction for earthen colors

To complete something which seems “natural and spontaneous”, a minimum of mastery is required. So that the importance of work becomes totally invisible, without anything to hide.

I think that my belts are close to this. They respect the fabrics and materials, elegantly shape the waist, and fit any woman. I remember my first ones … the result of a long journey

Ceinture à nouer / obi en cuir noir, simili vegan
ceinture à nouer / obi en lin de couleur jaune moutarde / soleil
Ceinture obi à nouer, tissu japonais floral et géométrique, bleu marine, ocre, rouille, taupe
Obi Belt

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