A View of Japan Through Japanese Art
JAPAN, AS EVERYBODY KNOWS, is a country of rigid rules and of individual subordination to a collective will. It is the country where the young college student goes hiking in the mountains, but turns boot and pack over to a younger brother or sister upon graduation. It is the country where the student is a radical in college but becomes a faithful conservative upon being hired by Mitsubishi Bank or Ministry of Finance. It is the country where a young woman wears one kind of kimono until the day of her wedding, and then puts on the married woman’s kimono for the rest of her life.
Japan is a country where junior high school graduates become manual workers, high school graduates become clerks, and college graduates become managers and professionals—all three thus slotted for the rest of their lives by the school-leaving diploma. It is a country where there is lifetime commitment to one employer. Japan is also, as everyone knows, the country of mutual obligations, in which speech is minutely regulated by social relationship and status. It is the country of “Japan Inc.,” where conflicting interests pull together for the greater glory of the common economy. The best-known—and best—book on Japanese social organization and institutions, Japanese Society by Chie Nakane, *depicts the ie, the community of the clan or tribe, as the organizing reality within which the individual exists as a member rather than as a person. Whenever Japanese and Western (especially American) scholars meet, in any discipline and on any subject, the Japanese at once contrast Japanese cooperation with the excessive competition and rampant diversity of the West.
Yet the most pervasive trait of all Japanese art is its individualism. In every major period of artistic activity in the West there has been one universal style; we speak of the Hellenistic, of the Romanesque and the Gothic, the Renaissance and the Baroque. But every period of great artistic activity in Japan has been characterized by diversity. Indeed, in the arts, and especially in painting, the contrast is properly between Western conformity and the “excessive diversity” of Japan. During the Edo period (1603–1867), the Japanese tendency to diversity reached its apogee. In painting alone, over a dozen major schools flourished, along with countless subschools. There is nothing comparable in other cultures to the flamboyant diversity of the last great artistic era of pre-modern Japan.
The Japanese scholars and experts who castigate American excessive competition, and who contrast it to its disadvantage with Japanese cooperation, think of competition among businesses in the marketplace or of competition for promotion within the management group in a company. They never, it seems, think of the Japanese school system. Yet every American recoils in horror when told that a Japanese schoolboy, ten years old, will applaud with joy upon hearing that his best friend is ill and will have to miss a week or two of school. The friend will thus fall behind in the competition for the examination that will decide on the few who will make it into the prestigious junior high school.
And as to “Japan Inc.,” there is no commercial rivalry and competition in the West that compares with the fierce ruthlessness with which the major Japanese industrial groups, the zaibatsu, fight one another. If Mitsubishi goes into a new field, be it synthetic fibers or electronics or shipbuilding, Mitsui and Sumitomo have to go into it too—never mind that overcapacity already exists in that industry worldwide. And Japanese political parties are not disciplined monoliths; they are not an ie. They are loose congeries of fiercely competing factions.
The Japanese are probably the world’s best animal painters. In the West, the few animal painters are specialists, a Rosa Bonheur or George Stubbs, for instance. In Japan almost every painter painted animals. The Japanese took some traditions of animal painting from the Chinese: the kachōga (flower-and-bird) painting, for instance. But most animals, and especially the birds, in Japanese painting express purely native Japanese values, traditions, and perceptions.
Nothing I know expresses one basic trait of the Japanese as well as these bird paintings do: the capacity for pure enjoyment. It is the same capacity one gets at a Japanese picnic or at a simple folk dance in an empty lot on a summer’s night. It is the capacity for pure enjoyment that makes pompous company presidents and grave scholars play at the silliest children’s games at a party, without embarrassment or reticence. It is the capacity for pure enjoyment that can be seen in parks on Sundays where young Japanese fathers romp with their children. It is a quality of immediacy that is present in the most sophisticated Japanese artwork or novel, and that is the essence of the haiku. The traditional Japanese animal or bird painting always looks ludicrously simple—just a few strokes of the brush. Yet it is done with complete control of brush, ink, and composition. It also expresses the artists’ intuitive, immediate projection of their own selves into the spirit of the birds or the frog. These Japanese paintings are a hymn to diversity and spontaneity in keeping with the first of the modern English poets, the late Victorian Gerard Manley Hopkins, who sang, “Glory be to God for dappled things.”
And yet the cooperation, the mutual obligations, the lifetime commitment to one employer, the ie, and even “Japan Inc.,” are not myths. Central to Japan is constant and continuing polarity between tight, enveloping community—supportive but demanding subordination to its rules—and competitive individualism demanding spontaneity.
Japanese artists of the eighteenth century were highly individualistic, yet most considered themselves as belonging to a school—Nanga or Rimpa or Shijō, for instance. The few who did not—Shōhaku, Rosetsu, Jakuchū—are called “eccentrics” in Japan. And if an artist starts in a school and then outgrows it and develops his own style, Japanese propriety demands that there be a violent break, like the confrontations of a Kabuki drama. Nagasawa Rosetsu (1755–99), for instance, is reported to have broken violently with Maruyama Okyo (1733–95), whose student he originally was, though the record shows unambiguously that the two actually kept on working together and that Okyo entrusted Rosetsu with important and confidential commissions. Similarly, a century earlier, Kusumi Morikage (d. before 1700) was reported to have been excommunicated by, and exiled from, the atelier of Kanō Tanyū (1602–74) when he went his own way, though the record shows a close and continuing family relationship between the two artists.
Even today, in a modern, Westernized Japan, it is not considered proper for a young man to be on his own and not to belong to an organization, an ie. My interpreter on my first lecture tour in Japan, more than twenty years ago, was a young Japanese who had gone to graduate school in the United States and who had then established his own marketing consulting practice in Tokyo. He was, I found out, not welcome in his father-in-law’s house. When I met the father-in-law, who was dean at a university where I lectured, I asked him what he had against his son-in-law. “He is barely thirty,” he replied, “and on his own; that’s quite improper. He has no organization to back him up, no boss to bail him out when he gets into trouble. What’s worse, he is successful and thus sets a dangerous precedent.” The point of the story is that the father-in-law was known all over Japan as the Red Dean, who delivered himself every Saturday evening on national radio of a violent philippic against the remnants of feudalism in Japanese family life and against the evils of the organization man.
Art history (or art anecdote) may provide the answer to the paradox, and a key to understanding the relationship between the rigid community of the ie and the spontaneity and individualism that characterize so much of Japanese art as well as of Japanese life and society. Sakai Hōitsu (1761–1828), the last of the great Rimpa masters, started out studying under a Kano painter around 1790. He then became the pupil of a distinguished Nanga artist, Kushiro Unsen (1759–1811). Next he apparently went for career advice to Tani Bunchō (1764–1840), the recognized Nanga master in the city of Edo, Japan’s political capital. Bunchō did not tell the young Hōitsu to stick to Nanga, but counseled him to study the works of Ogata Kōrin (1663–1743) and to become a Rimpa painter. A great teacher in the West might have said to such a highly gifted young man: “Find the style that fits you.” Bunchō said, in effect: “Find the school that fits you.”
The tension between the pressure to belong and to conform and the stress on spontaneity, independence, and individuality is one, but only one, of the polarities that characterize Japanese art and Japanese culture. The Sansō Collection contains three works by famous seventeenth-century masters; Two Wagtails, attributed to Kano Sanraku (1559–1635); the Child Holding a Spray of Flowers, attributed to Tarawaya Sōtatsu (early seventeenth-century); and a circular fan, Autumnal Ivy Leaves with Bamboo, by Ogata Kōrin. Each epitomizes the Japanese talent for simplicity refined to the point of austerity. Yet Sanraku’s best-known paintings, such as his screens of birds and trees and flowers, are ornate and sumptuous, with gold and silver and ostentatious colors. Sōtatsu founded the decorative Rimpa School, with its strong lyricism and colorful elegance, and Korin perfected it with his rich designs. Thus the three paintings in the Sansō Collection may be called atypical of their painter—and yet each is also completely typical of him.
Similarly, in the exhibition there is a landscape by the early sixteenth-century painter Kantei that simplifies and makes more austere the already simplified and austere style of the fifteenth-century Japanese landscape painter. But there is also a pair of flower-and-bird paintings by the same master that is ornate, decorative, almost sumptuous. Almost two hundred years later, in the early nineteenth century, Watanabe Kazan, the most austere of Neo-Confucians, painted a lush, sensuous, colorful picture of Lotus Flowers and Swimming Fish.
To a Westerner these seem to be contradictions; to a Japanese they are polarities. A Westerner may feel that an artist should be attracted either to the austerity and empty space of a fifteenth-century landscape or to the colorful, decorative design of a Kantei flower-and-bird painting or a Sanraku bird screen, but not to both. To the Japanese, however, these are necessary tensions, poles of expression within the same person.
Any visitor to Kyoto sees examples of these tensions within a few miles of each other: Nijo Castle—ornate, sensuous, boastful, the official Kyoto residence of the military dictator, the Tokugawa shogun; and Katsura Villa—simple to the point of being austere, exquisite, without ornaments, and totally disciplined, the summer villa of an imperial prince. Both were built within the same generation and by the same ruling class. And there is Nikkō, north of Tokyo, the great seventeenth-century mausoleum of the first Tokugawa shōgun Ieyasu—the “shōgun” of the movie of that name—with its extreme ornateness, almost too much, even for Baroque tastes. But the same shōgun, in his castle, lived in restrained austerity. To the Japanese, the two belong together. The tension is not one of opposites, but one of poles; and where there is a north pole there has to be a south pole.
This tension, this polarity, extends through all of Japanese culture. It is found in the tension between the official Confucian male supremacy, which dictates that in public the woman is invisible and subservient, and the reality of family life, where the woman holds the power and the purse strings, and where a recent prime minister could say in parliament: “I have no position on this measure yet; my mother-in-law has been sick and I could not get her guidance,” to which the opposition spokesman nodded, replying: “Please convey my wishes for a speedy recovery to your respected mother-in-law.”
A similar polarity is found in the upbringing of children. Until they reach school age, children are indulged in a way that goes beyond any American permissiveness. Then they go to school, and on the first day there is discipline and the children are expected to behave—and they do. There is a remarkable tension between the genius of the Japanese language, in which everything focuses on human relationship, and the nature of Chinese ideographs, which are built up of representations of objects. The Japanese very early invented syllabaries in which the sounds of Japanese can easily be written. Every Japanese learns the two national syllabaries in the elementary grades. But then the syllabaries are used mainly as auxiliaries to Chinese ideographs. To the Japanese, the tension between the Japanese language and the Chinese ideograph is essential, no matter how heavy a burden it puts on learning and literacy.
There are strict rules for proper behavior that tell every Japanese what form of address to use when talking to his aunt and to his uncle’s boss and to his cousin’s mistress. But there is also the encouragement of the eccentric, who is given almost infinite leeway. Sengai, the last and perhaps greatest of the “Zenga Expressionists”—he died in 1838, aged almost ninety—for instance, was the most respected cleric, abbot of an ancient and most sacred temple; but at the age of eighty-five he was also a free spirit, who traveled around the country, often in low company, and liked to paint satirical frogs to look like the Buddha, circus riders, and balloon vendors at county fairs.
This polarity can be found today in Japanese industry and its human relations. To a Westerner, an organization can be either autocratic or democratic, but the Japanese organization is both. Surely no more perfect example of the autocratic personality exists than the head of a big Japanese organization, whether government agency or business. Yet decision making is by consensus and participation, and starts at the bottom rather than at the top. In every Japanese organization from ancient times to the present the word of the chief has been absolute law; the chief could order a retainer to commit suicide or to divorce his wife. And yet no chief could make one step without the consent of his retainers, and indeed without active participation of the clan elders in the decision. Similarly, today the top people in a company or a government agency are obeyed without argument or reservation—and yet every decision comes up from below and is an expression of a general will. Every Japanese organization is in Western terms both an extreme of autocracy and an extreme of democratic participation.
The tension is not dialectic, and resolved in a higher synthesis, nor does one principle overcome the other. It is not the dualism of the Chinese yin and yang. The Japanese do not mix their principles any more than one mixes north pole and south pole. For the Japanese tension is not contradiction or contrast or conflict—the tensions of the analytical mind. It is polarity—the tension of perception, of configuration, of existence. To understand Japanese art and Japanese life, one has to accept the polarity between the ornate and the austere; between male supremacy and female power; between spoiled, indulged brats and disciplined scholars; between the Japanese language with its inflected verbs and syllabary script and the complexities of the Chinese ideograph. Such polarities are essential to Japan and, to my knowledge, to Japan alone.
It is this tension, this polarity, that has made Japan throughout its history a country of contrasts, of sharp and sudden swings: from wide-open receptivity to foreign cultures and foreign commerce to self-imposed isolation, for instance, in the seventeenth century. But it is also this polarity that gives Japanese art, Japanese literature, and Japanese industry their dynamics and creativity.
A Westerner who has business in Japan—the professor who goes there to lecture or the businessman who negotiates a contract—soon becomes familiar with the phrase “Wareware Nihon-jin,” which means “We Japanese.” But whenever it is used (and it is used all the time), it conveys: “We Japanese are so different that you will never understand us.” To understand what a Japanese friend or business partner, or the student in the audience who gets up and asks a question, means when he starts out with Wareware Nihon-jin, one needs to look at Japanese landscape paintings. But where in the landscapes are the people—the Nihon-jin? Yet it is precisely their absence, or their subordination to the land, that is the point. For Nihon-jin does not just mean Japanese. It means: “We who belong to the land of Japan.” The landscape painting is the soul of Japanese art because the Japanese landscape has formed the soul of Japan.
Some of the features of these landscape paintings the Japanese took from the Chinese—the bizarre rock formation of the eroded Chinese karst limestone that can be seen in so many Japanese landscape paintings is an example. But most of the features of these landscapes can be found in Japan; indeed, a Japanese friend of mine claims that he knows the valley, someplace near Gifu, that Gyokudō, the great nineteenth-century landscape painter, so often painted in his small lyrical landscapes. The Japanese landscape looks like the landscape of the Japanese painters, as everyone knows who has traveled in the Japanese countryside. And yet the Japanese landscape does not look a bit like the landscape of the Japanese landscape painter, nor does any landscape on earth. The landscape of the Japanese painter is a spiritual landscape, a landscape of the soul.
The Japanese feeling for this landscape is part of “Shinto.” What Shinto really means, probably no Westerner has ever been fully able to understand. It surely does not mean a religion in the Western sense; it became a religion only after 1867, when the Meiji Restoration created a monstrosity known as State Shinto because it felt it had to emulate the way religions are set up in the West. Far more ancient and pervasive are the many Shinto shrines and rituals, but there is, above all, a Shinto feeling—the feeling of the uniqueness of Japan as an environment. I did not write human environment; it is far more than that. It is an environment fully as much for the supernatural, for the forces that control the universe, as it is an environment for man and beast, plant and rock. It is unique and it is complete. And it is different, which is the point of Wareware Nihonjin. Underlying the phrase is the feeling that Japan is unique; that Japan is by itself. What this means is expressed in the landscape paintings. Their hills and trees are the visible surface, the skin, of a spiritual landscape that is invisible and unique. There may be landscapes elsewhere that look like it. Taiwan has similar hills, and so does Korea. But there is no landscape, to a Japanese, that means the same thing. A painting of the Japanese landscape can be a realistic image that serves as a valid legal document to determine the boundary lines of a Shinto shrine, as some of the earliest Japanese landscape paintings were intended to do; but even then it also means an inner space, a landscape of the soul that is the center of gravity of Japanese existence. This landscape is, so to speak, Japan an sich.
I am not saying that the Japanese are, in fact, unique; I am saying that the Japanese feel that they are. It is not that they feel superior; nationalism has been a Japanese vice only in rare, short moments of aberration. They feel different because they feel at home only in this landscape of their soul. This may explain why, of all the foreign students in the United States and Europe, the Japanese are the only ones, who, with few exceptions, cannot wait to go back home.
I now come to what I would call “Japanese aesthetics,” or the “topological approach,” or “What makes the Chinese so uneasy when they look at a Japanese painting?”
Almost any Japanese landscape painting could be used to demonstrate Japanese aesthetics. The fifteenth-century paintings deliberately set out to follow the Chinese; and so did the Nanga painters of the eighteenth century. And yet, put a Chinese connoisseur or a Chinese art historian in front of these painters’ works and he will be uneasy. “Yes, these hills look like so-and-so in China. And yes, this rock looks like some other painter in China. And the brush-work is this or that school. And the brush technique, of course, follows another Chinese example. And yet, and yet, and yet …” What he is saying, if he is candid, is: “And yet these are definitely not Chinese paintings. They make me very uneasy and I do not understand why. But I do not want to have them around.”
One only has to put these works next to Chinese paintings to understand his feelings. I am not saying that one cannot mistake a Chinese painting for a Japanese one, and vice versa. The technique is the same, the brushstrokes are the same, the ink values are the same—and the painting is different. What makes it different is the Japanese sense of beauty. The Japanese paintings are dominated by empty space. It is not only that so much of the canvas is empty. The empty space organizes the painting. This is the opposite to what most Chinese would do, but it is basic to Japanese aesthetics. The same aesthetics are found in Japanese paintings of all schools, and in the works of painters who followed the Chinese as well as in the works of painters who rejected the Chinese.
If I were to define these aesthetics in contrast to those in Western and Chinese painting, I would say that Western painting is basically geometric. It is no coincidence that modern Western painting begins with the rediscovery of linear perspective, around 1425, that is, with the subordination of space to geometry. Chinese painting, on the other hand, is algebraic. In Chinese painting, proportion governs, as it does in Chinese ethics. Japanese painting is by contrast topological—that branch of mathematics that began around 1700 and that deals with the properties of surface and space in which shapes and lines are defined by space, so that there is no difference between a straight line and a curve, such as a hyperbola. Topology deals with angles and vortices and boundary lines. It deals with what space imposes rather than with what is imposed on space. The Japanese painter is topological in his aesthetics. He sees space and then he sees lines. He does not start out with the lines.
It has been commonplace for Western art critics and art historians for almost a hundred years to say that painters do not see objects but configurations. But the Gestalt that the Japanese painter sees is what we today would call a design rather than a structure. This is what the topologist means when he says that, topologically speaking, it is space that determines the line rather than the line that determines space. In discussions of Japanese painting, one usually finds a reference to the Japanese tendency to become “decorative.” The Nanga painters of the eighteenth century abhorred the decorative as totally incompatible with the values and aesthetics of their Chinese literati models; and yet, as we are told by all authorities, they always became decorative. Like so many words in art criticism, “decorative” is misleading; the right word might be “designed.” And this irrepressible tendency toward design—the tendency that explains why ceramics, lacquer, and painting in Japanese art tend to be closely allied, while the Chinese kept them strictly separate artistically and socially—is based on a Japanese vision that is neither perspectival (i.e., geometric) nor proportional (i.e., algebraic), but topological in design.
Both the fifteenth-century black-ink painters and the eighteenth-century Nanga painters looked to the Chinese as models and masters. Both learned techniques from the Chinese, but also motives and style and form. But both transmuted Chinese algebra into Japanese topology. This ability to receive a foreign culture and then to “Japanize” it is a continuing thread in Japanese history and experience.
Around A.D. 500, Buddhism, and with it the highly advanced and most refined civilization of China, swept into Japan. At first the impact seemed to inundate Japan completely. Everything was brought from China or Korea, including monks and architects and artists and artisans and scribes and poetry and artworks and textiles. After only two centuries, by the Nara period, Japan was producing religious sculpture that was completely Buddhist and yet deeply Japanese, even though the techniques were still those of the Chinese and Korean sculptors. But Japan equally transmuted China’s governmental and social structures. It made both Buddhism and Confucianism serve a tribal, and soon thereafter, a warrior society. It made Chinese concepts of land tenure, grounded in family ownership of soil, serve a system in which there was no ownership of land at all, except by temples and the throne. There were only graduated rights to the product of the land—that is, graduated rights to tax and tribute rather than ownership rights in land as such. The same thing happened in ceramics, in poetry, and in architecture.
It is happening again today; only now it is the West rather than China that is the foreign culture that is being Japanized. Forms, techniques, and concepts are used very skillfully. As the fifteenth-century and the eighteenth-century painters did, the Japanese rapidly improve on the techniques. There are few Chinese painters whose control and command of the brush equal the artistry of the great fifteenth-century Japanese landscape painter Sesshū. There are few Western companies that have the control and command of the corporate form and of managerial techniques that the large Japanese trading companies possess. But the essence is Japanese. The Japanese are not unaffected by the foreign influence; it becomes part of their own experience. Yet they distill out of the foreign influence whatever serves to maintain and strengthen Japanese values, beliefs, traditions, purposes, relationships. The result is not a hybrid. It is, as the fifteenth-century paintings or the eighteenth-century paintings show, all of one piece. This is a truly unique Japanese characteristic.
Again and again, Japanese society has lived through periods when it was wide open to foreign influences. But then it closes in again, to digest, transmute, and transform almost alchemically. What is considered base metal in the foreign culture sometimes becomes gold in Japan, as with the Chinese thirteenth-century painters Mu-ch’i or Yin T’o-lo. Both were rejected by the Chinese as “coarse” or “vulgar.” They then became the models and masters for the most austerely refined Japanese painters of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. But sometimes the metal in a foreign culture may become dross in Japan, as happened in this century to the idea of the national state, imported from the West and transmuted into a poisonous parody of an old and peculiarly Japanese political form, the shōgunate, or military government. Always before the shōgun had served to eliminate fighting, to make war both unnecessary and impossible, and, above all, to prevent foreign adventure.
The Japanese aesthetics are a way to understand, or at least to perceive, a fundamental and central element: the very special (I would say unique) relationship between Japan and the outside world. It is a relationship based on receptivity, on an ability to learn quickly and to improve on what is being taught, while at the same time accepting, or at least retaining, only what makes Japan more Japanese: what fits topology rather than geometry or algebra; what fits Japanese human relations; what fits the inner experience of the uniqueness of Japan, and what might be called, with a Western term, Japanese spirituality. We are talking here of an existential phenomenon; and by the way, the best translation of the peculiar word “Shinto” is probably spirituality.
Whether it can maintain these abilities is the great question ahead of Japan, I think. Japan is now becoming integrated into the outside world, and not just economically (perhaps least of all economically) in a way which neither the Japan of the sixth century, that of the Buddhist and Chinese tidal wave, nor the Japan of Sesshū’s time around 1500, nor perhaps even the Japan of a hundred years ago, could have imagined. Is it still possible for Japan to encapsulate and transmute into Japanness the foreign, the non-Japanese, culture, behavior, ethics and even aesthetics?
I dare not even speculate—but there are a few straws in the wind. If one looks at the visual arts that today prosper in Japan—the modern Japanese woodblock print; the Japanese movie; modern Japanese ceramics; and perhaps one could add Japanese architecture—one would say that there is a possibility, even a probability, that the Japanese are again Japanizing the imported culture. The Japanese wood-block print is modern and Japanese very much in the way in which Nara sculpture was Buddhist and Japanese. So too, to a large extent, are the ceramics of Japan today. I can hope only that the Japanese will do again what they have done before so many times. The world needs a culture that is both modern and distinctly, uniquely, non-Western. It needs a Japanese Japan rather than a Japanese version of New York or Los Angeles or Frankfurt.
“Ten minutes and eighty years,” Hakuin Ekaku, the great eighteenth-century Zen master, is said to have answered when asked how long it took him to paint one of his paintings of Daruma, the founder of the Zen sect. Of course, Rembrandt might have given the same answer when asked how long it took him to paint the self-portraits of his old age, Claude Monet when asked how long it took him to paint one of the hymns to light in his versions of Rouen Cathedral, or Pablo Casals when asked how long it took him to play one of Bach’s “Unaccompanied Suites for Cello.” But Hakuin’s answer has two levels of meaning beyond that of the Western artist: it expresses a Japanese view of the nature of man, and a Japanese view of the nature of learning.
These may be seen in the one dimension in Japanese figure and portrait painting for which the West has no real parallel, nor China either—the spiritual self-portrait. If the Westerner says that it takes eighty years to be able to do what Rembrandt’s last self-portraits represent, or Monet’s pure light and Casals’ Bach, he talks of the decades of practice needed to attain the skill. But the “eighty years” of the Japanese saying refer, above all, to the spiritual self-realization needed to become the person who can paint Daruma. An old Zen saying has it that “Every painting of Daruma is a [spiritual] self-portrait.” The Zen painter who has not worked for decades on control of the self will not be the person to paint Daruma. Daruma is not a god, he is not a saint. He is man, but one who has realized man’s full spiritual potential, who has attained man’s full spiritual power, and who has transformed himself into a spiritual being. And only the painter who has himself become the spiritual man which Daruma represents can then paint a portrait on which he can inscribe, as Hakuin did on one of his Darumas, “This Is IT!”The spiritual power, the spiritual qualities of Daruma cannot be faked. No matter how great a painter’s skill, if he lacks these qualities, his Daruma will lack them too.
Kanō Tanyū, in the mid-seventeenth century, and Rosetsu, a century later, very great masters and without peers in painting skill, both painted Daruma. Tanyū’s Daruma looks like an elderly bureaucrat or successful banker; Rosetsu’s like the urbane and witty chairman of a university graduate department. Both are excellent paintings—but neither has spirituality, power, total compelling control. But the Daruma by a painter who himself has the spirituality will have that power even if, as in the case of a Daruma painted by Hakuin in his extreme old age, the body is weighed down by the physical infirmity of advanced old age, the eyes are almost blind despite heavy glasses, the legs have given out, and death is very near.
Daruma is mortal. He is a sentient being. But unlike the saints of Christianity or of Buddhism, he is not dependent on divine grace, on a Supreme Being, or on redemption. He had attained spiritual perfection through his own efforts and by fulfilling the divinity within him. This is not a “humanist” view of man but a spiritual and existential one. It is a view that focuses on wisdom rather than on knowledge; on self-control rather than on power; on excellence rather than on success.
The Zen saying of “ten minutes and eighty years” also expresses a uniquely Japanese concept of continuous learning. In the West and in China, one learns to prepare oneself for the next job, for a promotion, for a new challenge. The most extreme example was the Confucian examination system of Imperial China, where one actually had to unlearn what the first examination tested to get ready for the next, the second one. The Western modern medical school is not too different either, nor are most Advanced Management courses. But in Zen, one learns so as to do better what one already does well. One keeps on painting Daruma until the control becomes completely spontaneous. One draws, as did the early seventeenth-century calligrapher Konoe Nobutada, a picture of Tenjin, the patron of learning, every morning—the same picture, but with ever-increasing mastery. Or, like Nakabayashi Chikutō, around 1800, one paints the same landscapes over and over again. Of course, in the West the artist does that too—Casals practiced the Bach cello suites until his death, well past ninety years of age. But in the West—and in China—only the artist does this; the rest of us are like Confucian scholars who pass one examination to be qualified to sit for the next, and for whom one promotion is the stepping stone to the next.
In Japan there is to this day the specialist in the trading company, the specialist on cotton, for instance, or on woodworking machinery, who gets more money and a bigger title but stays the specialist on cotton or on woodworking machinery all his working life, becoming more accomplished with every year. There is the continuous learning process in the Japanese factory, where employees get more money with seniority but keep on doing the same job, and meet every week to discuss how they can do their present jobs better. And there is the uniquely Japanese concept of the Living National Treasure, the great craftsman or artist who has excelled through doing the same work. The Western theory of the learning curve is not accepted in Japan—the theory that people reach a plateau of accomplishment after a certain time and then stay on it. The Japanese learning curve has them break out of that plateau again by continuing to practice—until they reach a new plateau, when they again, after a time, start learning and growing, and so on, always approaching perfection. The Japanese learning curve, like the Zen master’s ten minutes and eighty years, sees learning as an act of spiritual perfection and personal self-development as much as an acquisition of skills. It is a way of changing the person, and not just a way of acquiring performance capacity.
Again this is but one strand. Japanese history and Japanese society are as full of climbers, of ambitious schemers, of people on the make and people on the take, as any other history or society. But there is also the counterpoint—the ten minutes and eighty years of continuous learning to do better what one already does very well.
The Japanese or Zen concept of learning is not without dangers. It can degenerate into imitation and repetition. This is what happened to the Kano School of painting. It was Japan’s “official” art for almost three hundred years, from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. It maintained itself in this position by insistence on continuous learning, on meticulous technique, on close adherence to the models. Thus it retained its technical competence. But it also, after 1650 or so, rapidly degenerated into mechanical copying. And it was still at mechanical copying when the Meiji Restoration opened Japan to the West more than two centuries later. But though capable of degenerating into mechanical copying and mindless repetition, the Zen tradition is closer to being a genuine theory of learning than the Western and Chinese concept of learning for the sake of advancement, promotion, or moving on. With its focus on developing the strengths of a person, it anticipated by hundreds of years modern theories of the person and of self-realization. There is indeed profound wisdom in the insight that work is an extension of personality and personality a distillation of work, so that one cannot paint Daruma’s spiritual qualities without having them oneself, but so that one also becomes Daruma by painting him every day for decades.
The insight and wisdom that lie in the Zen conception of the person and of learning are endangered in today’s Japan. The Japanese educational system has opted for an extreme of the Western and Confucian position, which sees the purpose of learning as getting ready for the next examination, the next promotion, the next external reward. Infants are drilled to pass the entrance examination to the right nursery school, so as to be admitted to the entrance examination to the right kindergarten, which in turn leads to the entrance examination to the right elementary school, and on to high school, the university, and the corporation. Is there still room for the emphasis on learning to become, on learning to be, on learning to say, “This is IT!” when painting Daruma as a spiritual portrait?
I have so far used Japanese painting to look at Japan. Now I shall use—or abuse—Japanese painting to look at the West and at Western modern art. Rosetsu painted The Temple Bell at Dōjō-ji in the 1780s. The title refers to a well-known Kabuki play. But the painting itself is virtually abstract and non-objective. Yet it was painted a century and a half before there were abstract painters in the West. It is by no means Japan’s oldest abstract painting; in fact, such paintings can be traced back to the Heian period of the tenth century. Tani Bunchō, the great master-painter in Edo—today’s Tokyo—painted a Flowering Plum Tree in the Moonlight shortly after 1800. It anticipates what Turner or Monet tried to do half a century later in the West: to make light the subject of a painting. A Hakuin Daruma is an expressionist painting, like those of Klimt, Schiele, and Kubin, and Picasso in his expressionist years, and Matisse; but with a power very few of them had. Modernism in Western art is thus anticipated by Japanese tradition. There is a story—perhaps apocryphal—that Picasso was taken in 1953 through an exhibition in Paris of Japanese paintings that featured the works of the Zen priest and painter Gibon Sengai, who had died in 1838, and that he stormed out of the exhibition exclaiming furiously that it was a hoax since no one could possibly have painted like this without first having seen his, Picasso’s work. Modernism in Western art is in fact anticipated, if not prefigured, by the Japanese tradition.
Yet, of course, Westerners had never laid eyes on the Japanese originals or even heard of them. Other than ukiyo-e, the woodblock prints, Japanese art was virtually unknown in the West until fairly recent years. The West, in other words, has developed within the last century elements of a modern vision and sensibility that were ancient in Japan. The West has learned to see in somewhat the same way that the Japanese have seen all along. The West has shifted from description and analysis to design and configuration.
Marshall McLuhan has announced that the electronic media have changed our ways of seeing and interpreting the world, and are making us perceive rather than conceive. But a view of Western perception as informed by an understanding of Japanese art would lead to the conclusion that this shift began much earlier and owed nothing to electronic technology. On the contrary, it would appear more probable that the West became ready for the electronic technology and receptive to it because its perception had shifted from traditional description and analysis to the perception of design and configuration that Japan had known all along.
A distinguished historian of modern Western painting, Robert Rosenblum, in his recent Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko,* asserts that modern Western painting has its roots in the northern, mostly North German, painters of the nineteenth century—Caspar David Friedrich and Otto Runge—who shifted from description to design. But this, it could be argued, is precisely what had occurred in Japan far earlier: perception as against conception, design as against description, topology as against geometry, and configuration as against analysis, have indeed been continuing characteristics of Japanese art from the tenth century on.
Edwin O. Reischauer, the former American ambassador to Japan and the foremost authority on Japanese history and society, wrote in his recent book, The Japanese,† that Japan has never produced a great or original thinker of the first rank. This has been read as severe criticism, especially in Japan; but Reischauer’s point was that Japan’s genius is perceptual rather than conceptual.
The towering achievement of the high Middle Ages in the West was Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, perhaps the boldest conceptual and analytical feat in human history. The proudest achievement of Japan’s “Middle Ages,” the eleventh century, is the world’s first novel, Lady Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji, filled with intimate descriptions of men and women in court life, of love and illness and death. Japan’s greatest playwright, Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1643–1724), had neither camera nor screen, but his Kabuki and Bunraku (puppet) plays are highly cinematic. They are song, dance, costumes, and music, as well as the spoken word. The characters are defined not so much by what they say as by how they appear. People rarely quote a line that Chikamatsu wrote. Yet no one ever forgets a scene. Chikamatsu was not a dramatist but a scriptwriter of genius. And without benefit of cinematic tools, his Kabuki theater invented cinema techniques; the mie in which the actors freeze, is, for instance, the equivalent of the movie close-up.
The perceptual in Japanese tradition largely underlies Japan’s rise as a modern society and economy. It enabled the Japanese to grasp the essence, the fundamental configuration of things foreign and Western, whether an institution or a product, and then to redesign. The most important thing that can be said about Japan as viewed through its art may well be that Japan is perceptual.
First published in an earlier form as the concluding essay in Song of the Brush, Japanese Paintings from the Sansō Collection, edit: John M. Rosenfield and Henry Trubner (Seattle, Wash.: Seattle Art Museum, 1979).