Eight Manifestations of Japanese Aesthetic – Part II

by Oliver Geffken. Average Reading Time: about 7 minutes.

“It is not clear precisely where a mountain ends. People possess a sense of appearances and territory in their vicinity, and there are no clear borders existing between people and things.”


After Part I of this row got posted a few weeks ago, we received a lot of requests to proceed with this fascinating listing – so it’s time to take a look at the next chapters of the Eight Manifestations of the Japanese Aesthetic now. But wait. Before that we’d like to repeat we’re thrilled to publish this fantastic insights which got possible through a transcript of Masayuki Kurokawa’s speech at the award ceremony of the Next Maruni Competition:

1 - Totality in details: Bi
2 - Parallel aggregation of details: Hei
3 - Mutual harmony created by the appearance of details: Ma
4 - Simplification leading to richness: Fu
5 - Splendor created through concealment: Hi
6 - The world was originally harmonious: So
7 - Flowing beauty with no resistance: Ka
8 - Destruction is creation: Ha

2. Parallel aggregation of details: Hei

It is precisely because the whole is present in the details that the details are able to keep their distance from one another and harmonize in the form of an aggregate consisting of details alone. If the details are merely parts of the whole, they will need to be mediated by an infrastructure, but they are able to coexist on their own as details when organized in parallel. Parallelism (hei) refers to a flat structure without layers, but, in the case of such an organization, the individual details will never get sacrificed to the whole.

In distinction to structures possessing normative values, such as God for instance, the structure of Japanese values is such that norms are created by factors such as consideration and shame that come into play between individual people. This is the mechanism whereby parallel relationships are maintained, and this is how one thing is able to harmonize with another while keeping an appropriate distance.

One might compare the structure of Western cities with their infrastructures as being like a tree, in contrast to which a Japanese village is laid out in the manner of a parallel network. The human brain is similarly organized as a parallel network of neurons, and the world created by the Internet is likewise a parallel network of individuals. Parallel relationships are what democracy is all about.


Japanese spaces are such that each and every one of the details is considered to be of equal importance, and they possess a structure in which perspectives obtained from a variety of individual details are able to coexist in parallel.


The cells, or neurons, in the human brain are independent, scattered units existing in parallel. They establish connections by means of stimuli on each occasion as required.


The Kanazawa 21st Century Museum of Art designed by Kazuyo Sejima is made up of a parallel assembly of rectangular exhibition rooms set inside a circular outer wall made of glass. The inside of the museum is arranged exactly like a village, consisting as it does of exhibition rooms which maintain their distance one from the other. Exhibitions can be held by freely linking the individual rooms.

3. Mutual harmony created by the appearance
of details: Ma

Social harmony in Japan is created by factors connected with the way that people relate to others, for example feelings of consideration and shame. In order for people to coexist and harmonize with one another, norms based on absolute values are employed in monotheistic societies, but such norms do not arise in a polytheistic country such as Japan where gods have traditionally been thought to exist in nature and in things themselves. The key to obtaining harmony so as to facilitate coexistence between people is consideration for others. For Japanese people, who have an aversion to shame, who value harmony, who place importance on obligation, and who, in generalized terms, take joy in the fusion with nature, it is precisely this distancing with things and with nature that provides an important norm under which they can lead their lives.

As in the case of relationships between people, things, sounds and pictures are arranged in such a manner as to place importance upon their mutual distancing. This is considered to be the way in which harmony can be obtained through the world as a whole. The space required for obtaining this harmony is known in Japanese as ma.

Ma is created by those appearances that one might refer to as “consideration” or “allure” that appear in the vicinity of people, things, sounds and pictures. The sense of shame and harmony gives rise to the appearances generated by people. These appearances respond to the appearances of other people, things, sounds and pictures and harmonize with them. This concept of ma is unlikely to emerge in the Western world, where absolutism is the dominating principle.

„Where a person’s bottom ends is unclear. The bottom is vaguely linked to the back. The beauty of a woman’s body lies in this sense of ma projected by this vagueness of meaning.“

Masayuki Kurokawa


The names, the existence, and the periphery of separate parts of the world are unclear. It is not clear precisely where a mountain ends. People possess a sense of appearances and territory in their vicinity, and there are no clear borders existing between people and things. Ma results from this gathering together of appearances on the periphery.


In his picture entitled “Pine Forest” (Shorin-zu), Hasegawa Tohaku sets out in parallel two pine forests with vaguely delineated peripheries, with the result that the empty space between them gives rise to a mysterious sense of space. This is the power of ma.

4. Simplification leading to richness: Fu

Many people think that it is precisely simplicity that offers the means to portray true richness. One of the principles of modern design expounded by Mies van der Rohe was “less is more”, and it seems likely that this was a principle that Mies actually acquired from Japanese thought. The idea here is that nothing does not necessarily mean the absence of anything, and that it contains within it the seeds of diversity.

There is a tendency within the Japanese aesthetic to place more importance on texture than on lavishness of form. As regards the use of washi paper, floors, walls and tatami mats, the aesthetic of the sukiya tea ceremony hut is based on simple forms and a paramount concern with texture. In the case of kimono too, it is the fine aspects of texture such as coloring and weave patterns that are regarded as important, and the form of the costume as such is totally standardized.

Expression has been cut away and simplified, but what is actually happening is the concentration of consciousness on minutes details.

Sen no Rikyu, the great master of the tea ceremony, is said to have greeted a guest with a single morning glory which remained after he had cut away all the other blossoms. His approach was no doubt based on the idea that the most vivid impression could be created by the process of elimination.

The Japanese sensibility is concerned first and foremost with minute detail, in which the whole world is considered to be concentrated. It is precisely by cutting away and eliminating that it becomes possible to liberate the enormous that lies hidden within details.

* Sen no Rikyu (1522-91): A merchant from the port city of Sakai and a tea master who taught the art of the tea ceremony to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who stood at the pinnacle of the military class. The simplicity of the sukiya tea ceremony hut might be considered as conveying a sense of resistance to the military class.


This is a mizusashi jug as used in the tea ceremony designed by Masayuki Kurokawa. Made of silicon, it runs contrary to the traditional aesthetic of the tea ceremony, but the designer has striven to maintain a simple form with the emphasis on an extremely fine texture reminiscent of tofu, one of Japan’s traditional foods. It incorporates the aesthetic concept referred to in Japanese as ha.


Around the outside of the pillar-and-beam space that results from this process of removal are set outer walls made from wood and paper known as akari-shoji. These are temporary open walls which can be opened and closed at will. The floors are either simple planked structures or covered with tatami mats. The house thus consists of the absolute minimum of elements.

If one takes away the windows from the box-shaped space and then expands it, what remains is a space consisting of pillars and beams. The walls possess a rigid-frame structure and continuity. The space inside a Japanese wooden building is a pillar-and-beam structure created by removing walls, in distinction to European stone buildings with their fixed wall structures.

Ok. That’s it for today. Feel free to send us your suggestions, questions or thoughts via a short @-reply at Twitter – and if you wanna make sure you don’t miss the next post of this series, don’t forget to follow us on Twitter. Thanks.


Eight Manifestations of the Japanese Aesthetic – Part I
“Where a person’s bottom ends is unclear. The bottom is vaguely linked to the back. The beauty of a woman’s body lies in this sense of ma projected by this vagueness of meaning.” —Masayuki Kurokawa 1 - Totality in details: Bi 2 - Parallel aggregation of details: Hei 3 - Mutual harmony created by the appearance [...] Read more – ‘Eight Manifestations of the Japanese Aesthetic – Part I’
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