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Ukiyo-e was born out of a rich and diverse philosophical context that seeks to capture not merely one’s attention or imagination but also one’s heartfelt, emotional experience of loss and nostalgia
Abigail Leali / MutualArt
Sep 16, 2022
Even the briefest glance at Japanese art over the centuries establishes it as an entirely different tradition than that of the West. In some sense that is an intuitive, even obvious statement. The landscapes of Utagawa Hiroshige and Caspar David Friedrich, for instance, have in common almost exclusively their subject matter. Their methods of expressing perspective, atmosphere, ambience, and even basic form are completely different.
Even among the most well-meaning art historians, however, in the world of cultural exchange it is always necessary to fight against the tendency to stop at “different.” No matter how deeply one comes to understand a foreign culture, it is easy to view the world as if one’s own culture was the default. While such a mindset can be useful – even necessary – to orient oneself in the world, it outlives its purpose when it becomes not a “home-base” but a yardstick to evaluate all that is “other.”

Caspar David Friedrich, Landscape with Mountain Lake, Morning, 1823-1835
Many people have already elaborated on the threats that such malformed judgments can pose for many cultural traditions, especially those that are now minorities, that face material poverty, or are being pushed to the point of extinction by industrialization. To specify that Katsushika Hokusai relies on lines to express form is one thing; to pluck this trait out of his work as if it were an odd divergence from Europe’s High Renaissance is to miss the entire point of the exercise. It is to have failed to explore alternative understandings of what art can be – and therefore in the end to misunderstand what art fundamentally is. With time, rather than muddying at the definition of art, exploring different cultures and art styles can clarify art’s true meaning and purpose.
Therefore, while it is far beyond the scope of this series to introduce even the most basic understanding of Japanese culture and aesthetics, the little that we can cover here will, I hope, make it possible to glimpse ukiyo-e’s true cultural significance, even when viewed through thoroughly European eyes.

Utagawa Hiroshige, A Mountain in the Snow, c. 1834
To begin at the beginning: as Thomas Kasulis explains in Japanese Philosophy, in prehistoric Japan, the Proto-Shinto – Japan’s oldest, native religion – conceived of wrongdoing not as criminality or sin,” but as a violation or transgression of a taboo, regardless of whether the acts were accidental or intentional.” The “proper response” to wrongdoing was thus not to punish or rehabilitate but to engage in ritual purification,” which generally involved the key virtues of cleanliness and silence. These virtues would be carried throughout Japanese history, informing not only visual art but also music, storytelling, drama, and other creative outlets.
When the practitioners of Shinto began to engage with Chinese Confucianism, however, they rejected the Confucian concept that the emperor gained his authority by celestial entitlement or command,” which could be revoked if the emperor failed to uphold the Way (dao). Instead, they insisted on their previous familial framework, setting the stage for a perception of material reality that was undergirded by the organic relationships between things, rather than a strict, imposed hierarchy.
On the other hand, they quickly accepted the Confucian distinction between ri and ki: the former asserting the essential goodness of humanity, the latter denoting a transformative component accounting for the vital quality of all things – in other words, that without which nothing could exist. John Tucker, in Japanese Confucian Philosophy, explains that the Shinto adopted the Confucian appreciation for “the bountiful and morally good creation of heaven and earth.” By contrast with the Western assumption of humanity’s original sin, the Japanese instead came to view people as intrinsically good, albeit to differing degrees.

Katsushika Hokusai, Tama River in Musashi Province, from Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, c. 1830-1832
Buddhists, on the other hand, while equally revered, held a position often critiqued by Confucians for its nihilistic “emptiness.” One of the most prominent forms of Buddhism was Zen Buddhism, which, as Shigenori Nagatomo discusses in Japanese Zen Buddhist Philosophy, emphasizes meditation and insists that experiential knowledge is more primary than “theoretical, intellectual knowledge.” 
Buddhism argues that “reason in its discursive use is incapable of knowing and understanding in toto what reality is.” Instead, one must come to understand something both in itself and as it relates to other things, before ultimately transcending both these definitions towards something that is beyond them both.
While Europe has many corollaries for this mode of thinking (medieval mysticism comes to mind as an example), Westerners often take for granted that the world is fundamentally knowable. This assumption forms the basis of modern empiricism, but it can quickly blind people to the mysteries that still abound in our reality. Hence, Buddhists argue that, if a person believes in any distinction between themselves and the world, it isolates them entirely from what is transcendent and beyond. To utterly reject the self and to see that all things are one, is ultimately to be at peace.
In the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, however, new forms of Buddhism developed, prominently Pure Land Buddhism, which evolved out of the rigorously ascetic Mahayana (“great vehicle”) tradition. Mahayana Buddhists believed that the material world was a place of anguish and that the path to “supreme awakening” began with a “profound awakening of the mind aspiring to enlightenment (bodhicitta)” that would set them on a path potentially taking eons of lifetimes to complete.
The goal of Mahayana Buddhism, however, is not “paradise” as a Westerner might conceive it, but achieving what, in his article “Japanese Pure Land Philosophy,” Dennis Hirota refers to as “nonretrogression.” “While prior to reaching this stage,” he explains, a person is capable of backsliding into mere earthly existence, “once they have attained nonretrogression…they will never regress but steadily advance in their practice to supreme awakening.”  Simply put, Mahayana Buddhists aimed to reach a point at which, having entered sufficiently into enlightenment, their escape from the cruelty of the world would be assured.

John Constable, Malvern Hall in Warwickshire, 1809
Pure Land Buddhists thereby shifted the emphasis of Buddhist thought; rather than achieving nirvana and liberation from “blind passions” and the cycle of rebirth (a framework in which a new buddha is a “momentous event”), they instead argued that “all sentient beings” ought to strive to Buddhahood. They also 
reformulated the central elements of the path – traditionally given as the “three learnings” of precepts, meditation, and wisdom – as the six paramitas – giving, moral action, patience, effort, meditation, and wisdom. In this enumeration of virtues, we find selfless giving understood not simply as alms-giving or “charity,” but as the total, compassionate activity of bodhisattvas for whom meritorious action leading to enlightenment and the giving of their own merit to others are interfused.
Beyond this list of virtues, however, certain doctrinal debates raised the question of whether moral philosophy was necessary at all in such a system. Focused as it was on the annihilation of ones experience of the world, what did it matter how one acted in the meantime? It was this attitude that ultimately gave rise to the more sordid, populist artwork of ukiyo-e.
To summarize, Japanese art’s rigorous techniques and refined modes of expression are a reflection the Confucian intelligentsia from which its artists often derived. Its themes and pathos, meanwhile, evoke not only Confucian ri and ki but the Buddhist experience of reality. It attempts to translate into the medium of painting – which of necessity can capture only one moment in time – the ceaselessness of change and the response one might have to it. Undergirding it all is the subtle, ongoing presence of Shinto, which infuses the work with an ancient reverence for nature, silence, and order.

Kano Tan'yu, Landscape in Moonlight, after 1662
To the untrained Western eye, Japanese art may at times seem haphazard and incomplete. But in truth, it is a demanding process of translating not merely the visual information of the forms themselves but the true essence of the thing as transient and mortal. This is why it relies so heavily on the use of negative space and artists’ perception. They seek to capture not merely one’s attention or imagination but also one’s heartfelt, emotional experience of loss and nostalgia. The goal is both to see and to feel the relentless mutability of the moment.
Yet even this atmosphere of transience was not achieved by accident. The Japanese have a wide array of visual techniques and aesthetic terminology that guide their art-making process. Born out of this rich and diverse philosophical context, this aesthetic tradition naturally harmonizes with Japanese thought as a whole. It is there that we will turn in the next installment.
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