Marking the start of a series of sessions dedicated to deep exploration of Asian cultures, Space Doctors was lucky enough to play host to Chris Arning, founder and director of Creative Semiotics. For our fifteenth instalment of Lunch & Learn, Chris shared his formidable knowledge of Japanese culture to take us on a journey into the fascinating and rich world of Japanese aesthetics.

If you were able to download nations’ cultures, Japan’s file size would outstrip anywhere else’s
Chris Arning

Japan is certainly amenable to semiotic analysis as it is, at root, a deeply semiotic culture. Everything communicates, from the panoply of public information plastered across metros, stores, and Zen gardens through to the semantic complexity and nuance inherent in a writing system in which three writing styles can combine and interact to generate boundless levels of signification; context and meaning are fundamentally entwined.

Japan’s history and current standing position the nation as incredibly inviting for cultural analysis. Its unique evolution, which draws heavily from both Asian and Western societies, with an entrenched sense of exceptionalism seen in nihonjiron discourse, has built a country that was “post-modern before the post-modern”. That is to say, Japan is capable of “accommodating and [keeping] apparently diverse elements”[1]; absorbing cultural input from around the globe but always morphing and adapting it to make it distinctly Japanese. This has been evident in Japanese culture since Roland Barthes’ traveled there in the 1960s, during which he wrote Empire of Signs, the central thesis of which is that Japanese society is content to view signs on their own merit and not as part of a grander transcendental narrative, as in the West.

church of the light
Emptiness and shadows in the Church of the Light, Osaka Prefecture (Tadao Ando)

This comfort with a perceived emptiness at the heart of cultural artefacts deeply informs the Japanese approach to aesthetics, expressed particularly through yohaku (literally ‘blank space’) – the mindful use of intervals and space in architecture and design. Linked to this is a fascination with occlusion and shadow – Junichiro Tanizaki’s book In Praise of Shadows is an extended eulogy for “the sensitive use of shadow and light” visible throughout Japanese design, and the preference for a “pensive luster [rather than] shallow brilliance”.

Shiseido utilising visual cues of laquerware to connote artistry, professionalism, and sleek beauty.

Tanizaki’s realisation that “only in the dim light is the true beauty of Japanese laquerware revealed” speaks to the reverence afforded to laquerware – a decorative art esteemed to the point that a nation’s relationship with light itself could be so deeply informed by its interplay with it. Lacquerware is incredibly time-consuming and difficult to produce – an organic substance crafted to appear synthetic and almost unnaturally perfect, the glossy sheen of which has come to stand as the acme of Japanese beauty and discipline.

The nation’s aesthetic is also fed by a comfort and preoccupation with transience. Whereas Western ideas about beauty can be broadly defined as ‘objective’, i.e. that beauty is a quality of a painting, sculpture, etc., in Japan, beauty is a result of a particular circumstance or situation; it’s inherent in the interplay between objects and their environments. As a result, beauty is always subject to change. Shuji Takashina pulls out a striking example of this acceptance of transience – the Ise Shrine in Mie Prefecture is ritualistically razed and rebuilt every 20 years, but unlike Western religious relics such as the Turin Shroud, its sacredness stems from its form not its origin. “According to Western aesthetics… the rebuilt copy is a copy, if not a sham”[2], but, to the Japanese there is no distinction between the ‘original’ temple and its 60th instantiation.

Baymax – simpuru ‘hero’ of Disney’s Big Hero 6

This appreciation of transience feeds into aesthetic expressions of organic, impermanent beauty such as the modest simplicity and roughness of wabi-sabi design, but also helps to explain the sheer pace and scale of cultural change within Japan. A culture that is less inclined to cling onto permanence, primed to shift and evolve and within which things are constantly evanescing, inevitably creates tensions evident in modes of visual expression. This is visible in the juxtaposition between the consciously minimal, organic, and emotional simpuru design style and the hyper-maximalist, often fetishistically infantile, aesthetics of otaku and kawaii. The pull of ‘modernisation’ and rampant capitalism against traditional Shinto parsimony is also clear in o-share design and style – stemming from the economic bubble of the 1980s, aping globally recognised premium/luxury cues such as sleek metallic products or sharply-cut garments, and in the lavish abundance of zeitaku, a focus on the richness and lavishness of a product’s ingredients or the experience of use.

Shodō, Japanese calligraphy

All of these drivers inform, and indeed are informed by, Japanese calligraphy, an art form transient by nature that, like the Japanese writing system, is complex and capable of expressing any number of different meanings through its form and expression. The different associations bound to different calligraphic styles can be utilised by artists, designers, and brands to put across dramatically differing messages. Depending on the artist’s style, calligraphy can connote sharp precision or speed and athletic flair, through to a rustic, homely, wabi-sabi warmth.

This fascinating overview of Japanese visual culture drew out many of the signifiers and cues that appeal to various themes and trends prevalent within contemporary Japan but also, perhaps more importantly, threw into even sharper relief how in-depth analysis of a culture’s visual and media output is vital to a proper understanding of that culture. Fundamental cultural understanding of this type is a foundation of our work – drawing out how to fruitfully engage in communication with consumers and send impactful messages. Space Doctors prides itself on helping brands connect with audiences worldwide. It is precisely this fundamental and necessary breadth of cultural insight that is required in order to provide brands with the insight that can help them steward the meaning that their brand holds in the world.

An output of Lunch & Learn, an internal, monthly lunch in which we invite experts to teach us new and exciting things.

[1] Yoshihiko Ikegama (ed.) – Empire of Signs

[2] Shuji Takashina, Beauty in Japand and the West