East Asian Aesthetic Terminology: Japan (Pt. 1).



While preparing to start my doctoral studies I took the opportunity to travel to South Korea and China to do adjunct research related to my main field of study: the interrelationship between Japanese aesthetics/ Zen Buddhism, and creativity. Thus, I spent a few years living in Western Japan (Kansai) traveling back and forth between Osaka, Kobe, Nara, Kyoto, and Himeji studying temple architecture, chant practices, Buddhist art, Noh theater, gagaku, and so on.

In my studies I began to see many terms repeatedly coming up in conversations I had with various monks, lay Buddhists, and musicians I met, so I thought I would share them with you all. Many of them are not well known, some even very obscure – and not heard outside of classical Japanese art and music circles in Japan itself – so they may be helpful to anyone with a general interest in East Asian aesthetics, Buddhism, the practices and standards of classical Japanese art, and so on. Many of them are also completely unknown to most, so do not be surprised if any Japanese people you encounter do not recognize what you are referring to.

These terms are especially important if one is to understand the historical context of Japan’s vast artistic legacy, as the terminology more often than not describes a mindset/state of Being necessary to even begin artistic creation, let alone the skill set(s) to realize such creation. There are also many fascinating terms that describe actions and ways of thinking one may not ordinarily associate with daily activities (see: Juhatsu, or Kanjaku).

(Note: the Kansai Area of Japan is easily the most culturally rich region of the world, and to spend even a couple of days there provides enough intellectual and artistic inspiration to last a lifetime. It also was the place where I met one of my greatest heroes and mentor, the legendary Japanese artist Shozo Shimamoto (1928 – 2013), co-founder of the famous GUTAI Art Collective. Having had him in my life has made my life so much richer, and I am eternally thankful).


An-i: state of perfect versatility and ease, neither inner state nor outer action exclusively.

Ashirai: “non-controlled rhythm”; temporally unmeasured, nearly “free” rhythm used in Nōh theater musical accompaniment. Usually used for preludes, interludes, or an exit.

Ato o todome: “leaves no trace”; art / calligraphy that neither interferes with nor impedes, but reveals the paradoxes and significance of experiences.

Aware: the aspects of art/nature/life that increases ephemeral awareness in an individual.

Bigaku:“the art of beauty”; the study of aesthetics in Japanese culture, which emphasizes specific teachings in each fine art discipline supported by the appropriate worldview and attitude required for mastery. Common themes are impermanence, intuition, austerity, seasonal affect, Zen Buddhist philosophy, simplicity, and the effects of time and decay.The Zen Buddhist expression of aesthetic intent may be described as the creative expression of the subtle interpenetration of sound/silence, symmetry/asymmetry; the aesthetic place where things are both differentiated and undifferentiated.

Bi no okōku:“Kingdom of Beauty”: an idealized state of quasi-socialist liberation from capitalist modernity desired by mingei collector and aesthetician Sōetsu Yanagi.

Buji: “no work”; anxiety-free.

Bompu: ordinary/deluded consciousness; a worldview that is egocentric.

Chikan:“knowing and seeing”; the first of the three levels of spiritual maturity in Rinzai Zen Buddhism. See: Kū-ka-chū.

Chū:“the selfless state of Buddhahood”; the third of the three levels of mature spirituality in Tendai Buddhism, reached after realizing and transcending the duality of the first two levels. See: Kū-ka-chū.

Chusho-seki: the branch of suiseki that evaluates ‘abstract’ stones.

Dainichi Nyorai: The Japanese name for the Mahavairocana Buddha, the “Truth Body”that pervades the universe. This esoteric belief (within the Shingon Buddhist faith) differs from early Buddhism where the Truth Body is one aspect of the original Buddha.

Dainippon Kokkegenki: a setsuwa written circa 1040-1043 C.E recording the merits of reading, listening to, and having faith in the Lotus Sutra.

Datsuzoku: detachment, non-formalism.

Edō Jidai: “Edo Period”: the Japanese era lasting from 1615-1868 C. E.

Emakimono: set of hand painted scrolls.

Embai: “sour plum”; small semi-improvised ornaments used to color and embellish melodies in gagaku/kagura music.

Engi: temple or shrine origin legend (see: Kasuga-Gongen-genki).

Esoragoto: pictures which contain inventions/abstractions in order to capture the essence of the subject.

Fudaraku: The Paradise governed by the Bodhisattva Kannon (Avalokiteshvara).

Fueki: 1. ontology: non-phenomenal timelessness (in haiku). 2. style: transient modishness.

Fūga-no-makoto: the genuineness of aesthetic creativity; counterpart to zōka-no-makoto.

Fukake kokoro: “deep mind”; the profound wisdom and feeling in poetry.

Fuke-shu: an archaic branch of Japanese Zen dedicated to the ideas and methods of 9th century (Tang Dynasty) Chinese monk Fuke.

Fukinsei: Zen asymmetry.

Fūkyō: “poetic eccentricity”; the aesthetic sense engendered by shōyōyū.

Fūryū: “good manners”: refined manners as reflected in things regarded as tasteful or elegant. An atmosphere composed of nothing but the most elegant simplicity.

Furyu: “wind and water”: the suggestion of impermanence of beauty of nature. (It is interesting to note that wind and water are the “creative” forces behind many beautiful forms and moments in nature, i.e. a single leaf floating down a stream, leaves swirling in a vortex, beautiful erosion patterns, the sound of rain, etc.).

Fuzei: words that describe artistic feelings/ways of seeing.

Gagaku: “the art of elegance”: the Imperial Court music of Japan, also played at the Ise and Ikuta Shinto shrines along with the sacred music/dance of Shintoism (kagura) which shares repertoire with the court. Gagaku scores are event-based, meaning that here is no strict pace and each section follows their leader as much as the overall tempo. They givethe succession of events, not the events over time. The musicians are listening in real time and not merely mimicking the score. There is not one strict path through time, so the classical Japanese court musician has enough temporal space to play with a type of freedom not found in Western classical music.

Gaiyō: external manifestion of the Buddhist ground of Being (see: naishō).

Gempitsu – tai: “abbreviated brush”: intensity/purity of a line that captures the essence of things.

Goi jujukin kōan: two sets of kōan consisting of the study of both the ten grave and three pure precepts as kōan, including all that one has learned in the process of studying other categories of kōan.

Gokoku: “five countries”: the name for the regions containing the ancient Imperial Palaces. These were Yamashiro (Kyoto), Yamato (Nara), Kawachi (Osaka), Izumi (Osaka), and Settsu (Osaka/Hyogo border) (see: Kinai).

Gonsen kōan: “explication of words”: the type of long kōan requiring memorization and recitation as well as discussion with a master.

Goshintai: a Shinto ritualistic object containing the spirit of a god.

Goshō: “knowing the nature of things”; the third of the three levels of spiritual maturity in Rinzai Zen Buddhism. See: Kū-ka-chū.

Gusai (the): “silly wife/wives”: Hanshin performance art collective (1999 – 2001) founded by Daniel Schnee, loosely affiliated with Shōzō Shimamoto (Gutai Art Association).

GUTAI (the): “concrete”: The Gutai Art Asociation (1954 -72) was a Western Japanese art collective founded by Jirō Yoshihara based on the integration of art and life, usage of everyday materials for art (including nengajō), the inclusion of time and space in painting, and (Hanshinkan) social space as exhibition space. Famous affiliates of the group and their Gutai Pinacoteca center were John Cage, Yoko Ono, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Merce Cunningham, and Willem De Kooning.

Haboku:“flung ink”: splashed / splattered ink painting with a few deliberate brushstrokes; genre of such paintings; a type of abstraction.

Hacho: intentional unevenness.

Haibun: a form of writing originating in 17th century Japan, now popular in Western culture, consisting a mix of prose and haiku, often involving autobiographic elements and travelogue.

Hai-i: the haiku spirit.

Haikai: common comic verse (often vulgar); predecessor of haiku.

Hakanashi: the fleeting quality of things.

Hana: rare “flowering” of artistic intuition; the flowering of profound naturalness in a great Noh actor.

Hanshinkan: The Hanshin Area; more specifically the area between the cities of Osaka and Kobe consisting of cities such as Amagasaki, Rokko, Nishinomiya, Takarazuka, etc.

Hanshinkan Modernism: A period of rapid economic and cultural development in Western Japan in the early twentieth century as a result of both the development of private rail lines in the Hanshin area and the disruptive effects of the 1923 Kanto Earthquake on Tokyo’s economic development.

Harai: spiritually cleansing, renewing and balancing one’s spirit (Shinto).

Heian Jidai: “Heian Period”: the Japanese era lasting from 794-1185 CE.

Hihaku: “flying white”; the blank, parallel gaps in a brushstroke created by a drying or asymmetrical brush, “filled in” by psychological anticipation of closure. Considered natural/part of the nature of a brush running out of ink.

Hongaku: original purity/enlightenment.

Hon’ i: “essential nature” of phenomena.

Honji-suijaku: “original ground of Buddhist enlightenment/traces manifested below”: a doctrine that posited the Shinto deities as embodied traces of the Buddhist onto-theological consciousness, one of the many doctrines of popular Buddhism in the Heian Era (see: kenmitsu bukkyō).

Hoshin kōan: “dharma-body”: the type of kōan dealing with fundamental insights into Reality

Hosomi: emotional delicacy; awareness of the beauty inherent in everything (haiku).

Hossō: One of the six Nara Era schools of Buddhist thought, based on the Indian Yogācāra (Yushiki ron) texts, which posits that all worldly phenomena exist only in the mind.

Hyakuza Hodankiki-Gakisho: a setsuwa written in the manner of the Dainippon Kokkegenki containing Amida Sutra and Lotus Sutra stories as well as stories concerning the Diamond (or “Perfection of Wisdom”) Sutra, known in Japan as the Hannyakyo.

Ichi-on-jobutsu: “one-note-Buddha”, to become enlightened by playing a single note on the shakuhachi flute.

i-guse:  a motionless ‘dance’ by the Nōh shite actor which expresses an inner understanding of motion; an aesthetic dance of the spirit.

Ikasu: “let live”; another way of expressing the concept of ‘obeying the request of an object’ as explained in the phrase “kowan ni shitagau.”

Iki: 1. urbane, sense of refinement. 2. chic beauty/tasteful sensuality in the visual arts.

Ikkakusenin: a legendary Japanese ascetic with a horn in his forehead: possibly a transliteration of Indian saint Rsyasringa, also known as “Isisinga”.

Ikuta Jinja: a Shinto shrine in Kobe thought by the resident priests to be the winter residence of the Japanese Sun Goddess Amaterasu O-Mikami.

inmyō: Buddhist logic.

Isshiki-no-bendo: “single-color practice-way”; all consuming engagement with Way; wholehearted, undivided practice.

Ji/Ri: “thing-principle”; event /truth; form and formlessness; Ji – learned behavior/technique; ri — intuitive understanding/inner freedom.

Jingū-ji: Shinto shrines erected on Buddhist temple grounds or visa versa in order that Shinto gods could learn Buddhism and attain nirvana: a mixed temple/shrine complex.

Jōdo: “Pure Land”: the name of the Paradise overseen by the Buddha Amida.

Jojitsu: One of the six Nara Era schools of Buddhist thought, based on the writings of Harivarman and his idea that there is both daily provisional and ultimate Truth of emptiness (Sanskrit: śūnyatā) making Jojitsu an adjunct of the Sanron school.

Jōteki Bunka: culture based on the sense/feeling that sees reality as formless and Voiceless.

Juhatsu: “that which contains just enough”: the liturgical manner of eating   in Soto Zen monasteries (the state of selfless thankfulness/act of eating).

Ka: “ordinariness”, the perception of the deep spirituality/sacredness in ordinary things; the second of the three levels of mature spirituality in Tendai Buddhism.

Kakegoe: rhythmic shouts used in the music of Nō theater; also used to describe a Kabuki connoisseur’s shouts of appreciation in the Kabuki theater audience. If one is moved by a particular actor’s work, they can shout out the patrilineal number of the actor’s predecessor, whose work their own is being favorably compared to, i.e. “the Fourth!” as in the title of the great aragoto actor Danjurō IV.

Kamakura Jidai: “Kamakura Period”: the Japanese era lasting from 1185-1333 CE.

Kanjaku: profound state of solitude and silence one feels when reading haiku.

Kannagara: the acceptance of things as they come: a spiritual yielding to Amida Buddha through absolute passivity.

Kannon: The Japanese transliteration of Kwan-yin, the Chinese transliteration of Avalokiteṣvara, the Buddhist saint (Bodhisattva) of Compassion.

Kansai: Western Japan, specifically the area containing the major Japanese cities of Nara, Kyoto, Osaka, Amagasaki, and Kobe.

Kanso: Zen simplicity.

Karumi: the unadorned expression of a profound truth.

Kasuga Gongen-genki: “The Miracles of the Kasuga Deity”: a set of emakimono depicting engi and reigenki stories, especially of the main Shinto Kasuga Deity who was considered a part of the honji-suijaku doctrines.

Kata: “how to do”: In both fine and martial arts, the choreographed practice of elemental actions in order to hone one’s physical abilities as well as to stimulate contemplative engagement with such forms. Brings an intrinsic order and framework to the study of creative/spontaneous acts.

Kegon: One of the six Nara Era schools of Buddhist thought, based on the Flower Garland Sutra (Kegon-kyo) teaching that all things are interrelated and/or inter-connected.

Keihanshin: the area between the cities of Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe sometimes referred to as ‘Kinai’, though Kinai itself historically encompassed a slightly different geography.

Keiki: “aura/emanation”: ideal of medieval poetic aesthetics.

Kenmitsu bukkyō: “esoteric-exoteric Buddhism”: a popular form of Buddhism in the Heian Era that contained both Shinto and Buddhist elements, decried by some as not Buddhism/Buddhist at all.

Kenshō: “seeing the nature of things”; the second of the three levels of spiritual maturity in Rinzai Zen Buddhism. See: Kū-ka-chū.

Kigo: the word in a haiku poem that situates the season and embodies the desired emotional essence of the poem.

Ki-in: the nobility of soul, elevated character, or spiritual elevation of one who has attained a high degree of excellence in the fine arts, such as calligraphy, painting, Noh, etc. Note: this elevated character was attained in arts training available only to the nobility or high ranking Japanese citizen, thus pointing to an inherent elitism in certain Japanese aesthetic trends and philosophies.

Kikan kōan: “dynamic action”: the type of kōan concerning the activity and nature of emptiness.

Kinai/Kidai: the area between the cities of Nara, Kyoto, and Osaka as marked by the ancient Imperial Palaces of Kansai (see: Gokoku).

Kisekai/kiseken: the ”realm of objects”; the material ontology in which Zen Buddhists give shape/form to their beliefs, especially in the fine arts.

Kisoku: “spiritual breath”, developing one’s body and mind simultaneously to be able to becoming enlightened through Suizen.

Kissakō: “Drink up!” common phrase made metaphysical by the understanding of the syllable , ‘to leave’, which implies the drinking of tea in wabicha is a method of realizing enlightenment.

Kintsukuroi: (“gold repair“); the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold/silver dust infused lacquer (also known as Kintsugi: golden joining).

Kōan: a word or phrase designed to help Zen Buddhists transcend thought and language to perceive the non-duality of Reality. The five commonly accepted kinds of kōan according to Master Hakuin are: hoshin, kikan, nanto, gonsen, and goi jujukin.

Koh-do: the way of “listening” to incense, the connoisseurship of incense.

Kokō: austerity and withered-ness.

Kokoro-mochi: “living essence”, the essence or “is-ness” of a thing.

Komuso: “monks of empty nothingness”, Buddhist monks who practiced the shakuhachi flute as a method of gaining enlightenment.

Kowan ni shitagau: “obeying the request of the object”; allowing the artistic materials to dictate their final form through their own unique physical/aesthetic nature. This idea was one of the foundational principles of the GUTAI Art Collective.

Continued in Part Two…



5 thoughts on “East Asian Aesthetic Terminology: Japan (Pt. 1).

    1. Well thank you very much for visiting my blog. My goal is to provide free access for everyone to the intellectual ideas that I think are important, so I am happy you can benefit from this post. 🙂

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