This article is part of Sunday Edition: “Minimalisms”.
The Shinto shrine known as Nikkō Tōshō-gū is located in the mountains two hours north of Tokyo. Built in 1617 as the mausoleum of the first Tokugawa shōgun, it was substantially reconstructed in 1636 by the master carpenter Kora Bungo no Kami Munehiro. Though little known in the west, he is one of history’s great artisan geniuses. (He was also responsible for the Taitoku-in, a complex in Tokyo that was one of the greatest cultural casualties of World War II.) To say that Nikkō is sumptuous is to only to gesture weakly at its glories, perhaps paramount among them the Yōmeimon, colloquially known as the “sunset gate” because one could look at it all day and not tire of the sight.
Face to face with Nikkō, an architectural spectacle that makes St. Peter’s in Rome look restrained by comparison, it is hard to understand how Japan came to be understood the homeland of minimalism. Yet that is how most foreigners — at least, those in America and Europe — tend to see things. To most of us, the phrase “Japanese aesthetics” conjures images of near-absence: patiently raked rock gardens, the bare stages and spare musical accompaniment of Noh theater; Zen-influenced ink painting, composed of just a few deft splashes on an expanse of white paper. More recent, but no less influential, are the “essentials” stacked on the shelves at Uniqlo and Muji, and the international media phenomenon that is Marie Kondo, with her trademark advice: “Does it spark joy? If not, get rid of it.”
These various associations all feed into a stereotype of Japan as a “less-is-more” kind of country. In fact, this is quite misleading. Historically, Zen paintings have been greatly outnumbered by kachōga (“flower and bird pictures”), rendered in elaborate detail with precious mineral pigments on silk, and popular ukiyo-e prints, rammed with pictorial incident. Think, too, of the spectacular neon signage of Shinjuku in Tokyo — and have you ever seen this climactic scene in the 1988 anime classic Akira?
Alicia Volk, professor of Japanese art history at the University of Maryland, put it to me like this: “There is no real Japanese minimalism. If there were, then there’d be no Marie Kondo” — since her asset-stripping approach only makes sense in a domestic interior that is already overcrowded. “It’s rather more an ideal enacted aesthetically,” Volk says, “than in the reality of lived experience.”
If Japan does have a special relation to reductive aesthetics, it’s not so much in the culture’s mastery of minimalism itself, but its purposeful pairing with the maximal. The reasons for this are not far to seek. Japan has long been a culture shaped in response to its nearby and far more powerful neighbor, China. Already in the Nara period (the 8th century), the Japanese elite was modeling its architecture, literature, and art on Chinese precedent. The Shōsō-in treasury, assembled in 752 and still substantially intact today, is a time capsule of this taste, with numerous imported luxuries from China and further afield, brought along the maritime and land routes of the Silk Road.
Along with these objects came another, more consequential import: Buddhism. Again, most westerners have an extremely inaccurate grasp of this religion’s historical material culture. It came to Japan in the form of grandly decorated temples and highly ornamental ritual artifacts. Local traditions of belief attained new meaning through this contrast: the ancient worship of nature spirits called kami — a belief system that eventually came to be called Shinto — was conducted in far simpler, undecorated shrines. Two religious practices co-existed harmoniously, one imported and extravagant, the other indigenous and vernacular.
One of Japan’s most celebrated cultural achievements, and again an adaptive response to Chinese models, is the wabi (rustic) style of tea ceremony, or chanoyu. At first, tea rituals were done very much along imported lines: as exercises in conspicuous consumption, including expensive Chinese ceramics, metalwork, and paintings, as well as refined matcha tea. In the face of this upwardly-mobile, mercantile taste, a series of religious figures and tastemakers cultivated an opposing custom, involving simple unadorned teahouses and Korean- or Japanese-made ceramics appropriated from peasant usage.
Traditionally, the first stirrings of this phenomenon are said to have occurred at Daitokuji, a Zen temple in Kyoto. In this quasi-mythological account, the progenitor was a man named Ikkyū Sōjun (1394–1481), an “eccentric” abbot (eccentricity itself being a cultivated pose among intellectuals). Though his involvement in tea ceremony is hard to substantiate, at least one of his surviving poems certainly expresses a spirit of contrived humility. This verse is reprinted in Morgan Pitelka’s essay “Form and Function: Tea Bowls and the Problem of Zen in Chanoyu”:
Reckless, natural, for thirty years
Crazy Cloud has practiced this kind of Zen
A hundred flavors of meat and drink in one cup
Thin gruel, twig tea belong to the True Transmission.
The man who eventually began to codify wabi tea — though the term itself postdates him — was Sen no Rikyū (1522–1591), who came from a merchant family and studied at Daitokuji. It seems to have been Rikyū who introduced simple teahouses to the ostentatious gardens of grand palaces. It was another example of minimalism used as dramatic counterpoint. So emphatic was the humility of the teahouses that you had to duck down to even get through the low front door, a significant gesture in a bowing culture.
Rikyū also introduced certain still-revered ceramic typologies to chanoyu. The complexity of this story is suggested by the contrasting backstories of two ware types called iga and raku. Superficially, they are similar in that both are hand-built, rather than wheel-thrown, resulting in distinctive, irregular profiles. This individuality led to a custom of bestowing names on particularly treasured pieces, such as “Yabure Bukuro” (Broken Pouch), a mizusashi or freshwater jar made by an anonymous potter at the ancient iga kilns. This accidental masterpiece, with its pronounced cracks and ungainly but exciting overall form, came into the canon thanks to the appreciation of Furuta Oribe (1544–1615), an aristocratic disciple of Rikyū’s. (Oribe also bestowed his name to a popular ceramic idiom featuring green glaze and freely painted, ink-like decoration).
Raku, meanwhile, was a much more cultivated affair. It was initially developed by the potter Chōjiro (1516?–1592) in direct collaboration with Rikyū. The novel formats that they conceived together were, once again, direct responses to Chinese prototypes. Most famous are his black teabowls, clearly inspired by imported (and valuable) Chinese tenmoku-glazed wares which Chōjiro translated into his own faux-rustic manner. Thus, while the story of iga was essentially one of appropriation, raku was one of self-conscious mannerism, a humble-brag in object form.
This was all a long time ago, and tea culture has changed a great deal since, developing specific canons of object, practice, and theory. As Christine Guth has argued in Art, Tea, and Industry: Masuda Takashi and the Mitsui Circle, this repertoire was largely the invention of businessmen-collectors in the Meiji period. At a time when Japan was driven by a modernizing impulse, these men profited from the decline of Buddhist temples and monasteries, buying up art treasures and displaying them in their homes. They certainly did not use the tea ceremony to express humility — false or otherwise — but rather to show off and network with one another, much as power brokers today use the game of golf.
Popular understanding of another supposed foundation of “Japanese minimalism,” Zen (in Chinese, Chan) Buddhism, is even more suspect. Beginning at the turn of the 20th century, western-oriented Japanese intellectuals — among them Okakura Kakuzō, author of The Book of Tea (1906) — began to circulate an extremely simplistic account of Zen, presenting it as a cult of “no-mind” or mu (nothingness). This ahistorical idea was further popularized by anti-modernist intellectuals like Nishida Kitarō (1870–1945) and D.T. Suzuki (1894–1966), who presented Zen as the perfect antidote to acceleration and acquisitiveness. At the same time, a version of Zen emphasizing radical anti-individualism was adopted as official ideology by Japan’s military regime. As quoted in Brian A. Victoria’s, Zen at War: “It is necessary for all one hundred million [imperial] subjects to be prepared to die,” one Buddhist master swept up into the propaganda machine proclaimed in 1945. “If you see the enemy you must kill him … these are the cardinal points of Zen.”
If such messy and dark histories do not much feature in contemporary ideas about Japan, this attests in part to a successful campaign of cultural rehabilitation after the war. Even before Japanese electronics and automobiles started taking America by storm, woodblock prints and souvenirs were already pouring across the Atlantic, at first brought back by demobilized soldiers then through export trade. Enthusiasm for things Japanese peaked with the 1960s American counterculture, which saw a broad-based interest in a watered-down, westernized version of Zen: a groovy counterpart to the art of motorcycle maintenance.
Despite this history of caricature, it must be said that a lot of great art has been made in the name of “Japanese minimalism.” Whatever the reasons for their creation, Chōjiro’s teabowls were powerful acts of visual negation, as aesthetically resolved in their way as Kazimir Malevich’s “Black Square” (1915). In more recent times, the austere avant-gardism of Butoh dance, the calendrical art practice of On Kawara, and the resoundingly empty volumes of Tadao Ando’s architecture assert their own claims to meditative, minimal, masterpiece status.
Meanwhile, American artists continue to draw on the legacy of Japanese minimalism as they imagine it. Sometimes even the misperceptions are generative, as was the case with the California ceramic artist Peter Voulkos, who first encountered Japanese pottery only in books. He assumed the objects were much larger than they actually were, giving him encouragement to undertake his own explorations in monumental asymmetry. Cross-cultural influence travels in unpredictable ways.
Just as I was writing this essay, I got word of “Kodama,” a project by Lindsey Muscato and Joshua Friedman. Though they are now based in Los Angeles, the origins of their undertaking lie in Northern California, and specifically in an apprenticeship that Friedman had with a Japanese-trained architectural woodworker. He mastered the techniques of sukiya-zukuri, an unadorned or “refined” style often used for teahouses. (The elaborate style of the Nikkō shrine, by contrast, is known as gongen-zukuri, a style suitable to the veneration of the Buddha.)
Muscato and Friedman finally made it to Japan in 2017, and while there, visited historic architectural sites. Armed only with their iPhones, they captured close-ups of the complex joints that often hold the buildings together. Upon their return, they began to develop a body of sculptural furniture forms based on these tightly cropped images. They eventually arrived at a series of objects with extremely simple lines — typically just two heavy timbers of salvaged redwood, intersecting at an angle — with textured black surfaces, achieved through scorching and chemical treatment. Like the architecture that inspired them, the pieces feature intricate internal construction, mostly hidden from view. “We wanted to let the joinery drive the form, instead of the form driving the joinery,” they say. The collection also includes some “scribed” pillars, whose bottom faces are carefully carved to perfectly fit over the convex surfaces of stones. These features could easily be missed in another context: as with most effective minimalism, the elimination of extraneous detail lets other, quieter qualities become present.
Muscato and Friedman are under no illusions about their position with regard to Japanese aesthetics: “We want to explore the influence, but also be respectful and admit we’re coming to it from an outside place.” They are also keenly aware that Americans have played a big part in constructing Japanese minimalism as a monolithic tradition, and that this tradition becomes richer under close examination, a spirit that their own work exemplifies.
Marie Kondo is fond of saying “The space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming now, not for the person we were in the past.” This seems like good advice until you realize that she’s preaching a form of self-imposed amnesia. And this is the dark undercurrent of minimalist aesthetics. Every imposition of a new ground zero risks erasing relevant histories, not least the history of minimalism itself, which, no matter the geographical context, is just as messy and complicated as that of any other artistic tradition — in other words, anything but simple.