Report: UTCP Seminar on Japanese Philosophy 'Aesthetic Categories: Past and Present'

17 January, 2009 NAKAJIMA Takahiro, NAITO Mariko, Japanese Philosophy Seminar

On November 28th, Professor Michael Marra (UCLA) delivered a lecture titled ‘Aesthetic Categories: Past and Present’ as a UTCP seminar on Japanese Philosophy.

Prof. Marra began his talk with an overview of how the notion of “aesthetic category” was established in the field of aesthetics in Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century. When the notion of aesthetic category was imported to Japan by
scholars such as Ōnishi Yoshinori (1888-1959) in the 1930s, it had been already called into question in Europe as aprioristic. However, the apriorism of aesthetic categories worked in Japan to promote the dichotomy of East and West, when Ōnishi found aesthetic categories such as yūgen and aware in Japanese culture and regarded them as the counterparts of Western interiority.

Japanese literary historians such as Hisamatsu Sen’ichi (1894-1976) and Oka Kazuo (1900-1981) adopted Ōnishi’s aesthetic categories when they compiled their Japanese literary histories. In fact, the vocabulary of aesthetic categories such as yūgen, aware, and sabi came originally from ancient or medieval literary works, more precisely to describe specific poetic styles. However, when these poetic styles were transformed into aesthetic categories, they became reconceptualized as links of direct continuity between past and present. These continuities were promoted by the desire to create a tradition of literature, a process deeply linked to the formation of nation states.

Kuki Shūzō (1888-1941) is known as the author of Iki no Kōzō (The Structure of Iki, 1930), which explains Japanese culture through aesthetic categories. Kuki was aware of the limitations inherent to the very concept of aesthetic categories. Prof. Marra suggested that this must explain why scholars such as Kuki and Ōnishi were fascinated by the arts of reclusion in medieval times. The person devoted to a life of reclusion was supposed to be obsessed with the arts, that is to say, to pursue aesthetic categories, which is known as suki.

Prof. Marra’s analysis posits a link between suki and otaku in contemporary Japan. He pointed out that the otaku generation has created its own aesthetic categories such as “moe”. Other examples were shown as kawaii or yurukyara, which were presented in Murakami Takashi’s art works. Prof. Marra argued that mabusabi, which was established by Shinohara Motoaki, could also be seen as a contemporary aesthetic category.

Participants engaged in a lively discussion on issues related to the difference of aesthetic categories between Murakami and Shinohara. The background of what brought Shinohara to use the existing aesthetic categories such as sabi or mabushi in order to develop his aesthetic theory also drew their attention. Prof. Marra’s talk not only considered the theoretic framework of scholars, who have explained Japanese culture through aesthetic categories, but also revealed the historical background and the desire to establish a continuity with the past which prompted them to explain Japanese culture through these categories.

Reported by Mariko Naito

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