- New Essays in Japanese Aesthetics ed. by A. Minh Nguyen
Minding Shunryu Suzuki's counsel that "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few,"1 the modus operandi for this review embraces a beginner's mind (shoshin 初心) in its enthusiastic, open, and non-discriminating attitude. This is all the more advisable on account of the plethora of disciplinary approaches, methodologies, and themes covered. As such, this is how New Essays in Japanese Aesthetics' content will be summarized, commented upon, and evaluated: in light of its capacity to open readers' eyes, expert or novice, to the bountiful aesthetic gifts of the land of the rising sun.
In New Essays in Japanese Aesthetics, editor A. Minh Nguyen has gathered a dream team of experts in Japanese aesthetics. The volume's twenty-seven essays are divided into six parts (philosophy and aesthetics; culture; cultural politics; literature; visual arts; and Kuki Shūzō), which are bookended by a wealth of supplementary material that includes a foreword and preface, not one but two introductory essays, a selected bibliography, an index, and short bios of the contributors. This very wealth limits, if not the scope, then the extent to which this review can engage the material. Contents will be discussed sequentially (for brevity's sake chapter numbers are used in lieu of titles), offering but brief descriptions, citations, and assessments of its chapters, although readers should still get an evocative 'taste'.
Before setting out, however, there is one issue to confront: is there need for such a volume when other highly-valued compilations already explore the world of Japanese aesthetics? Absolutely. In fact, many of the authors explicitly rely on such previous efforts. At times, they sieve and refine those works through their expert gaze, thereby aggregating insights for readers of this book. Often, they expand on previous studies, taking them in new directions. When needed, they correct or challenge. This may be effected in light of contemporary developments such as the long-due revaluation of Ainu culture [End Page 1] (Yamasaki and Miller, Chapter 10) or the superimposition of cool and kawaii (Botz-Bornstein, Chapter 15); it can result from reinterpretations of scholarship on key figures, such as Nishida (Odin, Chapter 4) or Bashō (Yusa, Chapter 16); it may take readers on eye-opening strolls through Japanese gardens (Carlson, Chapter 7) or the urban landscape (Unverzagt Goddard, Chapter 14); it can bring to light novel applications such as Parkes' appreciation of food (Chapter 8), McRae's engagement of martial arts (Chapter 9), or Leech's discussion of the sense of smell (Chapter 27). Of note is the fact that the essays were commissioned for this text, and thus reflect the most recent scholarship.
The patent complexity of such a project need not be equated with arcane, technical scholarship closed to most. On the contrary, most contributions are eminently readable. Addiss' foreword is a shining example that helps justify such complexity as needed to better understand the many oddities, tensions, and paradoxes—aesthetic and otherwise—with which Japan regales us. Being "careful not to try to establish ironclad certainties" (p. xv), he provides two major themes with which to begin to comprehend Japan, both exemplified through the medium of poetry: the Japanese love and respect of nature, and assimilation as the "paradoxical ability to absorb large amounts of foreign influence and yet maintain its own identity" (p. xxi).
Of the two introductory essays, Yuriko Saito's provides a magisterial overview of Japanese aesthetics. Her discussion of the characteristic Japanese aesthetic egalitarianism, whereby "the aesthetic concern affects every area of people's lives" (p. xxx), problematizes the putative criteria for such a pervasive aesthetic value, for "[i]f anything whatsoever can provide an aesthetic experience, what makes some qualities aesthetically more positive than others?" (p. xxxiii). To answer this, she follows historical twists and turns throughout Japanese aesthetics, discoursing on implication, suggestion, and imperfection, all of which, crucially, respect the very nature of...