- New Essays in Japanese Aesthetics ed. by A. Minh Nguyen
This book is probably the most notable contribution in English to the field of Japanese aesthetics published in this century so far and one of the most significant in the past fifty years. My judgment rests on the remarkable range of disciplines and quality of contributors included. The first part of this review surveys that variety and the second raises issues for further study.
Significance of the book. Besides the front material, the anthology includes 27 essays by established authorities in Japanese aesthetics from philosophy (Thorsten Botz-Bornstein, Allen Carlson, Robert E. Carter, [End Page 294] David E. Cooper, Carol Steinberg Gould, Peter Leech, James McRae, John C. Maraldo, Mara Miller, Steve Odin, Graham Parkes, Yuriko Saito, Jason M. Wirth, and Michiko Yusa); from art/art history (David Bell, Richard Bullen, Mikiko Hirayama, and Matthew Larking); from Japanese language and literature (Cheryl Crowley, Hiroshi Nara, C. Mitchell Rich, J. Thomas Rimer, and Meera Viswanathan); and from Japanese culture/ ethnology and history (Timothy Unverzagt Goddard, Roy Starrs, Akiko Takenaka, and Koji Yamasaki). Not only are the fields multiple, but so are the specific arts addressed: gardens, martial arts, cinema, shakuhachi music, food, poetry, nō, Ainu arts, to name just some. Each essay is a gem, even more valuable for its place in the overall setting.
None of the 27 essays is a reprint, each representing the latest thinking of each contributor. The chapters tilt toward contemporary phenomena but often vis-à-vis traditional aesthetic values. The authors address a general college-level audience rather than fellow specialists, making the book ideal for college library collections in either Japan studies or aesthetics/ philosophy of art. (As an anthology, price will guide course adoption.) The foreword by artist and art historian Stephen Addiss is an inviting entrée to the book with historical allusions to two key aspects of Japanese aesthetics: the Japanese appreciation of nature and its multiple (ancient, medieval, and Edo) interactions with China and (in the modern period) with the West.
The introduction has two sections, the first being adapted from Saito's "Japanese Aesthetics: Historical Overview" in the Oxford University Press Encyclopedia of Aesthetics (1998), edited by Michael Kelly. It was wise to make this the one exception to the rule that each contribution be new. Though concise, Saito's article introduces the general development of Japanese aesthetic ideas, hitting the highlights while introducing key concepts like wabi, sabi, yūgen, and yojō. She also contrasts Japanese aesthetic values with a couple of common Western aesthetic principles such as the "intentional fallacy," the interpretive rule that the artist's intention is irrelevant to the aesthetic evaluation of the artwork. This is a crucial contrast because Western aesthetics typically focuses on the artwork, whereas most Japanese aesthetics focuses on artistry, with the artwork's being only its final manifestation. (Sadly, even some essays in this volume sometimes blur this important difference.) The second section of the introduction is a précis of the book which philosopher-editor A. Minh Nguyen weaves from the authors' own abstracts of their chapters. This idiosyncratic technique works surprisingly well in unifying the volume, inviting the reader to peruse it in sequence instead of following the hopscotch approach more common in reading anthologies.
Part 1 has essays by Carter, Cooper, Bullen, Odin, and Saito under the rubric of "Japanese Aesthetics and Philosophy." The most common theme (often associated by the authors with Zen Buddhism, an etiology I question [End Page 295] later in this review) is the aesthetic dissolution of the gap between subject and object, self and other, or humanity and nature, a unification achieved by dissolving the ego into its focus. The discussions include training within a communal context, appreciating the vague or hidden (where, as I explain below, mikkyō might have been influential), and cultivating expert knowledge—all with implications for ethical and spiritual, as well as aesthetic, development. Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Nishida Kitarō serve...