Review: Nakano Mitsutoshi's "The Role of Traditional Aesthetics"
Author: Erin C. Harding, 1998
Nakano Mitsutoshi's essay "The role of traditional aesthetics" in the book 18th Century Japan: Culture and Society was an brief discussion of the role of traditional aesthetics during the Edo period. Although not initially apparent, Nakano's primary argument is that the traditional Japanese aesthetic, which he claims can most easily be described by the principle of ga (elegance, refinement), is in fact the dominant value of the Edo period, but that it is only through the knowledge of the popular aesthetic principle zoku (vulgarity, coarseness) that it can be appreciated. Unfortunately the reader is forced to struggle through the entire multifaceted and assuming argument before the intent of the argument is actually presented. This lack of introduction is the primary, but not the only, flaw of this article. But despite this difficulty, his introduction of new terminology provides a new and potentially useful way of analyzing the aesthetic values of this period.
Nakano begins his argument with a discussion of the traditional and new periodisation of the Tokugawa period. He argues for the new triperiodic system which divides the Tokugawa period into early, middle and late periods. The traditional designation of periods allowed for only two phases in the Tokugawa era: early and late. This system assumed that the culture was popular in nature, and that the middle period was merely a transition between periods, and not an era in its own right. Nakano suggests that this middle era, comprising mainly of the eighteenth-century, was not only important in Tokugawa culture and not merely transitory, but in fact it was crucial and even defining.
The author goes on to explain that after realizing that the Tokugawa culture was not driven by popular culture, but actually driven by the aesthetics of the upper classes of the society, the traditional aesthetic labels of sui (elegance), tsu (connoisseurship) and iki (refinement) can no longer be adequately used. He explains that these frequently used labels originate in the licensed pleasure quarters when those areas were frequented by the daimyo. But he goes onto explain that part-way through this period, the daimyo stopped frequenting these establishments and they were then the domain of the wealthy townsmen. Because, he argues, these daimyo and their patronage were the determining factors in dominant aesthetics, their absence eliminates any effect these establishments could have had on aesthetics, and thus their terminology does not apply to the descriptions of this dominant aesthetic. The author then leads into a proposal of new terminology that he suggests more accurately encompasses and describes aesthetic values of the Tokugawa period.
It is only at this point in the article that any indication is given that this paper is not about new styles in periodisation of the Tokugawa period, but in fact about this new nomenclature and its relationship to aesthetics during the Edo period. Nakano proposes that more appropriate describing principles are ga, or elegance and refinement, and zoku, vulgarity and coarseness. He suggests that these principles are universal concepts and that they include the above mentioned expressions of the pleasure quarters. Nakano relates that the concept of ga zoku was initially one of Chinese poetics: "Ga applied to traditional classical literature whose values were considered supreme, while any innovative creations were considered inferior and pejoratively termed zoku. Thus ga referred to superior, high-class literature, while zoku denoted vulgar writings." Nakano explains that refined and learned men knew the distinction between ga and zoku, while commoners remained content in the world of zoku and took no interest in ga.
Nakano then goes on to try to explain how these two principles apply to eighteenth-century Japanese aesthetics. He shows that many teachings instructed to avoidzoku and embrace the principle of ga, exposing oneself to the influence of the beauty of nature, and the reading of superior texts. But then Nakano discusses a poet by the name of Basho. Basho practiced a traditionally zoku form of poetry, haikai, but attempted to elevate it with his knowledge of ga to a higher level. This idea of blurring the line between ga and zaku continues in other works such as the popular satirical literature, gesaku. In these works, the author explains, there is a very fine line and in fact a blending of ga and zoku. It is this interplay that finally defines what ga truly is, it is suggested that the true value of ga can only be realized by understanding how it contrasts with zoku. He goes onto explain this concept with a metaphor: one cannot truly appreciate the value of a back street without knowing the main highway first. It is in this that the main intent of the article can be found: although popular aesthetics appear and influence the culture of eighteenth-century Japan, they serve only to emphasize and allow one to better appreciate the value of traditional aesthetics as the dominant aesthetic principle of the time.
As can be seen, the difficulty with this article begins with the lack of an introduction. The reader is forced to wade through an article of many points and diversions before discovering what is actually being argued. This causes the need for multiple readings in order to understand and follow his argument. Other difficulties also lie in many of the assumptions and argumentative points the author makes. To begin, he does not clearly define what he means by the terms 'popular' and 'dominant' when discussing culture and aesthetics. In many instances these terms are used synonymously, but here he seems to mean 'popular' in terms of common people, or not daimyo, and dominant to mean important, and primarily visible, but this distinction is unclear. Unfortunately his argument on the influence of the daimyo on aesthetics in the middle part of the Tokugawa period, as well as his argument on the inappropriateness of the popular terms sui, tsu, and iki, hinges on the terms 'popular' and 'dominant', and the understanding of their implication. A third problem lies in his assumption of the acceptance of his statement that the patronage of the wealthy townsmen did not produce anything of cultural value and thus could have not affected dominant aesthetic values. If in fact the townsmen did have an effect on aesthetic values, the interplay of ga and zoku would not have been as important, because he argues that commoners did not appreciate ga, and were content with zoku on its own. This would have dramatically increased the importance of zoku and possibly caused it importance to outweigh that of ga. His argument hinges on this idea that the patronage of townsmen was inconsequential, yet he does not back it up with evidence.
Despite these difficulties, Nakano has produced an interesting article. It suggests that the old perceptions of the diperiodic nature of the Tokugawa period is shortsighted and also suggests that scholars in all aesthetic and historical fields should reevaluate many of their conclusions on the importance of the eighteenth-century in the Tokugawa period. He has also proposed a much more universal set of terms for defining the aesthetic principles of this period that not only encompass the traditional labels for the period, but also cover some areas of higher culture that he suggests these terms miss because these new terms are not so medium-dependent. This redefinition of terminology is the key element of importance in this article and I feel it contributes to a new perception of the era. The author himself admits that this is only a brief and general description of eighteenth-century aesthetics and that further more detailed work must be done in a variety of aesthetic fields. But, I believe that despite its flawed structural layout it is a valuable introduction to a new line of thought.
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