Heidegger and the Spirit of Edo

On the Way to Language by Martin Heidegger contains a strange dialog on language between “a Japanese and an Inquirer.”

Early in the dialog, Heidegger and the inquirer discuss the difficulty of talking about aesthetics, since their cultural backgrounds differed:

Some time ago I called language, clumsily enough, the house of Being. If man by virtue of his language dwells within the claim and call of Being, then we Europeans presumably dwell in an entirely different house than Eastasian man.

He begins to speak of iki, which he defines as “sensuous radiance through whose lively delight there breaks the radiance of something suprasensuous.”

Heidegger’s inquirer is Count Kuki Shûzô ( 九鬼周造), who studied under Heidegger for many years and published a seminal work titled The Structure of “Iki” (「いき」の構造) in 1930.

Iki is written phonologically in the Japanese title. In Edo literature  various kanji are used to represent nuances of the term (the most common usage is listed first): 粋、意気、趣向、当世、好風、好意、好漢、好雅、風雅、大通、通人、程、秀美、花美.  More on this later.

Anyway, they go on (my notes in parentheses):

…the distinction (between sensuous and suprasensuous)…that pervades metaphysics…our (East Asian) thinking does know something similar…but even so, the distinction itself and what it distinguishes cannot be comprehended with Western metaphysical concepts. We say Iro, that is, color, and say Ku, that is, emptiness, the open, the sky. We say: without Iro, no Ku…seems to correspond exactly to what Western…doctrine says about art when it represents art aesthetically. The aistheton, what can be perceived by the senses, lets the noeton, the nonsensuous, shine through.

Indeed. What are they talking about? I believe they are referring to a piece of Buddhist scripture:



The passage says observed phenomena are transient (the reality of matter is an illusion), and matter is void.

Which, if you stretch it, could get from there to what Heidegger said in the above quote, maybe. But probably not.

Alleged differences between how this is perceived through the lens of Western aesthetics vs. Japanese thought, would certainly seem to be a shaky foundation to build further on. But he ploughs on, with unconvincing examples of aesthetic differences, and at this point I lose interest and start skipping pages at random. For example, he says the film Rashomon, although it is chock full of symbolism not easily seen by one not familiar with Japanese culture, is still an example of rampant Europeanization because “the Eastasian world, and the technical-aesthetic product of the film industry, are incompatible.”

And then he talks about the emptiness of the Japanese Noh-stage as something unaccceptable to Europeans for some reason, apparently content to ignore similar European art forms, from ancient Greek drama through to Elizabethan drama.

I think it helps to understand the larger context.

As noted earlier, iki has been written phonologically, and also using various kanji, which suggests a variety of situations in which it can be used. It’s an aesthetic term that came into popularity in Edo (Tokyo) in the 18th century. Kuki lists three defining characteristics of iki: erotic appeal (媚態) with pride (張り) and sophisticated indifference ( 諦め).

Unlike specialized intellectual Japanese aesthetic concepts that have been imported into American popular culture in recent years, such as wabi and sabi, iki belonged to the ordinary townspeople of Edo.
Although Kuki tried to intellectualize it, it is not an intellectual aesthetic concept. It was used variously to mean impromptu, one who follows fashion, fighting spirit (気負い) , chivalrous, valiant, courageous, energetic, dapper, rakish, etc.
I repeat: it is not a high-brow term.

In fact, I get the impression that iki was tied to the spirit of Edo, much like “fuhgeddaboudit” is tied to the spirit of Brooklyn. So what does “fuhgeddaboudit” say as a statement of the spirit of the city and its inhabitants? One could, in the manner of Kuki, write a treatise about it and use the slippery definitions of the term to conclude that American aesthetics cannot be understood by non-Americans. But that would be silly.

In fact, although it should be obvious that there can’t be anything in English that captures exactly what iki means in all its variations, one can find plenty of examples that match Kuki’s descriptions: deep blue straight jeans without variations in decorative pattern can be iki, as can a girl with short hair wearing a T-shirt and pants: slender, natural makeup, simple hairstyle. One could easily find close western equivalents in the behavioral and structural aspects of iki as well, given the time and inclination to do so. Finally, the fact that Kuki had to write a book explaining this concept should be a giveaway that he is trying to graft his own ideas onto this concept.

In fact, I think the driving force behind Kuki’s ideas were more nostalgic than aesthetic. He thought he’d found the origin of a national code through which all cultural discourse and a program of Japanese authenticity could be controlled. From Kuki’s book: “The central meaning of iki has been utterly confirmed and understood only when we grasped its structure as a self-revelation of our national being.” This is a dead-end concept. It is much more useful to discuss the extent to which studying Japanese aesthetics contributes to Western aesthetics, rather than trying to come up with reasons why Japanese aesthetics cannot be studied.