The ethos of Japan, in particular Heian period Japan (which lasted from 794 to 1185), is perceptibly different from modern era Western civilization not only because of location but due to a huge lapse in time. This is not to say, however, that these cultures are so isolated from one another that there is no common ground or intersection between the mentalities. In spite of such glaring dissimilarities, it is possible to find parallels in the attitude between the characters in Murasaki Shikibus 11th century novel, The Tale of Genji, and people today.
First and foremost, there needs to be a direct definition and establishment of what comprises an aesthetic. Aesthetics, as defined by the American Heritage dictionary, is the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature and expression of beauty, primarily [but not solely] within the arts (14). It is important to clarify that while a painting could be said to have an aesthetic appeal or a song is aesthetically pleasing to the ears, the concept of aesthetics is not exclusive to the art realm.
In this context, it is also a core value that an entire society upholds as sensible and proper, which can range from the general to the minutely specific. More often than not, it is a concept that is ingrained into a culture from birth and propagated with each generation; when asked to describe why these rules of society are in place, the most common answer would probably be, that is just the way it is, with little to no further discussion.
If one were to go against these aesthetics, he/she would be in jeopardy of becoming a social pariah, depending on the rigidity to which a culture sustains its view. With the definition of what an aesthetic is in mind, there should be a clear distinction between Heian-era Japanese and modern Western aesthetics. One of two Western aesthetics that are germane to this discussion is a heightened level of openness and candor in all forms of media and discourse. A strong personal voice is encouraged, especially in America, which is based on democracy.
The claim to fame for Western musicians, filmmakers, and authors lies in their lack of censorship and ability to connect with peoples emotions on a very primal level. Nothing is held back, no matter how psychologically taxing the material may be; the aim of their art is catharsis. Another main component of Western aestheticism is a general embrace of human sexuality and its various forms of expression. The most noticeable difference in how the West handles sexuality can be seen in todays hook-up culture, where onetime sexual encounters with several partners over a span of time is commonplace.
Going against the tradition of abstinence until marriage (which is an equally common phenomenon), the modern approach to sexuality actively shifts the focus from the emotional to the physical, forgoing personal, monogamous relationships for instant gratification. The media is a very large promoter of this movement, in addition to introducing sex to younger and younger generations. The approach of promoting younger girls to get in touch with their sexuality too early tied with the age-old practice of female objectification has partially contributed to the cultural deterioration of the West.
A thousand years earlier and on the other side of the world, however, the Japanese embraced four major aesthetic elements, two of which are mono no aware and miyabi. The first of the two, mono no aware, is a cultivated sensibility to the transient nature of the world (Ikegami, Class notes). Mono no aware can be found primarily in the early Heian poetry, which was compiled in the Manyoshu and Kokinshu, two well-known collections. Cherry blossoms are often associated with the sentiment of mono no aware, as exemplified in this excerpt from the Kokinshu: For cherry blossoms
To be descending like snow is sorrow enough How do the blowing breezes Propose that they should scatter? (110) The sadness at the scattering of the cherry blossoms and the ultimate recognition that it is all part of natures design is a key component in mono no aware; the cherry blossoms, like most flowers, do not stay in bloom permanently and die in accordance with the seasons. This aesthetic is, in essence, the ability to appreciate the artistic merit in this death and see that it is, in itself, beautiful.
It is very unlike Western culture as mono no aware requires a keen understanding for subtlety and an appreciation for seemingly inconsequential matters, like blossoms blowing in the breeze. Miyabi, the second relevant Japanese aesthetic, roughly translates to courtly elegance, which entails personal refinement, restraint, and indirectness (Ikegami, Class notes). Contrary to the Western aesthetic of frankness, the Japanese actively follow the method of bottling up their emotions and metaphorically wearing a mask around the public that might not reflect how they actually feel inside.
On some levels, one could equate miyabi with E. B. Du Bois theory of the double consciousness, which was developed in the late early 20th century to describe the inner struggle of African- Americans during the period of inequality and segregation; just as the blacks had to present themselves differently around whites in order to survive, the Japanese sacrifice dealing with interpersonal conflict in order to maintain a surface level of peace and harmony within the community (McWhorter).
Through the lens of these four aesthetics, one can notice some overlap within the opening five chapters of Murasaki Shikibus The Tale of Genji. In the second chapter, The Broom Tree, Genji and several friends are shut-in during a bout of bad weather and the conversation eventually turns to the subject of women. The men begin listing off their likes and dislikes, not straying far from the superficial. At one point, the 11th century courtiers make a statement that mirrors a Western ideal about women that, while now antiquated and offensive, is still propagated.
In gross objectification, Genji and his men proclaim that, a wifes main duty is to look after her husband¦ (Tyler 25). The men further objectify women, talking about them like theyre moldable clay on a pottery wheel that they can knead to their liking; a woman, for example, must be seen, not heard but not too passive as to never stick up for herself. A woman must be dutiful in the house but not work too hard as to let her looks go. She cant be too intelligent. She has to always smell nice. The list goes on; just like modern man, Genji and his friends describe women that could not possibly exist.