The Japanese Concept of Yugen

The Japanese Concept of Yugen
ARE THERE ENGLISH WORDS TO DESCRIBE YUGEN?

Yugen is a uniquely Japanese term. It defies easy translation into English but denotes something like ‘profound mystery and depth’. It is related to the Japanese love of Shadow, nuance, and empty space.

“Wise” Blood and the Japanese yūgen Aesthetic, Michael Myers, The Flannery O’Connor Bulletin Vol. 21 (1992), pp. 58-72
  • appreciating the unknown
  • conveying more by showing less
  • a blurring of boundary between self and space
  • feeling one hundred but showing seventy

Yugen is not just an aesthetic idea or ideal. It is a specifically Japanese way of experiencing the phenomenal world. When I say ‘phenomenal’ world, I mean the non-spiritual world. Some mistakenly think yugen is about the spiritual realm, but it concerns the phenomenal (real, lived) world.

SOMEWHAT RELATED ENGLISH CONCEPTS

Overlapping concepts from the West can approximate the pool of concepts within the yugen aesthetic. One problem in translating between cultures: connotation is sometimes lost. (What sounds like an awful state of affairs in one culture is actually pretty cool in another.)

  • Via negativa: a Latin phrase used in Christian Theology to explain what God is by focusing on what God isn’t. This keeps God kinda mysterious. Mysterious entities are way more interesting.
  • Classic cosmic horror borrows this concept for monsters. Characters will see something so horrible they can’t possibly describe it. But cosmic horror deals in nonspecific dread and existential angst. Yugen is not that at all.
  • In modern storytelling, certain big names in the business talk about ‘mystery boxing‘. These storytellers understand that whatever inchoate solution/monster the audience provides in their heads will be far cooler than whatever writers come up with. (Done badly, it’s a total cop out.)
  • Whereas the English phrase ‘impersonal emptiness’ describes an aspect of yugen, the English has negative connotations. But in the Japanese aesthetic, ‘impersonal emptiness’ isn’t bad. It’s beautiful. A void contains mystery and depth. Yugen is a positive characterisation of nothingness.
Where does the YUGEN concept come from?

Its origins lie in medieval artistic and literary applications of a distinctively Buddhist world view.

“Wise” Blood and the Japanese yūgen Aesthetic, Michael Myers, The Flannery O’Connor Bulletin Vol. 21 (1992), pp. 58-72
DO WE SEE YUGEN IN ART AND STORYTELLING?

Standout example of yugen in literature: Portrait of Shunkin (春琴抄 — shunkinshou) by Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965). Portrait of Shunkin is a 1933 novella adapted for film in 1976.

春琴抄 movie poster Shunkinshou

The 1990s saw a renaissance in yugen aesthetics in art and narrative.

Stories with a yugen aesthetic tend to have juxtaposing themes such as:

  • existence vs nonexistence
  • freedom vs nihilism

Typically in Western stories, epiphanies go hand-in-hand with imagery around light. This is no doubt to do with our concept of ‘blindness’ linked to ‘lock of understanding in general’. But Japanese culture doesn’t make such a close connection between light metaphors and understanding. Oftentimes in Japanese narrative, understanding comes from the shadows, not the light.

A well-known 1933 essay by Junichiro Tanizaki (the guy who wrote Portrait of Shunkin) goes deep into this. The essay is called “In Praise of Shadows”. (The latest translation was done by Gregory Starr in 2017.)

A completely new translation of this seminal collection of thoughts on Japanese aesthetics by one of Japan’s most important modern writers, with an introduction by architect Kengo Kuma.

In Praise of Shadows is both a historical work documenting a period when many in Japan grappled with the breakneck speed of Westernization, and a timeless celebration of the beauty and elegance of simplicity. This new translation brings us an essential work with clarity and an appreciation for Tanizaki’s wry humor and deep insight.

Today, nearly a century removed from its first appearance, In Praise of Shadows offers a surprisingly contemporary lesson in the values of subtlety and restraint.

Header illustration is made with Midjourney using the prompt: the Japanese love of Shadow, nuance, and empty space

Those who tell the stories rule the world.

Native American Proverb