New Emissary

The ‘Japanese Aesthetic’

What is it about Japan’s visual landscape that sets it apart—and helps make it a popular destination for visitors?

Aesthetic: a particular theory or conception of beauty or art;a particular taste for or approach to what is pleasing to the senses and especially sight. (MerriamWebster)

What’s so special about a country that even during 2008, at the height of the global economic crisis, attracted over 8 million tourists (and is projected to bring in about the same number this year)?

Japan remains one of the Asia-Pacific’s most popular travel destinations. It boasts 14 World Heritage Sites (some of which are located amongst the 2000 or so temples and shrines in the historic city of Kyoto), possibly the world’s most efficient train network, impressive customer service standards and the all the conveniences of a modern society—in abundance (think convenience stores on every city block and public toilets with heated seats and automated bidets).

Contemporary cultural trends also add to the country’s allure. Its revolutionary anime and manga (comic) industry and unique fashion subcultures (the girls in the Harajuku district of Tokyo who walk around dressed as Goth maids and dolls are just one of the most famous examples) are only a couple of things Japan’s youth culture is known for.

A consistent thread in all of this is the unique visual impressions people take away from Japan, whether it’s golden temples, eccentric fashions, kimono-clad geisha—so many distinctive and unmistakeable images that make up its unique aesthetic.

But where does the inspiration for all this come from? It’s a vast subject that countless books have been written on, which is why I’m going to focus on two specific elements of Japanese design—the urban landscape and traditional Japanese gardens.

I’ve been fortunate enough to hear the insights of professors, authors and architects who have shared their thoughts with me on Japan’s visual landscape and what sets it apart from other countries. And by taking a look at these two foundations of the ‘Japanese aesthetic’ starting later this week, I’m hoping to shed some light on how Japan’s past and present still inspires designers of all stripes today.