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Animals and animal aesthetics in Japanese art traditions and Japanese society

Posted By admin On May 30, 2013 @ 2:06 pm In Abstracts for 2013, Literature and the Arts | Comments Disabled

Mika Merviö, Professor

Graduate School of Social Sciences

Kibi International University


Sensitivity to the beauty of animals and the nuances of natural environment is one of the characteristics of Japanese tradition of arts. Already Darwin noted that the bodily beauty and sense of beauty are integral parts of natural evolution. The sense of beauty in animals is something universal and within something that makes us humans and goes back very far in human (and animal) history.

In Japan, the social and cultural conditions have influenced the attitudes toward animals in society and arts. Since these conditions have been different from many European traditions it is no wonder that animals have been depicted differently. I will analyze the historical processes of human/ animal relationships in Japan by paying attention to social, political and religious ideas and how they have influenced the presentation (mimesis) of animals in Japanese arts. The different species of animals have attained different symbolic meanings in different periods of Japanese art. The Chinese art and religious traditions used to have a major importance, but native Japanese interpretations clearly reinterpreted animals very differently from China. Of course, in Japan such animals as the elephants, tigers or gibbons were regarded as truly exotic and the depiction of them in Japanese art was far more based on imagination than in areas where there was more actual knowledge about these animals. However, in the case of depiction of Japanese animals it is easy to find examples of both keen observation of animals and rather superficial or canonized interpretations that follow the established artistic practice rather than individual artist’s ideas and observations. Modernism in Japanese arts brought in Western ideas and practices with the result that also traditional arts redefined their practices. The traditional aesthetics of wabi and sabi and the Japanese code of aesthetics in general has survived in different forms in both so called Japanese art and [Japanese] Western art. However, the modern societies have in many ways been alienated from nature. The rapid urbanization and the fact that the centres of Japanese art tend to be very large cities means that many Japanese artists are rather alienated both from the animal world and a large part of the Japanese tradition of art with animal themes. People who do not come into contact with animals in their daily life or only in the capacity of pets have very different relationship from earlier generations. On the other hand Japanese art has globalized and the its postmodern nature means that all the animals of the world are now part of Japanese arts and artistic imagination. I will use examples to build a narrative of interpretation of animals in Japanese art from early history all the way up to contemporary art and contemporary Japanese society with the depiction of animals in cute and “Superflat” art, and putting this all in the context of human/animal and environmental relationships.

Modern Japanese society has its very own environmental consciousness and set of standards. For the Nordic people the weakness of traditional environmental protection and environmental movements is striking. How is it possible that a culture with so deep tradition of presenting and sensing the beauty and individuality of animals so often shows ignorance of animal rights? This paper is very much interdisciplinary in its nature as it deals both with environmental and aesthetic thinking and traditions in Japan, and it draws both from my research on Japanese environmental themes and my interest and observations on Japanese arts.

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