How Japan Inspires the World

Written by Georgia Koutsogeorga

To the outside world, Japan may seem like an exotic, far-off place with a writing system and traditions which are equally incomprehensible.
Nevertheless, Japan has for centuries exerted a strong attraction for all kinds of people: whether they are scholars, artists, architects or manga enthusiasts.

The Japanese people; their art; their way of life; and their captivating culture, hold an important position in world history. Many times I have thought how boring the world would have been without the Japanese. Think of the art, the architecture, the music, the martial arts, the technology and the cuisine. From Zen to J-pop, Japanese culture has a diverse and devoted fan base.

What is more, this captivating country offers us an opportunity to consider an alternative way of life. Japan enthusiasts, if they are open minded enough, can compare their world view to that of the Japanese and in the process, learn a bit more about themselves.

Japan is an enchanting source of inspiration and if you are open to it, you will be richly rewarded.

First Contact: The World Discovers Japan

Japan has fascinated the Western world since the first Europeans reached the country in 1543. Reports from these early explorers show their respect and admiration for Japan’s advanced society. At that time, Japan was already highly urbanized, with a population far bigger than any of the major European countries like France and England. Japanese cities were organized and clean, and the people were polite and educated. It is not surprising then that, in their eyes, Japan didn't seem like the other poor and underdeveloped Eastern countries they had visited before. On the contrary, looking at the Japanese way of life, their refined manners, and their art and craftsmanship, the Europeans came to consider Japan as a civilized country that deserved their respect.

What makes Japan unique?

Japan has long been admired for its unique aesthetic philosophy. Highly influenced by religion, Japanese art came to reflect a distinct way of life and way to perceive the world. First Shinto and then Buddhism formed a spiritual framework for the arts, and gave birth to an aesthetic of refined simplicity expressed by the terms wabi and sabi.

In the wabi-sabi worldview, nothing is permanent, nothing is complete, and nothing is perfect. The particularity of the Japanese lies in these beliefs. These concepts of transience and imperfection shaped their everyday lives and helped them to build those cities that the first European travelers saw responded to in awe.

 Beauty in simplicity

However, in the 16th century, Westerners had only a glimpse of Japan’s rich culture before the Shoguns, who ruled Japan, closed their country to outside influences.
It wasn't until the second half of the 19th century, when Japan once again opened its borders, that the Western world could finally benefit from full cultural exchange with this wabi-sabi world.

Japan Inspires the West

In the late 19th century, following the industrial revolution, Europeans looked at Japanese cities and saw what had been lost in their own countries through rapid urban development. To them Japan looked like an idyllic manifestation of a pre-industrial society. To honor and preserve that feeling, a massive exportation of Japanese handmade goods began.
In this way, many Westerners came in contact with Japanese art for the first time.

At international exhibitions like those in Vienna (1873), and Paris (1876), Japan achieved recognition and renown for its exquisite decorative arts. Many western houses and gardens were influenced by a craze for oriental exoticism inspired by Japanese style.

This cultural exchange was crucial for the architects and artists of that era.
It was a time when artists were looking for new ideas, and sought to abandon classical forms. The rediscovery of the East, and its radically different art forms, offered them an extraordinary range of creative stimuli.
 Traditional Japanese architecture, woodblock prints, calligraphy, Japanese pottery and many more Japanese art forms revitalized Western art and thought.
Impressionist artists, such as Van Gogh and Toulouse Lautrec, and Expressionist architects, such as Bruno Taut and Walter Gropius, are just some of the many important figures that were influenced and inspired by Japan. In return, with their work they made the Japanese way popular in the West. Terms likes Japonism or Japaneseness came into vogue, and  expressed this popular fascination with Japanese style.

Hiroshige painting and Van Gogh's interpretation

Along with the arts came the teachings of Zen Buddhism. Introduced for the first time at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, it quickly became highly influential. More than a religious practice, Zen came to be perceived as an ideal way of life and an essential path to self-improvement.
 Today, the Zen way of life has been highly popularized, through books like “Zen and the Art of Happiness” or through CDs entitled “Zen and the Art of Relaxation”. People are used to the term Zen and its association with Japanese culture.
 Sometimes the meaning of Zen can be lost or misinterpreted, and books such as “Zen and the Art of Poker” do appear from time to time. However, Zen, its spirituality and the essence of its teachings are still invaluable, and are still an important well-spring of ideas for both life and art.

Japan Inspires the World

Just as the Western world was influenced by Japan, Japan too was influenced by the West.
In only 150 years, the incorporation of Western ideas into Japanese society radically changed the face of the country. The big economic boom of the postwar era established Japan as a huge economic power, and this once serene and traditional land gave way to futuristic cities full of neon lights and busy highways.

Although some will say that Japan lost something precious after its contact with the West, others will argue that through its ability to reinvent itself, it created a new image and inspired the world once again with its vitality and dynamic inventiveness.

Whether you prefer Zen aesthetics or brash modernity, Japan has both in good measure and often side-by-side. And this is precisely what makes it such a fascinating country to explore. If we can accept these differences, Japan has much to teach us, and in its myriad art forms it offers us an endless source of aesthetic pleasure and creative stimulation. 

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