OMOI-YARI, WABI-SABI, and WOOD BLOCK PRINTS

Allison Drinkwater "Miyajima" 1995

Ah, Japan...


Although it seems that a large number of Japanese youth still look to America for inspiration, there is a much smaller number of American youth who look to Japan.
Japoniphiles, perhaps?
Allison Drinkwater "Tori Detail" (1995)

I spent just over a year in and around Hiroshima when I was a young adult, and I am still mesmerized by what I saw there.  Some of what I learned was so different than my experience of America that it was shocking, some concepts were more subtle and difficult to define, others have grown in depth over time.

These are just three:

Small Acts of Kindness Bring Peace to the World


To show great hospitality, you must anticipate your guest’s requests.  Honor is shown by giving them the option of not having to ask for what they need.  OMOI-YARI is to “do the thought” of someone before they speak it.  Pass the butter when they pick up a roll at dinner.  See that someone is seeking a good parking spot and relinquish it even though you are closer.  Provide a light if they are taking cigarettes out of their pocket.  Smile if they are having a rough day.  In short, behave like a gentleman.
'Italian Gardens' at Ludwig's Palace, Germany 1981.
Image courtesy of Andrea_44 via Flickr.

The last few months, I’ve noticed what is almost a trend.  I’m loading groceries & kids into our vehicle, reprimanding for dawdling where there are cars and feeling utterly exhausted by the simple act of shopping.  And then, a kind gentleman offers to return my shopping basket.  Such a small thing, and yet lovely and memorable.  The first time it happened, I thought the guy was flirting.  (I guess I’m not used to strangers noticing the needs of a woman unless there’s an ulterior motive....shame on me.)  
Japanese Tea Garden, Golden Gate Park.
Image courtesy of moonlightbulb via Flickr

I should add that a few years ago, when I had small babies in the car, it was heartbreaking to leave the vehicle once they were secured for that small minute to return the basket.  And I became one of those inconsiderate people who didn’t return the basket, but left it to float in the parking lot until someone else returned it.  I’ve always wanted to be a person who left the world better than I found it, and there I was, cluttering the car park with shopping carts that little old ladies would probably run into.  
The small kindness was more than the sum of its parts: it was also saving me from being something I didn't want to be.



Imperfection is Better than Perfection


The main thing I don’t like about high Modernism is its perfection.  Not one hair out of place, surfaces that are impossible to maintain with use, exteriors that do not know how to weather well, interiors that look cluttered when actually lived in.

In Japan, there is a belief that perfection is not a virtuous goal.  It is prideful and vain.  Instead, the goal is WABI-SABI, where perfection is tempered with a purposeful element of nature or geometric imperfection.  It is almost a spiritual effort of humility: we know that we cannot create perfection, so we will not try.  

Again, the result is greater than its effort, because spaces defined by mathematical perfection cannot be ideal for humans.  Their beauty can be observed but not truly inhabited.  Wabi-sabi makes a space attainable, beautiful in ways that touch the soul.

Inspiring reading on the philosophies of Wabi & Sabi here. Wabi is the uncluttered austerity we so admire in Modernism; Sabi is the exquisite, textural patina of time.
For a multitude of images to communicate the idea, look here: I could look at these for days and days and days...  Though it seems that some think Wabi-sabi is merely the beauty of decay.  It is much more purposeful than that.

Originality At All Costs = Dishonesty

So many have been influenced by the aesthetics of Japan, there are too many to count.  One, however, was infamous for it: Frank Lloyd Wright.  He had a massive collection of Japanese WOOD BLOCK PRINTS that he collected on his travels (from the 1890s on), among other Japanese goods.  Japan’s decorative and architectural influence on him is astounding.  And yet...

There never was exterior influence upon my work either foreign or native, other than that of Lieber Meister, Dankmar Adler and John Roebling, Whitman and Emerson, and the great poets worldwide.  My work is original not only in fact but in spiritual fiber.  No practice by any European architect to this day has influenced me in the least.  As for the Incas, the Mayans, even the Japanese—all were to me but splendid confirmation” [quoted on page 27, Frank Lloyd: Europe and Beyond (1999)].

No doubt, he was a genius.  No one else could have done what he did with that influence.  But why genius has to go hand in hand with pride so often is a mystery to me.

Conclusion:  Lessons of Humility



The thoughts and needs of others are at least as important as our own.
Warmth in aesthetics is at least as important as cleanliness.
Admitting source material is not only honorable, but is a moral imperative.

-ally

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