Japan Glossary
Miyabi: Courtliness, Refinement, Beauty

The invention . . . . . . of Japanese culture was largely the product of upper class, educated, court culture of the Heian period (794-1192 AD). To be sure, the earliest cultures in Japan had vital and dynamic cultures separate from the cultures of China and the Korean kingdoms. However, the introduction of Chinese culture in the fifth century saw a dramatic adoption of Chinese culture, art, philosophy, government, and values in Japan. With the exception of the controversies surrounding the introduction of Buddhism, on the whole this adoption of Chinese culture went forward with little resistance. It is, of course, an oversimplification to overestimate Chinese influence—Chinese culture, writing, philosophy, and values largely infiltrated the most powerful classes in Japanese society while the bulk of Japanese society saw little or no cultural change throughout the entire history of early Japan.

   The introduction of Chinese culture produced a dramatic schism in Japanese society. While Japanese culture changed little throughout the country, nevertheless there arose small islands of educated Japanese maintaining an aristocracy of Chinese culture in the face of what they regarded as an ocean of barbarism. This privileged class eventually became the locus of new, creative forces during the Heian period. Working on both Chinese and Japanese models, these upper class artists, women, writers, poets, and aristocrats forged new, uniquely Japanese values and aesthetic terms.

   Perhaps the most important of these new values was miyabi, which has no specific English equivalent. It means something like beauty, but it also refers to an individual who has refined taste in beauty, art, and manners. A person with miyabi is able to derive pleasure from detailed or simple beauty—the stress, however, is on perfection. Miyabi is, more than anything else, a perfection of form and color. The painting below is largely governed by an aesthetic of miyabi :




Japan Glossary
Aware
   Miyabi , however, is a complex concept—it seems always to be tied to another key Heian value, aware , which means something like the sadness inherent in things. The image above is governed by miyabi , but this beauty is only transitory. The most frequent examples of miyabi throughout Japanese culture tend to be such images that are beautiful with a beauty that is passing away.


Ancient Japan
The Flowering of Japanese Literature
   The most influential literary work in Japan is the Heian novel, Genji monogatari ("The Tale of Genji"), by Murasaki Shikibu. The novel chronicles the maturation of Genji, the son of an emperor, at court. The highest value in the court culture of the Genji is miyabi . It not only applies to Genji's physical form (and others in the court), it also seems to apply to manners, deportnment, and sensibility. In this sense, miyabi also refers to personal refinement—what we would call good taste and good manners. More than anything else, miyabi refers to sedate pleasures that an upper class person takes in small things, such as flowers or falling leaves. It becomes apparent that miyabi , as a cultural value, is in its origins a way of distinguishing the upper class from the lower class. The concept, however, eventually became a universal Japanese value in the Tokugawa period and is one of the most distinguishing characteristics of the modern Japanese world view.

Richard Hooker



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1995, Richard Hooker
Updated 7-2-97