5 Essential Japanese Design Principles

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Traditional Japanese residential architecture

As a designer I’ve been influenced by many people and places. British designers Peter Saville and Vaughan Oliver immediately come to mind. As well, countries like Germany and Italy have affected me. Bauhaus, Futurism, Bruno Munari, the Memphis Group, and other forms of modernism and post-modernism have widened my vision and deepened my understanding. However, the country and culture that has influenced me most is Japan. I’ve always related to its customs, design, and philosophy, which are often diametrically opposed to Western ideals. After traveling there extensively over the past 15 years I consider myself somewhat of a Japanophile and want to share 5 essential Japanese design principles that have influenced me.

Ma

An Open Space of Time

I begin with something simple, which isn’t so simple, but seems simple at first: the Japanese flag (Image 1). The first thing to notice is the flat, minimal design. The red circle represents the sun and the white rectangle is negative space. In the West we often call negative space “white space” or “empty space.” In Japan they call it ma.

Japanese flag

Image 1 The deceptive simplicity of the Japanese flag.

Ma is negative space. It’s a void, but this doesn’t mean “empty space.” Actually it’s closer to meaning “open space” and can be vibrant and dynamic.

An important element of ma is temporal—it can have a time element to it, an interval. It’s not essential that time be a part of it, but often it is and in ways not always obvious. When time is part of ma it becomes an open space of time.

I recall my first trip to Japan when I asked a Japanese friend how she defined ma and she said “It’s the pauses that occur in conversation when two people speak.” For the Japanese these pauses can be quite long, but they seem comfortable with it. The pauses are not empty because they allow time for reflection. The void is filled with unspoken thoughts or perhaps even complacent non-thoughts, being in the moment, a break from speaking and thinking. In the West we are not as comfortable with these conversational pauses and tend to avoid them.

A masterpiece in Japanese literature that captures ma in a narrative form is Yasunari Kawabata’s novel Snow Country (Image 2). The novel is about a love affair between a Tokyo dilettante and a provincial geisha set in a remote hot springs town in the early 20th century. The narrative is spacious and poetic, economical like a Hemingway novel and also written around the same period. It has a haiku feel to it, a brevity, and a void—like ma—that prompts the reader to connect the dots. This is another aspect of ma—it prompts the viewer, or participant, to complete what is missing.

book cover of Yasunari Kawabata's novel Snow Country

Image 2 A vintage (wabi-sabi) book cover of Yasunari Kawabata’s novel Snow Country.

In the case of Snow Country the void is spiritual and existential. The last sentence of the novel captures this well, ending with a metaphor that describes the male protagonist’s being:

As he caught his feet, his head fell back, and the Milky Way flowed down inside him with a roar.

What this final emotion ultimately means is up to the reader. It’s open ended enough, as are many parts of the novel, enabling the reader to rely on their own existence and experience to interpret, or imagine what has not been stated. I come across this all the time in Japanese novels, manga, and films as they suddenly end without a denouement. These loose endings have a touch of ma about them.

An indulgence my Japanese wife and I enjoy when we travel to Japan is staying at ryokans in different parts of the country. Ryokans are Japanese inns. The food served at a ryokan is usually kaiseki style, which is fine traditional Japanese, very elaborate, and often served in private tatami rooms. A dozen or so small courses are served, one at a time, and it sometimes take 2 or 3 hours to complete a meal. Image 3 shows all the courses, but they are actually served one at a time.

Japanese kaiseki traditional food

Image 3 Japanese kaiseki traditional food.

The presentation of each course is well designed. In the photo you can see ma in the form of space around the food, which allows for negative space so the plates’ decorative elements can compliment the food. Ma also occurs as one dish arrives, is taken away, and the next one is presented; your experience becomes intervals of what you had, what your having now, and what you anticipate to have next. Moreover, the server’s etiquette, movement, and speech is perfected like an orchestrated dance. The pauses, moments of reflection, presentation, and temporal experience is ma.

The traditional Japanese house has elements of ma (Image 4). Items in rooms are temporary. Futons are usually stored away during the day and replaced by small tables and zabutons. Objects placed in a space are often functional, but also transitory.

Traditional Japanese residential architecture

Image 4 A traditional Japanese residential home.

Space is empty and filled and then emptied again. Space can be expanded or condensed by simply opening or closing sliding shoji screens. You can therefore have privacy or openness. Space can be opened on the inside, but also on the outside to expose a Japanese garden, thereby creating a connection to nature (Image 5).

traditional Japanese architecture

Image 5 Opening rooms with sliding shoji screens exposes a Japanese garden.

The best depiction of ma in Japanese film is by the director Yasujirō Ozu, whose career spanned from the 1930s to the 60s. Typically the stories in his films revolve around societal paradigm shifts: marriage and family; the change from one generation to the next; how traditional Japanese values and sensibilities were being lost as Japan became modernized and influenced by Western cultures. This continues today, which is fascinating … there’s a constant pull between traditional and contemporary Japan, which creates a hybrid experience.

The Japanese film director Yasujirō Ozu.

Image 6 The Japanese film director Yasujirō Ozu.

The pace in Ozu’s films are slow, with long pauses. Most audiences today might find the films boring. Even when I recently watched these with my wife she would often exclaim Tsumaranai!, which means just that — boring. But as we continued to watch the films our sensibilities adapted and we began to appreciate the beauty of slowness, the pauses, and the film’s artistic compositions. We ended up watching as many Ozu films we could find.

Film still from Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story

Image 7 Film still from Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story

Mono no Aware

Awareness of Impermanence

Although ma is one design principle apparent in Ozu films, it is not the only one. Another principle is mono no aware, which means having empathy toward things. The feeling it produces can be described as a transient sadness of the passing of things, the passing of all life. In essence it is an awareness of impermanence. Ozu films are filled with these qualities as main characters pass away, someone get’s married and leaves the family, or still scenes of nature mixed with manmade environments expresses the slow degradation of nature by man and the passing of time.

Another example of mono no aware is Ise Grand Shrine Complex in Ise, Japan, which consist of 120 shrines. What is fascinating about the Ise Shrine Complex is that all the shrines are torn down and rebuilt every 20 years. This is a tradition that has been ongoing for 1,300 years and is based on the Shinto religion’s celebration of the impermanence of all things and nature’s death and renewal cycles. An additional benefit of this tradition is it serves as a method of passing on traditional building techniques from one generation to the next.

The shrine complex is closed to the public, but every 20 years visitors are allowed to enter the area around the inner sanctum of the complex. When the shrines are being rebuilt local communities drag wooden carriages with logs or stones through rivers and roads onto the temple grounds. The entire tradition is very vibrant with every participant wearing a happi coat representing a particular community.

Image 8 reveals the completed construction of one of the main shrines on an adjacent lot in the foreground. The old shrines are in the rear and its interior religious artifacts will be moved to the new shrine. Then the old shrine will be taken down. Each rebuilding alternates between two sites.

Ise Grand Shrine complex in Ise, Japan

Image 8 Ise Grand Shrine complex in Ise, Japan.

Donald Richie, an authority on Japanese culture, described the sengushiki ceremony at Ise Grand Shrine Complex in his magnificent book The Inland Sea:

On the adjacent plot is constructed a shrine that is in all ways similar to the one just dismantled. More, it is identical. Something dies, something is born, and the two things are the same. This ceremony, the sengushiki, is a living exemplar of the greatest of religious mysteries, the most profound of human truths. And time at last comes to a stop. Forever old, forever new, the shrines stand there for all eternity. This—and not the building of pyramids or ziggurats, not the erection of Empire State Building or Tokyo Towers—is the way to stop time and thus make immortal that mortality which we cherish.

Wabi

Rustic or Aged Beauty

Wabi is the aesthetic of being simple and quiet, but with an emphasis on rustic beauty, or aged beauty. In terms of design it contains organic elements, but can have a human touch, either curated or modified by hand.

Wabi integrates flaws of one kind or another often found in wood, stone, fabric, clay, and flowers. On an abstract level Wabi evokes a sense of no boundaries, no limits, and suggest infinity in the mind of the viewer.

Common wabi design elements such as wood, stone, fabric, clay, and flowers.

Image 9 Common wabi design elements such as wood, stone, fabric, clay, and flowers.

Wabi can further be described as non-attachment, having subtle insight and great depth of knowledge. The non-attachment essence of a wabi thing is said to be what gives it an original, fresh image. It might look familiar, but is unique. Wabi is an element of a Zen principle that teaches detachment from all material things and the ability to experience the essence of things.

Wabi is evident in the famous Zen garden Ryoan-ji in Kyoto (Image 10). In terms of aesthetics, wabi is visible in the clay wall in the background, which is stained by age with subtle brown and orange tones. The garden’s “subtle insight” or “great depth of knowledge” is reflected in the Zen koan that there are 15 stones present in the garden, but only 14 can be seen at once no matter where you position yourself.

Ryoan-ji Zen garden in Kyoto, Japan

Image 10 Ryoan-ji Zen garden in Kyoto, Japan

The garden also has ma elements: Negative space, time intervals, the void, daily raking and pattern making, the lifespan of the garden over a quincentenary, modifications from various owners, petrified stones, moss formations, and how the garden viewer completes the scene by contemplating what is present as well as what is missing, which changes depending on one’s vantage point.

Sabi

The art of imperfection

The overall composition of the Ryoan-ji garden, although it has qualities of ma and wabi, is considered to also have sabi—asymmetry, extreme plainness, and simplicity. This often results in unbalanced, seemingly random design, which creates surprise and delight. This art of imperfection can be found in Japanese graphic design, architecture, crafts, and products.

Image 11 is a package design for tea that shows asymmetry, especially the off-center vertical rule. The botanical illustration creates pattern, repetition, and movement that directs the eye to the center label and then down to the brand mark in the lower left corner. There’s simplicity and plainness with a limited color palette, and there’s elements of ma in the design as well.

An example of sabi elements used in the package design for tea.

Image 11 An example of sabi elements used in the package design for tea.

Similar to western notions of minimalist design sabi attempts to remove the unessential. Here you can see this Japanese home is simple and plain (Image 12]. It has an asymmetrical design as the windows, stairway, and storage are all off center.

Japanese residential home design showing sabi elements.

Image 12 Japanese residential home design showing sabi elements.

Wabi-sabi

Flawed beauty

Wabi and sabi are so closely related and complement each other they are often referred to as wabi-sabi and so we get a blended design principle. Wabi-sabi translates as flawed beauty and the wisdom in natural simplicity. It’s an aesthetic sensibility, a way of living that sees beauty in imperfections and peacefully embraces the natural cycle of growth and decay.

This hand formed wabi-sabi tea bowl has imperfect edges and shape (Image 13). The earthy tones appear quite natural like worn stone, as if it was just unearthed from a forest floor. Using the tea bowl one may feel a connection to nature and the passing of time.

An example of a wabi-sabi tea bowl.

Image 13 An example of a wabi-sabi tea bowl.

Image 14 is an example of an interior space that has many wabi-sabi elements such as distressed wood in the coffee table, door framing, and kitchen console. There is a natural stone fireplace in the center and washed out floor and walls. Overall there is a worn, flawed quality, which creates beauty.

Interior design that has wabi-sabi elements

Image 14 Interior design that has wabi-sabi elements

Conclusion

These 5 Japanese design principles are only a small sample. The culture has a deep and long history and it’s fascinating how these design principles have permeated into religion, philosophy, life style, culture, and aesthetics in various ways over a millennium. These principles continue to influence me as a designer and human being in meaningful ways. They have expanded my vision and understanding of design and how to live harmoniously in the world.

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