1 Restrained Tradition: Ginkakuji (Temple of the Silver Pavilion)

3 Restrained Tradition: Zen black ink painting

5 Restrained Tradition: Women in daily kimono

7 Restrained Tradition: Storage pot

9 Tasteful home decoration

2 Exuberant Tradition: Kinkakuji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion)

4 Exuberant Tradition: Kite from northern Japan

6 Exuberant Tradition: Geisha in show kimono

8 Exuberant Tradition: Display dish

10 Fantasy vehicle

12 Shibuji room decor

Restraint vs. Exuberance

There are two major aesthetic traditions in Japan--what might be called a Restrained Tradition and an Exuberant Tradition. In phenomena as diverse as art, architecture, gardens, clothing, the objects people use, and interior decor, the influence of both traditions can be seen. Instead of competing with each other, we view those two traditions as opposite ends of a Restraint-Exuberance Continuum on which people move back and forth between restraint and exuberance in the course of their daily lives, depending upon the circumstances. This movement is not arbitrary but governed by principles that go to the core of Japanese culture.

Spontaneity in Japan

Japan is a highly structured society in which people value but seldom have the opportunity to express spontaneity in art and in everyday life. True spontaneity is achieved only when an art form is totally mastered so that it flows freely without thought. This kind of spontaneity is seen in children's art, folk art, much of the art of Zen Buddhism, or absorption in a hobby, sport or music. Most of the time, individuals seek escape from the restrictions of everyday life in fantasy, as evidenced by the popularity of manga and the great diversity of after-hours entertainment in Japan.


The concept of shibusa attempts to find a compromise between spontaneity and a high level of taste --between the need for escape and the desire for order and tranquillity. Shibui aesthetics, which favour values such as austerity, asymmetry, naturalness, and subdued colours, is toward the restrained end of the Restraint-Exuberance Continuum. At the same time, however, it emphasizes "spontaneity of effect" --creating an atmosphere that appears to be relaxed and spontaneous, even if it is not truly spontaneous.

These issues, among others are explored in our book, Spon-taneity in Japanese Art and Culture (see Books on Japan in the menu at the top).


11 Shibui artifact