Wabi and Kitsch: Two Japanese Paradigms

Thorsten Botz-Bornstein


The purpose of this article is to look for a conceptual link between traditional Japanese aesthetics of wabi and the aesthetics of kitsch. While quite distinct, wabi and kitsch share a common formal structure that makes use of a particularly immediate type of aesthetic perception. Both the aesthetics of kitsch and of wabi underline the necessity of direct, intuitive insight in aesthetic matters. I will contend that though wabi and kitsch are very obviously dissimilar with regard to their content, the existence of such a formal principle of immediacy in traditional Japanese aesthetics is partly responsible for the extraordinary proliferation of kitsch in contemporary Japan.[1]

            The Japanese term wabi has come to the attention of a wider public in the form of the apparently compact concept of wabi-sabi that Daitetz Suzuki and others spread in order to refer to a complex aesthetic system developed in proximity with Zen Buddhism. It represents a Zen-inspired idea of beauty manifested in traditional architecture and crafts valuing imperfection, simplicity, poverty, and naturalness. Beauty and authenticity are found in aged wood, cracks, asymmetrical forms, and decay, which makes wabi-sabi expressions compatible with the principle of impermanence, central to Zen Buddhism. Wabi delights the Japanese in the form of those things that remind us of the transient character of all things.

            The word ‘kitsch’ was probably coined in Germany between the 1860s and 1870s in order to designate cheap artistic stuff.[2] Kitsch proliferated during the nineteenth century and has since been examined from a variety of perspectives, among which is Clement Greenberg’s notion of kitsch as an overly formulaic aesthetic expression,[3] Gillo Dorfles’ concept of kitsch as “artistic rubbish,”[4] and Matei Calinescu’s more “culturalist” definition of kitsch as an aesthetic phenomenon that contradicts the “law of inadequacy.”[5] While there is apparently no “classical” definition of kitsch (only competing ones), there is still something that approaches a most common understanding of kitsch, notably, a tasteless copy of an existing style or a system of “bad taste” and artistic deficiency which almost always involves exaggerated sentimentality and superficiality. A systematic evaluation of kitsch is even more difficult because as a social – and furthermore globalized – phenomenon, kitsch has acquired an extra dimension of cultural anesthesia[6] that excels in falsification and serves as an aesthetically vulgar means to enter a consumer-oriented dream world. In the present article, which focuses on kitsch in Japan, these developments are of particular interest. However, all these versions must be seen in connection with the most general understanding of kitsch, which remains that of an aesthetic product depending on exaggerated sentimentality, banality, and triteness.

1. The Situation

            Traditional Japanese aesthetics is famous for its sobriety and its opposition to showiness and ostentation. Since World War II the world became aware of Japanese culture mainly through phenomena like tea ceremony, ikebana, and geishas. It would be wrong to suppose that today these manifestations of traditional Japanese culture have ceased to exist; some of their spirits are still alive, and are admired by tourists as much as they are examined by students of Japanese culture. Still, visitors as well as students cannot stop wondering about one fact: how is the coexistence in Japan of traditional aesthetic values like wabi-sabi and manifestations of the most exuberant kitsch culture possible? A walk through a Japanese city exposes a contradiction that has, fundamentally, never been explained. Traditional houses, temples and gardens side with pachinko-parlors and restaurants in the most fanciful archi­tectural styles, decorated with plastic flowers and imbued with artificial bird noises. Expensive tea bowls, monochrome ink paintings, haikus, as well as the tea ceremony are still appreciated by a part of the population which gives reason to suppose that in Japan the wabi-aesthetics has been conserved through centuries. This seems to be incompatible with the fact that, here, Hello Kitty pencil cases and pink teddy bears are desired by young women up to the age of thirty-five. In Japan, as Donald Richie has said, “bad taste is a constant force to reckon with”[7] because nowhere in the “Kingdom of Kitsch”[8] can one “escape from the cartoon, the comic-book atmos­phere, the cute.”[9] Frédéric Kaplan defines Tokyo’s city life in this way: “To describe an exuberant patchwork like Tokyo City only one German word seems to be appropriate: ‘kitsch’. Japan is a place where ‘kitsch’ is acceptable on a large scale.”[10]

            In Japan, kitsch as a “large scale” phenomenon becomes particularly obvious in the proliferation of youth culture for which the predicate “kawaii” (cute) seems to represent a sort of national aesthetic standard. The aesthetics of cuteness (kawairashisa) developed since the 1980s and has turned in the late 1990s into an explicit kitsch culture.[11] The cute is generally defined as childlike, sweet, innocent, pure, gentle and weak. However, the culture of the “cute” is not at all restricted to the field of youth culture. Today, not only do middle-aged women dangle fluffy stuffed animals from the bottom of their cell phones, sarariman also wear Pikachu on key chains[12] and even (male) truck drivers “display Hello-Kitty figurines on their dashboards.”[13] Cute-kitsch culture is more than an aesthetic style but appears as a full-fledged way of articulating a subjective attitude, expressible in design, language, bodily behavior, gender relations, and in perceptions of the self, or, as Brian McVeigh has said, “cuteness is not just a fad in the fashion cycle of Japanese pop culture; it is more of a ‘standard’ aesthetic of everyday life.”[14]

            This is the conundrum that the present article attempts to solve. Anybody who has stayed in Japan for even a short period must have asked himself: what has fostered the shift from the sober and “good” taste of the past to the showiness of the present kitsch-aesthetics and architecture? Is it just the preponderant influence of mass-culture, unavoidably coming along with a capitalist economic system that managed to erode traditional culture by sparking off an unstoppable process of decadence? While a part of the phenomenon can certainly be explained in this way, another part will unavoidably be explained away if the analysis were limited to these conventional tools of anti-capitalist cultural criticism. The question that remains open is: How could the “kitschification” of Japan progress at such a quick pace, and why was it not arrested by the strong aesthetic poten­tial that Japan could extract from her history?

2. Wabi vs. Kitsch

            Though in Japanese colloquial speech as well as elsewhere wabi and sabi are commonly used together, in strict aesthetic terms each of them refers to different qualities. Wa signifies harmony and peace and wabi means “tranquil simplicity.” Sabi can be traced to Chinese poetry of the mid- and late-Tang dynasty and signifies the bloom of time and the patina of those things that are old and wear the traces of daily use.[15] The present article concentrates on wabi, while sabi is granted less importance. As mentioned above, I am not suggesting that wabi is kitsch. It is only all too obvious that it is not. In the first place, wabi and kitsch are directly opposed to each other; this becomes clear when one compares their most striking features. Wabi (as well as sabi) preach modesty while kitsch is boastful. Wabi and sabi cling to the ideal of non-perfection while kitsch likes the smooth surfaces of perfection. Wabi aesthetics prefers natural colors and materials and shuns decoration, while kitsch most often comes along with glaring colors. Even more, kitsch, as an attribute of petty-bourgeois taste, is mainly conservative, and looks for safety and certitude and, as Matei Calinescu has pointed out, is “unable [to take] the risk involved in any true avant-gardism.”[16] Also, for Clement Greenberg, kitsch is opposed to any concept of avant-garde thinking (or simply any genuine art) because kitsch is “mechanical and operates by formulas.”[17] Wabi and sabi, on the other hand, manifest a real avant-garde spirit, trying to undermine the safe patterns of human (aesthetic) existence by preaching even the attractiveness of deprivation and destitu­tion. Beyond that, through their Zen-Buddhist valuing of spontaneity, wabi and sabi clearly refuse anything formulaic.

            In spite of these oppositions, I would venture to say that the traditional Japanese aesthetic ideal of wabi/sabi and the aesthetic manifestations that we classify today as kitsch have “deep” psychological structures in common. These resemblances are not manifest in the content of aesthetics but in its formal character. Probably everybody will agree with Catherine Lugg when she says that kitsch “has an immediacy that art must avoid.”[18] The question is: how is it possible that the artistic manifestations of wabi and sabi constitute art when they lay such a strong stress on immediacy? An enquiry into these common structures pertaining to both kitsch and wabi/sabi will explain the phenomenon that so dazzles Japan’s visitors: the development of an outspoken kitsch culture within a cultural sphere in which the ideal of wabi/sabi is still present. To be clear, then, I contrast wabi and kitsch on all levels that concern their respective contents but draw parallels only between their formal characteristics. Nowhere do I claim that in terms of content these two phenomena bear any resemblance.

3. Different Models of Kitsch Production

            So far I have suggested that wabi/sabi and kitsch have a formal structure in common and that thisis also one of the reasons why kitsch could develop so quickly in Japan. This argument will be explained more closely below. First it will be necessary to look at another reason for the fast development of kitsch, which is, paradoxically, the fact that wabi/sabi is so different from kitsch. To understand this one needs to register an important difference between Japanese and Western kitsch culture.

            In the first place, this difference has to do with the difference between Japanese and Western traditional elitist culture. In his more recent and fundamental writing on kitsch, Matei Calinescu defines the kitsch-man as one who attempts “to experience as kitsch even non-kitsch works or situations.”[19] Kitsch items can be represented by tourist attractions like the Eiffel Tower or sunsets at the seaside which, as such, are not items of kitsch. There are, in Japan, imitations of Hokusai-like woodblock print landscapes on the tile walls of hot spring baths, miniature Tokyo Towers and temples, as much as there are reproductions of Venus de Milo in wedding reception halls. With regard to these cases it is certainly right to say that there is no difference between the Western and the Japanese lover of kitsch.

            However, when it comes to a reproduction of recognized, traditional “high class” art, an important difference between the West and Japan cannot be denied. More often than Japanese high culture, Western high culture contains kitsch in a potential form. Norbert Elias has pointed this out when claiming that “[t]he formal tendencies of the works of great artists, whether they were called Heine or Victor Hugo, Wagner or Verdi, Rodin or Rilke, were intimately connected to those revealed by the mediocre works, which we dismiss as aberrations, as products of disintegration and decadence, as ‘kitsch’; one merges easily and imperceptibly into the other.”[20] In other words, in Western “high culture” one can “kitschify” almost every­thing. One of the greatest driving forces of kitsch culture in the West has indeed always been, as also Gillo Dorfles states, the adaptation of “high culture” for the purposes of mass culture.[21] In Japanese kitsch,[22] this driving force has been much less pronounced. While it is relatively easy to transform the works of Rembrandt or Beethoven into kitsch-versions that are suitable for mass-consumption, or while one can even make kitsch versions of more abstract cultural entities like, say, Dostoevsky’s “Search for God,” or Hamsun’s “Love for the Peasants,” it seems difficult to “kitschify” an all-black Fourteenth Century Raku tea bowl. This object appears so much a conscious manifestation of anti-kitsch that any attempt towards its adoption for mass culture appears to be hopeless.

            One might object that the cheap cups in Raku style that can be bought at a 100 Yen shop represent such kitschified versions. I do not agree, for here the typical Raku qualities (subdued color, rough texture, irregular glazing, etc.) are not exaggerated (as the classical definition of kitsch prescribes) but watered down until they are only vaguely reminiscent of Raku. As a matter of fact, such a tea bowl will most probably not be spontaneously perceived as a kitschified version of a Raku bowl but simply as a “black tea bowl.” Mass-production does not necessarily imply kitschification. The same is true for other Japanese works of art that can contain wabi, such as haikus or ink paintings of landscapes.[23]

            I would like to argue that a large part of Japanese traditional culture could not be kitschified in the same way in which Western high culture could. In spite of the amazing proliferation of kitsch in Japan, the Western idea of kitsch as a movement that “makes the significant trivial,”[24] that debases the authentic and makes the elitist mediocre, does not apply to the dominant Japanese model of kitsch. For Norbert Elias, kitsch is “nothing other than the expression for this tension between the highly-formed taste of the specialists and the undeveloped unsure taste of mass society.”[25] The largest part of Japanese kitsch culture, however, as we encounter it in everyday life, does not result from the embarrassing imitation of items of high culture by a misled consciousness, but is produced as kitsch, so to speak from scratch.[26]

            I believe that while a cheap imitation of a Hokusai woodblock printing might more or less work along the schemes that are also valid for Western productions of kitsch, the existence of the kitsch culture that is most intrinsic to Japan must be explained with the help of other models. Though there is more than one reason for the existence of Japanese cute-kitsch (and sociologists have been working on this since the mid-1990), I want to concentrate here on the question of how it has been possible that, within this dramatic process of the “free invention” of a kitsch culture, no historical material interfered with, or stymied[27] the production of kitsch as it began to proliferate in modern Japanese culture. In other words, how did kitsch manage to surface autonomously in Japan as a parallel culture?

            One of the reasons is that Japanese kitsch culture had fewer reasons to subordinate itself to an already existing high culture than in the West. As becomes particularly obvious with regard to the omni­present kitsch culture of the cute (though not only there), in Japan, kitsch has a more “innocent” existence; and one of the reasons for this is that this kitsch has not been derived from high culture. For Greenberg the principal strategy of kitsch is to use “for raw material the debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture.”[28] Roughly speaking we can say that while Western kitsch, at the moment it transforms high culture into mass culture, “denigrates” high culture; in Japan, kitsch is more likely to be perceived as just one form of expression, or one style that is morally (though not aestheti­cally) on the same level as high culture. The result is that the Japanese consumer of kitsch feels less remorse or guilt because unlike Western kitsch, most of Japanese kitsch (especially cute kitsch) has never submitted items of high culture to an act of distortion, the singling out of one particular “emotional” element, or undue stylization. Typical Japanese kitsch – or rather the people who consume it – has less reasons to apologize to anybody, but is able to live a kitsch-life in the form of a particularly innocent existence.

            There is another reason why Japanese kitsch culture could develop as a parallel culture and is therefore distinct from Western kitsch culture. Though this sounds surprising today, historically, European kitsch is linked to the formation of the individual. After the Reformation, once the ubiquitous responsibility of the church for the individual had faded away, the man of the middle class was asked to create his personality, taste, and style “on his own.”[29] What he did in the first place, was imitate the aristocrats who managed to decorate their lives so splendidly. Still, in the end, kitsch became a prison house of bad taste, foiling all attempts to restore a proper degree of authenticity to things. In the first place it was meant to foster an adult, emancipated kind of individuality. Even now this remains important. In modernity, humans are threatened with the loss of their individuality because the density of urban life, the industrialized mass production, etc., are intrinsically non-individualist. Here kitsch could be reconfirmed as a vehicle for an – albeit inconsistent – search for individuality.

            At least since the “invention” of cute-culture, Japanese kitsch has definitely gone in another direction. Many authors have linked the kawaii to the concept of amae. The psychologist Takeo Doi detected in the early 1970s a kind of “willful immaturity or childishness” among Japanese youths[30] that testified, in his opinion, to the desire to be indulged like children. This desire to re-enter childhood is, however, not to be equated with the desire for stepping back to a stage preceding the formation of adult-like individuality. The contrary is rather the case. While in the West, adulthood symbolizes the discovery of individual­ity (even if that individuality is at times misled and can end up as kitsch), the Japanese would find the sphere of childhood much more “individualist” because here things are permitted, which a strictly regimented Japanese adult generally rules out. This means that while the promise of kitsch was, as in the West, that of a quick access to indi­viduality, in the case of Japan, this individuality was looked for in the sphere of pre-adult culture. In the West, once the fake character of this “individuality” is discovered, the person might reject the kitsch objects and look for items of high culture in order to confirm his/her individuality. In Japanese cute-kitsch culture, such a Platonic logic―which leads the individual to always higher stages of adult individuality by overcoming kitsch—does not exist.

4. Western and Japanese “High-Culture”

            This argument is closely linked to a further difference between Japan and the West, notably, the already mentioned difference between Western culture and certain parts of Japanese high culture. There is a quality that makes Japanese high culture incompatible with kitsch. In Japan, the adoption of the Buddhist idea of “nothingness” produced an elitist art that was, so to speak, “insignificant on purpose;” sobriety as well as the self-negation of “positive” qualities cannot be rendered in the language of kitsch. According to Gillo Dorfles kitsch means to put the right thing in the wrong place. Such a concept of kitsch implies that the “right thing” is, at least in some way, still able to identify with the wrong environment. Beethoven, Dostoevsky or Hamsun do contain kitsch elements. However, normally these elements do not appear as kitsch as long as they are – as is the case in the works of these artists – embedded in the “right” context. Once these elements are isolated and presented in a context of exaltation, sentimentality, ostentation, etc., they quickly become kitsch.

            For the reasons mentioned above, it would be very difficult to maintain the same idea about a Raku tea bowl. This object, when put into the “wrong” context, will not automatically spark off the emotional feelings likely to indulge lovers of kitsch; on the contrary, it would rather suggest the sort of “banal nothingness” of an object that has been deprived of its sophisticated context and has therefore become unable to exude the “philosophical nothingness” that had once been invested into its being.

            These are the reasons why wabi and kitsch, which are different from each other with regard to their content, manifest a whole range of formal similarities. I mentioned the content-oriented differences at the beginning of this article when establishing sobriety and self-negation as wabi qualities that will always remain incompatible with kitsch. I have also shown that in the idealistic but materially restrained atmosphere of wabi, kitsch is not possible. However, these atmospheres concern only the content of wabi expressions while on the purely formal level it is possible to spell out some similarities between wabi and kitsch objects:

1.    Both are objects that arouse fascination in the first place as objects (and not as works of art).
2.    Both excel in functional simplicity.
3.    Both are intuitive and not reasonably constructed.
4.    Both are individual and emotional, and seem to “speak.”
5.    Both inspire a focal attention on the single object (which was for Schiller the most typical characteristic of kitsch-like art).[31]
6.    Both are objects that one would typically like “to live with” through the seasons.
7.    Both strive to reduce the (emotional) distance between the observer and the object as much as possible and create the “immediacy” of the aesthetic effect so that it can be appreciated “without effort.”
8.    Both display a lack of imagination that is consciously searched for by wabi artists, and an involuntary occurrence in kitsch.
9. If they are 3-dimensional objects, they are often round shaped and in most cases have the spatial, tactile effect of “pet objects.”
10. Both “despise money” (though each in its own way).
11. With regard to cute kitsch we can say that the innocent, natural simplicity directed against industrialization is a common feature of wabi and kitsch.

5.  Kitsch, wabi, and suki

            I have pointed out the incompatibility of wabi and kitsch, an incompatibility that presumably contributed to an accelerated proliferation of kitsch in post-war Japanese popular culture. We now need to consider a supplementary aspect. It is certain that, in spite of the incompatibility of Japanese traditional culture with kitsch on most levels, a certain compatibility of kitsch and wabi could install itself on another, purely formal, level. And this did contribute to an accelerated proliferation of kitsch in post-war Japanese popular culture. The slightly complicated constellation can be clarified by contrasting wabi with the concept of suki. The Japanese idea of wabi is strongly linked to the Way of Tea that cultivates values such as loneliness and poverty. It is an aesthetic value putting forward a Zen-influenced idea of seclusion and freely accepted insufficiency. Toshihiko and Toyo Izutsu list a dozen of adjectives that characterize the spirit of tea aesthetics, among which are asymmetry, crude plainness and deprivation.[32] To the metaphysical austerity of wabi they oppose the aesthetic exuberance of suki, an aesthetic style preferred by court people. The subtle elegance of suki was generally accepted as an aesthetic standard during the Momoyama epoch. This was also the time when the tea master Rikyû (1522-1591) developed his alternative, avant-garde aesthetic concept of wabi-sabi. Rikyû reacted to the “parvenu extravagance”[33] that dominated the military society governed by the general Toyotomi Hideyoshi and tried to smash values that were so far regarded as well-established. Hideyoshi was a parvenu-leader and interested in arts such as tea ceremony and Nô mainly because he sought support from the political community around him.[34]

            I want to take up the opposition of wabi and suki and formulate a theoretical model that includes the possibility of kitsch. The aesthetic indulgence practiced in the art of suki is different from that of kitsch. First of all, suki, like wabi, employs, real artistic ardor and does not fall into the register of bad taste. How then can we define the difference between wabi and suki in regard to kitsch? Even though a strong emotional saturation underlies both suki and wabi, an untransgressable limit still subsists. While wabi-aesthetics remains in the domain of the “negative,” refraining from actualization (of nature, beauty, consciousness, etc.), suki-aesthetics attempts to articulate aesthetic phenomena “positively,” not as a pure potentiality or as an inner accumulation, but as a much more straightforward aesthetic expression. In other words, suki-aesthetics has to renounce the “idealism” that remains the privilege of the wabi-expression, because such a spiritual component cannot subsist in the more pragmatic atmosphere of articulated consciousness. Comparably, wabi-aesthetics also has to renounce something. Being spiritual and idealistic, it cannot give in to any profusion of external expression.

            It is clear that in this dual traditional model there is no place for kitsch. However, such a place can be artificially created. This place would be a kind of biotope for having it both ways, enjoying both the idealist suggestiveness of wabi with the exuberance of suki. The result would be the realization of emotional satura­tion (common to wabi and suki) that manages to combine the spiritual wealth of wabi with the material wealth of suki. The result of such a strategy would be kitsch. This scheme is formal and speculative, but I think that one of the sources of Japanese kitsch culture can be explained exactly this way. The “spiritual” input of wabi, normally representing a philosophical component of nothingness, would have to be “kitschified.”

            I want to draw upon a rather odd example from Japanese cute-culture as a culmination of generalized kitsch culture in Japan: Hello Kitty. I am not saying that this is the most typical model of Japanese kitsch and that one can generalize all components of this example. Rather, I believe that Hello Kitty can lead to an interesting reflection on emotional saturation, articulation, and authenticity. Since the 1990, when a McDonald campaign fostered a genuine Hello Kitty craze in Japan, Hello Kitty stands out as one of the best known manifestations of Japanese cute-culture. Hello Kitty resumes in itself almost all attributes that Sharon Kinsella has established for the cute: it is round, without bodily appendages, non-sexual, and mute. Exaggerated as these attributes are, they often overlap with essential points made about kitsch. However, the case of Hello Kitty is particularly remarkable because here a lack of something has been elevated to the status of aesthetic quality.

            I would argue that, formally, there is a parallel with the “spiritual” input of wabi that represents a philosophical component of nothingness; and it is this nothingness that has been “kitschified.” A passage from the Hello Kitty homepage illustrates this treatment very well:

We are always delighted to hear from a Hello Kitty fan! The reason Kitty’s mouth is not drawn is so that anyone looking at her can imagine their own expression for her. When you are happy, you can imagine a smile on her face; when you are sad, she’s sad with you. Kitty always knows how you feel, and being your friend, she shares you feelings.[35]

            In psychological terms, Kitty represents the typical case of kitsch defined by Ludwig Giesz in the 1960s. Obviously it is a “self-enjoyment” in which the “enjoyer enjoys himself.”[36] However, did not Rikyû also suggest that in wabi tea bowls you will “see your own self?” In the case of Kitty, the “emotional saturation” is not only immediate (as in suki and wabi) but it is also produced, as in wabi, through the negation of some of the essential physical characteristics of the object itself. This negation strives (as does wabi) to transcend the sphere of what is purely physical. However―and here is the difference between Kitty and wabi―kitsch reaches neither distress nor desolation but suki-like emotional fulfillment.

            I would go even further. A production of kitsch such as Kitty is not only the result of the curious combination of fake spirituality and consumerist emotionality whose anatomy can be defined with the help of the traditional concepts of wabi and suki. The formal structure of wabi is itself that of kitsch. Izutsu and Izutsu have defined wabi as the “the non-articulated self identifying itself with the subjectivity of the creative extentiating expression of Nothingness.”[37] This formula would also be suitable for kitsch, with the only difference that instead of the word “non-articulated” one would have to apply the word “articulated.” In kitsch, this self is articulated; it is not the expression of a transcendental Nothingness but of “something.” While wabi is filled with spiritual content, kitsch substitutes this very content with hedonistic emotions. In other words, while wabi art “reduces to a minimum the conspicuous external features,”[38] kitsch tries to exaggerate these features. This means that while wabi looks for the self by wrenching it from inauthenticity, kitsch looks for the same kind of authenticity in inauthenticity.

           The priest Eishun of Nara was an opponent of Rikyû and insisted, in his own aesthetic approach, on the values of traditional Chinese culture. When Rikyû died Eishun said: “Rikyû was the worst of all charlatans. Any man who has performed as many evil deeds as he has deserves to be made to commit suicide.”[39] Looking at the formal parallels between wabi-sabi and kitsch, we can well understand why Rikyû’s approach must have appeared as outrageous to many of his contemporaries. Those tea bowls that Rikyû liked and put forward as works of art were, as a matter of fact, rather ordinary objects whose model had been Korean rice bowls. In the same way, Rikyû’s teahouse was more or less a reproduction of a rustic peasant hut (which the Japanese contemporary artist Mariko Mori has called “a work of conceptual art”). Rikyû thus produced common objects (and sold some of them even at a high price), by attaching a “spiritual,” non-physical value to them. And what is more outrageous than a charlatan who tells you that an ordinary rice bowl is able to “speak” to you about your own self? According to Teiji Itoh, this is the reason why, for Eishun, Rikyû’s things could only have been kitsch.[40]


            I have suggested that kitsch manages to combine the spiritual wealth of wabi with the material wealth of suki. As Japanese kitsch culture creates itself to a large extent out of itself, it overlaps formally with the approach of wabi (though, contrary to wabi, Japanese kitsch is filled with an overly concrete content). Wabi lets emotions “freeze” in a state of non-articulation; that means it freezes nature (natural colors, materials) and avoids exuberance by willfully installing austerity. Kitsch simply freezes emotions in their state of exuberance. What both have in common is that they manage to install themselves at a non-place of relativity, or in an eternal present, in which the (present or historical) “real” no longer represents an obstacle for creation.

            One might want to call this eternal present “postmodern” since, as John Whittier Treat has said in relation to the contemporary Japanese cultural situation, “an experience of the ‘present’ without a real-life referent, one that makes sense only as the much-vaunted empty signifier associated with postmodernity” is responsible for many kawaii phenomena.[41] The narcissistic attitude that follows from this pattern, and which could fuse with postwar consumer culture in order to produce such a large range of kitsch, has an uncanny echo in the aesthetics of wabi.

[1] Other aesthetic terms like iki, miyabi or yûgen, each of them defining an aesthetic range related to distinct social classes, could, of course, serve the same purpose. Given that mass production was well under way in Japan already in the 1600s, an inclusion of all aesthetic categories of the middle class would be interesting. At the same time I think that such an examination would blur my main argument that strives to establish the – rather provocative – parallel between wabi and kitsch.

[2] Gillo Dorfles. Kitsch: The World of Bad Taste. New York: Bell, 1975, 234. Etymological explanations put forward a Germanized pronunciation of “sketch” or, more likely, a street-cleaning machine called “Kitsche” in Southwest Germany, and whose sauce-like brown color inspired the name “Kitsch” for fashionable pictures. See Eduard Koelwel, “Kitsch und Schwäb” in Mutterprache 1937, 58. The Southwestern dialect word “kitschen” means to smear.

[3] Clement Greenberg. “Avantgarde and Kitsch” in Art and Culture: Critical Essays. Boston: Beacon Press, 1961, 10.

[4] Dorfles, 10.

[5] Matei Calinescu. Five Faces of Modernity. Durham: Duke University Press, 1987, 257.

[6] Catherine A. Lugg. Kitsch: From Education to Public Policy. New York and London: Falmer Press,1999, 4.

[7] Donald Richie. Lateral View: Essays on Culture and Style in Contemporary Japan. Berkeley: Stone Bridge, 1992, 62.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Donald Richie. The Image Factory: Fads and Fashions in Japan. London: Reaktion Books, 2003, 53.

[10] Frédéric Kaplan. “Who is Afraid of the Humanoid? Investigating Cultural Differences in the Acceptance of Robots” in International Journal of Humanoid Robotics 2004, 1:3, 1-16, 7.

[11] Sharon Kinsella. “Cuties in Japan” in Lise Skov & Brian Moeran (eds.), Women, Media and Consumption in Japan. Honolulu: Hawaii University Press, 1995. See Sharon Kinsella’s research website. www.kinsellaresearch.com.

[12] Anne Allison. “The Cultural Politics of Pokemon Capitalism” presented at the Media in Transition 2: Globalization and Convergence conference, May 10-12. Boston: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2002, 3.

[13] Natalie Augier. “The Cute Factor” in New York Times Jan. 3, 2006.

[14] Brian McVeigh. Wearing Ideology: State, Schooling and Self-Presentation in Japan. New York: Berg, 2000: 135. See also Mary Roach. “Cute Inc.” in Wired. Issue 7:12 Dec. 1999: “Well-heeled city women are dropping yen by the millions on a Kansai Yamamoto couture line called Super Hello Kitty. Teenage boys tattoo themselves with Badtz-Maru, the Sanrio company's mischievous, lumpy-headed penguin. Salarymen, otherwise indistinguishable with their gray suits and cigarettes, buy novelty cell phone straps adorned with plastic charms of their favorite cute characters: Thunder Bunny, Cookie Monster, Doraemon the robot cat.”

[15] Sabi beauty is fleeting and weathered and as an aesthetic ideal joined at the end of the Japanese medieval period notions like yûgen (sublime). It can be traced to Chinese poetry of the mid- and late- Tang dynasty and can be found in the Manyôshû anthology where it means “to be desolate.” See R. Brower & E. Miner Japanese Court Poetry. London: Cresset, 1962, 260; T. Bary et. al. Sources of Japanese Tradition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964, 280.

[16] Calinescu, 231.

[17] Greenberg, 10.

[18] Lugg, 4.

[19] Calinescu, 257.

[20] Norbert Elias. “The Kitsch Style and the Age of Kitsch” in J. Goudsblom & S. Mennel (eds), The Norbert Elias Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998, 28.

[21] Dorfles, 2.

[22] The Japanese have no word for kitsch. Donald Richie’s comment: “Fish have no word for water” (Lateral View, 63).

[23] Contrary to Greenberg, who points out that high-class kitsch “waters down” avant-garde art (Greenberg, 11), I hold that to “water down” does not necessarily mean to produce kitsch. It is the boastfulness and pretentiousness inherent in high-class kitsch that makes it kitsch, it is the not just the fact that the real art has been watered down. Low-class kitsch would not derive its expressions from avant-garde art. I also want dispel another misunderstanding leading to the conclusion that comparing Beethoven with Raku is like comparing oranges with apples and that one should rather compare Raku with English Wedgwood china. In the West, pottery has the status of craft whereas in Japan it is art (or it is better to say that the distinction between art and craft does not exist in the same way as it does in the West). To compare Raku with Wedgwood would therefore mean to compare art with craft and that would really be like comparing oranges with apples.

[24] Edward Relph. Space and Spacelessness. London: Pion, 1976, 143.

[25] Elias, 32.

[26] Interestingly, mass-produced replicas of tea sets, meditation pillows, miniature rock gardens, and ads for weekend retreats promising peace of mind with Zen meditation and short-lived asceticism are mostly found in Western countries which set out, since the 1970s, to kitschify much of Zen spirituality. (I thank Daniela LaSusa, Ph.D. student at Philadelphia University, for pointing this out to me).

[27] I am using a concept that has been successfully introduced by the Russian formal­ists in order to explain the process of cultural creation.

[28] Greenberg, 10.

[29] I do not deny that there exists a 2500-year old tradition of self-cultivation in Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism and that the notion of “individuality.” “Individualism” began to shape itself since the late 1800s with the importation of Western literature and political thought.

[30] Takeo Doi. The Anatomy of Dependence. New York, London, Tokyo: Kodansha, 1973.

[31] Schiller is convinced that the “fashionable reader” (Modeleser) remains unable to perceive the parts of a work as a whole because they are “throughout only interested in the particular” (da sie durchweg nur für das einzelne Sinn haben). Unpublished manuscript in Schiller Nationalarchiv 22.253 (1941ff).

[32] Toshihiko & Toyo Izutsu: The Theory of Beauty in the Classical Aesthetics of Japan. Haag: Nijnhoff, 1981, 47.

[33] Donald Keene. The Pleasures of Japanese Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988, 16.

[34] Toyotomi Hideyoshi is one of the three feudal lords (daimyo) who attempted to unify Japan (the other two are Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu). Hideyoshi invaded Korea in 1592 and in 1597 and is considered one of the greatest of the Japanese. He was even made a Shinto deity shortly after his death. Several conflicts arose between Hideyoshi and Rikyû and finally the general ordered the tea master to commit suicide (the official reason for this order is trivial and one assumes that political intrigues were behind it).

[35] Quoted from George Fogarsi: “All that is Solidu Melts into Kitty” in CTheory: Theory, Technology and Culture 20:3, Art. 55, 1997, no page numbers. There are other cute Japanese characters that have no mouth: Pochacco, Cathy the bunny, Nutz, Chococat, and Cookie-Bau.

[36] Giesz, Ludwig. “Phenomenology of Kitsch” in Dorfles, 156-174, 159.

[37] Izutsu & Izutsu, 60.

[38] Izutsu & Izutsu, ibid.

[39] Itoh, Teiji (with T. Ikko and S. Tsune). Wabi, Sabi, Suki: The Essence of Japanese Beauty. Hiroshima: Mazda Motor Corp, 1993, 45.

[40] Ibid.

[41] John Whittier Treat. “Yoshimoto Banana Writes Home: The Shôjo in Japanese Popular Culture.” Contemporary Japan and Popular Culture. Ed. Whittier Tread. Honolulu: Hawaii University Press, 275-308, 296.

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