The Way of Japanese Arts

The traditional arts of Japan exist as products of michi 道, meaning "the way" or "path". The connotations of the word "art" in European tradition typically involve an idea of individual creative expression and a rejection of conformity. In pre-modern Japan however, the practice and performance of an artistic skill was largely regulated and governed by a defining set of rules within a specific society. Though there are commonalities between these two worlds, East and West, traditional Japanese arts cannot be accurately realized through Western eyes without understanding the influence of michi on traditional Japanese aesthetics. In this paper, I will analyze the shared and contrasting theories of the way of Nō能, chadō 茶道 (Japanese tea ceremony), and shodō書道 (Japanese calligraphy), understanding them within the context of performance arts and Konishi Jin'ichi's theorized five elements of michi: specialization, transmission, conformity, universality, and authority.[1]

Nō theatre probably best exemplifies the tradition of michi. Our theories on Nō come primarily from dramatist and actor Zeami Motokiyo 世阿弥 元清. Born in the Muromachi period室町時代 around 1363, Zeami wrote approximately twenty hiden秘伝, or secret transmissions, on the nature of Nō before his death in 1443.[2] Transmission of secret texts, passed down within the confines of a family or school, is a defining element of michi, which insured the preservation and prominence of competing artistic methods. In fact, Zeami's writings remained virtually unknown to the general public until their discovery in a used bookstore in 1908.[3] As Zeami was the first in Japan to write on dramatic art theory, there lacked a lexicon concerning Nō theatre. Zeami's writings therefore drew heavily on terminology from surrounding influences, such as Shintoism, Buddhism, and Chinese classical texts, as well as other michi, including existing treatises on court music and renga 連歌.[4]

Zeami described Nō as a specialized training that lasted one's entire lifetime. In Zeami's treatise Kyūi九位"The Nine Levels", he outlines the different phases of an actor's career according to ability and development. These various levels, or kurai位, are divided into groups of three: upper, middle, and lower. The levels themselves represent what is considered typical michi thinking concerning training, in that one must diligently train according to the path before finally reaching mastery. It is only in mastery that a performer is considered a true individual artist, which Zeami referred to as achieving full flowering.[5] The lower three levels, consisting of Roughness and Aberrance麁鉛風, Strength and Roughness強麁風, and Strength and Delicacy強細風 belonged to a beginning or untrained actor possessing natural talent.[6] The middle three levels, consisting of Shallowness and Loveliness浅文風, Broadness and Minuteness広精風, and a Right Flower正花風 designated a student in the process of formal training.[7] The emphasis on the authority of a master who could teach a student critical perspective not achievable outside of such tutoring is the focus of the middle levels. It is in these three stages that an actor receives kuden口伝, or oral transmission from his master. In the upper levels of a Calm Flower 閑花風, a Profound Flower 寵染花風, and a Mysterious Flower 妙花風, mastery or full blossoming has been achieved through years of assimilation, integration, conformity, and technical training.[8] In the upper levels, growth continues, but now according to individual artistic expression. It is in the upper levels that an actor may receive the secret written transmissions of his master and may break the rules to which he was previously restrained. Interestingly enough, it is in these upper levels that an actor may return to the lower levels if he wishes, where he can bring new life and interpretation into his performances.

The nine levels are defined by qualities achieved spontaneously by the student during his natural progression and are known only to the master, which then indicates the regimen of training appropriate for said student. These levels were also degrees of yūgen 幽玄, an aesthetic quality which may be understood as the profound and the deep. This quality of subtle beauty shaped the spirit of the actor's performance. In all things, the actor was to imitate the spirit and beauty of the character he portrayed with "true intent". However, as certain roles, such as a demon, a mentally deranged person, someone possessed by spirits, or a poor old man, are too frightening or unattractive for complete authenticity on the stage, the actor is required to observe these roles' quality of unique, strange, or faint beauty and heighten it. Zeami explains this perhaps best by saying, "This would be like looking at court ladies of high and low ranks, men and women, monks and rustics, even beggars and outcasts, all adorned with a spray of blossoms."[9]

Lastly, the way of Nō further exemplifies michi in its spiritual implications. Nō plays typically feature characters of the supernatural, which are brought to the audience through the medium of a Buddhist monk acting as narrator. The symbolic, otherworldly scenes played out on stage are not meant to represent everyday life and its struggles, but rather a higher truth and the mysteries of the universe. The protagonist is typically a sinner who achieves some form of enlightenment by the end of the play, and along with the character, so does the audience. In this way, Nō is ritualistic.[10] Furthermore, the music of Nō is derivative of Buddhist chant, and emphasizes the form of jo-ha-kyū 序破急, or beginning, break, rapid, which Zeami believed was observable in everything: "All things in the universe, good or evil, large or small, animate or inanimate, have the rhythm of jo-ha-kyū."[11]

Chadō, or Japanese tea ceremony, is an interesting practice in that it blurs the line between life and art, ritual and performance. For theories on chadō, we now turn to tea ceremony master Sen no Rikyū 千利休, who lived from 1522 to 1591 and set down a collection of rules concerning the practice of chadō. Similar to how an audience member may gain the feeling of spiritual purification from the performance of a Nō play, participants of chadō are meant to cleanse themselves of everyday life and enter into a purer, more beautiful world. Rikyū wrote, "The first thing the host of a tea ceremony should do is to bring out water for the guest. The first thing the guest should do is to wash his hands with the water. In this act lies the basic meaning of the whole setting. Both the host and the guest, facing each other on the garden path, cleanse themselves of the stains of earthly life. The water basin is there for a purpose."[12] Guests enter the tearoom through a garden path, symbolically leaving the world, and then literally and figuratively, cleanse themselves from their earthly life. Although chadō has obvious spiritual connotations, the topic of religion is strictly forbidden by Rikyū in the tearoom, along with other worldly topics such as politics and gossip.

Continuing with this idea of the tearoom as a place cut off from the outside world, the aesthetic of chadō stresses modesty and poverty. This idea of beauty, called wabi侘, may be interpreted as an extension of the Buddhist idea of nondualism, in which the earthly and the divine are one and the same. Wabi was so far-reaching in it aesthetic principle that Rikyū wrote of a story in which he bought a beautiful vase and broke off one of its ears in order for it to achieve this ideal sense of imperfection.[13] While Nō transported its audience to the otherworldly and divine, chadō emphasizes the beauty of the common man, "just as it is" (sono mama).[14] In this way, chadō is comparable to Zen in its focus on the human instead of the divine. In this sense, chadō may be viewed as a ritual. Through the gradual process of a lifelong devotion to a particular michi, it was believed that one could achieve special wisdom or a sense of enlightenment. Chadō delivered this enlightenment or wisdom with each meeting in the tearoom. This too is reminiscent of Zen, which, in contrast to the traditional Buddhist belief of gradual enlightenment, offered the opportunity for instant awakening. However, chadō is also a performance art, in which host and master co-create a unique world, like that observed on stage, but in real time.

Though rigorous training was central to Nō performance, authenticity of performance was continually stressed. If an actor made too hard an attempt to achieve a specific emotion, the effect was lost on the audience who would inevitably feel the unnaturalness of the performance. This theory carries over to chadō as well, where even though there are rules concerning the practice, one should not be restricted by them to a point of artificiality. Force is not the way to enlightenment, as one of Rikyū's disciples aptly pointed out when he said, "The two hearts perfectly communicating with one another – this is fine. But the two hearts striving toward perfect communication – this is bad. If the host and the guest had enlightened hearts, the atmosphere would become congenial by itself."[15] Chadō seems to have eventually developed into a michi under the direction of wabi tea master Murata Shukō村田珠光 (1422-1502), who studied under the eccentric Zen master Ikkyū Sōjun 一休宗純. In a rejection of the luxurious lifestyle Buddhist monks were increasingly earning from the profits of religious exploitation, Shukō established the popularity of wabi, which he only referred to as, the "chilled and dried up".[16]

Finally, Shodō, or Japanese calligraphy, (which I have classified as a performance art due to its product's heavy dependence on rhythm and movement) represents another true michi, with emphasis on lineage and secret transmission. As the aristocracy lost increasing amounts of political power to the emerging warrior class in the late Heian period平安時代, nobles maintained their class status through the possession of secret teachings on the arts. By regulating the disbursement of such knowledge, they maintained their positions of luxury.[17] As in Nō theatre, here too shodō consisted of a lifelong devotion, with the achievement of mastery the goal. Attainment of mastery level granted an artist creative freedom and greater room for personal expression. In Prince Son'en's尊円法親王 (the founder of the Shōren-in school of calligraphy) 1352 treatise Jubokushō, he stresses this by saying, "Superior work that has attained a level of expertise is free in every respect."[18] This is attained through mastery of technique, achieved through tutelage under a master, and a development of appreciation for the classic works of calligraphy. As in Nō, spontaneity of development is stressed. A student was to develop his talents authentically as opposed to mimicking his teacher's style. Yet at the same time, a student must be careful not to bring his personal inclinations into practice. Son'en did not write extensively on the physical aspects of learning and performing calligraphy, but rather stressed the proper attitude and spirit necessary for successful practice.

Calligraphy was viewed as a living thing, with the brush an extension of the artist's mind. Because of this, a great deal of focus in calligraphy treatises is on the moral conduct of the practitioner. Seventeenth century expert Japanese calligrapher, Ojio Yūshō, wrote in his treatise that, "It is only natural that handwriting should mirror the writer's personality as it follows the way of his heart."[19] Continuing with this idea, Yūshō saw calligraphy as a moral practice, as it was only the good-hearted who could produce good calligraphy. Laziness, boastfulness, and most importantly, an unauthentic spirit were heavily criticized. Yūshō therefore spoke of the way of tea ceremony as a michi for moral and religious perfection.[20] His ultimate advice to students was to "Keep your body upright and your soul righteous as you take up the brush", and to "Learn the Way of Calligraphy."[21]

The traditional Japanese practices of Nō, chadō, and shodō represent various michi of performance arts. A common thread among all three is the idea of achieving some form of spiritual enlightenment or wisdom through the michi's teachings. These teachings, protected secrets, are transmitted from master to student through oral instruction. As the student progresses naturally along the Way, he may be able to achieve mastery himself and receive written transmission of the art's specific teachings and insights. True mastery comes from a lifelong devotion to one's art, regulated according to strict, guiding rules. However, as limitations often inspire creation, the reward of this submission and dedication is the attainment of mastery, in which a student is transformed into an artist.


DeCoker, Gary. Secret Teachings in Medieval Calligraphy: Jubokushο̄ and Saiyο̄shο.
Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Summer, 1988).
Jin'ichi Konishi. Michi and Medieval Writing (道:中世の理念). Principles of Japanese
  1. (1985).
Ludwig, Theodore M. Before Rikyu: Religious and Aesthetic Influences in the Early
History of the Tea Ceremony. Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 36, No. 4 (Winter, 1981).
Nearman, Mark J. Zeami's Kyui: A Pedagogical Guide for Teachers of Acting.
Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 33, No. 3 (Autumn, 1978).
Pinnington, Noel John. Models of the Way in the Theory of Noh. Japan Review, 18
Quinn, Shelley Fenn, How to Write a Noh Play: Zeami's Sando. Monumenta
Nipponica, Vol. 48, No. 1. (Spring, 1993).
Ueda, Makoto. Literary and Art Theories in Japan. Cleveland: Press Western
Reserve University, 1967.

[1] Konishi Jin'ichi, Michi and Medieval Writing (道:中世の理念). Principles of Japanese Literature. (1985), p. 181.
[2] Shelley Fenno Quinn, How to Write a Noh Play Zeami's Sando. Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 48, No. 1. (Spring, 1993), p. 53.
[3] Quinn, 53
[4] Noel John Pinnington, Models of the Way in the Theory of Noh. Japan Review, 18 (2006), p. 34.
[5] Mark J. Nearman, Zeami's Kyui. A Pedagogical Guide for Teachers of Acting. Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 33, No. 3 (Autumn, 1978), p. 305
[6] The source of the original kanji comes from Nearman, 307-310. For the translation, I referred to Ueda's Literary and Art Theories in Japan, p. 64
[7] Nearman, 314-317
[8] Nearman, 319-323
[9] Ueda, 60
[10] Ueda, 70-71
[11] Ueda, 70
[12] Ueda, 88
[13] Ueda, 91-92
[14] Theodore M. Ludwig, Before Rikyu. Religious and Aesthetic Influences in the Early History of the Tea Ceremony. Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 36, No. 4 (Winter, 1981), p. 388
[15] Ueda, 96
[16] Ludwig, 390
[17] Gary DeCoker, Secret Teachings in Medieval Calligraphy. Jubokushο̄ and Saiyο̄shο. Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Summer, 1988), p. 200
[18] DeCoker, 208
[19] Ueda, 184
[20] Ueda, 184-185
[21] Ueda, 185

Written by Erin M. Ure

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