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The Philosophy of Japanese Gardens

Sailee Khurjekar says that size matters when it comes to horticulture.

It can be illuminating to bring resources and insights from other aesthetic traditions into the debates of Western philosophy. I want to introduce the philosophy of Japanese gardens, in an attempt to widen our pool of intellectual thought, primarily in the field of aesthetics, broadening the way in which we think about formal properties in analytic philosophy. I want to look briefly at how the Japanese tradition highlights our affinity to natural objects, the importance of the empathy we bestow upon them, and the idea that small can, indeed, be beautiful. I will use the following definitions: first, ‘natural objects’ are those which exist organically, independent of human interaction, for example, a conifer cone; second, an ‘aesthetic experience’ is one which is pleasurable for the observer as a result of any given perceivable property of the object perceived.

Since the seventeenth century we have been intrigued by the size of living things. That was when Robert Hooke’s illustrated book Micrographia (1665) first allowed the general public to have visual access to the field of microscopy, to study objects which cannot be seen with the naked eye, such as onion cells or flea anatomy. In the art-historical dimension, the invention of the doll’s house also provoked a fascination with miniatures.

In mainstream analytic philosophy there has been abundant literature on the attention we should pay to the formal properties of objects. The historical origin of aesthetic formalism is commonly attributed to Immanuel Kant, with particular focus on his Critique of Judgement (1790). Formal considerations draw attention to visual and spatial properties. For example, we could focus on the shape, colour, and spatial positioning of an armchair within a doll’s house.

The Western canon does allude to the importance of size in artistic considerations. For instance, Edmund Burke’s On the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) distinguishes between the smallness of the Beautiful as unthreatening, and the largeness of the Sublime as menacing. However, I want to suggest that analytic philosophy has mostly neglected the role of size in aesthetics. To encourage a different mode of appreciation, inspired by the Japanese tradition, I will suggest that in itself the size of a natural object can produce an aesthetic experience for the observer. To do this I will use the examples of Japanese Courtyard Gardens and Kusamono Bonsai.

The Courtyard Garden
The Courtyard Garden at the Hirata Folk Museum
Photo © Daderot 2018

Art & Nature as Objects of Aesthetic Appreciation

Environmental aesthetics examines distinct aspects of the natural world, looking into what we appreciate within any given landscape, and why. The philosopher Allen Carlson suggests that there are two principal ways of appreciating landscapes. First we consider the immersive environment, looking at the entirety of what we see; for instance, walking into a garden and appreciating everything within it. Second, we consider the individual parts of that landscape; for instance, appreciating one specific gardenia flower in a garden.

Originating in about 10,000 BC, the first gardens were allotments enclosed in barriers for keeping animals away. But in recent centuries gardens have often been considered to express notions of beauty, taste, and culture. In the history of gardening, nature and art are a partnership. The 18th century art historian (and son of a British Prime Minister) Horace Walpole even wrote that gardening was one of the first fine arts.

Garden design is the process of mapping out nature within a given area so as to make its elements complement one another. The gardener takes into consideration the shape, colour, texture and age of a natural object to determine where it should be positioned. For example, the flowers in a ‘white garden’ – made up of grey, green, and white plants – are scattered in the centre or around the borders to accentuate the greenness of the grass. English gardening culture rests in the observer of the garden looking at nature as art, and a modern, naturalistic style of laying out gardens was invented in England.

Garden design in the Japanese tradition presents an alternative approach to the English tradition. The properties of the natural objects are not altered to suit an aesthetic design, as an ‘English garden’ designer might cut down a shrub so that it is neat and symmetrical, with the sole aim of pleasing the observer. Instead, in a Japanese garden the organic properties are manipulated to enhance the naturalness of the objects in the garden.

The Philosophy of Gardens

The philosophy of gardens is concerned with the status and significance of gardens, exploring why they matter to the general public and how they can be better preserved. Professor David Cooper, whose books include A Philosophy of Gardens, has stressed the importance of natural objects beyond their scientific role. For instance, if we eat butternut squash soup, the vegetable is rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, improving our health; and to assist the vegetable’s growth the gardener controls the water in the soil, regulates the sunlight, and provides sufficient fertiliser. But the creative and expressive use of the squash endows it with special significance. For instance, a good growing process ensures that the vegetable obtains a vibrant orange hue. This orange tone becomes one of its aesthetic properties, which in turn adds to the overall beauty of the garden in which it is grown.

Japanese gardens similarly implant meaning into their objects. Such gardens developed their own unique appearance during the Edo period (1603-1868), distinguished from for instance the symmetrical style of French and Italian landscape gardens. Japanese gardens are asymmetrical and void of excessive decoration, and they feature ‘natural’ objects such as bridges, stone lanterns, fish, sand and water basins. The art-nature hybrid in these gardens testifies to their natural look. The lack of artificiality and abundance of aged materials present art in its simplest, most organic form. The objects are carefully selected by the gardener to symbolise elements beyond their own physical nature. For example, in ‘rock gardens’, rocks symbolise mountains.

Japanese Courtyard Gardens & Kusamono Bonsai

Japanese Courtyard Gardens, called Tsuboniwa in Japan, are small spaces featuring carefully selected natural objects, including rocks, trees, and shrubs. Courtyard Gardens are commonly located in Zen temples and public parks, but their compactness means it is also possible to create them within the confines of one’s home.

Miniaturisation is a trope within the Japanese tradition; these gardens in particular show something similar to the ‘less is more’ attitude found in Western minimalism. They’re comprised of small-scale objects, with no more than ten or so items in total, and the gardener fulfils a preset aesthetic aim, moving objects around to best enclose the space. The simplicity of Courtyard Gardens means we easily know what to include as part of our aesthetic appreciation. The intention is to allow the observer to appreciate everything within their eyesight. An observer can stand in a Courtyard Garden and count precisely what she is appreciating; for instance, four rocks, three trees, and three shrubs. Her appreciation is made easier through the surrounding area lacking additional greenery. The aesthetically relevant parts are easy to identify, especially compared to a car park, which might contain some beautiful flowers within it but is generally unpleasant to look at.

The art of reduction is an important principle within the Japanese tradition. The small size of the individual components allows the observer to stand within the enclosed space and view all of the objects at once. If one of the rocks is too large, part of the garden is pushed out of the frame altogether and the viewer experiences a sense of estrangement from the scene. Conversely, if the rock is too small, the viewer has to zoom in so close that the shrubs and trees become insignificant. Therefore the specific size of the objects is aesthetically important.

Kusamono Bonsai, literally translated as ‘grass things’, are small potted plants or stunted trees which also feature grass, moss and bamboo within the soil they’re encased in. The term kusamono is used to indicate that the bonsai is displayed in the centre of the pot. Kusamono Bonsai can be used as parts of a garden collection or exhibition and are portable so can be placed within one’s home. These trees also embody the concept of wabi-sabi found in the Japanese philosophical tradition. Wabi-sabi is an aesthetic approach emphasising transience, the imperfection, asymmetry and simplicity of natural objects.

Bonsai are maintained for artistic purposes, and the cultivator intends to keep bonsai at a small size. Without this intervention, the plants become dishevelled. An artist may create a small painting on a small canvas simply because the local art shop has run out of large canvases. In the case of Kusamono Bonsai, however, a larger canvas is never needed. The gardener strives to keep the ‘reduced trees’ as small as she possibly can, treating them with respect and care.

Bonsai require a lot of attention from their owners. Pruning, watering, and sufficient sunlight is needed to preserve the plants, which have the potential to live for several hundred years. The tree relies on the gardener to beautify it and keep it alive, and the gardener is guided by the plant in the execution of this process. The philosopher Yuriko Saito renowned for her works on environmental aesthetics, draws attention to the design principle of kowan ni shitagau, translated as ‘following the request’. The gardener acts according to the request of the bonsai itself, cutting and pruning it according to the shape it naturally presents. This can be contrasted with ‘outdoor’ bonsai, which are left alone and can grow up to eighty inches in height.

© Sailee Khurjekar 2021

Sailee Khurjekar is a second year MPhil student in Philosophy at the University of Warwick, currently working on Plato and feminist philosophy, the philosophy of sex work, and the aesthetic status of forgeries. She hopes to write her thesis on obscenity and art censorship.

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