Assessing the power of Asian aesthetics

The pervasive influence and sweeping global respect of Japanese design, culture and aesthetics come under the microscope in a new book that explores the history of Japanese cultural exports.

The series of case studies presented in the book Exporting Japanese Aesthetics: Evolution from Tradition to Cool Japan – edited by Flinders University’s Dr Tets Kimura and Jennifer Anne Harris (published by Sussex Academic Press) – are timely and topical, with Japan being host of next year’s Tokyo Olympic Games and the 2025 Osaka Expo.

“The notion of Cool Japan will be under special scrutiny,” says Dr Kimura. “We have seen that many cultural commodities that originate in Japan have manifested new meanings outside Japan. Japanese aesthetic has been an especially powerful influence on a global scale.”

By examining the meanings of selected Japanese cultural forms, this book offers an in-depth examination of how various aspects of Japanese aesthetics have evolved as exportable commodities, the motivations behind this move and the extent to which strategic planning has been an influencing factor.

The new book, along with Flinders Associate Professor William Peterson’s related title, Asian Self-Representation at World’s Fairs (Amsterdam University Press Visual Asia Series), is now available but will be officially launched soon. A planned launch event at the Art Gallery of SA on Thursday 19 November has been postponed.

“The importance that Japan places on exporting its cultural aesthetics is validated at the highest levels of government, which formed the Office of Cool Japan in 2010,” says Dr Kimura.

“It actually has a long history, perhaps originating in the 19th Century at governmentally endorsed cultural ‘courts’ at world’s fairs.

“Now, increased international consumption of contemporary Japanese culture provides a much-needed boost to Japan’s weakening economy.”

Kimura and Harris’ book draws on a wide range of examples from a multidisciplinary team of scholars exploring transnational, regional and global contexts.

Dr Kimura has contributed two chapters, including one that focuses on the influence of the kawaii aesthetic, the pop culture phenomenon that has embraced diverse “cute” elements that affirm youthful objects. Specifically, he examines the success of pop idol group AKB48 that has inspired its Indonesian derivative JKT48.

Other studies in the book examine the impact of traditional Japanese theatre, architecture and art through to the global popularity of contemporary anime and manga. The book presents a comprehensive historical overview that places Japanese aesthetics within a wide-ranging field of influence with global impact on performance, tourism and visual arts.

Postcard of Philippines Pavilion at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair.

Associate Professor Peterson’s book, Asian Self-Representation at World’s Fairs, which will also be launched at the AGSA event, offers case studies looking at how Asian nations have consciously crafted their image through displays in country pavilions at world’s fairs in the West from 1915-2015. Two chapters in that monograph examine Japanese self-representation in the West at two critical moments in world history: at the 1915 San Francisco Panama Pacific International Exposition and the 1939/40 New York World’s Fair.

A related chapter on “the remasculinization of Japan” at the 1964/65 New York World’s Fair appears in Kimura and Harris’ edited collection.

  • For people intrigued by Japanese aesthetics, the launch of the publication coincides with the Art Gallery of South Australia’s exhibition Samurai. From the austerity of lacquer and tea bowls to the opulence of golden screens and armour, Samurai demonstrates how the ethos and tastes of the Samurai permeated every aspect of Japanese art and culture from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries. This free exhibition is open until 28 March 2021. https://www.agsa.sa.gov.au/whats-on/exhibitions/samurai/
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