......the act or faculty of apprehending and understanding by means of the senses or of the mind.

The word aesthetic can be used as a noun meaning "that which appeals to the senses." Someone's aesthetic has a lot to do with their artistic insight. Since actions or behavior can be said to have beauty beyond sensory appeal, aesthetics and ethics often overlap to the degree that ‘impression’ is embodied in a moral code or ethical code.

Aesthetic Concepts

Aesthetic concepts are not rule-or condition-governed, but require a heightened form of perception, which one might call taste, sensitivity, or judgment. One can describe works of art, often enough, in terms which relate primarily to the emotional and mental life of human beings. In order to pave the way for a judgment of taste, and give a proper discernment of its object, it is often necessary that much reasoning should precede, that nice distinctions be made, just conclusions drawn, distant comparisons formed, complicated relations examined, and general facts fixed and ascertained. Some classes of beauty, especially the natural kinds, on their first appearance command our affection and praise; and where they fail of this effect, it is impossible for any reasoning to redress their influence, or adapt them better to our taste and sentiment. But in many orders of beauty, particularly those of the fine arts, it is requisite to employ much reasoning, in order to feel the proper sentiment. (Hume, 1751) Beauty or deformity in an object, results from its nature or structure. To perceive the beauty therefore, we must perceive the nature or structure from which it results. In this the internal sense differs from the external. Our external senses may discover qualities which do not depend upon any antecedent perception. But it is impossible to perceive the beauty of an object, without perceiving the object, or at least conceiving it. (Reid 1785)

Japanese Aesthetics

The aesthetics of Japan developed in a unique fashion, partly because of its geographic location, a string of islands about 100 miles from Korea and 500 miles from China. Its isolation by the sea helped protect Japan from foreign invasion and allowed its rulers to control contact with other nations. During long periods of self-imposed isolation, art forms and aesthetic ideas developed which were specifically Japanese. Over the centuries, when interactions with foreign cultures occurred, they influenced the traditional arts and aesthetics of Japan. For the purposes of this discussion, the focus will be on what remained essentially Japanese. Traditional Japanese art and aesthetics were most affected by the Chinese and by Buddhism, but influences from the West are also evident. For example, the Japanese made no distinction between fine arts and crafts prior to the introduction of such ideas by Europeans in the 1870s. The Japanese word that best approximates the meaning of "art" is katachi. Katachi translates to mean "form and design," implying that art is synonymous with living, functional purpose, and spiritual simplicity.

The primary aesthetic concept at the heart of traditional Japanese culture is the value of harmony in all things. The Japanese world view is nature-based and concerned with the beauty of studied simplicity and harmony with nature. These ideas are still expressed in every aspect of daily life, despite the many changes brought about by the westernization of Japanese culture. This Japanese aesthetic of the beauty of simplicity and harmony is called wabi and sabi (wah-bee sah-bee).

Wabi and Sabi

The words wabi and sabi do not translate easily. Wabi originally referred to the loneliness of living in nature, remote from society; sabi meant "chill", "lean" or "withered". Around the 14th century these meanings began to change, taking on more positive connotations. Wabi now connotes rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness, and can be applied to both natural and human-made objects, or understated elegance. It can also refer to quirks and anomalies arising from the process of construction, which add uniqueness and elegance to the object. Sabi is beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear, or in any visible repairs.

After centuries of incorporating artistic and Buddhist influences from China, wabi and sabi eventually evolved into a distinctly Japanese ideal. Over time, the meanings of wabi and sabi shifted to become more lighthearted and hopeful. Around 700 years ago, particularly among the Japanese nobility, understanding emptiness and imperfection was honored as tantamount to the first step to satori (understanding), or enlightenment.

The words wabi and sabi are not linked, although they've been together for such a long time that many people use them interchangeably. My tea teacher instructed me not to use the phrase wabi-sabi because she believes the marriage dilutes their separate identities; a tea master in Kyoto laughed and said they're thrown together because it sounds catchy. In fact, the two words do have distinct meanings, although most people don't fully understand what they might be.

Wabi stems from the root wa, which refers to harmony, peace, tranquility, and balance. Generally speaking, wabi had the original meaning of sad, desolate, and lonely, but poetically it has come to mean simple, un-materialistic, humble by choice, and in tune with nature. A common phrase used in conjunction with wabi is "the joy of the little monk in his wind-torn robe." A wabi person epitomizes Zen, which is to say, he or she is content with very little; free from greed, indolence, and anger; and understands the wisdom of rocks and grasshoppers. Sabi by itself means "the bloom of time." It connotes natural progression-tarnish, hoariness, rust-the extinguished gloss of that which once sparkled. It's the understanding that beauty is fleeting. The word's meaning has changed over time, from its ancient definition, "to be desolate," to the more neutral "to grow old." By the thirteenth century, sabi's meaning had evolved into taking pleasure in things that were old and faded. A proverb emerged: "Time is kind to things, but unkind to man."

Sabi things carry the burden of their years with dignity and grace: the chilly mottled surface of an oxidized silver bowl, the yielding gray of weathered wood, the elegant withering of a bereft autumn bough. An old car left in a field to rust, as it transforms from an eyesore into a part of the landscape, could be considered America's contribution to the evolution of sabi. An abandoned barn, as it collapses in on itself, holds this mystique.

Tsuba & Aesthetics (Why I Study Tsuba)

I cannot say that it was purely aesthetic attraction or intellectual curiosity that prompted me to select tsuba as my object of study and collection from among the many other Japanese weapons and weapon accessories. As a matter of fact, the biggest influence on my decision towards this study was my new friendship with Robert E. Haynes. When I discovered that Robert was a short-distance of travel from me, I grasped the opportunity to learn from the world’s foremost authority on tsuba.

For a number of reasons, studying and collecting tsuba has not been easy for a person of my age. I achieved little for a long time, reading the material I had and collecting as many fine sword guards as I could. Gradually I became completely captivated by the subject, the more I studied tsuba, the more I became aware of the samurai and the Japanese.

In the Japan of the past it was said that the sword is the soul of the samurai. When they put on their weapons, they did so in such a way that the tsuba was almost directly in the center of the body. Thus, the guard not only ornamented the sword, but also served a similar function for the samurai himself. It added to the samurai’s dignity, and symbolized his personality, education, and family background. Because of this aspect of the nature of tsuba it is only natural that great care and invention went into their design. Among the several kinds of sword guards, the open-work ones (sukashi-tsuba) are the simplest and the most typical of both samurai and Japan. They employ highly sophisticated designs.

Functionally, the sword guard is a subordinate object attached between the hilt and the blade to protect the hand by preventing the opponent’s sword from sliding forward during combat. When the sword is in its mounting, the most conspicuous feature of its appearance is the guard. This was especially the case when the samurai wore his sword, for it was always placed so that the tsuba came at almost the exact center of the body, where it became a major aspect of the pride of the man’s appearance.

As mentioned above, the sword is the soul of the samurai. As its principle ornament, the tsuba acted as a focused symbol of the warrior’s personality, dignity, strength, and family background. Naturally, designs employed in sword guards came to be both revelations of the ideas, emotions, and hopes of the samurai and confirmations of samurai aesthetic perceptions. Most of the many different kinds and styles of sword guards are related in aesthetic terms to the basic nature of the Japanese concept of the warrior. And for this reason, the tsuba may be considered a display of the beauty of the way of the samurai.

The late Akiyama Kyusaku, one of the greatest authorities on Japanese tsuba, wrote “in the eye of the samurai no sword guards are as excellent as the open-work Muromachi-period variety” said to have originated in Owari and called Owari-sukashi. Obviously the sword guard, as the most visibly apparent piece of exterior furnishing on the sword, had to agree with what Akiyama called the “eye of the samurai.” The essence of Japanese beauty is sometimes described as pure and bright. Sometimes it is discussed in the more somber terms of the ‘wabi’ and ‘sabi’ associated with the refined and subdued aesthetics of the Zen-influenced tea ceremony. But what are the aesthetics that depend on the perception of the eye of the warrior?

The book, Hagakure, says that the tastes, language, actions, and writings of warriors ought to be imbued with “quiet strength.” These words seem to me to epitomize the warriors’ understanding of beauty that surpasses the pure and bright as well as the somber refinement of ‘wabi’ and ‘sabi’. Although the Japanese samurai is sometimes mistakenly associated with roughness and ferocity, his true meaning and value cannot be explained in such simplistic terms. On the other hand, the responses of profundity and refinement in “quiet strength” suggest much about the nature of the samurai and his understanding of beauty.

To return to the open-work Muromachi-period tsuba, I would say that perhaps no other sword furnishing so clearly reveals the dignity and profundity that is best expressed in the words “quiet strength.” Open-work iron guards are the product of the samurai aesthetics. Behind these aesthetics is a deeper philosophy involving ultimate questions of life and death. If asked whether any of the many kinds of sword guards belong in the realm of things that have attained unity with the universe, I would have to answer “yes” for these reasons. Although the way of the samurai may have inspired and brought the tsuba into being, in certain respects the tsuba was a main support of the way of the samurai. Moreover, in the beauty of sword guards it is possible to see an ultimate aspect of the warrior’s way. (Sasano,1972)

But perhaps most important from my personal point of view are the things that Robert Haynes and tsuba have taught me. In my efforts to collect fine examples and in learning to appreciate them as they deserve, I have come to understand true beauty and the meaning of aesthetics. At the same time, both have taught me to feel things with fresher emotion and to know more about the nature of human happiness.

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