Reconciling Imperial Japan's Reverence for Beauty and Harmony and Its Internal/External Violence

Imperial Japan seemed of two distinct minds. One mind locked in a Zen-like trance that exalted stillness and the beauty of nature. Another mind rooted in centuries of conquest and machismo. I realize old Japan was highly stratified and that all societies are buffeted by antagonistic forces, yet Japan’s experience seemed to me analogous to two halves of a schizophrenic mind vying for supremacy, or at least, autonomy.

Clearly, I am out of my depth, so I will open this discussion to greater minds.

The canola flowers, the Moon is in the eastern sky, The Sun is in the western sky.

A daimyo could order the execution of hundreds of prisoners and at the same time admire a pleasantly made garden. And without irony. That’s not the only time this kind of schizophrenia appeared in the human history.

I’m not sure what the topic of debate is here? How can political regimes be both violent but coincide with an artistic culture which is not? I mean, while violence certainly can be a topic of art, it’s not necessarily a common one, and I see no reason to think that violent art is more common in more-or-less peaceful civilizations than otherwise.

From The Third Man, “In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

FrenchDunadan, though I am not a card-carrying Buddhist, I think the Japanese reverence for beauty and calm and nature, as seen in their art, literature, music, dance, and religious experience, was exceptional and without historic precedent in the western world, Swiss cuckoo clocks notwithstanding.

All that is beautiful is transitory. And likewise, life, war, peace, and all other things are transitory and no less a source of beauty.

Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, Machiavelli or Strange Love?

Hitler was genocidal, yet made nice paintings.

A KGB officer could cheerfully spend hours discussing opera and ballet and poetry and chess. And then take you out into the woods and put a bullet in the back of your head. And then go home and kiss his wife and cuddle his children.

French artists spent decades glorifying the French Revolution (including the Reign of Terror) and then Napoleon.

In the counterculture in the 1960s, people liked to pretend that art-lovers are intrinsically peaceful, but that was a myth.

The great traditions of Japanese culture came about during periods of relative peace, however. In the Heian period, before the clan wars of the 12th century, there was a great flowering of literature, painting and sculpture.

After the 12th century and until 1868, the aristocratic class (emperor and courtiers) did not have de facto control over the country and did not participate in all that violence (barring the occasional poisoning or knife in the dark). So they still had their own relative peace, in which to pursue and refine those esthetic endeavors.

And the last 350 years before 1868 was a period of peace enforced by the Tokugawa shogunate, under which was a further flowering of the arts for the middle classes, including the introduction of Kabuki theater and tea ceremony.

Even in the most violent periods of Japanese history, such as the last century before Hideyoshi effectively unified Japan in the 1580’s, I think most of the fighting was brief and sharp and usually viewed as necessary for survival by the involved parties. Blood lust was rare. Maybe the best-known example of that was Nobunaga, who was probably responsible for some unnecessary massacres, and who has been portrayed by some historians as mentally unbalanced or even insane. But he was an exception.

As for those men who could fight to the death one day, and contemplate cherry blossoms the next, it is not unique to Japanese culture. I place in evidence the play and character Cyrano de Bergerac.

Well, sure: on the one hand, it’s possible to kill people regardless of whether one admires a pleasant garden; but you can also run the gamut from ‘irrelevant’ to ‘relevant’ when it’s possible to get a garden by killing people.

Which is historically incorrect, the cuckoo clock was invented in Germany and usually comes from the Black Forest.

Also, it’s pretty fucking ridiculous to claim that a half-millennium of Swiss democracy and (comparative) peace didn’t produce any major advances. The Bernoulli family and Leonhard Euler of Basel, for example, were brilliant mathematicians and physicists to whom we owe a huge part of what is sometimes called the Scientific Revolution. The dozens of renowned Swiss painters from that era include several groundbreaking women painters, including Angelica Kauffman. Scholarship, economics, law, finance, literature, art, Switzerland contributed largely to all of them (often through people whose Swiss heritage isn’t currently remembered).

Those in high office tended to have the means and opportunity to surround themselves with the best of everything. This includes art, music, food etc. They had money to hire the best people and the finest materials and goods.
Not surprising then they’d be patrons, supporters and collectors of the high arts and wanted to show off to others that this was the case. To give off an aura of refinement, beauty and culture (how would the serfs know that the top nobs were better if not?)

Of course those very same people also had the means and opportunity to do exactly what they want in relation to conquest of others and subjugation of people generally.

Absolute power and great wealth seem to be the perfect starting point to promote both behaviours so not surprising that we see them both expressed in past societies.

I think this is a highly idealized idea of how those kinds of philosophies actually worked their way in Japanese society.

“Centuries of conquest and machismo”? I don’t agree that that’s an accurate summary of pre-20th C. Imperial Japan, at all. Medieval-Early Modern Japan wasn’t any more violent than its Western counterparts, and in some ways a lot less so.

And this still leaves a vast space of human experience in between bun and bu, where the vast majority of Imperial Japanese actually resided.

Forget the clock; they nurtured Calvinism. Democracy and peace, indeed.


Also, fondue! Literally the last time that I ate so much that I came so very, very close to puking after walking out of a restaurant (it was a birthday party in my late twenties, no moderation allowed). The Swiss surely deserve some credit for that :slight_smile:. And Bernese puppies. Fie on the Swiss haters!

And Toblerone…

And the Swiss Army knife…

Fondue is very nice. Raclette is better.

I believe that the phenomenon here is “compartmentalization”. You do what you think has to be done, no matter how ruthless or distasteful. Then you do the things you enjoy, or that you believe make you a better person. (Or that you believe will show others that you are a better person.) This brought to mind the TV series “Peter the Great”, the scene where Tsar Peter personally chops off the head of one of his enemies - then turns aside and plays with his infant son.

Note: Mark Twain did a savage piece on the king of Belgium and treatment of the indigenous people in his colonies.

Just a side remark that continues the derailment. Perhaps Harry Lime’s “Cuckoo Clock” comment in “The Third Man” was MEANT to show that he was a shallow person. Not only expounding a terrible philosophy to justify his criminal acts, but doing so with a particularly bad example. Later on Trevor Howard sees that Joseph Cotton gets his nose rubbed in exactly what the consequences are of Harry Lime’s acts.