A JAPANESE GARDEN HANDBOOK
PART ONE: DESIGN & CRAFT
Chapter 13: Perspectives
In this Chapter…
- Landscape Architecture
The vast areas of mist or cloud in ink brush paintings, or the expanses of meticulously raked white sand in dry landscape gardens are each in their own way representations of ma (間). Ma refers to the interval, space or void between two or more stationary objects – the area between two rocks or a couple of trees, for example. In this sense, ma is intimately connected to the Zen concept of mu (無), or non-being. But, there is some latitude in how ma is used; although it is generally translated as “space”, it can mean, depending on context, linear space, planar space, volumetric space, temporal space or even social space. Other examples of ma might include the pauses in Japanese music, the punctuation in movement in traditional dance, the tableaux in nō (能) theatre, or the distance left between the host and the guests in a tea ceremony. The kanji for ma can also be pronounced aida, kan, ken, and gen, and it forms part of compounds words such as kūkan (空間 “sky space, empty space”; three-dimensional space), jikan (時間 “time space”; temporal time), ningen (人間 “person space”; human beings), and tokonoma (床の間 “display’s space”; an alcove). Hence, ma implies a sensitivity to the nuances of both time and space.
As a design technique, the incorporation of space or void within a garden is both aesthetic and philosophical. Space can be viewed as a void in which people, things or events manifest or happen, as in, for example, a sports’ arena or a stage. The nantei (南庭 “southern garden”) of a Heian-period (794-1185) estate is simply a graveled space set aside for events. Yet space can also frame people, things or events occupying adjacent areas, as in, for example, the white voids in Chinese and Japanese ink paintings. David Slawson points to the use of white space in paintings as a framing tool: “Atmospheric effects of which [James J.] Gibson’s aerial perspective is one variety, often have about them an ineffable or mysterious quality because we are viewing the landscape through a kind of veil or scrim.” In other words, painters exploit atmospheric effects in order to “imbue the small space of a landscape painting with the ineffable vastness experienced when one wanders through certain lake and mountain regions of China.”
Garden designers have also learnt to exploit these effects. Take, for example, the two dry landscape gardens at Ryōan-ji and Tōkai-an in Kyoto. Both consist of large rectangles of carefully raked white river gravel designed to be viewed from a main hall, and both are framed on the two opposite sides by packed earthen walls capped with ceramic tiles. The difference is that the garden at Ryōan-ji holds fifteen carefully placed stones, whereas the one at Tōkai-an contains no stones at all. This latter is, in one sense, a blank canvass, a void onto which – or into which – the viewer must pour his own thoughts and visions. Zen Buddhism would call this empty space a representation of mu, or nothingness. However, Donald Richie points to the need to offset or contrast space: “Old Chinese painting manuals state that true emptiness does not occur until the first mark is put on paper.” In the dry landscape composition, it is the islands of rocks and moss that provide the contrast necessary for us to see the emptiness. Note that in most cases, space is framed by material objects such as walls, doorways, roofs, stones, and flora. See also yohaku-no-bi (余白の美) under “The Beauty of Paucity” in Chapter 12: Aesthetics.
The lateral plane of a garden – its ground plane – is called the jiban (地盤 “ground tray or basin”), a term which refers to the two-dimensional layout or plan of a garden. When this ground plan is contemplated from an aerial, or bird’s-eye, perspective, the term fukanbi (俯瞰美 “overlooking beauty”) is used. Fukanbi is often used in relation to the term chiwari (池割; see “Landscape Architecture” below), although it emphasizes a hypothetical aerial view rather than a ground-level perspective or plan. Marc Keane provides the following example: A pond has a “planar, horizontal beauty derived from the surface of the water… This is referred to in some texts as “bird’s-eye beauty” (fukan-bi) implying that the principle aesthetic is found in the two-dimensional ground plane”. During the Momoyama period (1568-1603), as architecture gradually soared upwards in the form of the castle donjon, a bird’s-eye perspective gained importance among designers.
Fukanbi is sometimes paired with rittaibi (立体美 “standing body beauty”; three-dimensional beauty), which refers to a garden’s volumetric beauty. As an aesthetic term, rittaibi covers the sculptural or solid bodies of objects in a garden; in particular, it looks at the spatial relationships between such items as towers, lanterns, rocks, plants and hills. Fundamental to the design of Japanese gardens is the contrast or interplay between planes and volumes. In other words, where flat, horizontal surfaces such as ponds, areas of raked sand, clay walls or wooden fences collide with vertical, volumetric objects such as rocks, plants and trees, there exists a tension that manifests itself in the form of beauty. This is perhaps easiest to appreciate in the abstract construction of the Medieval-age (1185-1568) dry landscapes.
In the art of flower arrangement (ikebana 生け花), the term ōshakei (横斜型) refers to the three dynamic tensions: suihei (水平; horizontal), taikakusen (対角線; 對角線; diagonal), and suichoku (垂直; vertical). These, in turn, correspond to the triangular aesthetics exploited by a variety of traditional Japanese arts:
ten ( 天 “heaven”): The upper, vertical component: “Heaven corresponds to the vertical forces that come into play when we lift our heads to look up at the sky or when we move our bodies in opposition to the force of gravity”.
chi (地 “earth”): The middle, horizontal component: “Earth corresponds to the horizontal forces we observe in objects – carts, boats, birds – moving along the ground plane parallel to the horizon”.
jin (人 “man”): The lowest, diagonal component: “Man corresponds to the diagonal forces we perceive in dynamic human activity – the slanting lines of legs and arms as a person walks or runs, transmitting the force of gravity from the upright body to the horizontal ground plane”.
Tension between these forces is exploited when designing rock and plant compositions. The term ōshakei occurs frequently in the Senzui-narabi-ni-yagyō-no-zu (山水並びに野行の図 An illustrated Manual of Forms of Mountain, Water and Field Landscapes), suggesting its paramount importance to garden design.
Fukinsei (不均斉), or asymmetry, is itself a kind of dynamic tension, and it has long been a dominant principle of Japanese aesthetics. Although symmetry is not unknown to the Japanese – capital cities from the Classic Age (538-1185) were planned symmetrically after Chinese models – it never really gained popularity as an element in artistic expression. Nature reserves symmetry for living organisms, but relies on asymmetry, randomness, imperfection, irregularity and chaos for the organization of spatial relationships. Asymmetry, then, has been a mainstay of garden design from earliest times, and may constitute one of the core differences between gardens of the East and their western counterparts. Space, either two or three dimensional, is divided irregularly in a way that often appears to our western eyes to be ugly, or awry.
Fukinsei manifests itself in odd numbers, irregular division of space, deliberate offsetting of three-dimensional objects, and a conscious avoidance of symmetry or balance. Kenkō states the idea obliquely in the following passage taken from the Tsurezuregusa (徒然草 Essays in Idleness): “People often say that a set of books looks ugly if all volumes are not in the same format, but I was impressed to hear the Abbot Kōyū say, ‘It is typical of the unintelligent man to insist on assembling complete sets of everything. Imperfect sets are better.’”
Marc Keane points to the ancient Chinese scholars for the source of asymmetry in Japanese aesthetics: “Perfect balance engenders entropy, a state of non-energy. The ancients in China perceived this and used it thousands of years ago as the basis for their theories of universal physics”. The universe, the ancient Chinese theorized, began in a state of chaos they called wu-ji, or “non-polarity,” and at some immensely distant point in the past, the universe cleaved in two, forming the polar opposites now familiar to us as yin and yang. (Jp, in 陰; yō 陽). These concepts made their way to Japan, along with a wealth of other culture, during the Asuka and Nara periods (538-710; 710-794; see Geomancy).
Ikebana (生け花) is an example of a Japanese art that exploits the principles of asymmetry. Imagine three branches of plum blossoms rising from an unglazed, dark clay, rectilinear vessel: One stretches vertically towards heaven, representing the gods; another stretches midway and off to the left, symbolizing mankind; and a third, low and horizontal, fans out to the right, representing the earth itself. The entire arrangement is set off-center in the vessel, and the disheveled, vertical nature of the branches contrasts with smooth horizontal lines of the vessel in which it is contained. There is energy and dynamism in such an arrangement.
In other words, fukinsei is an aesthetic founded on tension between compositional elements. In traditional Japanese arts such as ikebana, the triangle is the geometric foundation of any arrangement. In gardening, this triangular configuration underlies rock compositions from the simplest triad to the most complex multi-rock configuration. Although circles, squares and rectangles are found in Japanese aesthetics, they are nearly always used as foils for asymmetric accents. That the Japanese evolved an appreciation of the tension elicited by unbalanced harmony is perhaps as much a product of environment as of imported culture: the dark, tangled forests covering the jumble of volcanic mountains and deep valleys of the Japanese archipelago are themselves prototypical examples of such forces in eternally unresolved conflict.
In a place this crowded, there is no such thing as a “pure” view. Consequently, impurities must become invisible. – Donald Richie (1924-2013)
In his essay “The Japanese Way of Seeing,” Donald Richie observes that “the Westerner in Japan is often struck by the fact that all views in Japan are partial”. Westerners, he adds, are used to expansive frames and integral views; in other words, they want the big picture. In contrast, the Japanese assume that “things in their fullness are not necessary, and that a frame need not insist upon this. The part can stand for the whole in Japanese pictorial aesthetics, just as it does in the haiku where partial attributes (old pond + frog’s jump = new splash) create a new whole”.
miegakure 見隠 (miegakari 見掛 “seen and hidden”) refers to this aesthetic when it is applied to landscape design. Vistas are artfully arranged so that they may not be seen in their entirety from a single vantage point, but constantly shift as the viewer progresses along designated routes or paths. Since the vistas move in and out of view as the visitor progresses along a route, the term is often translated as “hidden and revealed”. The philosophy behind such an aesthetic concept is strongly allied to the Buddhist belief in the illusory or transitory nature of the physical world, and, in particular, to the Zen notion of the emptiness or nothingness of the universe as experienced directly and non-verbally (mu 無). Aesthetically, it relies on a manipulation of space and perspective. As Tadahiko Higuchi puts it, miegakure “relies heavily on the principle of overlapping perspective and involves making only a part of an object visible, rather than exposing the whole. The purpose is to make the viewer imagine the invisible part and thus create not only an illusion of depth but also the impression that there are hidden beauties beyond. Miegakure is, in short, a means of imparting a sense of vastness in a small space.”
This partial revelation of the landscape has a distant affinity with the technique of mie (見得; a pose or posture) in kabuki (歌舞伎) theater, when actors freeze in mid-performance at a critical moment. Alex Kerr explains it this way: “For example, there might be a scene where two people are casually talking; then, from some detail of the conversation, the characters suddenly comprehend each other’s true feelings. In that instant, action stops, actors freeze, and from stage left wooden clappers go ‘battari!’… While most forms of theater try to preserve a narrative continuity, Kabuki focuses around such crucial instants of stop and start, start and stop.”
In landscape design, this technique manifests in a continual and sudden shift of perspective between the foreground, middle-ground and background as the viewer halts and proceeds on his journey through the garden. These accumulated layers, known collectively as chōjō (重畳 “piled one atop another”), are designed to appeal to the divers senses, and the manner and degree to which each one is encountered reflects the skill and taste of the designer.
Garden designers borrowed the noun-verb michiyuki (道行 “path to go”) from kabuki, where it signifies the actor’s movement in space through the narration of his story, to cover the slow progression of a visitor through a garden. It refers not only to the passage through the various layers and scenes that constitute the complete garden in three-dimensional space, but also to the transition between these layers and scenes. Normally, this is regulated through the careful design of paths and the placement of plantings, fences and artificial hills in such a way that the visitor may not even be conscious of it.
The garden should follow the natural or topographical contours of the land, and its design should be such as to take advantage of this essential element in planning views from multiple vantage points. Water courses or paths are therefore designed so that they now and again fade from view around bends and behind elements in the middle ground. Experiencing the garden, therefore, requires active engagement, and the passive visitor will miss the true beauty of the place. The following series of photographs, taken at Kiyosumi-teien, Tokyo, provides some examples of miegakure.
A number of terms exist for landscape architecture as a profession. It is thought that the term chiwari (池割 “ground dividing”) came into the vernacular during the Tokugawa period (1603-1868), but it is undoubtedly of older origin, and signifies the initial act of breaking the sod, or beginning the process of creating a garden. Marc Keane adds that the act of dividing the ground – marking it off, as it were – is fundamental to the overall success of the garden. Contemporary terms include niwa-zukuri (庭造り “garden production”) and zōen (造園 “to build a garden”; zōen-jutsu 造園術 “to build a garden technique”), which also implies garden maintenance. See The Men Who Moil for information on professional gardeners.
Classic works dealing with the use of space in garden design and Japanese design in general include the following:
- Deane, A. R. Japanese gardens: Notes on perspectives, perceptions & synthesis. Retrieved 9 Apr 2015 from Japanese Gardening.org.
- Higuchi, T. (1983). The visual and spatial structure of landscapes. Translated by C. S. Terry. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Itoh, T. (1983). Space and illusion in the Japanese garden. Photography by S. Kuzunishi. Translated & adapted by R. Friedrich & M. Shimamura. New York & Kyoto: John Weatherhill, Inc./Tankosha.
- Nitschke, G. (1966). Ma: The Japanese sense of space. In Architectural design (36, May 1966; 116-54).
- Richie, D. (1995). The Japanese way of seeing. In Partial views: Essays on contemporary Japan. Tokyo: The Japan Times Ltd.
- De Mente, B. L. (2006). Fukinsei: Symmetry vs. asymmetry; Kukan / supesu: Space is not empty; Ma: Mixing space and time; Miekakure: The hidden attraction. In Elements of Japanese design: Key terms for understanding & using Japan’s Classic wabi-sabi-shibui concepts. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing.
I like to think of gardens as sculpturing of space… Noguchi, Isamu (1968). A Sculptor’s World. NY and Evanston: Harper & Row; p. [?].
David Slawson points to the use of white space in paintings as a framing tool… Slawson, D. A. (1991). Secret teachings in the art of Japanese gardens: Design principles, aesthetic values. Tokyo & New York: Kodansha International Ltd.; p.119.
In other words, painters exploit atmospheric effects… Slawson, D. A. (1991); p.119.
However, Donald Richie points to the need to offset or contrast space… Richie, D. (1995). Partial views: Essays on contemporary Japan. Tokyo: The Japan Times Ltd.; p..
Its viewing is polydirectional… Noguchi, Isamu (1968); p. [?].
Marc Keane provides the following example… Keane, M. P. (1996). Japanese garden design. Photographs by H. Ōhashi. Drawings by the author. Rutland & Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle; pp.16-17.
“Heaven corresponds to the vertical forces that come into play when we lift our heads to look up… Slawson, D. A. (1991); p.97.
“Earth corresponds to the horizontal forces we observe in objects… Slawson, D. A. (1991); p.97.
“Man corresponds to the diagonal forces we perceive in dynamic human activity… Slawson, D. A. (1991); p.97.
In everything, no matter what it may be, uniformity is undesirable… Keene, D. (1981). Essays in idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing; p.70.
People often say that a set of books looks ugly if all volumes are not in the same format… Keene, D. (1981); p.70.
To the Japanese the perfect is unnerving, suspicious… Richie, D. (1971; 2002). The Inland Sea. Introduction by P. Iyer. Berkely: Stone Bridge Press; p. 77.
Marc Keane points to the ancient Chinese scholars for the source of asymmetry in Japanese aesthetics… Keane, M. P. (2002). The art of setting stones & other writings from the Japanese garden. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press; p.108.
“The master Japanese designers delight in planning gardens…” Woollard, L. (1958). Japanese and miniature gardens. Foreword by R. Hay. London: W. & G. Foyle Ltd.; p.43.
In a place this crowded, there is no such thing as a “pure” view… Richie, D. (1999). Tokyo: A view of the city. With photographs by J. Sackett. London: Reaktion Books; p. 105.
In his essay “The Japanese Way of Seeing,” Donald Richie observes… Richie, D. (1995); pp.64-5.
In contrast, the Japanese assume that “things in their fullness are not necessary… Richie, D. (1995); pp.64-5. Richie refers to a famous haiku by Matsuo Basshō (松尾芭蕉 1644-1694):
furu ike ya
mizu no oto
The old pond;
A frog jumps in –
The sound of the water.
Translation by R. H. Blyth
As Tadahiko Higuchi puts it, miegakure relies heavily on the principle of overlapping perspective… Higuchi, T. (1983); p.84.
For example, there might be a scene where two people are casually talking… Kerr, A. (1996). Lost Japan. Melbourne: Lonely Planet Kerr, Lost Japan; 64.
Marc Keane adds that the act of dividing the ground… Keane, M. P. (1996); p.137.
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