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Long well thought out or researched posts or essays going deeper into topics.

How to make Japanese green plum ume syrup (aka 梅シロップ, mashil-jeup, 매실즙)

How to make Japanese green plum ume syrup (aka 梅シロップ, mashil-jeup, 매실즙)

When my wife and I lived in Japan we used to make Japanese green plum wine (umeshu) which I’ve detailed how to do here.  The glass jars sold for making umeshu in Japan always had instructions for making it as well as ume syrup which can be used to make a refreshing ume flavored non-alcoholic drink, top shaved ice, ice cream, make korean BBQ sauce, or numerous other uses.

I never tried ume syrup since we enjoyed umeshu so much.  But I became curious this year, in part because we now live in the U.S. and get most of our Japanese ingredients at a Korean supermarket and Koreans make and use more ume syrup (mashil-jeup 매실즙 in Korean) than the Japanese do.

It’s simple and delicious to make and there are several variations.  The only difficult part is finding ume (梅) aka green Japanese plums (even though they are more closely related to apricots.)  They are available for a VERY SHORT season for about the first 3 weeks of May in the United States (where they are grown in California and found in larger Asian grocery stores across the nation) or in June for most of Japan.  Outside of this you will almost never find them!  As in my umeshu article I’ll list some sources and locations at the end.

Japanese ume

Ingredients:
This recipe can adjusted proportionally to whatever amount you want to make.  You should use a minimum of 250 g. of ume to get usable results.  I have gotten a little under 1 ml. of syrup per 1 g. of ume.

  • Green ume (250 grams or more*)
  • Sugar (granulated or rock**) equal in weight to ume
  • Optional:  Vinegar (rice or apple cider) 1/10 ml per gram of ume (ie. 25ml per 250 g.)
  • Optional:  Shochu or vodka (~50ml. clear, flavorless alcohol for sterilization)
    (My article on umeshu talks about inexpensive Korean shochu that can be found in the U.S.)

* My experience suggests less than 250 grams of ume might inhibit the process from working smoothly
** Rock sugar is popular in Asian recipes and is discussed in my umeshu article.

Removing the stem from umeStep 1:  Prepare ume

  • Remove any ume with brown spots, bruises, or cuts to their skin
  • Gently remove any remainder the stem with a toothpick or bamboo skewer (pictured above).  Be careful not to break the skin.
  • Wash the ume in plenty of clean, cool water

Step 2:  Pack ume in sugar

  • Clean a glass jar with detergent and hot water.  Optionally you might want to wipe the inside with some shochu or vodka to disinfect.
  • Fill the jar with alternating layers of ume and sugar
    • Optional:  You can freeze the ume overnight and pack them in the sugar while frozen hard.  Freezing causes microscopic ice crystals to break the ume’s cell membranes and fibers allowing the juice and flavor to flow out more readily.  This also decreases the likelihood of fermentation in the first week if you want a sweeter syrup as opposed to a more sour fermented variant (read on for more info.)
    • Optional: In a clean bowl swish the ume around in the shochu or vodka then drain out to sterilize their outside to reduce the probability of fermentation if you want a sweeter syrup as opposed to a fermented sweet and sour syrup (see variants section below.)

Step 2:  Allow ume to sit in sugar and gently shake the jar once or twice daily

The concentration of sugar outside of the ume will trigger osmosis and all of the fluid and deliciousness in the ume will sweat out and melt the sugar to form a delicious syrup.

time lapse of ume syrup

Variant 1:  Non-fermented sweetume close-up in syrup with small bubbles

  • Sterilize the jar and ume with shochu or vodka and freeze prior to packing in sugar as suggested above.
  • Remove the ume and refrigerate the syrup after no more than 7 days for a sweet and fresh taste

Variant 2:  Non-fermented sour

  • Pour in the optional rice or apple cider vinegar after layering the ume and sugar to prevent fermentation and produce a sweet and sour syrup which should be refrigerated after no more than 7 days.

Variant 3:  Fermented

  • I’ve seen various (most often Korean), recipes which call for letting it sit for 30-60 days.  After 7 days it begins to ferment and you can see some tiny bubbles forming in in the syrup and around the ume and pressure building up in the jar.  It will smell a little off but then after a few more days it will start to take on a richer more complex fragrance and flavor.  I’m in the process of doing my first batch this way, so I can’t tell you the full results yet.The picture to the right shows some tiny bubbles that I noticed forming when I stirred it up which I assume are from a small amount of fermentation.

shriveled ume after syrup making  After your syrup is ready remove the ume and store the syrup in a clean jar in the refrigerator.  Don’t throw away the ume just yet!  The ones I froze were a tasty treat that I enjoyed eating straight!  Ones that I didn’t freeze were very hard and fiberous.  Some Koreans remove the pits and preserve them with kochujang to eat as a side dish, while others simmer them in sugar water and mash them into jam.

 

Ume truely are a magical, tasty, versitile super-food!

 

Places to find ume in the United States:

  • Hmart – a Korean grocery store chain with locations across the US where I’ve bought ume.  They are GREAT for finding Japanese stuff as well and well worth even a 1-2 hr drive to get to.
  • Lotte Plaza – a Korean grocery store chain with locations in MD, VA, and soon FL.  Like Hmart they carry a wide selection of Asian groceries and Japanese and worth a 1-2 hour drive to get to.
  • Wikipedia list of Asian supermarket chains
  • If you know of any other good Asian grocery chains with multiple locations in the US that sell ume please contact me and I’ll include it here.

-William Milberry

(NSFW) – Japanese sex vocabulary

(NSFW) – Japanese sex vocabulary

外国語を勉強する時に、先生や教科書は生きていく中で、自然に使用する重要な言葉は教えられていません。以下はセックスに関する内容です。Image from Japanese sex-ed material

When learning a foreign language your teachers and textbooks leave a huge gaping hole in your knowledge about words relating to an important, natural part of everyone’s life – sex.

I could speak Japanese functionally when I arrived in Japan and after a couple of months I was spending time with a Japanese girl who didn’t speak English.  We started to become intimate and realized that I didn’t know any vocabulary related to such things, especially the casual slang that couples would use in the bedroom.  She was amused by this and wanted to teach me.  I’ll leave the rest up to your imagination but I will say they were lessons that are hard to forget!

So I wanted to share some important but hard to come by vocabulary with you.  This isn’t comprehensive and might even vary by region a bit.

Caution real-world but not safe for work (NSFW) material ahead!  エッチに関する英単は先です。

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A glimpse into Japan: Saving face with foreigners ahead of the Olympics

A glimpse into Japan: Saving face with foreigners ahead of the Olympics

Individual Japanese are hesitant to share their own opinions or talk about personal issues.  This is part of their group oriented culture.  It doesn’t mean that they don’t have opinions or think about these things however.

In this recurring segment we try to understand the Japanese better by looking at translations of Japanese forum posts.  Behind the anonymity of on-line forums Japanese feel more free and safe to share their true feelings (called 本音 hon-ne) rather than putting up their stoic public face (called 建前 tatemae.)

~~~~~~~

Japanese women-only train car
Japanese women-only train car

This post is from a Japanese person who is worried about how foreigners flooding into Japan for the 2020 Olympics will perceive Japan if they see the women-only train cars that Japan has.

There are 80-some train routes that feature these and they were started based on the idea of giving women a place where they don’t need to worry about misbehaving men groping them, getting too close, or harassing them.

There has been a little controversy over them however with some believing that the perception of the problem of harassment of women has been vastly exaggerated by media and TV shows and that the idea of train cars that exclude any class of people might not technically be legal (and isn’t practical in situations where there isn’t enough room on trains for all of the riders.)

You’ll note that the main concern of the author isn’t the practicality, need, or purpose of the women-only train cars but concern for how Japan will look in the eyes of foreigners and avoiding criticism.  In the west we tend to focus more on the issue, but in Japan perceptions factor very highly into how people address issues.  This is one of the things that can make living and working in Japan challenging for westerners who have trouble fully grasping and working with mentality and perspective with different focuses.

Original post from Yahoo! Japan 知恵袋 (Chiebukuro) here. (link opens in new tab)

Yahoo! Chiebukuro Article on women-only train cars

Translation

Title:  We should abolish women-only train cars until the Olympics

We should abolish women-only train cars until the Olympics!

Foreigners view discrimination as a number one problem.  A lot of those foreigners will be coming to Japan from now until the Olympics.  We should create men-only train cars or abolish the women-only cars because the chance of foreigners being critical of it is high, isn’t it?

Doesn’t the Japanese government make this a country that is concerned about saving face?  Don’t the train companies want to avoid criticism?

Wouldn’t it be best to either end the women-only train cars or add men-only cars!?

On top of that women-only train cars don’t exist legally.

In the past if a train employee unjustifiably tried to force a man off of a women-only train car the employee was the one accused of wrongdoing by way of unjust coercion.  Employees have been required to apologize to men a great number of times.

Furthermore the Transportation Minister and courts have said men getting on women-only train cars is an ambiguous gray area!

(The following translation of the the only reply to this post isn’t important to understanding it, but is included for completeness.)
Reply from keitokuroda23-san

Men-only cars would be empty with the exception of morning and evening rush hours so it’s fine not to make them.

If you look at it the only real option is to shut down the women-only cars.  But if that is opposed then it would be OK to make men-only cars.

Either way there is a lack of appreciation from the people who ride the trains.

Japanese haiku poetry isn’t quite 5-7-5 like you think

Japanese haiku poetry isn’t quite 5-7-5 like you think

Haiku (俳句) is a well known style of short Japanese poem that has become popular among English and other speakers.  We’re taught that haiku has three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables.  An argument can be made that 5-7-5 isn’t exactly correct and that haiku can’t be the same in English as it is in the original Japanese.

古池や      furui ike ya       At an ancient pond
蛙飛び込む   kawazu tobikomu   the frogs go bounding into
水の音      mizu no oto       the sound of water

by Matsuo Bashou, 1686, translation W. Milberry*

Haiku was originally first stanza of a style of old Japanese collaborative poetry called renga (連歌).  These short first stanza’s became popular themselves and became their own short poems, haiku was born from them.  They were written in the specific style of 5-7-5.  However, ‘syllable’ means something a little different in English than it does in Japanese which throws the necessity of the 5-7-5 pattern into question when haiku are written in English.

The entirety of the Japanese language consists of a finite set of vowel or consonant-vowel combination sounds.  There is a total of only 139 sounds in the enirety of the Japanese language and they can all be spelled out using the Japanese Hiragana alphabet seen below.

Japanese Hiragana table

(Click here for a high resolution version of the Hiragana table for printing or classroom use.)

All Japanese words, including those which are written with complex Chinese kanji characters (漢字), can be spelled out with the Hiragana alphabet characters above.  Haiku’s 5-7-5 pattern derives from how many Hiragana sounds are needed to write out each line.

Where Japanese phonetics differ from English is that adjacent sounds never combine and each Hiragana is pronounced with the same time duration making it not quite line up with the way English speakers see syllables in words.  For example, the word ‘haiku’ is spelled out with three Hiragana sounds:  ha-i-ku (はいく) but only two syllables (hai-ku), to English ears.  Other well known Japanese words that we miscount syllables on are the city names of Tokyo and Sapporo.  We hear these as three syllables (To-ky-o and Sap-po-ro) but they are both actually four Hiragana sounds (とうきょう  or To-u-kyo-u and さっぽろ or Sa-p-po-ro.)  In Sapporo you can see the effect of the small ‘tsu’ (っ), which doubles the following ‘p’.  This is a distinct sound to the Japanese but one that English ears are blind to.

Because of this difference in the way the two languages interpret their basic units of sound (Hiragana for Japanese and syllables for English), you can ask if it is really meaningful to adhere to a strict 5-7-5 syllable pattern when writing haiku poems in English?  Perhaps it’s better to focus on the other distinguishing characteristics, namely their invocation of natural imagery and simplicity which invites the listener to imagine.

Final rays …
still reason
to hum

Marion Clarke/UK, NHK Haiku Masters

Japan’s national broadcast station NHK has a series called Haiku Masters where they invite people to submit haiku in English.  Above is the haiku of the month for 12/2016.  It, like many others, doesn’t follow the 5-7-5 format but instead focuses on the more meaningful aspects of haiku.  Phonetic pattern, rhythm, and rhyme in poetry is something the English world focuses on somewhat more than other languages.  The frequent explanation of haiku being 5-7-5 syllable poems above being described as the invocation of natural imagery and the reader’s imagination speaks to this.

If you’ve ever wanted to write haiku but have difficulty adhering to 5-7-5 give it a try without being so strict about the form and you might create something small but full of beauty like the haiku by Marion Clarke above which makes us think about bees and how they live their short lives to fullest.

* The haku by Matsuo Bashou at the very top of this post is a well known haiku and has been translated hundreds of times.  The Japanese language doesn’t apply a plural form to nouns so it’s linguistically not specified if the author was thinking of one frog or many.  Haiku is meant to invoke images of nature and is intentionally simple to invite the reader to use their imagination.  Only about one out of every two dozen or so translations of this haiku uses plural “frogs.”  To me plural “frogs” invokes a stronger feeling of being in a place full of nature.  It reminds me of a frog filled lake outside of my hometown that my departed grandmother and I used to visit during summers when I was young.  Since I placed this haiku early in the article prior to any explanation I did stick to 5-7-5 syllables but would have preferred to have written the second line “a frog goes bounding in” rather than “into” if I wasn’t adhering to 5-7-5.

 

Why Black and White Endures

Why Black and White Endures

An older Australian friend in my little Japanese town who I enjoyed meeting for a cup of coffee and chatting with from to time asked me “What makes black and white special?  Why do we regard it as artistic?”  He and another friend had been discussing the topic and trying to quantify why black and white (b&w), photos have an artistic feel to them and why interest in them endures long after the advent of color photography.

This wasn’t a naive question.  The man had worked as a professional photographer in his younger years and had a keen understanding of it all, but hadn’t quite been able to put an answer to this question.  I thought about it for a long time and found myself taking a bit of a scientific perspective to find an answer.

This article is broken down into three short sections with the first two giving background and building support for my conclusions in the final section.
Photography’s Start | Color Vision | Black and White’s Effect

Photo by photography pioneer William Fox Talbot, 1853
Photo by photography pioneer William Fox Talbot, 1853

Photography’s Black and White Start

In brief, while projecting images in pinhole camera-like boxes was described in antiquity, the science and ability to take a permanent photograph got it’s start in the first half of the 1800’s with several French and English inventors who knew that certain silver compounds would darken when hit with light.  Once processes to prevent silver images from rapidly darkening and fading away were nailed down, the photograph was born.  A surface treated with silver compounds and stored in a dark box could have an image projected onto it through a pinhole or lens, then once treated would retain the image which formed where light triggered a chemical change that darkened the silver compounds.

The first technology to take photos was intrinsically black and white.  No matter what color of light hit the silver compounds it reacted the same by turning black.

Layers of color film - William Milberry

While innovative ways of taking multiple black and white images with different color filters then projecting them with color lights were dreamt up early on, it wasn’t until Kodak’s commercial introduction of Kodachrome film in 1935 that color photos started to become more common.  Color films work on a similar concept to black and white, except they have layers with filters between them and different sensitivities, so as light shines through the film, one layer is exposed by blue light, another layer is exposed, by green, and another by red.  The development process dyes these layers and washes away the blackened silver leaving a color image.  Many variations have existed (negative film, positive film, print paper, etc), but this is the general design concept of most color films and papers.

The "Bayer" red, green, blue pixel pattern found on many digital image sensors
The “Bayer” rgb pixel pattern found on many digital image sensors

Digital camera image sensors are similar to black and white film in that they are sensitive to light no matter what color.  To make a digital sensor distinguish colors, rather than having color layers like film, individual pixels have different color filters over them.  A typical pattern of red, green, blue pixels in common use is pictured to the left.  Because these pixel-level filters are integrated into the image sensing chip, this means that all consumer digital cameras are intrinsically color and post-processing is needed to convert a photo taken by a digital camera into black and white.  When a digital camera is set to b&w mode, the sensor still sees in color, processing is just done by the camera’s processor to convert the image to b&w.

Color Vision

Photography makes use of light to create art.  So if we think about the nature of light a little, we might gain some insights into the way we perceive it and it’s role in art and aesthetics.

When you get down to the basics, light only has a handful of properties that are relevant to photography.  Light has intensity (brightness), wavelength (color), polarization, and we’ll also include focus because even though it’s not really a “natural property” of light, it’s essential to photos.  Of these characteristics, polarization is not essential to capturing an image using light so let’s exclude that.  Of the remaining characteristics, focus is necessary because without focusing the light there is no image.  Intensity is also necessary because without distinguishing light and dark we can’t make out objects, their details, or boundaries.  Color however is not necessary to form a clearly recognizable image.  It’s only necessary to focus the light and record its intensity to take a recognizable photo.  This places color into a category of lower importance and essentially makes it “optional.”  Because it’s optional, I suspect that even if the first photographic process had been color, black and white is still something that people would have chosen to work with.  I think this is especially true when you consider the following:

Simulation of mono-, di-, and tri-chromatic vision by William Milberry
Simulation of mono-, di-, and tri-chromatic vision by William Milberry

If we look deeper into color and what it means to vision, we’ll find that humans have better color vision than some other segments of the animal kingdom, (but not all.)  Color vision is determined by how many different kinds of color light receptors (called “cones”), an animal’s retina has.  Some animals only have one type of light receptor, which gives them monochrome ( essentially black and white) vision.  Many mammals have two kinds of color receptors (aka “dichromatic vision”), which gives only partial color vision.  Such animals are often red-green colorblind, but that can vary by species.  At some point in post-dinosaur evolutionary history primates (including human’s ancestors), developed a third color receptor giving us fuller color vision than other mammals.

Even though we have good color vision, the color receptors (cones) in the eye’s retina have limited light sensitivity and are accompanied by another type of receptor called rods.  Rods don’t help to distinguish color, but rather provides us with greater general light sensitivity and supply us with a majority of our night vision.  You may not realize it, but our night vision in very low light is mostly monochrome (although you might interpret low light as blueish.)

“our brains are still fully wired to interpret images without color.”

Considering the fact that full color vision is an evolved trait that our evolutionary lines didn’t always have, and that our night-vision is largely monochromatic, it’s reasonable to conclude that our brains are still fully wired to interpret images without color.  An image without color is completely natural to us and something our brains process without any quandary.

It’s theorized the enhanced color vision evolved as an improved survival trait in stressful times so that primates could identify ripe (red, orange) fruit, fresh light green growth, and such visually.  Another theory was so that primates could identify states such as anger or illness in other primates by identifying skin color changes (such as blushing).  Either way the fundamental idea of the various theories of color vision evolution all entail giving animals greater detail about the world as opposed to providing the fundamental mechanism of vision.

I think nature’s intended purpose for color vision can help us interpret color’s role in aesthetics and photography.

 Black and White’s Effect

If we take into account the realizations above that color is not necessary to record a detailed image, and that color vision is an evolved enhancement which gave animals (in this case primates and humans), extra information about the world, we can start to look upon color not as a fundamental aspect of light and sight, but rather an extra, a type of detail that is optional.

If this idea seems unclear, let me draw a comparison:  We live in a rich world of sound with the voices of family, the sounds of nature, the artistry of Beethoven, the voice of your favorite singer, etc.  Yet we hear far less than cats and dogs do with their ability to hear into higher frequency ranges.  Despite knowing that we don’t hear the extra details of higher pitches which exist, we don’t think that we live in a less rich world sound-wise.  Likewise when looking at black and white photos, most people don’t feel that they are having a less rich experience than when they look at a color image.

Since in many ways color can be regarded as a detail, it’s absence frees our eyes, attention, and mind to focus on other aspects of the photo.  Without color, some clutter is removed and other aspects of the content such as shapes, textures, contrasts, and smaller details in the photo are free to step forward and claim more attention that might otherwise be taken by color.    Often, these smaller subjects can wind up conveying as much or even more than colors can.

Below is an example of how what your attention is drawn to can differ between color and b&w.  If you move your mouse cursor over the following image you will see it in color.  In color various items such as the blue plastic in the background (right above the man’s head), the red scroll on the ground to the left of the man, and the yellow reflector on the cement post on the right draw the attention and less time is spent focusing on the man.  (If mousing over the image doesn’t work in your browser click here for the b&w and here for the color version. (opens in new window))

Taiwan Fortune Teller, by William Milberry
Taiwan Fortune Teller, by William Milberry

Another way in which color is different from black and white is how visual relationships are set up within the image.  In color both the color hue AND brightness contrast matters, but in black and white there is only brightness contrast.  So in b&w directing attention within an image is a little more simple and direct.  This allows more attention to go to contemplating the subject rather than visually decoding the image and relationships within it.  This alters the impression an image has on us.

It’s important to clarify that categorizing color as a detail and not as something fundamental is not dismissing color’s importance or role.  It plays a critical role when it is thoughtfully incorporated into an image.  Color however does lead us to process the image differently and thus a color and black and white version of the same image can have different feelings and interpretations.

Take a look at the following black and white photo and note which figures your eyes are drawn to and what impression it has.  Does it look like a moment in time?  An action in progress?  Then look away for a moment and move your mouse over the picture to show it in color and look at it again.  Try to notice where your eyes go.  Do you take it in differently in color vs black and white?  (If mousing over the image doesn’t work in your browser click here for the b&w and here for the color version (opens in new window).)

Yamaga Lantern Festival, by William Milberry
Yamaga Lantern Festival, by William Milberry

To illustrate how color can affect perception I’ll explain how I see the above image.  In my case the black and white version looks like a moment captured in time.  My eyes are drawn towards the illuminated man with his mouth open near the center triggering me to imagine his voice as he sings, and then my eyes are drawn to the silhouettes of the women with lanterns on their heads which are mysterious and all facing left or right with some kind of order or intent.  These elements take the focus, engage my imagination, and draw me into the scene.  In the color version, the blue’ish screen in the background is a different color from the white stage lights slightly visible above it and the red floor the musicians are standing on below it drawing my attention the fact that the scene is on a stage.  The alternating red and white of the four lighted umbrellas above the stage also draw my eyes’ attention resulting in less attention going to the singer and female silhouettes.  The added detail of color triggers me to analyze the scene more than imagining being there.  This prevents me from entering the moment as deeply.

“color photos show what something looks like and b&w photos show what something is.”

I describe this (admittedly subjective), experience as “color photos show what something looks like and b&w photos show what something is.”  Each has its use and I’m by no means saying color is less than b&w.  This is all an attempt to explain why black and white retains a special, heavily used place in the photography world.

Because of differences in how color and black and white are processed by the viewer, black and white shouldn’t be considered a treatment or an after-the-fact editing choice.  A good artist decides if they are going to shoot in color or black and white, then thinks in accordance with that when visualizing and setting up shots.  One of the reasons for using black and white film is, because unlike digital where you will have many options available for how a digital photo looks when converted to black and white, film will lock you into the look and qualities of the film (and development method) that was chosen.  This forces the photographer to think more before the shutter is pressed and this leads to better results than after-the-fact editing.  (Personally, I think limitations make artists work better and more carefully with tools, so in addition to other aesthetic values it brings, I’m a huge fan of film.)

This discussion has been from a somewhat science based perspective.  There are many more discussions to be had about the aesthetics and artistic principles involved in black and white.  For now though I’d like to review the three key points I focused on here:

  • When thinking about the nature of light, color can be viewed as an optional detail which is not necessary to consider in order to produce a clear and understandable photographic image.
  • Color vision evolved as a mechanism to give some animals (including humans), additional information about the world.  Even with this, we retain an undiminished capacity to understand visuals without color.
  • The presence of color alters the way we view and interpret photos and thus the impact that they have.

I would like to leave you with an interesting thought that I had while thinking about b&w.  Unlike the ideas above, I have no evidence to support this and it’s open for debate, but its an interesting topic to consider:  Nostalgia has no counterparts.

Nostalgia has no counterparts:  Black and white photos tend to have a strong nostalgic or old-time feeling to them.  Most old photos are black and white, so many people assume that b&w reminds us of those photos from the past.  The idea that b&w=old is deeply ingrained in our psyche and could certainly be part of the reason.  But could there be an additional aspect to this feeling?  Famed Japanese photographer Moriyama Daido said that black and white photos have a stronger element of abstraction and symbolism, and this can play a role in transporting your mind to another place.  Perhaps because the past can be seen more clearly than the present or the future, we often romanticize bygone eras, and there is no future or present counterpart for the feeling of “nostalgia”, an old-time nostalgic feeling is the default feeling that comes about when a b&w photo successfully draws us in?  Let’s also not forget, that by definition every photograph is of some past event or place, even if it was only yesterday!

To keep my articles a readable size I give just enough background information to make things relevant and understandable.  For more information about some of the topics discussed you might wish to check out the following links:

by William Milberry

The Japanese Aesthetic of Wabisabi (侘寂) by William Milberry

The Japanese Aesthetic of Wabisabi (侘寂) by William Milberry

Much of William Milberry’s photography is influenced by the Japanese aesthetic sense of wabisabi (侘寂).

Wabisabi is a guiding aesthetic that can be found across all areas of Japanese culture, art, design, and even in traditional performing arts.  It’s marked by an appreciation and acceptance of imperfection and transience.  Author Richard R. Powell says “Wabisabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities:  nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”  The origins of this line of thought can be traced back to Buddhism (a dominant religion in Japan), which stresses similar concepts.  So it’s somewhat natural that people who live with a Buddhist world view would find objects that match these ideas as “beautiful.”

Common traits found in the wabisabi aesthetic are simplicity, modesty, and austerity.  In terms of manifestation of wabisabi, you see a lot of asymmetry, roughness, and a lack of complex design or pre-planning.  This aesthetic is applied by the Japanese to many things such as ceramics, paintings, photography, architecture, and even traditional music and theater.

Japanese sake flask exhibiting wabisabi aesthetic
Japanese sake flask exhibiting wabisabi aesthetic

As a westerner, I would say that many western aesthetics view things that are carefully designed, perfectly crafted or that have an eternal quality as “beautiful.”  (Perhaps this is influenced by many monotheistic western cultures’ ideas about the eternity and perfection of God  and heaven?)  Wabisabi, on the other hand, embodies an appreciation for things despite their imperfections.  Imperfections include wear acquired by time (like weathered wood or patina on metal), or artifacts leftover by the process that something was created by. Beyond just imperfection, in line with Buddhist thought, things that are transient and impermanent are also seen as especially beautiful.  Expression of this focus on transience can be seen in arts like Japanese Ikebana (flower arranging), where the beautiful arrangement will be short lived due to the nature of flowers.  Also a preference for transience can be seen in the choice of subject matter in art (short lived cherry blossoms, fleeting moments in life, etc.), and even key elements in stories and movies (particularly in period pieces such as samurai movies.)

The sake flask in the photo to the left is an example of wabisabi aesthetic.  It’s one of my personal favorite items which I found at a flea market in Fukuoka.  It is uneven and worn, yet still elegant and balanced.  I see it and appreciate it’s creation and long history rather than feel put off by it’s sunken in sides and heavily worn, uneven glaze.

Not every uneven, crooked, or imperfect thing is admired under the idea of wabisabi.  It must garner a sense of tranquility or almost spiritual thoughts.  The “defects” as it were, are often quite intentional or allowed to be there as a testament to an objects creation or history.  There is an art to imperfection.  There is an intuitive understanding and something intangible communicated in a perfectly uneven teacup made by one of the respected ceramic artists of Arita, Japan, which, is probably not present in a crooked teacup made by someone who simply doesn’t know what they are doing.  There is a deep sense of presence in dark, grainy photos taken by Moriyama Daido which probably isn’t present in a photo snapped by someone who doesn’t actually see the world in line with this aesthetic.

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In what ways does wabsiabi relate to Japanese photography?  At first glance the photos of many of the noted Japanese photographers like Moriyama Daido, Nobuyoshi Araki, and Shomei Tomatsu are not “beautiful” in the typical western sense I was used to.  They are not carefully composed, don’t have pinpoint focus, and are often not well exposed.  Their subjects seem to have little setup and are fleeting moments that would be impossible to go back and catch again.  Contrast this is with noted western photographers like Ansel Adams or Annie Leibovitz whose works are carefully planned, composed, focused, and executed.  While these may be arbitrary examples that illustrate my point, I think they do demonstrate the general preference for and pattern of wabisabi ideas in Japanese photography/art, and the preference for a “clean” more “carefully crafted” style of western photography/art.

Shinjuku Plus - Moriyama Daido
Shinjuku Plus – Moriyama Daido

When I lived in Japan I wanted to learn more about Japanese photographers.  I would browse photobooks (of which there are many), in the local book stores.  I was disappointed at first and thought that the Japanese had failed to master photography techniques.  Still, I wanted to buy a few books for my collection, so I bought Moriyama Daido’s book Shinuku Plus.  When I slowly looked through it, I slowly began to understand.  The photos together told a story without words, they drew you into the time and place where they were taken.  After feeling this for the first time I started to appreciate the individual images because I no longer focused on what they weren’t (clear, sharp, detailed), but I learned to focus on what they offered.  I had discovered, at least in part, the aesthetic of wabisabi.

While I enjoy a well executed photo, I feel more free to look beyond the surface now.  Japanese photographers often seem to look into their subjects and reflect what they feel more than focusing on capturing the subject to present to your eyes.  It’s a very different way of appreciating the world.

I plan on writing more articles about Japanese culture and Japanese photography.  It’s something that I have fallen in love with and think that English speakers have had limited exposure to.

by Moriyama Daido
by Moriyama Daido

Article by William Milberry.
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