Brushing Up on the "Japanese Aesthetic" that Draws Global Attention. Hospitality and Creativity in Sado and Kyogen


Till now, Shiseido has been a leader not only in the field of cosmetics, but also in the area of Japanese "beauty," as exemplified through the development of the Shiseido typeface, publication of the corporate culture magazine Hanatsubaki, and exhibitions of works by artists such as Taikan Yokoyama and Ryuzaburo Umehara at the Shiseido Gallery. Shiseido's products are sold in 88 countries and regions around the world, and many people outside of Japan experience the "Japanese aesthetic" through Shiseido.

To allow members of the Advertising and Design Department to learn about the aesthetic sense inscribed deeply in Japan's traditional culture such as Sado (tea ceremony), Kyogen (Noh comedy), Igo (Go chess), and painting, Shiseido has organized a series of workshops spanning a one-year period, titled "How Japanese Beauty is Created." Through actual experiences in addition to classroom lectures, this initiative attempts to draw closer to an aesthetic sense that cannot be found in other countries. It is probably uniquely characteristic of Shiseido to invite foreign lecturers who have taken the plunge into traditional Japanese culture, and to learn about the true essence of that culture through the eyes of these foreigners who have uncovered it.

This article reports on the workshops "Chanoyu (the way of tea) " and "Kyogen" held from June to August, interwoven with the views of Shiseido's staff. What is the true essence of the unusual aesthetic sense behind Japanese culture? What discoveries have the members of Shiseido's Advertising and Design Department, who are active in the field of advertising, made through these workshops?

The spirit of tea ceremony that offers hospitality through beautiful gestures, and communication in advertising

Chanoyu is well-known as a representative traditional culture of Japan, with experiential classes held frequently at locations such as Ginza and Asakusa for foreign visitors to Japan. The master of tea ceremony from Canada, Randy Channell Soei, was attracted by the physical gestures that tea ceremony involves, and came knocking on the doors of the Urasenke house in 1993. He now holds the qualification of Professor in the Urasenke tradition, and plays an active role in spreading the appeal of Chanoyu around the world. The first workshop, led by Mr. Channell as the lecturer, was held at the Sadoukaikan in Takadanobaba, Tokyo.

Even though we think of tea ceremony as of traditional Japanese culture, most Japanese people have never even entered a tearoom, let alone experienced actual Chanoyu. This sense of distance of Japanese culture that is "near, yet far" is just as prevalent among members of Shiseido's Advertising and Design Department. For the participants who crossed the threshold into the tearoom feeling lost and bewildered, Mr. Channell explained, with a humorous touch, the differences between Chakai and Chaji, the differences between strong and weak tea, and how to serve guests in Chanoyu.

Lecturer, Randy Channell Soei

Of the topics covered, the subject of communication in tea ceremony was most memorable for many of the participants. When we talk about Chanoyu, the general impression that we get is of something that is rather formal and rigid. However, Mr. Channell explained the concept of "hospitality from the host to the guest" and the true essence behind that, and taught the participants the depth of meaning behind every gesture, including the walking style, how the tea is served, how the teacup is held, and how the tea is drunk. By familiarizing oneself with these gestures, two-way communication--from the host toward the guest, and from the guest toward the host--is born.

In our modern times, the Japanese expression "motenashi" is also used interchangeably with "hospitality"; however, the former does not necessarily entail being hospitable to the extent of meddling in the affairs of others. In the world of Chanoyu, participants share a comfortable and enjoyable space through behavior that comprises beautiful gestures and few words. The spirit and essence of hospitality lies in the birth of a rich "relationship" through such behavior.

The members of the Advertising and Design Department are constantly engaged in the work of communicating with consumers through means such as advertising and packaging. For these members, the style of communication in tea ceremony, which differs from communication in modern times, was so surprising it could even be described as a cultural shock.

Venue for the workshop, Sadoukaikan
Members of Shiseido's Advertising and Design Department paying close attention to Randy's words

The desire to offer enjoyment to the other party. The meaning of Kata (form) as perceived through the Chanoyu experience.

However, such concepts of aesthetics become merely armchair theories when expounded through classroom lectures alone. In the second half of the workshop, members of the Advertising and Design Department had the opportunity to experience actual Chanoyu by taking on roles as hosts and guests. By doing so, they became more familiar with that aesthetic sense and made it a part of themselves. Of course, even with the careful and detailed explanations offered by Mr. Channell, the gestures and movements of the beginners were awkward. Following the advice from Mr. Channell, the hosts busied themselves with making tea, while the guests sipped at the tea anxiously as they wondered if they were making any mistakes. It appears that communicating with the hearts of others through the spirit of hospitality and the beautiful gestures is easier said than done.

The fragrance of the draught of tea that was eventually drunk was, in fact, elegant. However, Mr. Channell suddenly said, "Lend me that for a moment," and taking over the teacup that a participant had been drinking from, remade the tea that the staff had made and at the same time motivated them in his unique way, exclaiming, "Stretch your back, puff out your chest, faster faster, stronger stronger, go go go!!!!"

"Try drinking that."

The minute the staff had a sip of the tea made by Mr. Channell, they sighed and became speechless. Although all he had done was the remix of the tea, the flavor of the tea incorporated with air was transformed dramatically, losing its bitterness while tasting fuller with a mellow sweetness. The participants had experienced for themselves the difference between tea made by a professional, and by a beginner.

Learning the gestures in tea ceremony

Channell: In Japan, Matcha is regarded as a bitter tea, but it is only bitter when it is made by someone who does not know how to do it well. Tea made by someone who is good at it is as delicious as cappuccino.
The numerous forms or patterns, known as kata, were created out of necessity. Rotating the teacup before drinking it is a sign of appreciation for the host who selected the tea receptacles for the Chakai, keeping the movements economical is an expression of the desire to bring enjoyment to the other party through graceful motions, and making tea in the correct posture is indispensable for producing tea of mellow flavor. It is not formalism for its own sake; rather, precisely because it is form accompanied by content, it has been possible to pass on the aesthetic sense of Chanoyu for several hundred years to the present day.

All participants experiencing the roles of "host" and "guest"
Dramatic changes in the flavor of the tea after it has been remade by Randy

"Designing" based on a spirit of hospitality toward the consumers we cannot see

Art Director Ayumi Nishimoto who had participated in it spoke about her impressions of attending such a workshop, "In the course of my work, I am constantly aware and conscious of the relationship between the "sender" and the "receiver," and deal with communication that is definitely impossible to establish through 'one-way traffic.' The motions in the world of Chanoyu, and each individual word that is used, have given me various hints for my work."

Also through the workshop, Creative Director Masato Kosukegawa discovered that hospitality is the mutual exchange of feelings between people. Reflecting on this in relation to his everyday work, he felt that the use of the word "target" itself is extremely rude.

Taking just half a day, this workshop, in the words of Mr. Channell, was not even the tip of the iceberg when considered from the standpoint of the profound world of Chanoyu. However, by learning through actual experience, the participants gained many ideas to bring back with them to Shiseido and ponder over carefully. For example, designer Ryosuke Kuga was inspired to consider how the philosophy behind Chanoyu could be applied in our modern times, which demands speed and ease of understanding, while Art Director Masako Watanabe commented, "In the world of design, we cannot see the faces of those who use the products. Even so, I have been inspired to design based on the spirit of hospitality, while imagining what the consumer is like in person."

To gain even further exposure to the world of traditional culture, members of the Advertising and Design Department next visited the Yarai Noh Theater in Kagurazaka.

Traditional Japanese Kyogen is a comedy infused with aesthetic beauty

The second workshop, held in August, was a seminar on Kyogen, a performance art that originated during the Muromachi era about 650 years ago. Ondrej Hybl, the master of Kyogen from the Czech Republic, has been studying under Noh master Shime Shigeyama since 2002. In addition to his activities in Japan, he is also the representative of the Nagomi-Kyogenkai Czech, a semi-professional theater group in his native Czech Republic, and performs Kyogen in the country as well as various parts of Europe.

However, just like tea ceremony, there are few Japanese people familiar with Kyogen. What is the appeal of Kyogen for Mr. Hybl that led him, a foreigner, to give himself up to the world of Kyogen?

Explanation of Kyogen at the start of the session by Mr. Hybl

Hybl: Kyogen is a comedy that has retained its aspect of beauty, and which does not hurt the people watching it. There are countless numbers of comedy plays in the world, but these generally tend to be vulgar. I believe Kyogen is the only form of comedy in the world that fuses the comedic aspect with an aesthetic aspect.
If we were to consider Kyogen based on the explanation given by Mr. Hybl, a Czech national, we would come to a renewed realization of its unique form. Nothing exists on the stage, so the performer creates the world depicted in the song (work) only through his words and physical gestures. The world of Kyogen demands not only the expressive ability of the Kyogen performer, but also calls for the imaginative ability of the audience. To that end, the Kyogen performers make use of the spaces between the speeches and the movements to engage the imaginative power of the audience. In the same way that Chanoyu is not a one-way communication from the host to the guest, Kyogen is also not a one-way communication from the stage to the audience.

During this workshop, six of the participants who volunteered themselves experienced Kyogen on the stage of the formal Yarai Noh Theater. They practiced the unique Kyogen way of standing and walking with the hips lowered, the action of pouring out Sake and drinking all of it, and one scene from the Kyogen piece "Kakiyamabushi". Of course, this was not something that could be accomplished overnight, and the participants felt keenly the difficulty of Kyogen during their first experience, such as laughing out loud in spite of themselves at their own awkwardness and embarrassment.

While teaching the katas (forms) one by one to the participants, Mr. Hybl explained to them that all movements have meaning. For example, standing tilted forward creates a sense of tension, which naturally draws the attention of the audience toward the Kyogen performers. The walking style that begins with a slow pace and gradually accelerates comes from a development of Kyogen known as "Jo-ha-kyu." All the movements, known as form or kata, have profound meaning, and are interwoven with the aesthetic beauty of Kyogen.

Six employees went up on the stage, and were instructed on the unique walking style with the hips lowered
Rehearsing "Kakiyamabushi"

Confronting the true essence of originality and tradition

Noh master, Motohiko Shigeyama
Revealing how Noh masters dress up, something that we do not usually get to see

How do Kyogen performers personify the "Japanese aesthetic"? On this day, Mr. Hybl and Noh master Motohiko Shigeyama, the eldest son of Shime Shigeyama, performed the Kyogen piece, "Koji". This work begins with the depiction of how the Tarokaja (servant), who had accompanied his master to a banquet the night before, had eaten all "three Koji (tangerines) on one branch" that his master had entrusted him with.

The Tarokaja, when questioned by his master about the whereabouts of the tangerines, makes various excuses one after another, drawing laughter with his comical stories. At the same time, he entrances the audience with the powerful script and beautiful walking style. Indeed, therein lies the true essence of traditional Japanese culture.

The highly abstract character of Kyogen, and its fusion with comical enjoyment, makes it truly a traditional culture that Japan can present with pride to the world. However, after finishing the performance of Koji, Mr. Shigeyama surprisingly remarked, "We have performed the latest plays. We are not conscious about performing either classical or traditional plays." The difficulty of coming face to face with tradition is the need to constantly update the artistic expressions to match the times, instead of being contented with just accepting tradition.

However, it does not necessarily mean that it is acceptable to update anything and everything in one's own original way. It would be meaningless if it was merely new and fancy, and if there was no dialogue with the essence of the tradition.

Hybl: According to Noh master Hisao Kanze (Note: A Shite-kata of the Kanze school, who was active during the Showa era), "Originality is necessary for second-rate or third-rate Noh masters. First-rate Noh masters do not aim to be original, but rather, aim for perfection." In an era when originality is much sought after, we often see characters being distorted to match the current times, even in Shakespeare plays that are regarded as classics. An example would be the appearance of a Hamlet with a drug addiction. However, I do not believe that such changes capture the essence of the plays. Rather than "breaking the mold," aren't such changes just "missing of the form?"

Both in Kyogen and in the world of advertising, beauty is created through conscientiousness and meticulous attention

In the world of publicity and advertising, which always demands the latest and the most advanced, originality is considered to be a "prerequisite." However, if we were to examine originality through Kyogen, we would see a completely different world. Hybl's comments left a strong impression on designer Ryosuke Kuga, who said, "I have always sought new things in my production work, but Kyogen masters face the same thing every day and produce art through repetitive effort. Listening to someone who creates based on a different approach from myself has broadened my horizons."

In addition to the concept of "originality," the word "conscientiousness" (teinei-sa) also left a deep impression on the participants. Even a word that we use casually without much thought all the time is in fact a concept that is unique to Japan. Mr. Hybl discussed its unique nuance, saying, "While a word that is similar to "conscientious" in Japanese also exists in the Czech language, it is not possible to translate this word fully and precisely."

According to Mr. Shigeyama, his grandfather Sensaku Shigeyama, a Kyogen master who had been designated as a "living national treasure" of Japan, had been fully committed to the effort of "providing amusement competently, and doing it slowly" during his lifetime. Being "conscientious" may sound like an easy thing to accomplish, but Mr. Shigeyama says with a wry smile, "It is truly difficult. If I could achieve that, I would probably become a living human treasure." Even Zeami Motokiyo, the great Noh master, wrote in his treatise Kakyo, "Unless it is detailed, it is not interesting." Pushing the boundaries to achieve the ultimate levels of conscientiousness and precision are marks of a spirit that Japan should take pride in.

Creative works that leave room for the imagination are the ones that reach the hearts of the audience

Members of the Advertising and Design Department putting on Japanese Tabi socks before going up on the stage
Ending with smiles after all participants did the roaring laughter of Kyogen

There are definitely more than just a few connections between Japan's traditional aesthetic and contemporary aesthetic, as represented by the enthusiasm and ardor expressed by designer Soa Okida--"Even in the world of advertising, creative works can reach the hearts of the audience if we leave room for imagination within our persuasive assertions. Moving forward, I aim to explore the question of 'What is Japanese design?'"

The participants exposed to the two forms of traditional culture, tea ceremony and Kyogen, brought back with them ideas about imaginative power, as well as several keywords including "spirit of hospitality," "relationship," "conscientiousness," and "awareness of form."

Going forward, the workshop series will continue with sessions on Go chess and Japanese paintings. What really is the Japanese aesthetic? By learning about its true essence, what can we gain as feedback to be reflected back into publicity and advertising expressions? We will continue to report on this workshop series as we examine the aesthetic that Shiseido disseminates to the world.

  • Ondrej Hybl | Master of Kyogen
    Master of Kyogen from the Czech Republic. In 1996, he enrolled in the Japanese Language Course of Charles University in Prague. When he entered the Department of Japanese Literature of the Graduate School of Letters of Doshisha University in 2002, he also began to study with Noh master Shime Shigeyama. He is the founding member and current representative of Nagomi-Kyogenkai Czech, which is a theater group in the Czech Republic. He continues to study under Shime Shigeyama, and holds Kyogen performances across Europe while undergoing training and gaining experience as a Kyogen performer.
  • Randy Channell Soei | Professor in the Urasenke tradition/Master of tea ceremony
    Master of tea ceremony from Canada. Qualified as a professor in the Urasenke tradition, and has lived in Kyoto for more than 20 years. He is involved in a wide range of activities with the desire to spread the culture of tea ceremony to a wider audience, including leading tea ceremony classes, media appearances, and refurbishing a town house and converting it into a café. His works include The Book of Chanoyu: Tea... The master key to Japanese culture by Randy Channell Soei.
Back to top