Learning from Foreign Specialists of Go and Japanese Painting. What is Japan's Aesthetic?


To allow members of the Creative Division to learn about the aesthetic sense inscribed deeply in Japan's traditional culture, Shiseido held a series of workshops last year, titled "How Japanese Beauty is Created." All lecturers are foreign nationals working on the frontlines of their chosen fields. For the lecturers, raised in different cultures, which were the aspects of traditional Japanese culture that had attracted them and that they felt a sense of beauty in? As for Shiseido's creatives, what have they learnt from the approach and attitude of the lecturers? Following up from the first report about "Chanoyu (the way of tea)" and "Kyogen," this article reports on the workshops on "Go" and "Nihonga."

"Go" chess, a game that originated in times before Christ. The Japanese style of cleverly incorporating imports.

Lecturer, Michael Redmond
Lecturer, Michael Redmond
Board and pieces used in the matches
Top-grade white pieces are made from clam shells, while black pieces are made from Nachiguro-ishi stones from Mie Prefecture.

Michael Redmond, from the State of California, United States, was the lecturer for the "Go" workshop held in October. He began playing "Go" at the age of 10, and it has been more than 40 years since he first came to Japan. The first Westerner to reach 9th-dan, he is a dominant figure in the world of "Go," and his fluent Japanese has also enabled him to take on an active role as a game commentator.

"Go" is said to have its origins in China, in times before Christ. Like "Chanoyu" and ink painting, the game was introduced to Japan from China, and has since developed as a culture in Japan as well. It has been well-known to the Japanese people since at least the 9th century, making appearances in The Tale of Genji, for example. However, according to Michael, it was only in the Edo era when it became an established culture among the common folk as well. Tokugawa Ieyasu, who was fond of playing "Go," created the "Iemoto" system and organized "Gozenjiai" (matches played in the presence of a lord) known as "Oshirogo," which in turn led to the major development of "Go" as a culture.

Michael gave an explanation of the history of "Go" from times before Christ to the present day of the Internet, as he referred to his materials. The first thing that drew the attention of the participants was the tools of "Go." The only "tools" used in the game are three items: the "Go" chessboard, "Go" pieces, and the "Goke," which is a container used to hold the "Go" pieces. Of these, the "Go" pieces can be made from a variety of materials such as plastic or glass; white "Go" pieces made from clam shells are deemed to be of the highest grade, and some could cost almost the same as a car for just a single set. During the workshop, Michael showed the participants some actual "Go" pieces made from clam shells, as well as the clam shells before the die-cutting process. The participants were captivated by the striped patterns inscribed with beautiful growth rings.

Profound precisely because of its simplicity. Chessboards that reflect even the aesthetic sense and values of the players.

In the team matches, members put their heads together to consider the next move.
There were also times when Michael was wowed by their collective wisdom.

After listening to a broad overview of the history of "Go," it was time to put the game into practice. The rules of "Go" are simple: each player to take it in turns to place one "Go" piece on the board, and when one's piece is surrounded by the opponent's pieces, it is deemed to be captured. To put it simply, it is a game of domination, and the player who ultimately occupies the larger territory wins. After a minimal explanation from Michael, the participants quickly began to play games against one another.

However, "Go" is a profound game precisely because of its simple rules. On this day, the participants used a 9×9 grid chessboard, which is smaller than the usual 19×19 grid used in regular matches. Even so, the participants agonized over where to place their pieces in the next move, and the matches proceeded very slowly. In the world of professional "Go," some matches can go on for eight hours or even over two days. Having actually experienced it for themselves now, the participants had probably realized the reason behind these long matches.

At the venue of the workshop, calls of "Ah! I see!" could be heard frequently from the participants as their pieces were captured before they realized it. As he walked around observing the matches, Michael would occasionally point out "Now is your chance," to which some unaware players would respond "Oh, is that so?" There were others who commented "I feel as if I can win," but were eventually severely defeated when the match ended. Even though the board was less than a quarter of the size of boards used in professional games, it was not easy to get a full grasp of the entire board.

Copywriter Yukino Miyazawa, who had participated in the workshop, reflected on her impressions of the game, "I felt that 'Go' contains many elements that are shared across the work of advertising production, such as the ability to search for the best option while considering the numerous options available, a broad outlook to consider both positions of the self and the opponent, and the ability to read the flow of the game several moves ahead." Michael's lecture covered similar points about the effectiveness of "Go." In Korea, learning "Go" is considered to be useful in improving academic results, so a considerable number of parents send their children to attend "Go" classes.

After the match, the participants were split up into groups to compete against Michael in teams. As a handicap, the Shiseido team playing with the black pieces first played four moves before Michael, on the white pieces, made his first move. Even so, he still won a sweeping victory in the end. The sight of the white pieces spreading rapidly across the chessboard was even almost artistic.

Art Director Miori Takeda described her impressions, "Placing the pieces on the board and building up your territory felt like drawing a picture. A match is not merely about victory or defeat, but a magnificent story leading up to that victory or defeat. The aesthetic sense and values of the player are reflected in the chessboard." Everyone has their own style when it comes to the patterns created on the chessboard by the player, such as those who attack the center of the board, or those who defend the corners. A story can always be found there, and the fact that the result changes depending on the communication with the opponent is probably something that "Go" has in common with the everyday work of members of the Creative Division.

Turning one's consciousness toward space ("Ma"). Similarities between the way of thinking in "Go" and Japanese aesthetic

Deep interest in the majestic-looking board that most people would not have the opportunity to see
Level certificate presented to "Go" players

After the matches ended, a talk session was held. Michael spoke about the characteristics of the Japanese people based on his perceptions through "Go."

Redmond  If you teach them a form, such as "If you hit the opponent here in such a situation, that's a good move," the Japanese people would say, "Right, I've got it" and remember that move. However, if you were to teach the same thing to a Westerner, he or she would ask, "Why?" Depending on the individual, they may also reply, "That's not right, is it?" Even if they are not good at playing "Go," they would have their own logic, and object if they are not convinced by your explanation.
For this reason, when teaching "Go" to Westerners, Michael would make preparations to ensure that he is able to explain the game theoretically to them. However, from the standpoint of making progress and mastering the game, remembering the form allows them to achieve skillful play more quickly. Hence, it is not possible to say unconditionally that either method is better. Furthermore, the methods for defeating the opponent may also differ depending on the country.

Redmond  This is my pet theory: in every country, there is a tendency to imitate the strongest player in that country. With the widespread use of the Internet today, there are fewer differences between countries. However, partly because "Go" is not as popular in the West as it is in Japan or China, many of the people who enjoy playing it tend to be those with stronger leanings toward the sciences. Those who favor the sciences are good at calculations, but tend to be poor at grasping and perceiving space. This characteristic is also apparent from the way they play "Go."
Michael's talk gave us interesting insight into the ways in which victory and defeat are determined in "Go." As the player who ultimately gains the larger territory becomes the victor, the strategy will also be important.

Redmond  In "Go," localized battles take place across different parts of the chessboard, and these eventually join up to become one. That is why it is important to take a bird's-eye view of the entire game; for example, sometimes giving way to the opponent and occupying a broad territory in another area instead.
In this regard, designer Ryosuke Kuga felt the similarities between "Go" and the Japanese aesthetic sense as he explained, "Turning your awareness toward the space between the localized battles can make the difference between victory and defeat. In this respect, I felt that 'Go' shares a common characteristic with the Japanese people, who have a heightened consciousness of the concept of space ('Ma' in Japanese)." Art Director Kaori Nagata described her impressions, "Certain expressions that had originated from 'Go,' such as 'Dame,' 'Ichimoku-oku,' and 'Fujite,' are closely linked to the lives of the Japanese people, and it was interesting to see this fact reflected in the game."

The expression "Ichimoku-oku" (meaning "to acknowledge somebody's superiority") has its origins in the "Go" rule of allowing the weaker player to put down a piece first, as the points of intersection between the lines drawn on the chessboard are known as "moku." "Dame" ("useless, vain") originally refers to a point of intersection (or "moku") that has no impact on the size of the territory. "Fujite" ("a sealed move") takes place when a match extends to the following day, and the next move is placed in an envelope that is opened when the game is resumed. The fact that such "Go" jargon has been incorporated into everyday use, serves as proof of how familiar and popular a culture of "Go" has become in Japan.

Even though the workshop lasted only a short time, the participants appeared to have caught a glimpse of how profound "Go" is, as well as received many hints. Although their initial impression of "Go" had been that it is a somewhat difficult game, the light-hearted lecture delivered by Michael and actual experience of playing in matches seemed to have helped them identify the commonalities between "Go" and design and advertising. It was impressive how quickly they became absorbed in the game.

"I want to create 'Kakejiku' paintings that will make one desire an alcove." The thoughts of an American Nihonga artist

Lecturer, Allan West
Participants listening to the lecturer earnestly

Allan West, from Washington D.C. in the United States, was the lecturer for the "Nihonga" workshop held in November. Allan first came to Japan in 1982, and after graduating from the School of Art at Carnegie Mellon University, furthered his studies and graduated from the Master's course in Japanese Painting, Graduate School of Fine Arts at Tokyo University of the Arts. Based in Japan, he is active in various parts of the world, and has produced many "Byobu-e" (paintings on folding screens) and "Kakejiku" (hanging scrolls), as well as held a private exhibition at the Smithsonian Art Museum.

The workshop was held at Edokoro Allan West, which is Allan's art gallery and atelier in Yanaka, Tokyo. The tatami-covered space, filled with natural light, carries displays of his works including folding screens and hanging scrolls, as well as unfinished works and painting materials. The workshop took place within this environment, allowing participants to witness the actual creative surroundings that he works in.

When he started the lecture, Allan surprised the participants with his opening words, "I am sorry, but I will not talk about 'Nihonga.'" This is because "Nihonga" is an expression that was first used during the Meiji era as an opposing concept to Western painting, and is therefore not an essential concept for understanding traditional Japanese painting.

With this preface, he proceeded to talk about the history and characteristics of the various types of painting: "Kara-e," imported from China during the Tang Dynasty and the roots of what is known as "Nihonga" today, and in contrast, Japanese "Yamato-e," which had developed from the Heian era. He also covered the Sesshu and Kano schools of art, which had a major impact on the development of Japanese art from Muromachi to the Edo era. The talk even expended to the differences in the aesthetic sense between ancient art and modern art.

In our modern times, coming as close as possible to the appearances that are perceived by the media as the ideal image, such as makeup that makes the eyes look bigger and clothes that make one appear slim, is deemed to be a good thing; however, Allan thinks that this is an unfortunate trend. The people who appeared in "Rakuchu Rakugai Zu" (meaning "scenes in and around the capital") folding screens that depicted the scenes in and around Kyoto, and which were produced in large numbers from the Muromachi era to the Edo era, appeared to be dressed in ways that emphasized their physical traits rather than hid them. For example, figures that were plump wore thin belts, while figures with thin faces also wore thin topknots. Many of the participants seemed to be taken aback by this revelation.

The discussion about "Tsukinami" also drew the interest of the participants. "Tsukinami" originally means "something that is held every month." Therefore, during the era when every family had an alcove, they would all follow the practice of changing the decorative hanging scroll in the alcove every month. This was known as the "Tsukinami Kakejiku" (meaning "monthly hanging scroll"). According to one theory, this was how the expression "Tsukinami" came to be used to mean "commonplace."

As we can understand through these discussions, in comparison with the past when art could be found casually in all aspects of everyday life, and when people enjoyed self-expression even in their grooming and appearance, we seem to have forgotten these feelings in the present day. As he commented on this, Allan's expression revealed what a pity he thought this was. However, he continued saying, "I hope that changing the hanging scroll decoration becomes a monthly affair once again," and "I want to create 'Kakejiku' paintings that will make one desire an alcove." Perhaps these frank and honest thoughts also inspired and influenced the participants.

Observe carefully, and assess the essence of things before painting them

Drawing beautiful bamboo leaves with a light touch
Participants tackle the challenge through imitation. According to Allan, "They all have a natural aptitude."
Colorful natural materials that are used as painting materials in Nihonga

After the lecture ended, it was time for the participants to put it into practice. They were first shown an example of how to practice drawing bamboo leaves with a brush. As Allan moved his brush continuously, beautiful leaves such as those seen in art textbooks began to appear. According to him, the trick is to be conscious of the veins of the leaves. The core of this drawing method does not change regardless of whether one is drawing the branches or trunk of the bamboo tree. Draw the trunk from bottom to top, and the branches from the side of the trunk to the leaves; make the starting end thick, and the tip narrow. Move the brush in accordance with the providence of nature.

West Upon close observation, you will gradually learn how to draw it. Drawing the trunk will determine where the branch emerges from. Drawing the branches will determine where the leaves emerge from. It is easy to draw as long as you follow the order.

Having said that, of course, one cannot learn to draw in a brief space of time. The participants seemed to be impressed not only by the act of painting itself, but also by the spirit and mentality that sets the premise for the act. For instance, designer Misaki Nagatake commented, "Unlike oil paintings that you gradually layer the colors over one another, or pencil drawing, I felt the pressure that I would have to get the drawing right on my first attempt. It probably calls for mental discipline." According to copywriter Yukino Miyazawa, "Instead of simply drawing something so that it looks exactly like the genuine article, we had to determine the essence of the object to draw it. That was something new to me."

This was decided at the point when the question was raised on how drawing based on close observation was different from elaborate Western drawing. Prefacing his answer with a comment that this discussion alone would take a whole day, he explained his own thoughts on the matter.

West The roots of the ideal images of the beautiful things that we wish to express lie in our religious views. In contrast with the image of the Western god as an absolute presence that is omniscient and omnipotent, Oriental gods dwell among nature, in the mountains and rivers. That is why Oriental paintings can be created based on observation, but Western paintings can only be created based on the imagination. Even though they are both elaborate paintings, they have different roots.

This concept is probably common across all the art forms. If we were to regard the pursuit of art through chemical paints and synthetic fiber brushes "Western," then we could say that Allan, who is particular about using brushes that have a combination of goat and horse hair as well as paints made from plants and minerals as far as possible, is an "Oriental" artist. Similarly, even in the world of cosmetics, there are probably Eastern and Western schools of thought on the methods of pursuing beauty.

Things that change with the environment and times, and things that do not. The same applies to culture, the arts, and brands.

Even the ceiling of the atelier was painted by Allan himself
After a day of learning, they left the solemn space behind them

Finally, a talk session was held. The most interesting topic brought up in this discussion was about the differences in how people perceive color. The participants commented that consumers overseas tend to perceive packaging presented in pale colors as something that is characteristically Japanese. In response, Allan explained his own views of this observation.

West I, too, have been told that "This is not a Japanese color" when I show works painted in primary colors to Westerners. Yet, ostentatious colors are frequently used in long-sleeved kimono and festivals. Conversely, when I see pale colors, an image of Europe appears in my mind, such as fields with light blue flowers in bloom, or pastel-colored streets. Since our imagination springs from our respective thoughts and ideas, the artist is able to limit the scope to some extent. However, I think the rest of it can only be left to the imagination of the person looking at the picture.

Japan has monochromatic ink paintings as well as multicolored woodblock prints. Probably there are also many people who feel that folding screens decorated with gold leaves are distinctly Japanese. After listening to the discussion, Group Manager Osamu Yamanouchi commented, "For 'Nihonga,' there is great diversity ranging from gorgeous, showy pieces to simple pieces. The fact that we can tell it is a piece of 'Nihonga' work regardless of which variation we are looking at, is because there is somehow a sense of uniformity in the way they are produced. The same probably applies to brands. Even for a completely different creation, we can somehow tell that it is a product by Shiseido. It would be interesting if we could identify what we should preserve, and what we can change." Hence, the talk seems to have triggered thoughts about the character of Shiseido.

Furthermore, the way of perceiving colors varies not only from person to person, but also changes depending on the environment. For his commissioned works, Allan also verifies beforehand the location where the work will be placed, and uses paints that are suitable for the lighting conditions in that location. He is constantly engaged in a process of trial-and-error. As for the alcove, which has traditionally been a dark space, it is now often equipped with LED lights. For this reason, he explains that he creates hanging scrolls to make them appreciated in dark places as well as well-lit space.

West Painting a suitable hanging scroll for the present time calls for various creative efforts. However, dimmable LED has recently emerged on the market, making it possible to achieve a degree of brightness that is similar to the light produced by a candle. I think this creates more ways in which paintings can be enjoyed, and I believe things will become more interesting hereon.

After the workshop ended, a number of participants were still seen admiring Allan's works displayed in the gallery. As Art Director Rena Uemura described, "I gained a renewed perception of Japanese philosophy as something that is very free, flexible, and rich. Paintings are not the only aspects of life that have developed while incorporating the flows of the times, such as overseas influences, changes in the living environment, and development of lighting technology; we can also say the same for culture, art, industry, and all other aspects of life." In addition to understanding the essence of tradition, the participants appear to have also gained a renewed awareness of the importance of adapting to the times.

Four workshops were held based on the themes of "Chanoyu," "Kyogen," "Go," and "Nihonga." All of these are forms of communication that are established only when a partner exists. In this sense, they should have much in common with the work of the members of the Creative Division, whose work is related to advertising and packaging design. How will the members of the Division, who have learnt about the Japanese aesthetic sense from the perspective of foreigners, apply this experience? Keep your eyes peeled for their upcoming achievements.

  • Michael Redmond | Professional Go Player
    Professional "Go" player born in the State of California, United States. He is a 9th-dan player, a member of the Nihon Ki-in (Japan Go Association) and American Go Association, and a student of Yusuke Oeda, who is a 9th-dan "Go" player. He is one of the few professional "Go" players from the United States, and was also the first Western player to reach 9th-dan. He participates actively in "Go" tournaments, and was a runner-up in the Shinjin-O tournament.
  • Allan West | Nihonga Artist
    Nihonga (Japanese painting) artist from Washington D.C., United States. He began oil painting at the age of eight. While participating in a volunteer group as a student at the School of Art at Carnegie Mellon University, he happened to be dispatched to Japan, and that was when he came to learn about Nihonga techniques. Since then, he has been active as an artist. He has held private exhibitions around the world, including the Smithsonian Art Museum. In 1999, he established "Edokoro Allan West," an art gallery and atelier in Yanaka, where he now practices Nihonga, Byobu-e (painting on folding screens), and Kakejiku (painting on hanging scrolls), among others.
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