The past year or so has seen an intense proliferation of what I like to call ‘Japanese lifestyle’ books. Certain bafflingly popular but – in my opinion – poorly written volumes on Ikigai and Wabi-sabi have taken UK bookshops by storm, but have arguably failed to really come close to what the concepts truly reflect. So I was interested to receive a copy of a new book on ‘Ikigai & other Japanese words to live by’ that takes a somewhat different approach to its subject matter.
Rather than lecture the reader through lengthy description in an effort at ‘understanding’, this book is refreshingly minimal in tone – using photos and poetry to allow the reader to ‘experience’ its concepts instead. Lending itself to a slow, contemplative reading experience, the black & white photography by Michael Kenna tastefully illustrates a series of terms ranging from the expected (wabi-sabi and ichigo ichie) to more surprising inclusions like fukinsei (poignancy in imbalance) and isagiyosa (egolessness). Paired to each section are also a selection of haiku poems as well as ‘expressive essay’ pieces from David Buchler, which – like the photos – go a long way in getting to the true heart of ‘feeling’ these concepts. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and this book certainly lives by that adage.
Much like Erin Niimi Longhurst’s surprisingly good Japonisme, through virtue of the author actually being Japanese, there is a cultural sensitivity to the topic that inevitably helps the contents feel far reflective and considered in tone. As a linguistics scholar, author Mari Fujimoto clearly has the intellectual clout to properly back up the descriptions too, and I think this comes through in the selection of the concepts, and how many of them emphasise routine and the ingraining of practices. It reminds me of why many people like reading decluttering expert Marie Kondo’s books so much, and how it is not even so much the actual act of cleaning they enjoy, but how she writes about cleaning. After all, lifestyle is arguably only lifestyle if it actually becomes a ‘style’ of living (and not simply a series of check-box-ticking ‘tips’).
One of the things I often struggle with in regard to these ‘Japanese lifestyle’ books is the idea of Japanese-ness (or at least a list-like series of Japanese concepts) as something codified – the essence of a nation distilled down to keywords to be ‘cracked’ and understood. In the intro, the author writes about how she often discusses how ‘the Japanese culture perceives ideas differently from the Western mindset’, and I think in a way this lies at the heart of why so many of these books fall short of their task. If we see mindset as a result of upbringing and environment, pieced together through landscapes, tastes, sounds and all the other myriad things we take for granted through our upbringing in a country – can that mindset, or the conditions that produce it, exist beyond the confines of that country? Is a ‘wabi-sabi’ experience outside of Japan the same kind of ‘wabi-sabi’ experienced in Japan, or is it even ‘wabi-sabi’ in the first place?
For what it’s worth though, I think this book – by focusing on the ‘experience’ of its concepts as opposed to lengthy ‘understanding through description’ – offers a far better effort than many of the existing books on the market. With a hardback binding and lovely, glossy pages to really help make the best of its photographs, and by eschewing Insta-ready ‘prettiness’ and self-help aphorisms, the book highlights how a simple yet quality-driven approach can often beat out face-value attractiveness.