Felice Beato and Kimbei Kusakabe, Photographers of 1800s Japan

Kusakabe Kimbei - Girls shhowing the back styleThe mid-to-late 1800s marked a shift in Japanese history: the Meiji Restoration. The old guard, the Tokugawa Shogunate, with their isolationist attitudes were overthrown, and Japan began a miraculous modernization movement. When you consider the shift, it is amazing. Japan went from being primarily agriculturally-based in 1853 when Commodore Matthew Perry of the US forced Japan to open to trade to the modernized military juggernaut of World War II just 86 years later. Most of us focus on military developments during this time, but the arts also flourished. Photography entered Japan just as woodblock prints, ukiyo-e, were the main form of popular art. Ukiyo-e laid the groundwork for Japanese photograph and their lovely hand-colored work.

Photography entered Japan through Nagasaki, the only trading port where the Tokugawa government allowed foreign traders, in 1848 (Gartlan, 2006). In 1854, photographer Eliphalet Brown Jr. return with Perry and took the first known photograph in Japan (Luppino, 2009). Soon after Japan opened, other photographers invaded, and they discovered a culture open to their art. The subjects of ukiyo-e–actors, geisha, sumo wrestlers, and landscapes–became popular subjects for the new tourist photography market. The port city of Yokohama became the center of this new industry. Almost 90% of photographs exported from Japan at the time came from Yokohama (Luppino, 2009). At the time, Westerners were fascinated by Japanese culture. Photographers saw the business opportunity of providing souvenir photos for tourists and selling photo books to people in Europe who weren’t able to travel to Japan. Felice Beato was the first to capitalize on this interest.

Felice Beato, Father of Japanese Photography

Yokohama Samurai

Yokohama Samurai

Born in Corfu, Italy Felice Beato (c1825-1907) became the first photographer to specialize in war photography. We know little about his early life, but he was known as an eccentric who favored colorful language and business scheming. After learning photography from his brother-in-law James Robertson–who married Beato’s sister in 1855, Beato joined Robertson on an expedition to photograph the Crimean War between Britain and Russia. The next year, Robertson sent Beato back to photograph the war’s aftermath, where Beato started his practice of arranging corpses for emotional effect. Robertson and Beato used a secret dry-plate method that allowed them to photograph in the field. The wet-plate photography at the time wasn’t suited for weather conditions and other issues associated with war photography. Their new technique allowed them to do what previous photographers couldn’t. Robertson and Beato traveled around the Mediterranean until Beato left for India in 1858 to photograph the massacre of Indian rebels fighting against Britain. Over the next 2 years, he worked as the semi-official photographer for the British army.

In the same year, Chinese tried to stop Britain’s export of Indian opium into China, and the British retaliated by attacking and sinking most of the Chinese navy and invading China. Beato traveled with the army throughout its campaign, taking photos of the aftermath of the war. His 100 photographs are the only surviving images of China before the 1870s. After returning to London, Beato decided to travel back to the Far East and settled in Yokohama, Japan for the next 20 years where he made several hundred images of Japan. Beato’s photos ranged from Japan’s landscape and architecture to its people. Considered the father of Japanese photography, his work provided the only record of the country during the 1860s.  He retained his interest in war photography: in 1871, the United States Navy appointed him the official photographer for their attack on Korea. After losing all of his money at the Yokohama silver exchange’s speculative market, he settled in Mandalay, Burma where he founded a photographic studio and sold local arts and crafts through the mail. He died in Burma in 1907 (Wilson, n.d; Gartlan, 2006).

Beato’s Influence on Japanese Photography

Felice Beato - The executioner

Felice Beato – The executioner

Beato’s studio set the standards for Japanese photography at the time, and his work shaped how Europeans and Americans viewed Japan. His work also shaped how Japan developed a new self-identity as the country transformed from a feudal society to an industrial society. Beato’s photographs helped Japan become aware of its appearance to the rest of the world. Luckily, he took Japanese culture seriously and tried to educate Westerners by adding descriptive captions below the photos. Instead of following western photographic conventions at the time, he tried to bring a Japanese aesthetic to his work. He like to photograph moments on the streets of Yokohama and arrange them in his studio when he could not (Luppino, 2009).

Beato’s studio inspired Japanese photographers to open their own studios, but the first native studios suffered from lack of resources and expertise. Shimooka Renjo (1823-1914) opened the first Japanese-operated studio in Yokohama. Uchida Kuichi (1845-1875) managed to attract the attention of Yokohama’s foreign residents but failed to get the interest of rich foreign travelers (Gartlan, 2006). However, Beato also employed many Japanese as assistants, giving them the training and connections they would need to succeed where other Japanese-owned studios failed. Beato hired ukiyo-e artists and colorists to paint photographs. In fact, Yokohama photography became associated with fine hand-colored photographs, painting details as fine as fingernails. These assistants became the pool that allowed Japanese photography to move away from foreign studios. Among these assistants arose Kusakabe Kimbei.

Kusakabe Kimbei, The Most Prolific Yokohama Photographer

View of Imaichi at Nikko Road by Kimbei Kusakabe

View of Imaichi at Nikko Road by Kimbei Kusakabe

Kusakabe Kimbei  (1841-1934) left his home in Kofu at the age of 15 or 16 to work at Beato’s studio. After 18 years of working with Beato, he set out to found is own studio in 1881 where he would produce 60% of surviving Yokohama photographs, making him the most prolific photographer of the time (Newton, 2008; Wakita, 2009). While Beato had respect for Japanese customs and tried to capture Japanese aesthetics, Kimbei used photography to capture the vanishing world of traditional Japan. At the time, women across all social classes were adopting Western hair styles and dress. Kimbei preferred to photograph tradition fashion, and he resisted Western introduced poses, such as women holding interlocked hands and other romanticized poses (Wakita, 2009). Instead, Kimbei embraced the bijinga, or pictures of beautiful women, tradition in ukiyo-e and adapted the woodblock print’s compositions.

He primarily hired geisha to pose for him for several reasons. First, social class mattered, and ordinary women wouldn’t pose because of their awareness of their class and of the wide audience the photographs would reach. Geisha were more comfortable with this because of their social status and because of their profession’s visibility. They also didn’t subscribe as readily to the concerns surrounding photography during its early years. Some people thought photography would steal the model’s life-blood, or cause a man’s shadow to weaken–I’m not sure exactly why this is a concern. Some thought every third person sitting in a photograph would die or suffer a shortened life span for each sitting they did (Wakita, 2009).

Because of this, Kimbei resorted to using just a few famous geisha. In fact, we even know their names: O-en, Ponta, Momoko, Tsumako, Azuma. and Miyako. However, this association of geisha and photography led to the public viewing geisha photographs as erotic works. A story in Tokyo shin hanjoki  talks about the embarrassment of young boys who were teased by other people as they tried to buy photographs of geisha (Wakita, 2009). Despite this, bijinga photos became popular. He often depicted women painting, reading, and playing instruments– the same type of scenes found in ukiyo-e. Women appeared as cultivated and traditional.

The Importance of Yokohama Photographs

Jinrikisha by Kusakabe Kimbei

Jinrikisha by Kusakabe Kimbei

Beato and Kimbei’s work, in particular, defined the period and how people thought of Japan at the time. They provided a window for the West to look into. At the time, Japan was an exotic place few knew anything about. While the Yokohama photographs catered to this audience, they also showed a country in a state of change. Old customs fell away as new, western ideas entered and mingled with tradition. Admittedly, some photographers of this period created works that would later be used to fuel the racial profiling and ranking by those in the West. On the whole. Yokohama’s wonderful hand-colored photos introduced a level of artistry that changed how people in the West considered photography.

Yokohama’s photographs helped lay the foundation for the export of anime and manga and other Japanese media. They introduced a sliver of Japanese culture that allowed people in the West to become familiar with the culture, even if at a superficial level. Over time, Japanese aesthetics, with a little Western convention to make them comfortable, became accepted. It wasn’t such a big deal to see people in kimono. This gradual trend sped up after World War II when the United States had more direct contact with Japanese culture during the occupation. However, Yokohama and the work of people like Lafcadio Hearn, who introduced the West to Japanese stories, laid the groundwork for the anime and manga we enjoy now. Yokohama photography marks the first time a Japanese-Western product was made and exported.  Manga and anime are also Japanese-Western products. Yokohama photographs tell stories in their own way; again, as manga and anime does.

Whereas Yokohama photograph combines Western technology with Japanese aesthetics, anime and manga reverse this. Anime and manga pull Western aesthetics, particularly those of Walt Disney, and combine with them Japanese technology. Over time, this created its own confluence of Japanese and Western styles we simply call the anime or manga style.

Finally, behind the photographs are people. We know next to nothing about Kimbei’s geisha models, but we can see them. We know their names more than a century later. Yokohama photographs, although they were meant for tourists, provide a glimpse at the lives of people long gone. They provide a glimpse at their stories. While today we don’t think images are a big deal–they are everywhere, after all–at the time they were shocked, awed, interested, frightened, and inspired. They allowed people to save a memory or see something they would never otherwise see. The demand for Yokohama photos and their subject matter reveals the interest people in the West had for Japan. The uniqueness of Japanese culture captured the imagination of the time and catered to an interest in something “pure.” That is, untainted by industrialization and mercantilism. Yes, this was an idealization, even a fetishization, of Japanese culture, but it came from a genuine interest in learning how other people live. The reasons behind why a photograph was taken matters as much as the subject of the image.

All of this aside, the Yokohama photos are simply beautiful. I’ve included a collection of them for you to enjoy.


Gartlan, Luke (2006) Types or Costumes? Reframing Early Yokohama Photographyt. Visual Resources 22 (3) 239-263.

Luppino, Tony (2009) Koshashin” A New Collection of Early Japanese Photography Captures a Moment of Change in 19th Century Japan. Arts of Asia 39 (3) 142-149.

Newton, G. (2008). Local heroes of early photography in Asia and the Pacific. Artonview, (53), 36-39.

Wakita, Mio (2009). Selling Japan: Kusakabe Kimbei’s Image of Japanese Women. History of Photography. 33 (2). 209-223.

Wilson, Michael (n.d.) Beato, Felice. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/41130

You can find most of these photographs at the New York Library Digital Collections, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection.


Manga and Your Mind: Manga, Autism, and the Benefits of Reading

One Punch man helps those with autism.Manga is good for your brain. Yep. You’ve read that right. In fact, reading manga may give you an advantage over those, like me, who grew up reading only traditional books. Manga benefits those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) too.

The medium requires a different set of skills than reading traditional books. Not to say traditional books are bad for your mind. It’s just that manga challenges the brain in different ways. Even Western comics like Batman and Superman don’t benefit your mind as manga does. Manga relies on images more for story telling then Western comics do. They have more images and fewer words (Rozema, 2015). The media has several layers of reading: images, words, Japanese onomatopoeia, and its own visual language. This combination means “…even proficient readers of English—who are not experienced with this level of multi-modality and have been socialized into more traditional, nonhypertext, storylines—may find manga, as we do, to be a challenging read (Schwartz, 2006).”

I’ve covered Japanese visual language and Japanese onomatopoeia. They combine to create a unique interplay between Japanese and Western cultures. Manga also has different identities and contexts that result from Japanese culture. All of which the reader needs to decipher. The immediacy of images, and the secondary nature of words, means readers can’t rely on explanations as with traditional books. It’s easier for books to explain a cultural context than an image which just shows that context and leaves it to the readers to understand it. But that gap is what makes manga good for our minds.

Reading manga requires practice

This spread from One Piece shows the complexity of manga reading. You’ll see the Japanese sound effect is a part of the artwork of the ship panel. The art shows the chaos and the action of the ship being split in two. The left panel’s vertical reading balances the right side’s chaos and action, giving the gaze a bit of a respite. It also serves to highlight the characters. The author drew the ship’s crew far smaller than the more important characters on the left panel.This helps with the reading flow.

Because English lacks the same number of onomatopoeia as Japanese, many manga translations leave the original Japanese intact. Over time, readers learn to decipher these fonts and words and associate them with certain types of actions. This is multimodal thinking can work without needing to look up a translation or transliteration. Although this can help. Multimodal thinking happens without our awareness. It comes from an accumulation of experiences with manga. That is part of the reason why regular manga readers don’t struggle with reading the book “backward” and reading pages right to left, left to right, and horizontally across two pages. As readers get involved with the story, they learn to read the rhythm of the images and follow them along with the text without much thought behind it. Learning happens without awareness.

Manga’s nonlinear storytelling requires readers to remember dozens of subplots and characters. Many deal with different viewpoints, such as gender swapping stories, along with coming-of-age stories and genres like Boy’s Love. “Thus, it is possible that manga story lines not only afford readers a nonlinear, rich imaginative read of the world but also tap into an array of complexities in human experiences toward which young adults seem to feel great affinity (Schwartz, 2006).” Manga reading skills transfer to other multimodal media that require reading images and words together. It encourages multidimensional thinking.

Anime and Autism

The immediacy of emotions in manga images helps those with autism.

From the manga Kimi no Iru Machi. The immediacy of these images and few words convey the emotions of the story without us needing to read the story.

The multimodal nature of manga may be why it helps those with ASD. While there isn’t a single usual case of ASD, there are 2 board diagnostic criteria (Rozema, 2015):

  1. deficits in social communication
  2. restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities

Manga falls under the second criteria. Its focus on images and its visual language may appeal to teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and many autistic people are better at processing images than words (Rozema, 2015).

Manga’s visual language focuses on emotion. The manga face follows a general template–pointed chin, small nose, small mouth, large eyes–which is distinctly manga. The face is designed for emotional exaggeration, leaving hair, accessories, and details to separate one character from the next. Many with autism struggle with reading expressions, but manga faces exaggerate and simplify expressions, making them easier to read. The fact manga faces always look like manga faces allows teens with ASD to recognize them. Then the simple design feature that identifies each character helps those teens draw distinctions among those faces (Rozema, 2015). Think: Naruto’s cheek whiskers.

Manga also provides an ocean of information to dive into. There are hundreds of stories with a vast array of characters to learn. Dragonball has more than 500 chapters of characters, settings, and storylines to learn. Manga is meant to be disposable, printed on cheap paper as it is and rapidly produced. Yet, this creates depth through its sheer quantity. And most of it follows an established visual language, which allows readers to easily slip from world to world without having to relearn anything other than the rules for that story world. This helps those with ASD enjoy a wide array of stories. Many with ASD enjoy learning and memorizing a vast body of information surrounding their interest (Rozema, 2015).

Beyond the learning benefits, manga provides a shared interest that allows people to socialize easier. Because of this, manga provides a sanctuary for those who have high-functioning ASD. Manga attracts those who aren’t inclined toward verbal language so social awkwardness is fairly common and accepted.

Reading difficulty varies across manga, but all of them use cinematic storytelling methods.

From Shokugeki no Soma. This page is easier to read than One Piece’s spread, but it follows the same principles. Manga sits between reading a book and watching a film. You’ll notice in this page the cinematic techniques–establishing place shots, character close-up, a cut-shot, and a zoom-out–used in film. The designs and expressions tell the story while the text supports those visual elements.

Multimodal skills–the ability to decipher images and words and cultural contexts–help people succeed. Globalization with its cross-cultural interaction allows people with multimodal skills to thrive because they can better reason through language and cultural barriers. These skills also allow people to better navigate the glut of information that surrounds us. They can process image information faster and with more flexibility which is important with how the Internet pervades most aspects of work and life. Manga reading makes your mind more flexible because of how it encourages you to read right to left, left to right, images, Japanese onomatopoeia, Japanese cultural details, and more. This allows you to be more open to different cultures too.

Don’t sell manga reading short. Its reliance on images for narration benefits you as images and videos increasingly take over the written word’s dominance. Of course, there will always be a place for words and prose. Everyone should learn both skill sets.


Rozema, Robert (2015) Manga and the Autistic Mind. English Journal. 105 (1) 60-68.

Schwartz, Adam & Rubinstein-Avila, Eliane (2006) Understanding the Manga Hype: Uncovering the Multimodality of Comic-Book Literacies. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 50 (1) 40-49.


Sex, Zen, and Poetry. The Life of Ikkyu Sojun

A portrait of Ikkyu SojunWhen we think of monks, we think of bald guys sitting around praying and studying all day long. Monks shirk women, booze, and other worldly pleasures. Back in the 15th century, one Zen monk turned this tradition on its back. Ikkyu Sojun decided to be true to himself and that meant regular trips to brothels. Ikkyu decided to challenge the established practices of Zen by doing the opposite.

Ikkyu was born into the imperial household in1394 as the unrecognized child of the Emperor Gokomatsu. For reasons we don’t know, his mother fled the court before Ikkyu was born. We know little about her. In her only surviving letter, written shortly before her death, she urged Ikkyu to become such an outstanding priest that he might consider Shaka and Daruma, fathers of Zen Buddhism, his servants (Keene, 1966; Qui, 2001). In a postscript, she added a line that reveals a hint of her personality:

The man who is concerned only with expedients is no better than a dung-fly. Even if you know by heart the 80,000 holy teachings,unless you open to the full the eyes of your Buddhist nature, you will never be able to understand even what I have written in this letter.

His mother sent him to Ankokuji in Kyoto as an acolyte at the age of 5. For the next 10 years, he trained in Buddhist scriptures and Chinese classics. Ikkyu developed a reputation as a master of Chinese poetry, some of his earliest surviving poems dates to when he was between 12 and 14 years old.  In his teens, he grew tired of the status seeking of the temple and left to become a disciple of Ken’o Soi, an eccentric Zen master who refused to accept his seal of transmission, a document that certified his enlightenment and status as a Zen master. Ikkyu stayed with Ken’o until Ken’o’s death in 1414.

A surviving example of Ikkyu's handwriting. 15th century. Tokyo National Museum.

A surviving example of Ikkyu’s handwriting. 15th century. Tokyo National Museum.

After this, Ikkyu joined another hermitage under the harsh master Kaso. Kaso appears to have soured Ikkyu to the Zen establishment.  In 1420, Ikkyu had an enlightenment experience at the age of 26. During a late summer night, as the rain clouds hung low over a lake, Ikkyu sat in meditation in a small boat when he heard crows call. He suddenly cried out as realization struck him. After this experience, he became a Zen master in his own right; however, when Kaso presented the seal of transmission, Ikkyu refused it like his previous master did. This began his crazy career as a brothel regular and protester of established Zen.

Ikkyu believed in the Zen idea of the unity of opposites, the idea that light and dark were one. Despite his antics, Ikkyu took Zen seriously and attacked anyone he deemed lacking in sincere Zen spirit. In his poems, he loved to contrast the practice of Zen with explicit descriptions of sex. During his lifetime, Ikkyu saw the superficial Heian period end and the beginning of the Kamakura period. The Heian period’s flashiness rubbed off on the Zen establishment, troubling Ikkyu. One day, Ikkyu lost a favorite ink stick and became so upset he became sick. He used this to point out the superficial focus of his age (Qiu, 2001):

Aah, in today’s world, people are all crazy about treasures and wealth; to them an ink stick would be no more than a broken straw sandal. But I almost lost my life over a missing ink stick. I wonder if those who have many desires would feel a little shame when they heard this poem.

The transition between the Heian period to the Kamakura marked a time of violence. Ikkyu lived through wars between samurai families, peasant rebellions, and the destruction of Kyoto, the city of the Emperor. This time of upheaval explains why he tried to use pleasure and poetry to get through to people. Most of his poetry sliced at established Zen for allowing corruption to shape their purpose:

From the world of passions,

I return to the world beyond passions,

A moment of pause.

If the rain is to fall, let it fall;

If the wind is to blow, let it blow.

Ikkyu favored brothels over temples as places to meditate. It’s likely brothels provided a more receptive audience than monasteries for his teachings. Ikkyu taught sexual desire was a natural need, like the need for water. Denying sexual desire broke the purpose of Zen, which is to help a person discover their true nature. Sexual desire, according to Ikkyu, was a part of a person’s nature. In the poem titled “Fisherman” he denounces the values of Zen communities:

Learning the Way and studying Zen, one loses the Original Mind.

A fisherman’s song is worth a thousand pieces of gold.

Evening rain on Xiang River, the moon amid the clouds of Chu—

It’s boundless furyu to chant poems night after night.

Ikkyu not only ignored the practice of celibacy, but he also ignored grooming practices, sporting hair and a beard instead of the bald, clean shaven practices require of monks. A portrait drawn by his disciple Bokusai shows his unseemly appearance–to the eyes of other Zen priests Ikkyu looked unseemly (Keene, 1966). On New Year’s Day, Ikkyu would parade through the streets with a staff topped with a human skill to drive home the impermanence of life. Shock served Ikkyu well.

Ikkyu’s Furyu

A shunga painting based on Ikkyu's work.

A shunga painting based on one of Ikkyu’s pieces.

Furyu is a hard concept to define, and it stands at the heart of Ikkyu’s erratic behavior as a priest. The concept changed across the various periods of Japan. During the Heian period, furyu referred to the sensuous beauty of artificial objects and art. During the Edo period, long after Ikkyu’s death, the word came to focus on eroticism. Sex and sensuality remained attached to the word. Ikkyu’s furyu is best considered “an aesthetic of unconventionality celebrates the freest mind, which, to the orthodox point of view, is crazy and eccentric (Qiu, 2001).” This idea explains why Ikkyu frequented brothels. His antics tried to shake up the thinking of the time, breaking everything thought to define Zen Buddhism.  Ikkyu’s furyu retained its attachment with sexuality when he used the word in his poetry:

Furyu of the age, a fair lady;

Love songs, delicate feast, melodies exceptionally novel.

Singing a new song, I lot my heart to her lovely face and dimples,

As the flowering haitang [Chinese crabapple tree] of the Tianbao time, Mori, you are a sapling in the spring.

“Seeing My Beautiful Mori Taking a Nap,” uses furyu to equate Mori’s beauty as the peak of sensuousness. The Chinese crabapple tree was a symbol for beautiful women in Chinese poetry. Ikkyu used the word in both the expected way of the period and in his own way, adding to the complicated understanding of the word.

Ikkyu’s poetry reveals this complication through contrast. One moment he expresses doubt toward the value of the pleasure district:

Ten years in the gay quarters, and still I couldn’t exhaust the pleasures;

But I broke away and am living here in empty mountains and dark valleys.

In these favorable surroundings clouds blot out the world.

Then he turns around and writes as if he had no doubts about his way of life being compatible with Zen:

To sleep with a beautiful woman?

what a deep river of love!

Upstairs in a tall building the old Zen priest is singing.

I’ve had all the pleasure of embraces and kisses

With never a thought of sacrificing myself for others.

Ikkyu’s life acts as a koan. Despite his dislike for establishment, he became an abbot in 1474 of Daitokuji and managed to ease the conflicts between Daitokuji and Myoshinji schools of Zen. But his feelings about being an abbot remained mixed as his bitter poems from this period shows. He leaves the position shortly after taking it and returned to his previous lifestyle. In his final years, Ikkyu wrote erotic poems about a blind singer named Mori. He died in 1481 at 87 years old.

Ikkyu’s Legacy

A portrait of Ikkyu SojunIkkyu lived a life of contrasts. He knew the austere life of a traditional monk at an early age, and he knew the life of indulgent pleasures to be had at brothel and bar. Even for his time, his eccentricities were hard to understand. He spent his life slicing at establishment, showing how the extreme withdrawal from sexual desires was the same as indulging in them. He advocated for a balanced view by showing sexual desire was no different than thirsting for water.He denounced how the great Zen temples focused on increasing their wealth and power.

His messages strangely resonate with modern Christians. Christianity today focuses upon traditional purity and appearance while wealth and power corrupts churches. Ikkyu, in his crazy way, points out how religion labels everything in a ritualistic way, creating artificial divisions. These artificial divisions get in the way of understanding reality.

Ikkyu’s poems and prose capture a time of change and a complicated, eccentric figure in Japanese history.

I’ve left in the temple the things I’ve always used,

My wooden spoon and bamboo plate, hung up east of the wall.

I don’t want your useless furniture around me;

For years a peasant’s hat and cloak have been enough.


Keene, Donald (1966) The Portrait of Ikkyu. Archives of Asian Art. 20. 54-65.

Qiu, Peipei (2001) Aesthetic of Unconventionality: Furyu in Ikkyu’s Poety. Japanese Language and Literature. 35 (2). 135-156.

Sojun, Ikkyu and James Sanford (1980) Mandalas of the Heart. Two Prose Works by Ikkyo Sojun. Monumenta Nipponica. 35 (3). 273-298.

Living a Wabi Sabi Life

A woodblock print of Lake BiwaWabi-sabi doesn’t have an equivalent English word. The phrase itself is rather fun to say: wabi-sabi. The phrase describes an aesthetic, a feeling, that underlies our experiences of art and landscapes. The phrase contains two words that, though similar, work together to describe what we in the West would call nostalgic tragedy.

Wabi can mean melancholic, unassuming, solitary, calm, still, impoverished, or unpretentious. The classic scene of wabi is a landscape with an abandoned fisherman’s shack. Sabi can mean ancient, mature, lonely, solitary, and melancholic. It focuses on wear, age, and patina. It’s best to think about a wooden tool or piece of wooden furniture that has been worn smooth from use (Covello, 1995).  The words combine to describe the feeling of humble dignity some objects possess due to their age and state of being forgotten.

I’ve felt wabi-sabi long before I’ve encountered the word. I love ruins, and I don’t use the word love lightly in that statement. I feel a deep attraction for the forgotten and overlooked and broken perfection of a crumbling shack in the woods or a hammer left in a field or a moldering book forgotten in a bookstore. The mix of sadness and sweetness and respect fills me with joy. That’s the thing about wabi-sabi, its a mix of contradicting emotions and appreciation. Sadness toward the isolated forgetting of a once-appreciated object. Joy toward its beautiful, broken perfection. Calmness toward its solitude.

Wabi-sabi comes from Zen’s fusing of opposites, removing the distinction between the beautiful and the ordinary (Kondo, 1985).  Wabi-sabi is best considered as the realization that nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect. At the same time, the realization also builds the opposites: everything lasts in its unlasting, everything is finished in its unfinishing, everything is perfect in its imperfections. A house may crumble, but its memory and its unseen impact lasts; the house’s change is never finished as it crumbles and changes form. A crumbling house is perfectly imperfect–it is what it is. At its core, wabi-sabi is the acceptance and appreciation of reality as it is. It doesn’t seek to change the nature of reality or deny the truth of impermanence. Instead, it embraces it.

Living a Wabi-sabi Life

Forgotten farm house gives an example of wabi-sabiAlthough wabi-sabi is an aesthetic, we can apply its idea to our lives. After all, we are all broken, crumbling shacks buffeted by ocean winds. You see, modern life has taught us that we have to be painted, polished, shiny, young, and new. But that message denies reality. We are aging, breaking, scarring, wrinkling, failing, and imperfect. Modern messages also deny the fact that we are constantly changing in viewpoints as we experience life. Flip-flopping is the negative political term, but wabi-sabi embraces change. It’s okay to change your mind, just as a shack will crumble under the rain. Yet, the end jumble is a step closer to what is true. Changing your mind results from living.

So what would a wabi-sabi life look like? Much like your life now, only with a little more awareness. Okay, I know that isn’t helpful. That’s the thing about any idea from Zen, it’s more about paying attention than forcing change. After all, we can’t change something without first seeing what needs change. And often just seeing what needs changed, changes it. I’ve seen that with myself. I’ve changed without making an effort to change. In fact, that’s how we all work. Change happens on its own without our effort. Of course, this undirected change isn’t always beneficial. That’s where awareness comes in. It allows us to direct the process of change.

In any case, a wabi-sabi life entails:

  • Realizing your imperfections as perfections
  • Embracing solitude
  • Cultivating calmness
  • Accepting the reality of aging
  • Accepting melancholy

You are perfect as you are. It sounds saccharine, but just as the rust spot on a hammer is perfectly imperfect, you too are the same. The concept of perfect isn’t rooted in reality. It is some idea, some “should,” that some other person came up with. Society eventually agreed that perfect constitutes a certain “this” that rarely matched reality,

A woodblock print of a lonely island.Solitude is something that many people struggle with accepting. After all, modern society has a bias toward extroversion. However, it is only through solitude that you can come to truly know yourself. If you are with other people, they will color your view. In fact, they will continue to color your view even when you are alone until you learn to quiet them and sit with yourself. Too much solitude isn’t healthy either, but right now, people skew toward too much socialness. Cultivating calmness ties together with solitude too. You can only be calm when  you accept yourself and know yourself.

Media makes us believe we should always be young and happy. Reality, well, is different. Yeah this sounds obvious but acceptance is different from knowing. You and I have to die. We will have good days and bad days. We will feel depressed and sad. That is reality. Feeling melancholy doesn’t mean you have to suffer. Suffering happens when our ideas of how things should be clashes with how they truly are. Accepting reality helps curb suffering by throwing away our ideas of “should.”

Simplicity sits at the core of the wabi-sabi aesthetic. Simplicity centers on perspective more than possessions. Having less stuff does tend to create a simpler life, but so does wanting what you already have. Simplicity doesn’t mean you throw out what you own. Rather, it means you appreciate what you own and accept how objects age and break. It means doing less and striving for less. When you appreciate objects, you need fewer. Of course, I’ve read old Japanese accounts from tea masters lamenting how their patrons collected wabi-sabi teapots and miss the point of wabi-sabi in the first place.

Wabi-sabi isn’t a life style like Zen. It’s an aesthetic, a feeling. But it can be a perspective that helps you live a more appreciative, peaceful life. The most important aspect of wabi-sabi is the realization that imperfection is perfect. Imperfection–never meeting anyone’s “shoulds”–characterizes life. Accepting this goes a long way to making life better, and wabi-sabi encourages us to see the beauty in this. It works against media messages and the messages of advertising. Next time you see a broken hammer, rusting car, or a crumbling house, stop for a moment and pay attention to it. Notice the feelings it generates in you.  Appreciate its patina and take the experience of wabi-sabi with you.


Covello, Vincent (1995). The Japanese art of stone appreciation: suiseki and the aesthetic pursuit of wabi sabi, shibui, and yugen. Arts of Asia. 25 (1). 95-100.

Kondo, Dorinne (1985) The Way of Tea: A Symbolic Analysis. Man. 20 (2). 287-306.

An Afternoon at Dr. Makoto Nakamura’s Zen Garden

Recently, I heard about a genuine Zen garden hidden away in Ohio. So of course I had to take a look. The garden was originally designed and built in 1963 by Dr. Makoto Nakamura of Kyoto University as a cultural exchange program. It has all the traditional Zen elements: a raked gravel garden with islands of stone, a koi pond with islands and bridges and a tea garden with stones that leads to a meditation house. The meditation house was a great place to relax and enjoy some frozen custard, by the way. The garden nestles in a larger garden and preserve complex (nearly 2,000 acres)  with woodlands, grasslands, wetlands, swamps, lakes, rare Chinese redwoods (part of a preservation project), and more. I also browsed their bonsai collection that included a tree that was first planted in 1958.

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The art of benshi: The voices of silent film

At the end of January, I had the privilege to witness a benshi performance, which impressed me immensely. Finally, it led to me writing this blog post. So, what am I actually talking about?

In Japan, silent films were never truly silent

despair Tokyo March silent film

A still from the 1929 silent film “Tokyo March”

Western audiences may be faintly aware that in the first cinemas, at least a pianist used to accompany silent films, if there wasn’t an entire orchestra at hand. As we still experience today, music is very effective in conveying emotion, atmosphere, and a sense of urgency or suspense regarding the story unfolding on screen.

But in Japan, they went far beyond that. The story of cinema in Japan begins with imports of western movies, showing scenes that were strange and exotic to Japanese viewers. Thus, these scenes needed explaining, and this is where the origin of the benshi lies. Literally, the word means ‘orator’ or ‘speaker’, and benshi started out as ‘film explainers’. Soon, however, they also became commentators, narrators, entertainers and voice actors. Some may pinpoint the development to a single person – “Somei Saburo was the first of these narrators who could be called a benshi. Rejecting the oft-assumed role of playing outside observer, Saburo chose to imitate, voice, and personify the characters depicted on the screen.”[i] – but a parallel development seems more likely.

The artists…

Owing to their origin as explainers of western ‘exotic’ contexts, benshi tended to dress in western attire, commonly tuxedo and top hat.

Sawata Midori benshi

Sawata Midori, allegedly the most famous contemporary benshi.

This trend continues until present day, as the most famous of today’s benshi, Sawato Midori, performs in suit and bow tie – despite the fact that, unusual for a benshi then and now, she is a woman. The benshi I watched, Kataoka Ichirō, is one of her students. At the beginning of the performance, he remarked that at the height of benshi popularity, in the 1920s, there were over a thousand of them active in Japan. The most popular of them earned more than the Prime Minister! In fact, cinema goers didn’t go to see a specific movie for its director or its actors so much as for the benshi performing it.[ii] Now, however, there are only about 10 benshi left, and (as Kataoka assured us) he, at least, earns significantly less than the Prime Minister.

In contrast to the tradition, Kataoka dresses in traditional Japanese garb for his performances. About half of the short films he showed to us that night were period pieces, however, so it fit with the general theme.

…and the medium

In the old days, benshi manipulated the films they showed as they saw fit. To this day, they script their own texts for each movie, including the dialogue, even if the original script is available. Their performance unfolds in addition to, or sometimes at odds with, the intertitles. Often, though, Japanese silent films would not even have intertitles, since the directors knew the benshi would take care of narrative coherence and transition. Now, if the benshi’s dialogue took longer to perform than the scene allowed for, he would just instruct the man at the projector to lower the projection speed a little.[iii] This also led to a tendency in Japanese early film to use long, uninterrupted shots to allow the benshi time for his performance. Of cause, if he found a sequence boring, he might turn it into a comedic interlude and crank up the speed to get it over with.

Silent movie animation Monkey Masamune

A still from the silent animated movie “The Monkeys’ Masamune”

In short, the main attraction was the vocal performance, and the film was only the raw material. Sometimes, the benshi would comment on the action, drawing attention to the fictitiousness of the story, in an almost Brechtian fashion.[iv] The relationship between film and ‘explanation’ was in fact reversed: “the images themselves being the illustration of an independently existing storyline.”[v]

Benshi might also use their position for political propaganda, as was the case with the war films during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904/5[vi]. Korean benshi likewise attempted to instigate rebellion against the Japanese colonial rule.[vii] The benshi‘s immense popularity was a major factor in the comparatively late start of sound film in Japan – but when progress finally took hold, the ‘talkies’ made the benshi obsolete.

Cultural contexts

Japan has a rich history of performance art, and the benshi can be linked to a number of them. The narrators of Kabuki theatre are prominent and visible.

Asou Yata Benshi

Benshi Asou Yata, sporting a very fitting mustache.

So is the chanter of bunraku puppet plays, who also lends his voice to the silent puppet characters, much like the benshi voice the actors on screen.[viii] Furthermore, oral narrative performance art has a long tradition.  In the Middle Ages, you could listen to biwa-hōshi, blind itinerant monks who recited war epics while accompanying themselves on a lute. To this day, there are performances of conversational comedy called rakugo.[ix] (Incidentally, the garments of rakugo performers may be another influence on Kataoka’s costume choice.) Even the master-student training system used by the benshi was adapted from other traditional Japanese arts.[x]

Because of these connections, benshi performing film were not a radically new thing, but rather a development based on older art forms. The links between theatre and film ran so deep that some theatres employed a number of benshi, some of them female, to feature in a single performance of “live dubbing”.[xi] For some time, there were also mixed shows, where part of the action was acted live on stage, part filmed beforehand and dubbed live.[xii]

Narrative: A performance of Kataoka Ichirō

Kataoka Ichiro benshi

Kataoka Ichirô, almost as I have seen him.

It is at the end of January, 2017, in Trier, an ancient but small city in western Germany, close to the borders of Luxembourg and France. The Romans have left some impressive ruins, and Karl Marx was born in one of the strangely diagonal streets south of the market square. Today, the Broadway cinema, in cooperation with the department of Japanese studies of Trier university, presents a short film screening with benshi narration. At that time, I’m struggling to pinpoint the thesis of my Master’s dissertation. I have no clear idea what a benshi is, but it sounds interesting – especially since one of the films on the list is about Jiraiya, the toad mage, for whom I have a soft spot. Upon arriving at the cinema, I buy a bottle of German lemonade with real caffeine and sit down with a book. The performer is here already, and I shyly admire the traditional Japanese clothing he wears. Two other students of Japanese Studies join me at my table and update me on the goings-on in the student council. One of them is very excited because, he says, he is interested in everything about the Taishō period (1912-26). We sit down in the higher part of the screening room; it has a seating capacity of about a hundred and is 2/3 full at least. Someone from cinema management says a few words of greeting and presents Kataoka, not without mispronouncing his name, of course. Then Kataoka introduces himself. He has a pleasant, tough not very remarkable, speaking voice and is quite proficient in English, which is, sadly, quite unusual for a Japanese. At first, the audience is somewhat hesitant to respond to him (German stiffness, probably), but they mellow during the first film.

Lump Theft and Monkeys’ Masamune

Silent movie animation Lump Theft

Tengus’ banquet scene from the silent animated film “Lump Theft”.

“I know this one”, I whisper to my neighbour, the Taishō enthusiast, as the screen flickers to grey and yellowish life. The first film is an animated short, about two old men with lumps and the karmic justice visited on them, quite by accident. “It’s on youtube.”[xiii]

How different it feels now, though! With the onset of the strange music – well, strange to modern Western ears at least, I cannot even discern the instruments – Kataoka’s performance beings. He does so in Japanese, of course, but someone has kindly provided subtitles, tailored to this specific event. As the introductory intertitle appears, the benshi’s voice turns into the solemn, melodious whine of a traditional Japanese narrator. He croaks like friendly raven once he voices the old man, produces the servile chatter of low-rank Tengu mountain goblins, as well as the rumbling laugh and growled anger of the goblin king. This feels just like anime now! If it weren’t for the moments when he, clearly on purpose, speaks even if characters are drawn with their mouths closed, or stays still when they seem to speak.

When that first movie is over, I am sitting on the edge of my seat for the next one, but that’s a fable with a somewhat dubious morale. A hunter trying to shoot an ape is wrong, but cutting a boar in half with a sword seems to be perfectly fine.[xiv] Between films, Kataoka gives us some facts in English about benshi practise and history.

Tarō’s Train

Taro's train live action

Little Tarô, absorbed in his new toy.

Taro's Train animation

Bad mannered hippos!

I am impressed by the third film because it mixes two styles we now mostly see as distinct. In a live-action sequence, a little boy receives a toy train from his father as a present. The dress and movement of the actors give me the feeling that historical knowledge only get you that far. This grainy movie has more life in it than any textbook on the Taishō era. Anyways, the boy finally goes to bed, enamoured with his new toy, and dreams of being a conductor. The dream sequence is animated; and full of anthropomorphic animals.[xv] It’s nice comedy and also instructive, explaining how to behave on a train. Seems to have been effective, since the Japanese are usually very pleasant, and quiet, train passengers. Kataoka takes the comedic tone of the piece to slip in a few jokes of his own, as one of ‘his’ characters metanarratively remarks on this being a black and white movie. In one instance, there was even a self-reflective joke in the subtitles!

Tokyo March

The movie I like best, though, is Tokyo March.[xvi] It’s a complicated, kabuki-esque plot of love found and lost, mistaken identity, rivalry and family secrets, and Kataoka excels in portraying the characters- from young men to an old woman, from the sad heroine to the lecherous and finally gilt-ridden father.

The heroine, foced to become a geisha, is weary of unwanted attention.

Japanese speech patterns, of course, are highly codified by age, gender, class/profession and region. Which intonation, harshness or softness of voice, and what pitch one uses, how one refers to oneself, how questions, commands and states of emotional excitement are marked with specific particles, differs according to these criteria. I guess that makes the benshi’s voice-acting possible, if complicated. As an additional treat, the ending of the movie had some insensely, um, homosocial lines, which made my inner fangirl squee.

bromance silent film classic

“My happiness will never be complete without you, Yoshiki.”


san-sukumi Jiraiya Tsunade Orochimaru

Frog VS Snake VS Slug, the classical threeway tie.

In fact, I keep forgetting the benshi’s presence because I get so absorbed in the characters and their story… I am only jolted out of it when Kataoka’s script diverges from the action. However, here he keeps a superb balance of immersion and alienation. By contrast, in his rendition of the Jiraiya movie, his narration seems to run off course a bit too much. He turns the confusing film into somewhat of a coherent story, but clearly this is only possible by intensively reinterpreting and repurposing the images. Perhaps I am getting tired, too. In any case, if you fancy a pretty young woman transforming into a slug, or warriors beaten back by lawn sprinklers, good entertainment, give it a try.[xvii] It’s the first special effects movie made in Japan, apparently.

The last film is a modern homage to silent film, and in direct contrast with the originals before, the difference is easy to spot. The pictures are too clear, the resolution too high, and the sudden tilts into yellow, blue or red seem exaggerated. There are scratch marks superimposed on the image, but it takes me only a few minutes to notice the repeating pattern. That being said, the story itself, about a jealous samurai and his bloody revenge, is interesting, and Kataoka once again amazes me with the variety of voices at his command.

Quite an experience, that was.


Oshin poster

Poster of the most popular “morning drama”, Oshin. This genre makes extensive use of voice-over narration, especially at the beginning of each episode.

Benshi may have all but disappeared, but they sure have left a mark on the Japanese visual narrative. It’s not just Kataoka’s amazing versatility, which reminded me of some modern-day anime voice actors. Or that anime sometimes employ similar speaking styles in voice-over narration. In general, Japanese film features wide angles and long takes – perhaps in memory of the benshi who once needed the time to perform. And finally, voice-over and concluding narration is relatively common in Japanese live-action TV, which might be a legacy of the benshi.[xviii]

In addition, after the advent of sound film, some benshi who had lost their jobs became kamishibai artists. Kamishibai or paper theatre is a street art combining hand-drawn slides and vocal narration.  It is seen a precursor of modern manga – the Manga Museum in Kyōto has a whole room dedicated to kamishibai, with an actor performing in period clothing. So, here we have another direct link with modern visual narrative.

Long story short, if you get the chance to see Kataoka or one of his colleagues perform, I strongly recommend going.

Notes and References

Website Sawato Midori: http://sawatomidori.com/eng/profile.html

An introduction of Kataoka Ichirō: http://hcl.harvard.edu/hfa/films/2012octdec/benshi.html

Video of a Kataoka Performance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W-SBXG4xY_M

[i] http://facets.org/blog/misc/the-tale-of-benshi-the-forgotten-heritage-of-japanese-silent-cinema

[ii] Yomota Inuhiko, transl. Uwe Hohmann: Im Reich der Sinne. 100 Jahre japanischer Film. Frankfurt am Main: Stroemfeld, 2007, p 26; see also J.L. Anderson: “Spoken Silents in the Japanese Cinema; or, Talking to Pictures: Essaying the Katsuben, Contextualizing the Texts”. In: Arthur Noletti Jr. & David Desser: Reframing Japanese Cinema. Authorship, Genre, History. Indiana UP, 1992, pp. 359-311, p. 261.

[iii] Yomota 2007: 44.

[iv] A slightly different take on the Brechtian comparision: http://www.altx.com/interzones/kino2/benshi.html

[v] Aaron Gerow: Visions of Japanese Modernity. Articulations of Cinema, Nation, and Spectatorship, Berkeley, Los Angeles & London: U of California P, 2010, p. 147.

[vi] http://aboutjapan.japansociety.org/content.cfm/a_brief_history_of_benshi. An extensive study of the open-endedness of the benshi performance, and the question if benshi closed or opened the interpretation of the filmic text, see Gerow 2010., chapter 4.

[vii] Yomota 2007: 44.

[viii] Anderson 1992: 265.

[ix] Yomota 2007: 45.

[x] Anderson 1992: 279.

[xi] Anderson 1992: 270. He uses the term katsuben, but I prefer beshi since that is the word Kataoka himself uses.

[xii] Anderson 1992: 271.

[xiii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ShzmzcJM7QI

[xiv] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wY9fEdt9NRI

[xv] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYyeT9PMNXo

[xvi] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0eVO94JQ1Y Sadly, this version has no sound at all, whereas this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AC1pPawxWGY has music but only french intertitles.

[xvii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xt9GRKpeDtU with subtitles, but no music.

[xviii] Suggestions of this kind are made by Anderson 1992: 293 and Yomota 2007: 27, 45.