What is Japanse “Iki” spirit?

"Iki", Aesthetics of the townspeople of Edo

Genji goshu yojo, by Utagawa Kunisada I

The word Iki is not used so often in modern Japan. However, even now, the word Iki is sometimes used to describe people’s behavior or shops. What is Iki, the aesthetic sense that Edo citizens in the early-modern times were proud of?

Definition of Iki (粋)

Kabuki Actor Urahashi Yasonosuke, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

“Iki” is one of the aesthetic values that originated in Japan during the Edo period (1603-1868). It is said that this word started to be used to describe “Tatsumi Geisha”, a group of geisha who were extremely popular in Fukagawa, Edo. This concept meant that a person’s appearance and behavior were sophisticated and cool and that she/he was warmhearted and knew how to play smartly. 

There is a book essential to understanding the aesthetic value. It is “The Structure of Iki” (1930) written by the philosopher Kuki Shuzo (1888-1941). 

"The Structure of Iki"

Kuki Shuzo

Kuki Shūzō was born to the Baron Kuki family in Tokyo and graduated from the Department of Philosophy of Tokyo Imperial University with Watsuji Tetsurō (1889–1960) in 1912. In 1922, he went to Europe to study under Rickert, Heidegger, and Bergson and deepened his thoughts in the various development of turbulent Western thought after the First World War. Shūzō has lectured at Kyoto University since 1933 and analyzed various aspects of Japanese culture with clear intelligence and delicate senses, using existentialism methods. As one of the leading contemporary philosophers in Japan, his representative work is “The Structure of Iki” (いきの構造).

He wrote this book for the purpose of clarifying the structure of vague “Iki” and defined it with three characteristics.

  1. Coquetry (媚態)
  2. Strong and defiant spirit (意気地)
  3. Resignation (諦め) 

Coquetry (媚態)

He described coquetry of Iki in the writing as follow;

From an intensional point of view, the first characteristic of Iki is the “coquetry” for the opposite sex. The relationship with the opposite sex forms the original existence of Iki and this is clearly seen from the fact that “Ikigoto” means “Irogoto” (love affair). 

Coquetry is a dual attitude in which a one-dimensional self defines the opposite sex against itself and forms a possible relationship between the self and the opposite sex. Thus, “coquettish”, “luster”, and “seductiveness” in Iki are all tensions based on this dual possibility.

In other words, this is a “coquettish” or “seductiveness” to the opposite sex, a sexy and elegant behavior. 

Strong and defiant spirit (意気地)

As the second feature of Iki, he mentioned “意気地”, strong and defiant spirit.

The Iki a state of existence as a consciousness phenomenon, vividly reflects the moral ideal of Edo culture, and includes the spirit of Edokko (native citizen of Edo) as an opportunity.

Iki has a coquetry nature, but it is still a kind of strong sense of resistance against the opposite sex.

Ikuji (意気地) is a spirit of defiance or pride, and it means a kind of contradictory attitude of not flattering on the whole.

Resignation (諦め)

The last feature of Iki is “resignation” which reflects the thought of Buddhism.

This is apathy, a separation from obsession based on knowledge of fate. Iki must be sophisticated, plain, clear, and elegant. 

The “resignation” of Iki may be a feeling of mature decadence, and its experiences and critical knowledge may be more socially inherited than personally acquired.

And there is no doubt that this opportunity in “Ichi” is emphasized and refined in the background of Buddhism’s view of the world where the form of discrimination is “流転” (constant change) and “無常” (transience) and the principle of equality is “空無” (emptiness) and “涅槃” (nirvana), and religious view of life, which preaches resignation against bad relationships and teaches calmness about fate.

In addition,  Iki has some things in common with the Japanese aesthetic values of simplicity, and Wabi and Sabi. 

Related Post

Wabi and Sabi, unique sense of Japanese art

In foreign countries, Wabi and Sabi have sometimes been regarded as representative of Japanese aesthetics. However, unlike Wabi and Sabi, which are difficult for even Japanese to understand, Iki is a familiar concept closely related to everyday life. For example, Edo Kiriko, a traditional craft of Tokyo, has a visible form of the aesthetic.

Related Post

Edo kiriko Japanese drinking glassware. There are many patterns!