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Society / Culture

Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons:Nature, Literature, and the Arts

(Columbia University Press 2013)

Haruo Shirane(ADVISORY BOARD of Columbia Unv. Press)

That the Japanese exist in exquisite harmony with nature and its sharply delineated seasons is a widely-held view; many point to the influences of climate and rice farming heritage in fostering this supposedly profound natural sensitivity. In this authoritative yet accessibly written book, however, Shirane first argues that the nature that is so embedded in so much of Japanese culture, traditionally and still today, is what he terms “secondary nature” (nijiteki shizen) – namely a carefully (re)constructed nature, quite removed from both untamed nature and nature reclaimed through agriculture.
Secondary nature is (primary) nature reimagined in refined form, intended for urban audiences, starting with the aristocratic elite of the Heian period. Heian aesthetics extolled gracefulness and elegance; these values shaped secondary nature through and across multiple literary and artistic genres, most notably waka poetry. Shirane first traces the encoding of the seasons through waka and how this encoding spread via the pervasive impact of waka on visual culture. In its two modes – the urban-centric waka-encoded mode and the satoyama pastoral mode – secondary nature has pervaded textural, culinary, performative, and material representations of nature in Japan, variously through the socioreligious, talismanic, and trans-seasonal functions of their images and associations.
Many everyday urban Japanese have little day-to-day connection with primary nature – but secondary nature can bridge that distance, through the kimono pattern, the ikebana arrangement, the hanging scroll calligraphy, the seasonal observance. Nature is relived and recaptured through this shared cultural imagination, refined and codified over centuries of social and artistic communication.

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