Yūgen and Iki, the radical beauty of women: a psychoanalytic perspective (part 1)



This short article is written as a sort of response to, or even better, as a sort of thanks for the two-day Japanese event that was held in Bruges. This event made me realize once again – the first time was in Osaka, the value of the Japanese aesthetic categories, but only if they’re read subjective – as there is no objectivity when it comes to aesthetics as it is discourse that conditions aesthetics.

The reason why aesthetic categories need to be read subjective, is because they cause subjective reactions, reactions in a subject confined by the very language that enclosed the discourse of the aesthetic category. In other words, as one has to be born into language, one has to be born into an aesthetic categories as well – this process creating the very singularity of the subject in face of language, culture and aesthetics, while language, the Other, necessary remains as a guide.

We’re thus against any characterization of aesthetic categories as universal and as rational. Instead, we feel obliged to impute again and again the subject who is missing from most if not all theoretical frameworks – see our previous article about Mono No Aware for instance. It is only because there is a subject that the experience of beauty is able to be radically appreciated. Nevertheless, the lack of universality and the presence of irrationality doesn’t mean that a general theory, in function of language, can’t translate something of this subjective experience of beauty.

Beauty of women, a scopic reading 

Beauty is something that one meets unexpectedly. Or, in fact, one might even propose that beauty is only revealed to the subject as beauty, if it unexpectedly and in a radical way catches the subject’s eye – the experience of beauty as function of our unconscious, the unconscious being function of the structure language.

So which signifiers does the Japanese language proposes to describe the radical subjective effects of experiencing beauty – an aesthetic often thought as universal or as only accessible to the Japanese itself? In our view, two signifiers can be used to reveal the radical experience of female beauty: Iki and Yūgen.


The well-known definition of Iki by Kuki Shuzo consists of three elements: Seductiveness (bitai) with pride (ikuji/hari) and sophisticated indifference (akirame). Or, in other words, a seductiveness that originates from the pride and the indifference the female subject seems to be exhibiting. Furthermore simplicity seems to be a pivotal aspect that enables the experience of iki and its three components.

One can already sense in this definition that the subjective implication is indelible, as it implies that something “looks” at the subject, i.e. bitai, something that seduces. Furthermore “distance” is an essential element in creating the conditions for Iki to be experienced.

This is evident for example in Kuki’s explanation of Bitai, seductiveness: “The secret of [seductiveness] (…) is to continuously decrease the distance [between oneself and the other] while never allowing that distance to be completely annihilated” (Kuki as cited by Pincus, p. 127). In Kuki’s view, it is the distance between man and woman itself that generates the seductiveness. At the level of the scopic dimension, this means that it is the looking of the male subject at the woman, the distance this looking entails that forms the condition for any seductiveness to be experienced.

Concerning Ikuji/hari, the distance is to be situated in the very fact that the female subject exhibits a certain resistance against the male subject, a position of not easily yielding. It is the distance that the female subject creates as well as the interpretation of the male subject of the resistance she seems to be exhibiting, that make the experience of Iki possible.

Akirame is to be understood as “an attitude of disinterestedness toward fate, free from all attachments, an attitude that has its source in an awareness of fate” (Pincus, p. 134). This resignation reflecting “a recognition of one’s own powerlessness and an attitude of detachment toward the things of this world” (Pincus, p. 226). The detachment/disinterest are in a way translations of a kind of distance: in its most basic form, it is nothing other than the distance to or disinterest in one’s surroundings, which includes men, men who, by way of this observed disinterest, are able to experience Iki in their own subjective way.

Having interpreted the definition of Iki, one might still wonder how Iki-manifestations are to be understood concretely. The essential dimension of Iki-manifestations is that they constitute a ‘shaking of the everydayness’ as experienced by the male subject (Yamamoto, 1999). Subtle, slight changes on the surface of the experienced everydayness touches the male subject. The ordinary experienced everydayness is shaken by an element of extra-ordinariness, an element in function of the logic of the male subject itself.

Some examples of Iki include a slightly relaxed posture, being dressed in light clothes, wearing a Yukata after just having finished bathing, a woman with a slender, willowy figure with a tender face, in bare foot, with light make-up, in simple hairstyle, revealed nape or foot, and making slight gestures of hands (Yamamoto, 1999)

[ In part two, we’ll explore Yūgen and its relation to “Iki” in particular and female beauty in general]


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