Yūgen and Iki, the radical beauty of women a psychoanalytic perspective (Part 2).


Iki and the question of Yūgen.

One might wonder what the concrete situation was that revealed the value of the Japanese aesthetics to me. It all happened on a rather quiet evening in Dotonbori street, while I was waiting for my friend. In this moment of waiting, this moment of inhaling (with various senses) the atmosphere of Osaka, I happened to observe a quick and tiny gesture of a woman. While she was looking at the counter, her head slightly bend, she let one of her fingers rest for a moment at the  edge of her underlip.

This small gesture is nothing other than a subjective experience of Iki, an observation of a gesture taken or interpreted as a manifestation of Iki. In other words, at the precise moment that her finger touched the outer edge of her lips the everydayness of the atmosphere of Dotonbori street was shaken. It was only shaken at that moment for the observer, which in this case was myself, and not for someone else. For all the other people who were around the everydayness of Dotonbori street remained intact.

This example shows the inherent subjective aspect that structures the experience of Iki. In any case, Iki seems in the first place a description of that what is observed, of that what, by being observed, elicits the interpretation of seductiveness in the male subject. But how should we understand Yūgen in general and in relation to our understanding of Iki in particular?

The place of Yūgen in the discourse of aesthetics

To be able to situate Yūgen with respect of female beauty, we first need to partially delineate the place of Yūgen in the wider discourse of aesthetics. In this case, we’ll focus on how Yūgen is used with respect to poetry, as the main purpose of traditional Japanese poetry was the expression of desire, longing and/or love, using associatively various elements of nature, as conditioned by the Other.

The central aspect of Yūgen, as underlined by Japanese poetry, concerns the fact that it is an experience of a hidden “beyond” the everydayness. The first definition of Yūgen was given by  the poet Kamo no Chōmei (1155?–1216) in his nameless treatise (Mumyōshō). In this treatise he underlines that “yūgen is what words cannot convey and poetic form cannot adequately catch; it is the absence of color and sound, and yet it has the power to move the human soul as well as gods and spirits (…) it is a view hampered by mist”.

In other words, yūgen is that what escapes language and poetry, but is able to be made sensible by the very use of poetry itself. Poetry can thus only evoke the given that there’s something hidden. By underlining the  gentle, soft veil ( i.e. language, the everydayness, … ) itself, yūgen implies as such the presence of an inaccessible, unexplainable or even irrational depth.

Conclusion: yūgen and its relation to Iki and female beauty.

Instead of shaking the field of everydayness, a field that gets rippled by the experience of Iki – revealing Iki as an aesthetic functioning on the horizontal plane, Yūgen can be understood as the vertical line that reveals the “depth” of the female subject, hidden by this horizontal plane of everydayness, to the subject. The Yūgen of a woman is nothing other than the observation of an elegant veil that implies a hidden inaccessible mysterious depth – a depth unknown to the female subject and ungraspable by the observer.

If we put it in this way, we can propose that, in the case of female beauty, there can be no experience of Yūgen, without the observation of Iki – even though the observation of Iki-manifestations doesn’t necessarily “reveals” the Yūgen of the observed woman.

Obviously, the experience of a female subject’s irrational and ungraspable depth, as “revealed” by the male looking, is function of the singular inscription of the gazing subject in the Other. While one woman is experienced as “revealing” her Yūgen through Iki-manifestations, another will remain a part of one’s everydayness.

In other words, from the moment a female subject ripples one’s everydayness (iki) and her elegant depth is implied (Yūgen), one has entered, in the experiencing of her beauty, the very structure of one’s own subjectivity.

Therefore notions like Yūgen and Iki should be understood as radical subjective – any objective approach to these notions fails to take into account the presence of the subjectivity of the observer in the very ‘object’ that is observed. And in consequence, any experience of female beauty is radical subjective. Or, in other words, a female subject only reveals her beauty in a radical way, because it can only be experienced subjectively.

References (part 1 and part 2):

Pincus, L. (1996) Authenticating Culture in Imperial Japan: Kuki Shūzō and the Rise of National Aesthetics (Berkeley: University of California Press).

Yamamoto, Y. (1999). An Aesthetics of Everyday Life – Modernism and a Japanese popular aesthetic ideal, “Iki” –.

Aesthetics (2011). In: Japanese Philosophy: A Sourcebook. (James W. Heisig, Thomas P. Kasulis, and John C. Maraldo, eds.). Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press. pp. 1167-1227.


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