Enka and Japanese hidden beauty

``Western beauty is radiance, majesty, grandness and broadness. In comparison, Eastern beauty is desolateness. Humility. Hidden beauty.``

It’s not surprising that only a few would associate their notion of Japan with a word like ‘enka’. ‘Chado’ or ‘zazen’ are perhaps a less foreign one to use, but not ‘enka’. Even the young Japanese nowadays will be more familiar with John Denver than Hibari Misoura. This reality, however, ironically confirms what enka actually lives for: a romanticised reminiscence of the past. Enka, that still gains – albeit decreasingly, popularity among the elderly; is considered to be an essential Japanese manifesto that indulges in melancholy. Enka is mostly written around the theme of a lost love, loneliness, or hardship of life.


Words & Photos: Crista Priscilla

Interestingly, although considered traditional and revolves around the things that belong to the olden days, melodies of enka are built on Western harmonies. They do not even shy away from using electronic instruments and mostly sung in an up-beat rhythm, which sounds more like an antidote to a supposedly melancholic ballad. Perhaps the Japanese understand that reminiscing the past does not mean staying in the past. For them, listening to enka is an act of giving our emotions a space it needs to breathe, to flow out like a stream, to be let go and to be free. A song of enka is regarded beautiful not because of the kobushi skill it may employ, or how complex the archetypal pentatonic scale used in the melody. To the Japanese, enka is captivating because it expresses the deep emotions they perhaps would not dare to express. It lulls them down the memory lane, inviting the listeners to get lost in it, only to finally find themselves at the end of the tunnel and daringly looking at their past in the eye. Enka serves as a blank canvas that actually only reflects what they are feeling – it does not dictate, it only echoes what they already have inside. But as its harmonious tune reaching the end, the Japanese know enka never offers an invitation to dwell in what has been a history. What it does is to provide the listeners with a beautiful dimension to reconcile with their past. Enka embraces that ephemerality and turns it into a poetry, allowing us to trace back the scar and revisit the feeling without bitterness, but with bravery and grace.

The beauty of enka lies in the reality that we, as the audience, share the same lot and emotions that become the soul of the song – a garden of memory, a palace of lost bygone. Not only that we get to enjoy the art of enka, we actually take a vital part in creating the wholeness of its beauty. It will be incomplete without its listener’s response. In fact, that beauty depends on what is going on deep and hidden inside us – how our inner sense can resonate and respond to it. A person can listen to enka and feels absolutely nothing, while the other one may weep deeply and find peace as he hums through the song. Japanese believe that beauty dwells within us – not so much about what we see, but more about how we see it. And how we see it, reflects the beauty that resides within us. “Beauty is an awareness of the mind”, Agnes Martin once said. She knew that what we see is not beautiful in itself, but rather a catalyst to the awareness of the beauty that already exists within what she calls ’the inner mind’.

In the book he wrote about her, Arne Glimcher told a story when his granddaughter, Isabelle, visited Agnes in New Mexico in the 1990s. When she met her, Agnes took a rose from a vase and gave it to Isabelle, and asked her if the rose was beautiful. “Yes,” Isabelle replied. Then Agnes took back the rose and put it behind her back, hidden from Isabelle’s sight. She asked her again if the rose was still beautiful. “Yes,” Isabelle said it for the second time. She demonstrated to a child that the beauty is the concept we have in mind, not in the object. This subjective concept of perceiving beauty is omnipresent in the realm of Japanese art, known as ‘kensho’. Kensho means seeing the essence of a particular thing, that eventually leads to an awakening enlightenment. The way Japanese create their art is directed toward the purpose to encounter kensho. It is not merely as a self expression or to showcase a certain skill, but just like enka, it is a blank canvas, or a looking glass that speaks more about its viewer than the object itself. It becomes a medium for the viewer to see their own essence and reach a deeper understanding that is enlightening and transformative.

There are two recognisable and inseparably related elements in Japanese art that allow kensho to be attainable. ‘Oku’, or the sense of an inner zone, and ‘ma’, a pause, a space, an emptiness. When it comes to oku, there is something that appeals to Japanese people. Conversely, it is extremely difficult to translate that feeling into Western words. In terms of Japanese sensitivity, oku refers to feelings that are most sacred, more noble, more private or more secret. In Japanese houses, the oku room is the important room in the back. When we stay in a Japanese ryokan and guided to the back through the long winding corridor, we probably think we get the most inconvenient room. Yet for the Japanese, this oku room is actually a prize they win. A housewife is called an oku mistress, derived from the most important presence she possess. We may better understand this concept when we visit a Japanese temple or shrine. Before we can actually see the main site – the oku, we have to walk a long tortuous distance that is often with restricted visibility – it does not give us any glimpse of idea of what is waiting for us; and a feeling of depth more than the actual distance is recognised. As we go deeper into this long walk, we realize of the space we leave behind, we become more sensitive to our own pace, and we are more aware of our own being. Step by step we proceed not only closer to the main site, but also to our own oku, and by that we are able to prepare ourselves to enter the most sacred space – there, and within ourselves.

Japanese people are very keen on this sense of oku in order to encounter an essence of thing, of self – kensho; which then leads to the acknowledgement of ‘ma’. That long walk also acts as an interval where one frees his mind from cluttered thoughts and as a void to let things other than oneself to intervene – a space where enlightenment and transformation can break in. Although ‘ma’ can be translated as ‘negative space’, or ‘emptiness’; but that’s not how the Japanese really see it. When we sit inside a Japanese tatami room and examine its surrounding, most likely we will only find nothing but bare walls with unpolished finishing, and a set of shoji screen separating the outdoor. For our foreign eyes, the room is ‘empty’ and blunt, but in the eyes of the Japanese, the room is full of beauty occurred from the ever-changing shadow and light of the sun that penetrating through the shoji screen. From that wall, each day, they see how beauty is alive and breathing together in a harmonious cycle with them.

Junichiro Tanizaki in his In Praise of Shadow asserted how he would never get tired of that kind of sight, “for to us the pale glow and the shadows far surpass (the beauty of) any adornment”. Ma is like a holder within which things can exist, stand out, and have meaning. Ma is the emptiness full of possibilities – like a promise yet to be fulfilled.

It gives us space, an invitation, a chance to step in onto the work of art, and fulfil our part as the perceiver to complete its beauty. Japanese know this well: that without its beholder, one’s beauty is only partial.

Kenya Hara, the genius behind the lifestyle brand MUJI, explained how the real pleasure of chanoyu, the way of tea, lies in the ubiquitous emptiness of the room, and of the utility used. The lack of ornaments becomes an opportunity in which people’s feelings and imagination can evolve through the minimal preparations for enjoying tea. This might include floating some cherry petals in a bowl of water, giving the host and guests the illusion of sitting beneath cherry trees in full bloom; or feeling a cool summer breeze in the taste of a jelly sweet. “The focus is not the reproduction of images, but rather the creativity of mitate, or metaphor, which, through constraint and absence, encourages the perceiver to make associations, drawing on images from their own imagination”, Hara said.

John Koenig just invented the word ‘sonder’. Briefly, ‘sonder’ means the realization that everyone is living a life as vivid and complex as our own. ‘Sonder’ is an understanding that each individual has their own perception of things, of beauty, of life – and kensho knows it well. That is why it is such a powerful concept to help us understand the Japanese art. Art is seen to be the work that believes that its purpose is to pave the way for everyone to encounter kensho. It doesn’t aim to change our pre-existing idea about beauty, instead, it respects that each of us has our own understanding. Art, they believe, serves to open up the path to the realm of self reflection – a way for us to reach an enlightenment of what is already within us. It guides us to encounter the essence of beauty that lies in our own core – oku, and then invites our imagination and ability to dream to grow that beauty, by providing the space it needs to flourish – ma. It is a transcendental experience, an inward pilgrimage without a trace where beauty ends and meaning begins.

“Western beauty is radiance, majesty, grandness and broadness”, Shozo Kato, a kendo guru, said, “In comparison, Eastern beauty is desolateness. Humility. Hidden beauty.” In order for art to be transforming and life-changing, the Japanese understand that it does not have to stand bolder, or speak louder. Just like the nostalgic melody of enka playing faintly and yet stirring our souls, all it does is guiding our eyes down our hearts and whispering gently on our ears, “this is where it comes from”. And truly, nothing is unenlightening for the enlightened mind.