Spirituality in Japanese art

The criticalities of an assumption

The term “spirituality” is often used to indicate a variety of different human experiences, some more connected to traditional religion, others seemingly invented in recent times to cope with a perceived lack of meaning, maybe caused by alienating technologies. In the context of contemporary art and particularly in the arbitrarily defined Japanese contemporary art the notion of spirituality is often brought up. It’s tempting to identify certain practices as spiritual(istic), as attempts to find a profound answer, especially when they adopt notions such as soul, revelation, enlightenment, and transcendence. Moreover, the new and new-new age tendencies born and spread throughout Europe and the U.S. tend to prevail in the discourse surrounding spirituality, presenting a utilitarian and idealized view of religious practices. Artists of Japanese origin are more susceptible to this essentializing way of seeing because of a prevailing Western notion that wants the so-called East (and especially countries with a Buddhist tradition) to be intrinsically connected to a mystical, evanescent philosophy of life.

Even when artists are not explicitly tackling spirituality in their works their provenance or visual language can bring a superficial gaze to see such predefined categories in them. Etsuko Ichihara and Mariko Mori are two examples of artists whose work is perceived as profoundly spiritual. But does this definition still hold up when we consider the complexities of their backgrounds, their intentions, and above all if we make the effort to shed our habitual Western gaze? Hopefully, if we try and observe through heightened care for complexity and nuance the discourse can become less essentializing and flattening.

The question of spirituality in Japanese art is a multifaceted one. It involves politics, philosophy, economy, and sociology in a convoluted jumble that, if not resolved, should at least be appreciated for its complexity. The expectations that for many reasons a foreigner, and specifically a Westerner, might demand to be satisfied by Japanese art often include a certain kind of vague “spirituality”. Japanese artworks in the collective imagination bear a distinctive character of traditional theology, a nondescript holiness derived from centuries of practice that somehow inevitably has to spill into every artwork made by a Japanese person today. Like a sort of insuppressible energy pervading all of (art) history. Most of the attributes of this energy are vaguely taken from twentieth century propaganda,

nationalistic storytelling and even touristic marketing; an innate communion with nature, respect for the ancestors, societal harmony, formal rigor, and the rest of the usual suspects, one could say. In other words, the most common stereotypes that pollute conversations about Japanese art. If we were to trace back the origins of such enduring notions mixing Neo-Confucianism, Shinto, Panasian militarism, and Buddhist ideals in a confused cacophony, we would have to point at a series of projections of Japan towards the West, its forced modernization, and the multiple reciprocal responses between the archipelago and Europe in the last two centuries. While Japan’s elite was constructing its past and align the “Japanese people” into predictable as much as fabricated habits and mores, the West was in turn creating its own convenient image of Japan as an ally or terrible adversary according to the necessities of the moment. In today’s society, the external view of Japan is formed by its cultural hegemony enforced through video games, manga, anime, and pop culture phenomena. These media don’t exclude the spiritual elements that seemed to dominate earlier cultural exports either. To be clear, the problem with assumptions and the spiritual aura of Japanese cultural products is that they are usually not univocal. It has never been exclusively a Western invention, but instead, a mutual conviction exploited by both fronts. That’s where the complexity comes from; to deny the overstated and stereotypical spiritual character of certain artworks, for instance, means to contradict their own author. Another aspect of this issue that makes it all the more urgent is the essentialistic connotations of Japanese art as the fruit of a primordial devoutness to nature and harmony, flowing outside of time, to which every person of Japanese descent wondrously ascribes. The mission of any curator and critic should be to undermine such categorical representations. I think it is not too controversial to claim that an artwork (and an artist) shouldn’t exist or be appreciated exclusively insofar as they manage to satisfy expectations dictated by their provenance. But why Japan in particular?

The reputation of Japanese art

Most countries in East Asia have been associated throughout history with obscure spiritual practices, considered at times useful and more frequently primordial and inadequate compared to the Western scientific paradigm. I will concentrate on Japanese artists because of the incessant and constantly renovated claim of spiritual superiority and cultural homogeneity that leads to one-sided claims about aesthetic presentations. Most Japanese artists are branded with spiritual taglines, and Japanese artists that present explicitly spiritualistic work are publicized more widely because they fulfill preconceptions; Rei Naito at the 1997 Venice Biennale (fig.1) was an example of such characterization. Her installation was hailed as very/ typically/appropriately Japanese because of its association with rituals and recognizable religious connotations.


Figure 1. View of One Place on the Earth, the Japanese pavilion at the 47th Venice Biennale, Rei Naito, 1997


There seems to be a peculiar link, I argue, between what is “Japanese” and what presents itself as “spiritual”. All of this considered, a possible way forward could be to emphasize the complexity of the discourse instead of stopping at a face-value consideration; which means analyzing claims of spirituality (what does it mean for a work to be “spiritual”? What connections does it have to religion? What are we defining as “spirituality”?), questioning the point of view from which the artwork has been evaluated (it can be called a statement of positionality), and eventually returning to the first claim to spirituality with a more aware and complex background to sustain such a taxing interpretation.

Defining spirituality

At this point, it is crucial to understand how spirituality is experienced in Japanese society at large and how it is perceived abroad. Applying criticality to this concept might help us avoid essentializing statements. To express the concept of spirituality in Japanese one might choose between two terms; reisei (霊性, divine nature or spirituality) or スピリチュアリティ, the katakana transliteration of the English word. The existence of both a native word and an imported word in itself reveals some sort of distinction. Although sometimes interchangeable, reiseiseems to be a relatively old term (Kamakura period) describing a superior, mysterious nature. It can be used in connection to ancient traditions, Shinto and Buddhism, or Christianity. スピリチュアリティis a more recent term and it refers to an “immaterial reality or an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of his/her being”. Or the “deepest values and meanings by which people live”. It’s often used in relation to New Age experiences and individual self-discovery. While it is not surprising how relatively new both terms are (the notion of “religion” emerged in Japan after the arrival of Buddhism1) it is important to note that a distinction exists between practices perceived as traditional and more contemporary and personal ones. However, it seems that reisei was mostly used to describe Shinto formalist tradition, which we know is more of a construct than a factual practice. The relationship of Japanese people with religions and rites in different moments of their life has been discussed extensively over the decades. Ruth Benedict’s infamous text published in 1946 “ The Chrysanthemum and The Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture” gives a one-dimensional rendition of the religious life of the Japanese starting from childhood to funerals. Partially aided by narrations like this one, the image of the Japanese as a detached, exclusively atheist, flimsy people that change religion with the wind was born. A vision that is more faithful to reality implies a complex scenario where individual necessities, community building, and societal regulations are represented and satisfied by a web of rites and images that are “stable, understandable, usable, and defensible.”2 This complexity should also be respected when addressing art and the spirit (in Chinese it would be called qi) that conventionally should be reflected in any artwork. Although the debate involving realism and abstract figuration in Japan has taken a different direction from the one in the West, the spiritual essence of realistic depiction was still a controversial point. Was Western realistic art lacking the spiritual essence of the represented object? According to Shimamura Hōgetsu (1894) “It is clear that if the perfect description is indistinguishable from natural beauty and imperfect description no better than a lifeless photograph, extreme realist description is far from the truth of art. It is thought that when describing a person the physical and spiritual aspects cannot be done as one, and that realist description is no more than faithfully describing the physical and missing the spiritual; but this is a prejudice. A perfect physical description would naturally contain some of the spiritual as well since the heart is not a separate object.”3 This core idea is another element in the sophisticated perception of the spiritual, the intangible in art, and it will re-emerge time and time again in different periods throughout the last two centuries, perhaps influencing the accentuation of ethereal elements in Japanese art, which is lacking in most non-religious Western art.

The digital shaman

To start operating with more tangible references, it would be beneficial to introduce the oeuvre of two of the most relevant artists concerning my argument: Etsuko Ichihara and Mariko Mori. Belonging to two different generations and active in different moments (namely the 90’s and 2010’s), they are both frequently linked to the spiritual, albeit in very different ways; ways which happen to reflect the prevalent perception of Japanese art and society at the time. If Mori is a representative of spirituality merged with anime/alien/robot technology, Ichihara is closer to a cybernetic/new media/web-powered kind of religiosity. Let’s start with the latter.


Figure 2. Digital Shaman, Etsuko Ichihara, 2018, performance and robots, video still from demonstration video


Born in 1988, she considers herself a media artist and “fantasy inventor”. She has been creating artworks that “interpret Japanese culture” 4, using technology, in particular AI and the internet. Attesting her popularity, a number of interviews and magazine features describe her projects and admired innovative capabilities. The “Digital Shaman” Project is one of her most famous creations. It involves robots like the ones found in some hotels and public services; short, anthropomorphic, white plastic machines on wheels. Each robot wears a 3D printed face of a deceased person and speaks using their voice (fig. 2), mannerism (as much as a robot can exude), speech patterns, and physical characteristics. The relatives of the deceased can spend time with these surrogates from the day of the funeral until shijūkunichi, the memorial service taking place 49 days later. The moment the robot is turned on it greets the relative saying things like “I have come back to life! I have legs again!”. According to the habits and personalities of the person, they also engage in more or less realistic dialogues with their loved ones, mentioning debts to pachinko parlors or the sensation of not having a body in the afterlife. Some even sneeze. At the end of the 49-day period, they regrettably express their farewell, with a final bow that causes the mask to fall from the robot, reestablishing its machine status and sealing the definitive death of the loved one. This recital is meant to help the morning process and accentuate the everlasting relation that exists between the leaving and the dead. The experiment seems to be a purely speculative tryout and the robots will likely not be employed in real-life situations, making the whole a sort of performance. With the help of technology, a belief that already exists in Buddhist rituals is made apparent and maybe easier to grapple with: the spirits of the dead don’t leave the physical plan immediately after their biological death. They need assistance and prayers long after and can somewhat interact with the living. What is particularly interesting is the use of the word “shaman”. Considering the fact that the whole funerary custom the piece is based on is Buddhist, the use of a word that is associated with a more ancient religious practice mirrors the syncretism that has characterized Japanese religious expressions for most of its history. Buddhism and what we today erroneously call Shinto5 have been intermingling since Buddhism was first imposed and adopted by the population. The word “shaman” allows Ichihara to connect the work to the figure of the miko or itako, women that were thought to have the ability to communicate with the afterworld, in some cases populated by peaceful dead, in other cases infested by tormented spirits. Itako were usually blind and normally excluded from the orderly society of the village, used for their talent when the family of the deceased needed answers about the unrest of their spirit. The robots act as a sort of shaman and fill in the gap, translating the unintelligible language of the dead. In both cases, a medium allows the living to reach some peace of mind thanks to otherworldly talents: supernatural perception or cutting-edge technology. However, does it mean that this work is religious in nature? Or is it rather related to habits and more pragmatic individual methodologies of coping with death and the attached obligations? As Andrea Molle argues, Buddhist funerary rituals might “indicat[e] a more positive attitude towards performative actions that in one way or another can be called spiritual or, at least, opening the way to spiritual feelings.”6 Let’s not forget that the spiritual is also frequently associated with Japanese women in particular, for example, the association with miko and female mediums. The aforementioned artist Rei Naito often gets celebrated for her affinity to that tradition. On more than one occasion “critics emphasized the feminine sensitivity or spirituality in the work”7, maybe also due to the fact that as a woman she is holding the same supernatural communicative power of her predecessors. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Ichihara’s work cannot be read as related to spirituality because she is a woman but the immediate association is at least worth setting aside in favor of more relevant remarks.

New Age and hyper-tech

Although nowadays globalization has created direct channels of communication, in the past Japanese art and culture at large has consistently reached Western publics through English-speaking media and individuals, in particular ones based in the United States. A particularly prolific moment in history in regards to circulating Japanese philosophical and religious concepts through America and to a lesser degree Europe was the New Age period of the 50s and 60s. Guru-like figures like authors Shunryū Suzuki and Daisetsu Teitarō Suzuki, known as the “two Suzukis”8, were moving to the U.S. and writing in English about Zen concepts and spiritual ways of life. Texts like “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” seemed to intercept a common desire for a more balanced life in harmony with the cosmos in the midst of troubled times. Arthur Danto, for instance, writes about his fascination with Japanese spirituality; how it started with woodblock prints at the beginning of the 50s, and how it evolved during the following decade. He describes how his experience of galleries and museums showing Japanese art gave him the impression that “the art somehow implied a transparent, watery world-clear, clean, spiritual;”9 An obsession that led him to disregard Western masters as “intolerably fleshly and opulent.” Danto’s anecdote is just one example of the enchantment that seemed to overcome a lot of artists and intellectuals in the United States at the time, namely (and famously) John Cage. The interpretations given by the simplified texts and spiritually starved intellectuals in those decades are still the most popular and widespread in the West and have also dribbled in Japanese discourse, dragged in a dangerous repatriation of ideals. In fact, the unjustified alteration of Japanese religious concepts has never ceased. Another crucial historical moment that helped secure the image of Japan as the homeland of spiritual discovery was the 80s and 90s, with the explosion of Japanese technology. While the stereotypical image of Japan as a contradictory land in which ancient temples contrast futuristic architecture was already thriving, the tech boom certainly reinforced it. Ancient spiritual knowledge could be aided through advanced, sci-fi apparatuses and contraptions, and the exotic appeal of Buddhist practice is not too dissimilar from the capabilities of microchips and just as intangible. The ethereal realm of the human psyche, the unreachable “enlightenment”, and the internet culminate in an archetypal synthesis in the mystery Japan has always exuded. Not to mention how misconstrued the idea of Japanese society as an advanced dreamland is.


Figure 3. Namahage in Tokyo, photo of the performance, Etsuko Ichihara, 2017


Quoting Alex Kerr: “Despite an industrial structure aimed single-mindedly at international expansion, there is no question that, technologically, Japan fell behind in the 1990s.10” One of the reasons both Ichihara’s and Mori’s art is quickly described as spiritual probably stems from this common trope. Ichihara is an inventor that employs cutting-edge tech and folkloristic elements to address societal issues. Works like “Namahage11 in Tokyo” (fig. 3) by Ichihara start from the aesthetic “mix of traditions and new technologies12” according to the author herself, but the central motivation is the shared concerns of the youth of Southeast Asian countries and Japan. Rather than focusing on banal assertions, even if stated by the artist herself, placing the work in its specific context could help us overcome the essentialistic view of Japan as a hybrid of hyper-tech and tradition. A timeless void in which artworks are inevitably reduced to their most recognizable, uncomplicated characteristics.