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Thread: Clean is beautiful - or is it ?

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    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Clean is beautiful - or is it ?

    It's not big news to many of you that the Japanese word "kirei" (綺麗) means both 'clean/tidy' and 'beautiful/pretty'. In many languages, there are such words which have a double meaning. Sometimes they are linked to a particular cultural inclination, and I think this is the case here.

    After a few years of living in Japan, I have heard times and again Japanese people exclaiming "kirei !" when seeing something that was new, tidy and clean (e.g. a new house, a newly renovated restaurant...). Yet, in many cases, I'd only agree to say that it was clean and new, but not especially beautiful.

    Recently, my wife told me about a girl's face that she was "kirei". I admitted that she had a beautiful skin, very smooth and without a spot or mole. But her features were not really beautiful. This reinforced my impression that the Japanese see beauty is cleanliness, even when something/someone is not esthetically beautiful. That is maybe why they like new apartments/houses and find them "kirei" even when they are absolutely ugly.

    When going to Shanghai a few days ago, I was startled at the architectural contrast with Japan. Anything from skyscrapers to old houses or new residential towers were so much more beautiful than in Japan. In my view, there are only a handful of beautiful modern buildings in Tokyo, and they were all built in the last 5 years (Roppongi Hills being the best example), except the "Tocho" in Nishi-Shinjuku. But in Shanghai, the only ugly building is the prominent Oriental TV Tower. There are hundreds of hih-rise buildings, in many different styles, but not only is each very esthetically pleasing, but the local authorities have done a wonderful job of urban planning (each neighbourhood has its own, homogenous style). Contrarily to Japanese cities, there aren't electric lines everywhere above one's head, although China is supposed to be the developing country.

    Why am I explaining this ? Not to disparage Japan (everyone who has been there know its modern architecture is ugly and chaotic), but because for many Japanese I know who have visited Shanghai, the city is not as "kirei" as Tokyo, because it is not as clean. It's not that bad, to be frank, but in Japanese eyes, very strangely, beauty comes first from cleanliness, and after from esthetics.

    This may be a bit exaggerated, but I think there is some truth in it. There is also the word "utsukushii" (美しい), which only means beautiful, and is used more like the English word. The notion of "kirei" must be a kind of cultural concept not found in the West (and to the best of my knowledge anywhere else).

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    Interesting insight. Makes me wonder if when women here めちゃめちゃきれいだよ they wonder if they're pretty, too.

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    Omnipotence personified Mandylion's Avatar
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    Question

    Quote Originally Posted by Maciamo
    The notion of "kirei" must be a kind of cultural concept not found in the West (and to the best of my knowledge anywhere else).
    Perhaps this is due to my lack of sleep recently, but what do you mean by the "concept of kirei"? Is it that cleanliness = beauty and beauty = cleanliness (which I would argue is not that rare an equation for many people), or are you after something else? Please boil this down for me -- Thanks

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    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mandylion
    Perhaps this is due to my lack of sleep recently, but what do you mean by the "concept of kirei"? Is it that cleanliness = beauty and beauty = cleanliness (which I would argue is not that rare an equation for many people), or are you after something else? Please boil this down for me -- Thanks
    Hi Mandylion. It's been a long time since we last discussed an issue together on the forum. How's everything in the States ?

    Yes, I meant that it is not usual to limit beauty to cleanliness in the West. I do not mean that the two are exclusive, as they often complete each others. But for me, they have very distinct significations.

    I noticed that many Japanese didn't like 'old things', such as old furniture, archeological objects, or even old traditional Japanese houses.

    When we visit museums, my wife often asks me why I am interested in (3000-year old) oxidated bronze objects, discoloured (1500 year-old) pottery or (500 year-old) threadbare tapestries. It's not new and clean, so for her it's not "kirei".

    I think that most Japanese think this way. Why do you think all the beautiful Edo and Meiji-period machiya (merchant houses) and kura (warehouses) of historical Tokyo, and most of Kyoto's were destroyed ? Because for many Japanese, if something is not new and shiny clean it cannot be beautiful. That is why houses and apartements prices in Japan are calculated also in function of the ancienty, but contrarily to Europe, old houses are worth less than new ones (and also contrarily to Europe, 30 years is old). Japan has lost most of its cultural heritage because of this mentality that new and clean is better than old and dirty, regardless of the actual esthetic value.

    Are you saying that such a mindset also prevails in the US ? In Europe, old is usually better than new. Real esthetical beauty in arts cannot be worn off much by time or diminished by dust. This seem to be a unknown concept for the Japanese.

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    JREF Resident Alien Pachipro's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Maciamo
    Recently, my wife told me about a girl's face that she was "kirei". I admitted that she had a beautiful skin, very smooth and without a spot or mole. But her features were not really beautiful. This reinforced my impression that the Japanese see beauty is cleanliness, even when something/someone is not esthetically beautiful. That is maybe why they like new apartments/houses and find them "kirei" even when they are absolutely ugly.
    Interesting assumption as I also had the same impression and thoughts when comparing the words kirei and utsukushi. As you mentioned, alot of women will say a particular woman is "kirei" when her features are somewhat plain and ordinary. I would think to myself, "What is so kirei about her?" But on closer inspection the woman had "beautiful", smooth, unblemished skin. So I therefore assumed that a kirei woman ment unblemished, smooth and clean skin just as your wife said and that I have also heard my wife say.

    ...but because for many Japanese I know who have visited Shanghai, the city is not as "kirei" as Tokyo, because it is not as clean. It's not that bad, to be frank, but in Japanese eyes, very strangely, beauty comes first from cleanliness, and after from esthetics.
    Good example. The same goes for a room also. A plain Japanese room with just a table and maybe a small alcove with a scroll or flower arrangement would be said to be kirei because it was immaculately clean. But to an outsider unfamiliar with the aesthetics of the language and culture, to them it would just be a plain room.
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    Omnipotence personified Mandylion's Avatar
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    I suppose what complicates this hypothesis for me is the subjective problem of aesthetics and a blend of cross-cultural linguistical issues.

    Posing the excellent examples posed by others to my wife (who is Japanese) about buildings in Europe, Japan, and China (etc.) and when someone would use "kirei" and "utsukushi" resulted in the fairly expected "it depends" reply.

    An exchange between two people regarding what is or is not "kirei" is highly dependent on their backgrounds, socialization, and countless other subjective and highly situational judgments. I do not agree that universally something that is clean-kirei will also be beautiful-kirei, nor that they are wholly dependent on one another.

    In my experience, a lot of Japanese art relies on the beauty of imperfections and the flavor/essence of a thing (as in "aji ga aru"), such as tea bowls, buildings, scrolls etc. These things are usually far from physically clean in the visual (and sometimes physical) sense, yet they are still objects worthy of "kirei."

    The argument that because Japan has not done we in preserving its old architectural artifacts and current housing prices are less a function of clean/new = beauty = value, and more an issue of Japanese history, demographics, market pressures, and the physical environment.

    A line of thought worthy of a thread all its own, but in short; the value of "tradition" in Japan took a big beating with the defeat of Japanese fascism (in terms of a nativist movement glorifying the past ie traditional social constructs) in '45. You had a postwar re-fascination with the West and everything modern as Japan fought to claw its way out of the ashes. Traditional concepts interpreted by pre-war elites, which had been the basis for so much suffering for so many, embodied much of what was wrong with Japan. I would argue that the lack of preservation of old things in Japan has as much or more to do with psychological issues and a drive to enjoy the modern pleasures of a booming Japan than simply old = dirty = unwanted.

    While Europe rebuilt its old buildings after WWII, I would argue Japan had no real emotional connection to the past and so had no vested interest in restoring old buildings. Westerners, at least in my general experience, more often have some kind of historical/familial connection than most Japanese people I know. I can trace my roots back through the 1700's, but while I was doing research on ancestor veneration in Japan a few years ago, most had no idea what their family was doing or where they were living further back than their grandparents.

    In my opinion, for a variety of reasons I will not go into here, the Japanese nuclear family is more focused on the here and now, often cannot afford to restore/maintain old houses with the very high costs of material (to modernize and maintain an old home), energy, taxes, and labor in Japan. Coupled with a fear of earthquakes and the new technology built into new, though utilitarian (more I think a function of cost than "kirei"), dwellings even I would be very hard-pressed to rationalize preserving an old building if I had limited means (and I say this as a full-time history student).

    I’m afraid I have gotten off on a tangent and muddied the water, so let me wrap up -

    Lastly, I do not find the concept of something having to be clean to be beautiful unique to Japan. Linguistically, I would agree that the double meaning of "kirei" and how it is used is very interesting. But I know plenty of people in the US who do not like old stuff, dirty things, or odd objects I would find appealing. By the same token, I find many "clean" (physically and aesthetically) objects repulsive.

    The fact the other languages have not developed (or shed) linguistic means to encompass in one word several concepts does not seal the deal for me. This "kirei" issue, to me, is more interesting as a discussion of linguistic ambivalence and its uses/history than as an indication of a unique, or highly exclusive , cultural conception of cleanliness and beauty.

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    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    [QUOTE=Mandylion]
    An exchange between two people regarding what is or is not "kirei" is highly dependent on their backgrounds, socialization, and countless other subjective and highly situational judgments. I do not agree that universally something that is clean-kirei will also be beautiful-kirei, nor that they are wholly dependent on one another./quote]

    I only partly agree. If it is true that the concept of beauty may have cultural influences, most Japanese would readily agree when seeing cities like Paris, London or Rome that they are much more beautiful than Japanese cities. My wife used to think that some new "mansions" in Tokyo were beautiful, but after coming to Europe, she understood that they are not.

    I have discused this problem with a Japanese university professor of architecture, and he agrees that Japan has squandered its historical architecture. Even people like him are only starting to realise the importance of saving historic houses, and try to sensibilise the people. Japan only adopted a law on urban planning this year, he told me.

    In my experience, a lot of Japanese art relies on the beauty of imperfections and the flavor/essence of a thing (as in "aji ga aru"), such as tea bowls, buildings, scrolls etc. These things are usually far from physically clean in the visual (and sometimes physical) sense, yet they are still objects worthy of "kirei."
    These elements were indeed part of traditional Japanese architecture, but have disappeared in modern concrete constructions.

    While Europe rebuilt its old buildings after WWII, I would argue Japan had no real emotional connection to the past and so had no vested interest in restoring old buildings.
    Europe could not affor to rebuilt most of its historical buildings (just look at German cities, most houses are new). But Japan was not entirely destroyed during WWII. Many small towns and bigger ones like Kyoto were left intact. The Japanese decide by themselves (and not just after the war, but mainly in the 1960's and 70's) to destroy their old traditional houses, and have done it until now, whereever there was something left to destroy.

    In my opinion, for a variety of reasons I will not go into here, the Japanese nuclear family is more focused on the here and now, often cannot afford to restore/maintain old houses with the very high costs of material (to modernize and maintain an old home), energy, taxes, and labor in Japan.
    But Japan was in a similar economic and social situation to Germany after WWII. Nuclear families are also something new, and which evolved at the same type as in Europe. Germany and Italy both have lower birthrates than Japan.

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    天才じゃん! blade_bltz's Avatar
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    Modern (late modern, postmodern, high tech) Japanese architecture is amazing in my opinion. Many of the world's top architects right now are Japanese. When you remark that "aji no aru" art has disappeared in modern concrete constructions, I'd say that quite a number of notable postmodern buildings in Tokyo retain this trend. And I've seen much Japanese art, especially ceramics, which is centered completely on this concept of imperfection. Of course, you are most certainly referring to the aesthetically displeasing high rises that blanket the skyline, but I like to think that the diamonds in the rough ought to shine brighter this way...(haha no im actually a cynic for the most part). Fortunately, contemporary Japanese architecture seems to be following this whole green trend, ie organic structures/harmony with nature/all that good stuff. But again, I guess we need to distinguish a singular work of some renound architect with those unappealing high-rises of infamy...

    Ok this post is essentially completely deviant, but I felt the need to support these architects somehow

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    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by blade_bltz
    Modern (late modern, postmodern, high tech) Japanese architecture is amazing in my opinion. Many of the world's top architects right now are Japanese.
    Could you give me some examples of buildings ? Th eonly notable ones in Tokyo are Roppongi Hills, the Tocho and a few towers in Shiodome.

    Anyway, I was talking about housing, and most apartments and houses in Japan are ridiculously hideous.

    When you remark that "aji no aru" art has disappeared in modern concrete constructions, I'd say that quite a number of notable postmodern buildings in Tokyo retain this trend.
    Please give me some examples (+ pictures if you have).

    Let me show you a few examples of what I am talking about :













    The last one is brand new and is in a rather expensive district.

    It's a far cry from regular European houses such as these :

    Portsmoth, England (in a district entirely destroyed during WWII, and rebuilt recently) :



    Typical English country house (could be in Ireland, Belgium, France, etc.)



    Town in England (Cheltenham) :



    Streets o Luxembourg city (similar architecture to the average German cities)



    Apartments in Nice, France :



    Note that I have only chosen residential buildings, not great historical buildings, palaces, government buildings, or the like. This is what ordinary (middle class) Europeans live in.

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    目録 Index's Avatar
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    The word 'neat', common in US English, has similar connotations. Perhaps there is a convergence regarding the emotional response when describing or reacting to certain phenomena, that allows words that seemingly are unrelated to be used in these cases.

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    The electric poll/wire matter should be solved in terms of disaster prevention esp. in Tokyo.

    When we visit museums, my wife often asks me why I am interested in (3000-year old) oxidated bronze objects, discoloured (1500 year-old) pottery or (500 year-old) threadbare tapestries. It's not new and clean, so for her it's not "kirei".
    Why don't you enlighten her more about the Japanese culture or history stuffs?

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    Regular Member senseiman's Avatar
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    Nice thread here. I wonder how much of Japan's architectural destruction is simply due to its being about 30 years behind trends that affected the rest of the industrial world long ago.

    I just moved to Winnipeg in Canada. I've done a little research and found that a lot of the cities more beautiful old buildings were destroyed in the 1950s and 60s and replaced by quite unattractive but more functional modern buildings. But by about 1970 they seem to have completely stopped tearing down the old buildings and recognized that there was a significant value to be had in preserving them. Nowadays the most attractive and sought after apartments downtown are in hundred year old buildings.

    Seems like in Japan people are starting to clue into this trend only now.

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    Omnipotence personified Mandylion's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Maciamo
    I have discused this problem with a Japanese university professor of architecture, and he agrees that Japan has squandered its historical architecture. Even people like him are only starting to realise the importance of saving historic houses, and try to sensibilise the people. Japan only adopted a law on urban planning this year, he told me.
    I wonder what that consists of... Just going off my gut here, I can't help thinking that historic preservation in huge cities like Tokyo and Osaka - save for a few neighborhoods and such - is simply uneconomical. Sure, the aesthetics of the place could be improved, but the age of the mansion is here to stay. The quaint paper and wood houses / temples etc. will be increasingly relegated to the countryside where land-use pressures are less. Personally, I think this is neither unreasonable, nor undesirable. I still feel lack of historical preservation has much less to do with the concept of "kirei" than it does to other more practical limitations and Japan's sense of its own history.

    But back to the OP

    Quote Originally Posted by Maciamo
    My wife used to think that some new "mansions" in Tokyo were beautiful, but after coming to Europe, she understood that they are not.
    beautiful in the ustukushii sense or the clean sense?

    Quote:
    Mandylion - In my experience, a lot of Japanese art relies on the beauty of imperfections and the flavor/essence of a thing (as in "aji ga aru"), such as tea bowls, buildings, scrolls etc. These things are usually far from physically clean in the visual (and sometimes physical) sense, yet they are still objects worthy of "kirei."

    Maciamo - These elements were indeed part of traditional Japanese architecture, but have disappeared in modern concrete constructions.
    Then I wonder if the use of "kirei," according to your definition (as I understand it), is a recent development? I wonder if its usage will change if there is a growing appreciation for old things?

    While clean=beautiful might have played a very small role in aesthetic decisions of new designs and a seeming disregard for Japan's old building (etc.), I think it has very little to do with either the historical development of Japanese cities, or a preference for the new over the old. For me, these are rooted more deeply in Japan's experience of at least the last 150 years. But I will save that for later if people are interested.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Maciamo
    When going to Shanghai a few days ago, I was startled at the architectural contrast with Japan. Anything from skyscrapers to old houses or new residential towers were so much more beautiful than in Japan.

    well most of the beautiful buildings were actually invested by foreigners but true they are beautiful. but anyway, i recommend those people who like sight-seeing to visit singapore.
    She is really a clean and beautiful country. on top of that, i wonder if anyone discovers that the colour in singapore exhibits (as in environment) seems too pretty, colourful (what am i talking), bright, hmmm dunno how to explain. compare with beijing, seoul, i think the latter countries are bit dull in colour like graphics sort

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    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ryushin
    well most of the beautiful buildings were actually invested by foreigners but true they are beautiful. but anyway, i recommend those people who like sight-seeing to visit singapore.
    She is really a clean and beautiful country.
    Well, I went to Singapore before first going to Japan, and that is partly why I was so disappointed in Japanese architecture. I expected it to be at least as good as Singapore, but Japanese cities were closer to Bangkok or Jakarta - sometimes even worse.

    Yet, I feel that Shanghai is more beautiful than Singapore (although not as clean). It's more "utsukushii" but less "kirei".

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    Talking about the 'clean' concept with regards to architecture even the crazy "clean it up fetischists in Tokyo cannot deny the attraction of old "dirty" areas like Kanda, Asakusa, Nishi-Shinjuku, "Shomben" yokocho, Golden Gai etc this old Tokyo is very attractive for the super rich and poor but some people want to clean up Shitamachi and make Japan into another Singapore (easy to control maybe) but people don't want this and I hope there will be a resistance against too much destruction of human areas. Small scale buildings, interesting street patterns, local and LIVING communities, lots of detail to look at and interesting and new life coming into old buildings in the usually fashionable area

    That's all

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    Regular Member bossel's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Maciamo
    Streets o Luxembourg city (similar architecture to the average German cities)


    [...]Note that I have only chosen residential buildings, not great historical buildings, palaces, government buildings, or the like. This is what ordinary (middle class) Europeans live in.
    Er..., well, I think your view of how the average European lives is a bit unrealistic. At least regarding Germany I'm 100% positive that it is. The average German lives in houses/buildings like in the attachment.

    I cannot say much about Shanghai since I haven't been there (& published pics are notoriously unreliable regarding the actual living conditions), but from the cities I have seen I can say that the average Chinese city dweller lives in buildings that are much duller than even in Germany. One example (took it myself):

    & here is what a city like Guangzhou looks like (just the average look, not particularly bad, not particularly good):



    Regarding Kirei I agree with Mandylion. The concept as you presented it is still interesting though.
    Attached Images Attached Images

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    Quote Originally Posted by Maciamo
    After a few years of living in Japan, I have heard times and again Japanese people exclaiming "kirei !" when seeing something that was new, tidy and clean (e.g. a new house, a newly renovated restaurant...). Yet, in many cases, I'd only agree to say that it was clean and new, but not especially beautiful.
    Beauty is a matter of opinion. Just because you don't think its beautiful doesnt mean it isnt. Maybe your wife anfd other japanese people people have that same feeling in their chest when they see a "clean" building as you do when you see a "beautiful" building. That would mean to that person the building is beautiful and not just because its clean. What is beauty really but a form of attraction. Some people can think that the elephant man was beautiful although it would be difficult for me to say. You said that Roppongi Hills is a beautiful building (maybe) but I have heard people call it an eyesore. In Tokyo soon, according to the editor of Metropolis Magazine, an area in Harajuku is going to be redeveloped, i suspect in a fashion that you would call beautiful but not the editor.

    Recently, my wife told me about a girl's face that she was "kirei". I admitted that she had a beautiful skin, very smooth and without a spot or mole. But her features were not really beautiful.
    To some people smooth skin is beautiful and to others the shape of a face and to others physical appearance has no conneaction to beauty. In my country I have met people who thought their girlfriends were beautiful when i thought they were plain. Some people think think Pamela Anderson and her body are beatiful and others think she is an abomination.

    My point is beauty is subjective and you are trying to tell us what other people think is beautiful. You have no idea. You can only judge yourself. You have your own feeling and your own definition of beauty. Some people learn beauty by themselves, and some from others.

    From my experience, I think that to a Japanse people also have a clear difference between the two words beautiful and clean, even if they share a word and when they somehting is kirei they clearly know whether they mean beautiful or clean and they either know the listener will understand or its not really important. I think it is often used as "aizuchi" too, said only because soehting needed to be said.

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