The Language of Japanese Design

All languages share basic concepts common to human experience. The idea is captured most succinctly in the Swadesh list, a list of core things, actions, or ideas compiled by linguist Morris Swadesh in the ‘50s for the purpose of determining linguistic interrelatedness. One measure of how close two languages are is how many cognates they share on the Swadesh list. Compared to German Hand, English has a perfect match. Compared to Icelandic hönd, English has a near match. Compared to Korean 손 son, there’s no connection at all. That kind of data is music to the ears of “lexicostatisticians”.

For the rest of us, however, vive la différence is more interesting than vive la même chose. Get into Urdu or Quechua and the fact that those languages have words for “eye”, “moon”, and “woman” is no revelation. What we’re curious about are words other languages have that we don’t.


Downton Sabi: Short essays about words emblematic of traditional culture.

In that spirit, I’d like to talk about a book that illuminates Japanese culture through the vocabulary of Japanese aesthetics: Elements of Japanese Design. The book sets out to explain Japanese “design” values, but, by writing a collection of 65 essays based on particular words, the author uses Japanese language as a vivid framework for understanding its culture.

The book includes some basic nouns describing classic Japanese arts and crafts, such as 盆栽, bonsai, a “tray-planting” and 和紙 , washi, “Japanese paper”. As an aside, on its own 和 (wa) means “harmony”. It’s an important concept in Japan, and it has its own chapter here. But it can also mean “Japanese” as in washi, and also in 和食 (washoku, “Japanese food”), 和服 (wafuku, “Japanese clothing”), and 和風 (wafuu, “Japanese-style”).

Elements of Japanese Design also examines such classic Japanese values as 不均斉, fukinsei, or asymmetry. It also offers superbly pithy explanations about the much talked about but little understood ideas of 詫び, wabi, and 寂び, sabi.

Not limiting himself to classic Japanese, however, De Mente also covers vocabulary from pop culture such as 可愛い, kawaii, which is like “cute” on amphetamines.

In this readable volume, De Mente acts as journalist, independent scholar, and keen observer and consumer of Japanese culture and language. Most of the essays are less than two pages, and each gives the Japanese word, its kanji, rōmaji, and an anglicized pronunciation. If you’d like to win this book, click here to email me and write “Design” in the subject line. I’ll announce a winner on Monday. The winner of the book about Kansai Japanese was Michael from New Hampshire. おおきに!


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