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Session 102: Affection and Rejection? The Inflections of “Zen” in Modern and Contemporary Popular Culture

Organizer and Chair: Shoji Yamada, International Research Center for Japanese Studies, Japan

Discussans: William R. Lafleur, University of Pennsylvania; William M. Bodiford, UCLA

Japanese Zen Buddhism, embodying for many modern audiences a sense of spiritual exoticism, maintains a powerful attraction both outside Japan and within the country. Following the persecution of Buddhism in Japan during the mid to late 19th century, a particular understanding of Zen culture was developed in the first decades of the 20th century by figures such as Daisetz T. Suzuki and Hisamatsu Shin’ichi, both of whom played significant roles in spreading Zen and Zen aesthetics in Japan and the West. However, the value systems surrounding Zen have evolved and ramified in different ways over the course of the 20th century as a result of cross-cultural transmission. As Zen came to influence a range of popular arts and culture throughout the 20th century the trans-national spread of particular concepts and aesthetics, in what appears as a uniform Zen cultural lingua-franca, was in fact accompanied by discrepancy/disjuncture in adoption and by particular vectors of appropriation into popular culture. Such transmissions and transformations have manifested themselves not only in the “fine arts” but equally, and perhaps more potently, in popular culture and in the popularization of the arts themselves. We therefore find Japan-born, Asia-born, and Western-born Zen cultures, and the appearance of particular cultural expressions of “Zen” that complicate linear transfer and reception. This panel examines particular dimensions of “Zen culture” and “Zen style” as they find purchase outside the artifacts produced by Zen monks in modern landscape gardens, advertising, cartoons, and contemporary fashion design.

Popularizing Zen Gardens
Miyuki Manabe-Katahira, St. Andrew’s University, Japan

Zen gardens, to define the term loosely as gardens at Zen temples, seem to have a world-wide appeal today. When and how have such gardens, which were originally designed for monks’ meditation, come to be so accessible and popular? This paper examines the discourse that arose in the 1930s, which led to the popularization of Zen gardens, especially through the work of Shigemori Mirei (1896-1975). Although Shigemori is renowned for having designed numerous gardens, less well-known is his articulate commentary on Zen gardens. He defined the aesthetics of Zen gardens and a “proper attitude” for appreciating them; while he utilized a “Zen interpretation” to enhance gardens as “high culture,” his standardization of viewing also enabled Zen gardens to be accessible as a popular art. It is interesting to note that while Shigemori’s argument was supported by Loraine Kuck, Harada Jiro, and others who introduced Zen gardens to the West, a number of Japanese scholars showed mixed reactions to it. This suggests the polyphonic character of the discourse on Japanese gardens at the time, which cannot be reduced simply to Nationalism. There were other components tangled in the discourse, such as the establishment of Zoengaku, the academic study of gardens, and the increasing domestic awareness of the Western gaze upon Zen gardens. In this paper, I will discuss Shigemori’s argument and its historical background in order to examine popularization of Zen gardens in Japan.

Are you serious? Authenticity and Humor in Zen Advertisements
Shoji Yamada, International Research Center for Japanese Studies, Japan

Since the mid 20th century, the image of Zen has been continually reconstructed. We find a typical example of this transformation in the history of Shiseido’s perfume “Zen.” The first generation of “Zen” (1964) was bottled in a caddy designed in imitation of gold maki’e lacquer, conveying an image of extravagance. Its catchphrase for the domestic market was “Foreigners were the first to appreciate it.” The product concept for “Zen” in 2000, the caddy of which symbolized praying hands, was changed to “A profound inner peace to bring harmony to the world.” Apparently, the Shiseido image of “Zen” has proceeded toward an ever more “authentic” idea of Zen enlightenment. Advertisements have also used gardens at Zen temples as backgrounds that apparently engender a sense of the product’s Zen “authenticity” and enhance its appeal. Why a temple garden would have this impact has much to do with the explanations of “Zen art” provided by D. T. Suzuki and Hisamatsu Shin’ichi. “Zen advertisements” inside and outside Japan likewise make use of humor: a monk raking a garden while riding a Caterpillar tractor; or a meditating monk suddenly strips off his robe and irons in the nude. The humor behind these advertisements depends on audience familiarity with aspects of monastic life and culture that are juxtaposed with the unexpected or contradictory. That these advertisements succeed without seeking “authenticity” may suggest that conventional notions of “Zen art” may fail to account for how “Zen” operates in popular culture.

What's So Funny? The Inverted Rhetoric of Zen Cartoons
Gregory P. Levine, U. C. Berkeley

In a recent cartoon, two Zen monks sit beside each other meditating; one says to the other, “Are you not thinking what I'm not thinking?” In another, a monk meditates before a Zen rock garden, a “classic” scene save for the fact that his attention is focused not on a rock floating in a bed of raked gravel but a TV. What is the humor of these cartoons? What sort of “Zen” do they represent? How might we study such images with historical and hermeneutic rigor? Perhaps we might think of Zen cartoons as ethnographic anecdotes, to borrow from New Historicism: small representations (in scale, content, and medium) from which to conjure up questions regarding Zen in popular culture. If we do so, what do such cartoons suggest about the representation of Japanese/Asian culture and religion? Do they reinforce or puncture narratives of Zen as a familiar idea and practice or the embodiment of a cultural other? My sense is that Zen cartoons? A definable genre with specific themes and narratives, in Japan and the West may be less “Zen” than we might wish, “heterodox” even, by virtue of their appropriations and the manner in which they provoke tension between the expected trope and its collapse or their critique of a different social-cultural commonplace. Such inversions/extensions, this paper’s focus, are not to be reified as a “Zen” turn; rather they adumbrate the “metabolic” in popular culture and, possibly, its ability to co-opt or critique stereotypical representation.

The Development of Zen style in South Korea
Eunjoo Huh, Yonsei University, Republic of Korea

The term “Zen Style” comes from the interior design and fashion design industries. The idea originated from the Western view that certain designs or shapes have been influenced by Zen and represent the idea of Zen. It is characterized by minimalism, natural colors, and empty images. The work of many Japanese designers is frequently characterized by non-Japanese commentators as having the “Zen Style.” Westernization has long been ingrained in, and still flourishes, in Korea as part of its history of modernization. As a result, the “Zen Style” became a hot trend in Korea as a particular attraction of Western Culture. Put differently, a conception of East Asian Culture that formed within Western culture came to be incorporated into notions of traditional Korean culture and thought. Korea has a long history of Zen (Seon). Amid modernization, however, the Zen tradition became largely obsolete and distanced from daily life. Therefore, the current flow of “Zen Style” from the West can be seen as a reintroduction of Zen Culture to Korea. This particular Korean condition has allowed “Zen Style” to expand and include some traditional concepts that were not previously considered as Zen. In fact, the term “Zen Style” is not widely accepted in Japan, owing to the fact that domestic Japanese concepts of Zen, which have a long and distinct history, differ significantly from those in the West. The reintroduction of “Zen Style” into Korea therefore illustrates a particular dimension of the ongoing Westernization of Korean Culture.