Sabi and irony. The cross-cultural aesthetics of Ōnishi Yoshinori


The category of sabi is one of the most distinctive forms of Japanese aesthetics. A spiritual love for age, solitude and melancholia, it is central to practices like tea ceremony and haikai poetry: however, a formal description of its character is often deemed impossible. The Japanese philosopher Ōnishi Yoshinori (1888-1959) was however convinced that sabi was a complex but coherent category, and that a philosophical approach to sabi in Japanese poetry could reveal in its structure a mixture of affirmation and negation that brought it close to Romantic irony. Together with yūgen and aware, sabi is one of the three Asian aesthetic categories proposed by Ōnishi’s intercultural system as counterparts to the European forms of beautiful, sublime and comic. In this essay we turn to his 1940 volume Fūgaron, still mostly ignored by Western bibliography, to discuss the outlines of Ōnishi’s analysis of sabi, its background, its difficulties and intellectual potential.