By Bobby Cai
In Praise of Shadows: Asymmetric
This essay bears the same name as Junichiro Tanizaki’s 1933 essay ‘In Praise of Shadows’. This is an intentional choice, as I believe the essay captured the essence of the Wabi-Sabi nature of Japanese architecture and culture (which echoes itself in Yohji Yamamoto’s designs) by expressing the all-too-human sentiment of awe with flair. It is also an admittance of a shortcoming: Tanizaki possessed “no specialised knowledge of architecture”,[i] and I no specialised knowledge of fashion.
This essay aims to be a blend of an emotive response to aspects of Mr. Yamamoto’s Philosophy and a brief overview of his thoughts, although these two aspects are often intertwined asymmetrically in this composition to reflect the imperfection of human sentiment, which Mr. Yamamoto held dearly.[ii]
“Perfect symmetry is ugly”
“Precious human sentiments… come from an asymmetric balance”[iii]
When a Yamamoto piece has a loose thread, an irregular collar, a protrusion of a seemingly unexplained yet aesthetically crucial piece of fabric – that is the mark of the master. These oddities, in particular, show Yamamoto's inherent optimism in humans.
Not only does it entail from these practices that Yamamoto believes in human emotions to be a mark of imperfection, but rather, their imperfection is a necessity for beauty. It says, ‘humans are flawed and fallible, and we should wear that proudly’! The optimism in this is twofold. (i) details a paradigm shift from regularity to irregularity in clothing, a non-conformist stance that brings mystery and obscurity to everyday life again. This was Yohji Yamamoto (and his contemporary, the great Rei Kawakubo’s) claim to fame in their Parisien debut. Not only does this likely announce itself as a tribute to the Japanese nuance of interpretation and indirectness, it is also Yamamoto’s belief, we can read, that everybody is veiled. These uniform, regular pieces of clothings have long-silenced our character, and they shall no longer. (This concept of revolt is very present within Yamamoto’s own life, effectively quitting the prestigious Keio university during his fourth year there). (ii) denotes Yamamoto’s forgiving nature in life, and how his humanity lies not necessarily in living the morally righteous life of a saint. If our goal is our humanity, according to Nietzsche,[iv] then Yamamoto’s humanity lies, paradoxically, in finding beauty and perfection within the imperfect. It is here that we are also drawn to this unapologetically Japanese line of thought: found both in the essay In Praise of Shadows (1933) and in the art of Kintsugi (the art of repairing broken lacquerware, traditionally). The Japanese, and in particular Yohji, embrace what is broken, what is worn, what is imperfect. Yamamoto does not seek out the perfect right angle, nor panic at the sight of a blemish. If you were smoking a cigarette with the master (he is often interviewed whilst smoking, perhaps another mark of his humanity not lying in perfection of body and mind) and some of your ash happens to fall onto his coat, whereas others may be consumed with rage and blame swiftly, Yamamoto finds inspiration. This is the asymmetrical message that Yamamoto speaks of.
To him, perhaps it was the concept of symmetry that built an ugly perception of what false 'goods' exist. The perfection gave way to, ultimately, emotionless content and emptiness. Through these unorthodox designs intended to provoke the eye Yamamoto has brought us inexplicably to realise the sentiments that we feel in his imperfect doctrine: the ephemerality of perfection, and the artificialness we strive for to maintain such, and perhaps the unwarranted shame in the most minor of mistakes. From this perspective, it would not even be outlandish to read into this as part of Yamamoto’s “sign of protest” against Japanese society.[v] The Land of the Rising Sun is a land of apologies; it is a breeding ground for perfectionists (arguably increasingly, with the recent educational reforms still maintaining the issue of shiken-jigoku, breeding a generation of children brought up in a paradigm where either they are perfect, ie , entering one of the top universities, or they must half progression until they reach that height). Yamamoto saw the system as flawed and predestined during his brief run at Keio, and he could not bear the “sacrifices” required of his mother. This is indicative of a phenomenon that may not be particular to Yamamoto: although increasingly the load has been shifted towards the children as opposed to the parent (and the decay of perfection is evident: one inevitably makes a mistake, and society is not as forgiving as Yamamoto. By breeding a mindset of re-doing things until perfection through the University entry tests, Japanese society arguably has been regressive in both practicality and productivity, mental health issues notwithstanding). He would not obey such a system, and that attack has never stopped because when it does, that is when his struggle finishes and he loses his humanity in losing imperfection.
Yohji Yamamoto’s asymmetrical doctrine is imperfect front-and-centre, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. It will stay imperfect because we cannot comprehend his doctrine in words, and so we have to rely on our sight and our mind, two everchanging devices. However, perhaps through his timeless designs, Yamamoto has been quietly assembling his great picture-book-and-braille Sutra for us.
 Leanard Koren’s ‘Wabi-Sabi’ is a concise, helpful introductory book on this area.
[i] Kwun, Aileen. “In Praise of Shadows,” n.d., 8.
[ii] Wenders, W., J. Nouvel, C. Rampling, and T. Kitano. Yamamoto & Yohji. Rizzoli, 2014. 49.
[iii] Wenders, W., J. Nouvel, C. Rampling, and T. Kitano. Yamamoto & Yohji. Rizzoli, 2014.
[iv] Caro, Adrian Del, and Robert B Pippin. “FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE: Thus Spoke Zarathustra A Book for All and None,” n.d., 318. ‘On a Thousand and One Goals’
[v] Wenders, W., J. Nouvel, C. Rampling, and T. Kitano. Yamamoto & Yohji. Rizzoli, 2014.