Finding Meaning in Nothing
Hasegawa Tohaku, "Pine Trees," Tokyo National Museum
One of the most fascinating aspects of Japanese design is its seemingly perennial ability to maintain strong philosophical connections with age-old traditions. These traditions may be defined by particular, measurable techniques, or—as we see in most cases—deeper concepts that relate to core Japanese values. One such set of traditions is unearthed in Shiro, or “White,” a new book-length essay by graphic design icon Kenya Hara.
Shiro attempts to tackle one of the most abstract and least understood elements of Japanese design. “This book is not about color,” says Hara, “Rather... I have attempted to find the source of a Japanese aesthetic that produces simplicity and subtlety through the concept of white.” Hara makes direct connections between white and emptiness, which he argues is an essential element of design. As opposed to the concept of nothingness or valuelessness, emptiness in this case implies a condition “which will likely be filled with content in the future”—a container suspended within a transitional state, awaiting substance to enliven it.
Using white as a conceptual vehicle, Hara uncovers meaning in a wide array of significant Japanese artifacts and customs, such as the Japanese flag, Ise shrine, and Japanese tea ceremony. One of the most culturally insightful passages relates the notion of emptiness to the intentional “blanks” placed within Japanese conversation (in which the subject and object are often implied rather than stated)—thus operating as empty containers to be actively filled by the receiver.
Hara would no doubt describe an “open mind” as an empty vessel waiting to be filled, as opposed to a closed one in which decisions are all predetermined. In this way, the creative process requires shiro—in the sense that it relies upon the latent, undeveloped potential in things. “Creativity and ‘questioning’ are made of the same stuff,” claims Hara. “A creative question is a form of expression—it requires no definite answer. That is because it holds countless answers within itself.”