The Aesthetics of Social Situations: Encounters and Sensibilities of the Everyday Life in Japan

The Aesthetics of Social Situations: Encounters and Sensibilities of the Everyday Life in Japan

Garcia Chambers


What beauty could there be in mundane, interactive encounters in and observations of the everydayness of life in Japan? The answer rightly may be none whatsoever based on the Kantian, distancing, art-centered theory and practice of aesthetics. Refreshingly, however, contemporary social and aesthetic philosophers would argue that the use of the word ‘beauty’ was a misguided choice, as it repeats the common error of equating the aesthetic with the beautiful or pleasing. A more appropriate word, honoring the original sense perception meaning of aesthetics, would be ‘sensibility.’ True to this original meaning of aesthetics, this paper presents and analyzes two selected experiences of heightened sensibility of the author. Using Arnold Berleant’s aesthetic field model and Yuriko Saito’s works on everyday aesthetics in Japanese culture as theoretical anchors, this paper attempts to shine a light on the everyday life sensibilities for the engaged appreciator or observer in Japan.


Key Words
aesthetic experience, aesthetic field, Arnold Berleant, everyday aesthetics, Japanese sensibilities, Yuriko Saito


1. Introduction

My interest in the cultural aesthetics of Japan began organically over a decade ago, after reading a primer on Japanese culture, Kokoro: Hints and Echoes of Japanese Inner Life.[1] In this book, Lafcadio Hearn tells a story of an alleged murderer who, after being apprehended, was allowed one last chance to say something to the widow, who at the time was also carrying the toddler son of the police officer he had murdered. Sobbing, he remorsefully turned in the direction of the child and offered a sincere apology in the presence of a crowd of onlookers. When the crowd heard the murderer’s apology to the child, Hearn recalled a cloud of silence descended over the scene, followed by an audible sigh of appreciation by the crowd. The reaction by the onlookers to the apology to the child suggested to Hearn that the crowd’s disgust and anger at the perpetrator might have subsided a bit. Some of the onlookers even seemed to have felt compassion—whether for the murderer or the entire affair— as they, too, began to sob. Moreover, fellow police officers, though known to be stoic or Samurai-like, could not hold back their tears, either. While Hearn’s focus in recounting this story was on the peculiar import of the Japanese love and respect for children, for me the perception, tinged with emotional awe I had reading the story, was the cultural and psychological power of an apology in Japan. I must have been aesthetically engaged reading the story, foreshadowing the interest I have since taken in Japanese aesthetic sensibilities.

The concept “feelings,” whether defined in the Kantian sense as “states of pleasantness and unpleasantness” or the individual’s “internal state,” the popular definition among psychologists, is central here.[2] Feelings, that is, our affective state and orientation, is arguably the kernel of theorizing and understanding the aesthetic of everyday life in Japan. An insight into the central role that feelings or empathy play in Japanese culture comes from a snippet of Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, involving Toru, the novel’s protagonist. Toru, a Tokyoite, initially refuses an offer of money from a kind stranger who has already consoled and fed him after he has been dejected and wandering for days on a beach in the Shikoku region following the suicide of a close friend. Toru explains the reason he initially refuses the offer of money but only hints at why he finally accepts it:

I said he had done more than enough for me and I could not accept the money on top of everything else, but he refused to take it back. ‘It’s not money’ he said, ‘it’s my feelings. Don’t think about it too much, just take it.’ All I could do was thank him and accept it.[3]

Two phrases emphasized in bold, “[I]t’s not money… it’s my feelings” and “all I could do” are illustrative. “Money” metaphorically becomes “feelings,” and, when that happens, Toru has no choice but to “accept it.” Toru could refuse the money as a currency but could not when the “money” aesthetically metamorphoses into “feelings.”[4] I submit that Toru’s experience, marked by the conceptual import of feelings, subtly illustrates another instance of the Japanese aesthetic sensibility. Similarly, the two aesthetic experiences that I will later recount, especially the McDonald’s Encounter, are instances of the character of feelings as a primary value in theorizing and understanding the appreciative experience of social situations, in general, though this paper invokes the specificity of Japan.

Navigating the subfields of everyday aesthetics, aesthetic experience theory, and cultural studies with specific reference to Japan, this paper’s journey is exploratory, venturing out on a path certainly less, if not yet, traveled.[5] The activities, situations, and objects, that is, the totality of human relationships and their contexts, whether ordinarily or extraordinarily experienced, constitute the subject matter of everyday aesthetics. Context driven, rather than object driven, everyday aesthetics and its deep-rootedness in Japanese culture and traditions have been well argued by Yuriko Saito, especially in her pioneering works, Everyday Aesthetics and Aesthetics of the Familiar.[6] Primarily, however, much is owed to Arnold Berleant’s voluminous works, which are referenced throughout this paper. In particular, Berleant’s groundbreaking aesthetic field framework that, by privileging aesthetic experience and engagement, offers a fresh approach to aesthetic theory.[7] With phenomenology as methodology, and inspiration from John Dewey’s Art as Experience, the aesthetic field theory debunks the Kantian dualistic tradition of aesthetic disinterestedness.[8] Interestingly, however, rather than it being a focus on art as experience, in the Deweyan mode, everyday aesthetics is fundamentally concerned with experience as art.[9] This reversal of the notion of art as experience to experience as art is fundamental to the theory of everyday aesthetics. Experience as art, in the mode of a noncognitive-cum-experiential approach, underscores the idea that the aesthetic pervades all of life and living rather than being confined to only art objects.[10] It is that we can apprehend aesthetic value when we actively and creatively engage in activities, situations, and with objects of everyday life. Understanding this can result in greater mindfulness in our daily activities, leading to a higher quality of living and a richer social life, whenever we occasionally encounter the aesthetic, fleetingly though it may be.[11]

Later, I will introduce two such fleeting experiences during the humdrum of my own everyday experience in Japan. They are (1) a conversation I had with an employee at a McDonald’s shop, and (2) an observation I made while awaiting a train. The first appreciative encounter will be super-imposed upon Berleant’s aesthetic field model for purposes of explication and analysis. Admittedly, applying this phenomenological approach to theorizing episodes of everyday sensibility, which involves demonstrating that context and an engaged presence matter, appear to be merely academic. However, the notion of the “aesthetic” is used throughout this paper in the classificatory rather than the honorific sense.[12] Indeed, there is value in cultivating an aesthetic attitude. In addition to Berleant’s aesthetic field model, Saito’s theory of the instrumental role of everyday aesthetics and the moral-based sensibilities that undergird Japanese culture are richly helpful to analyzing and understanding the personal, appreciative accounts I will describe.[13] Yet, I do have some reservation about using my own aesthetic experiences— which shall remain invariably and inviolably personal. After all, it remains debatable whether an aesthetic experience or perception can be communicated so it can be judged as not only “intra-personally valuable” or “solipsistic.”[14]

Before describing the accounts and offering the related analysis and discussion, I will first summarize the moral-cum-ethical-based Japanese sensibility as espoused by Saito. Second, I will explain Berleant’s model of the aesthetic field and its related concepts: transaction, engagement, and unity of experience. Third, I will present the two selected everyday encounters using a quasi descriptive-aesthetics style, followed by a super-imposed application of Berleant’s aesthetic field framework.[15] Finally, I offer some concluding comments.

2. Yuriko Saito’s moral-based everyday aesthetics

The pivot around which Saito’s theory of everyday aesthetics and its inherence to Japanese way of life spins is the notion of moral judgments. She argues that moral virtues, such as care, civility, gentleness, manners, and respect, are inextricably linked to the Japanese aesthetic sensibility.[16] Offering a wide range of examples of her own experience of Japanese culture’s aesthetic sensibilities, and in devoting at least two book chapters and a journal article, Saito has been persuasive in demonstrating the inseparability between the everyday and moral aesthetics in Japan. Among the examples of everyday aesthetic sensibilities, and the moral virtues that undergird them, is the classic Japanese tea ceremony that both evokes and invokes the precept, ichigo-ichie (literally, one time, one meeting). Another case is everyday gift-giving that exemplifies care and thoughtfulness by the giver regarding its wrapping and the receiver who, when opening the gift, would make effort in “…keeping the wrapping paper in a hypothetically reusable condition before admiring the gift.”[17] Other aspects of Japanese everyday life that value restraint or enryo, hospitality, or omotenashi, and considerateness, or omoiyari, and that are integral to everyday aesthetic attitude, would no doubt lend strong support to Saito’s theory. Thanks to the ubiquitous social media feed, the world can learn of two actual and relatively recent examples of the Japanese sensibilities of restraint, hospitality, and considerateness. One is from the early aftermath of the March 2011 triple disasters of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear plant meltdown, when hundreds of hungry and awe-struck residents of Sendai city lined up orderly, in the cold, waiting patiently for their turn to receive a serving of a hot meal.[18] The other is after a knockout match at the 2014 Brazil World Cup, when losing Japanese football fans stayed behind to clean up the trash of their area in the stadium they used.[19]

In furtherance to the precept on “mindful attention, perceptual engagement, and employment of sensibility in everyday life,” Saito offers more in terms of praxis.[20] For example, in Everyday Aesthetics, she shines a light on appreciation for the quintessential characters of objects, aesthetic appreciation of packaging and the use of natural materials, Japanese aesthetic appreciation of ambience, and Japanese food and its appreciation of seasonableness.[21] In short, Saito shows that an aesthetic attitude or sensibility is interwoven into her native Japanese culture and tradition. Moreover, in “Body Aesthetics and the Cultivation of Moral Virtues,” Saito specifically points to an inextricable link between moral and aesthetic sensibilities, all the while not failing to mention she means aesthetic in the classificatory rather than the honorific sense. Indeed, carrying out simple tasks or ordinary “bodily movements” such as “closing the door, serving food and tea, drinking tea, eating food, and receiving the gift item,” can be done in a way that instantiates a sensibility of respect for others.[22] Although Saito’s examples suitably come from Japanese cultural practice and tradition, the beauty of her theory is its character of mindfulness, respect, considerateness, and tolerance that, I agree, has cultural applicability and, dare I say, contemporary necessity beyond Japan.

Said in another way, through basic, effortless manner we can positively influence the atmosphere of our social interactions and activities of everyday life. Berleant’s quoting of Thoreau’s Walden is apt here: It is special to be able to paint or carve objects of beauty, “…but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere [emphasis added] and medium through which we look…. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”[23] In fact, reading or understanding the kuuki, the Japanese word for ‘atmosphere,’ has been considered an essential sensibility for smooth social interaction. Its import is such that the pejorative KY, short for kuuki o yomenai, or not being able to read the atmosphere, can be damning. Being mindful of how one can positively influence the atmosphere is a key aspect of Japan’s moral and ethical sensibilities. However, traditional aesthetic theory, especially that which emanates from Western scholarship, would cast a doubtful eye on the moral and ethical pillars on which Japanese aesthetic sensibilities are built.[24] Thankfully, Arnold Berleant understood the shortcomings and restrictiveness of this Kantian-driven, a priori approach to theorizing and understanding the appreciative experience. His aesthetic field and aesthetic engagement theories provide ample and welcome frameworks to facilitate expanding the scope of the scholarship on contemporary aesthetics and aesthetic experience.

3. Arnold Berleant: The aesthetic field

For Berleant, the contemporary democratization of or inclusiveness in the approaches to defining and theorizing art and the appreciative experience

… lead[s] us to recognize aesthetic value in objects and conditions that also possess other kinds of value, such as environment and the objects and activities of everyday life. From this it follows that aesthetic value need not be exclusive to be recognized as such. Aesthetic engagement offers an alternative account of aesthetic appreciation that replaces the dualism inherent in the Kantian theory of aesthetic disinterestedness.[25]

Thus, most of Berleant’s writings show a keenness in addressing certain inadequacies that had existed in Kantian-driven, Western aesthetic theory. Central to these shortcomings is the (ill-)treatment that has been meted out to the arts because of a traditional adherence to an a priori, cognitive, and distancing attitude to the aesthetic experience. This approach fails to ground its theory in the empirical or the experiential, which is the sustenance, life-blood of any aesthetic experience. In his ground-breaking work on aesthetic theory, using phenomenology as both a philosophy and methodology, Berleant declares that “whatever tentative conclusions we can draw must be the outcome of careful, detailed investigation of the phenomena of valuing themselves. Abstract a priori principles have been notoriously unsuccessful in settling issues that concern matters of fact and experience.”[26] Accordingly, aesthetics as one of the “phenomena of valuing,” its theories ought to be developed from an empirical account of all the perceptual experiences that involve an aesthetic value. The inadequate accounting for all data, primarily a methodological error, is the reason Berleant debunks and labels imitation, emotionalist, expression, communication and formalist theories of art as surrogates.[27]

What, then, is Berleant offering as a more inclusive, contemporary, and data-driven theory? The answer lies in his problematizing the long-standing polemic in aesthetic theory:

If, for example, there is no separable, independent object of aesthetic appreciation that possesses aesthetic value and no internalized consciousness that appreciates it, the explanation of aesthetic value and of recognizing and appreciating it becomes a matter of explicating the situation in which such experience takes place. The problem thus becomes context-based rather than object-based.[28]

Accordingly, aesthetic value, the precondition of any theory of aesthetic experience, calls for a situational analysis of the context within which the experience occurs. Any such explication of the context or situational analysis must, however, begin with yet another definitional challenge, namely, what art is. Noting the many definitions that abound, Berleant accepts their import but then also points out their inadequacy in providing a fuller understanding of what art is, especially given all the modes and forms in contemporary life.[29] Art is, he argues, “…the total situation in which the objects, activities, and experiences of art occur, a setting which includes all these denotata and more.”[30] The entire setting, the context, or the situation includes everything, those perceived and not perceived by the observer or participant. The aesthetic field is what Berleant calls this potential appreciative situation of interdependent elements. It is “…the context in which art objects are actively and creatively experienced as valuable.”[31]

In prefacing his explanation of each of the four main factors—1. artist / performer; 2. perceiver/ viewer/ listener/ reader; 3. art object / focus of the experience; 4. activator of the aesthetic occurrence—and the other elements mutually influencing their operation within the aesthetic field, Berleant points to their necessity in explicating the field’s contextual character.[32] The interplay of all these elements debunks “the usual common sense account” of merely two players within the aesthetic field: the art object and the perceiver.[33] Before explaining the aesthetic field’s broad interim concepts and processes of transaction, engagement, and unity, a caveat might be useful. Berleant’s theorized the aesthetic field in his 1970 publication, the first edition, with a focus on the art object, its entire situation, and the creative interplay of all the factors, including artists and observers. Thus, the aesthetic field theory was not originally formulated to explain and analyze potential and actual aesthetic experiences in everyday, mundane activities, such as conversations and observations, which are the foci of this paper. Notwithstanding, the challenge here excites. Therefore, let us turn to detailing the aesthetic field’s key components: transaction, engagement, and unity of experience.

Figure 1: From Aesthetic Field to Aesthetic Experience


To begin with, the concept of the aesthetic field explains the structure of an aesthetic experience. As such, the aesthetic field provides an analysis of its varied and key elements, rather than elucidating the experience itself. Again, the aesthetic field includes everything present when the experience occurs, observed and unobserved. Moreover, it includes biological, social, cultural, psychological, historical, and technological factors that influence everything in the aesthetic field.[34] To extrapolate, a conversation or an observation, whether in the public or private sphere, would include all those aforementioned factors, in addition to the knowledge and cognition of the people involved. Berleant admits the observer or the appreciator and all the factors acting together suggest a wide degree of variability that might seem to complicate the theory’s explanatory success. Yet, “it is differences in these variable factors that account for differences in aesthetic response and judgment,” he argues.[35] How then does the theory explain this “acting together?”

“Aesthetic transaction” refers to the relations or creative interplay among all the elements involved in the field, while what is conceptualized as “engagement” speaks to “…an active process that integrates sensible data with discriminating intelligence.”[36] In other words, it is a “… complete absorption in perceptual experience that has temporal depth conjoined with the resonance of memory and meaning…”[37] Here the notion of “absorption” is explained succinctly, and in so doing shows its contradistinction to the Kantian, dualistic, and disinterested approach to aesthetic theory:

absorption in aesthetic appreciation may at times be so complete that the viewer, reader, or listener abandons entirely the consciousness of a separate self and enters totally into the aesthetic world. This is familiar to many people in the experience of being caught up in a novel or in the virtual world of cinema. When we are not misdirected by contrary expectations, we can cultivate the ability to become appreciatively engaged on many different artistic occasions. I call such appreciation “aesthetic engagement”, and when it is achieved most intensely and completely, it fulfills the possibilities of aesthetic experience.[38]

Therefore, the unity of experience that occasions, if not instantiates, the aesthetic experience points to a disappearance of the boundaries of self, a harmony with the situation, an assimilation, a continuity, indeed, a vulnerability.[39] Accordingly, aesthetic experience, for Berleant, is the “… time [s] of sensory acuteness, of perceptual unity of nature and human, of a continuity of awareness, understanding, and involvement mixed with awe and humility, in which the focus is on the immediacy and directness of the occasion of experience.”[40]

To sum up this brief foray, the model of the aesthetic field, along with its emphasis on aesthetic engagement, allows for a unified aesthetic theory that extends to the appreciation of ordinary, everyday activities. Arguably, in the everyday life of Japan, about which I earlier introduced Saito’s thesis, the aesthetic and ordinary, quotidian activities seem to intertwine seamlessly. Already, Japanese culture is praised for giving “…artistic status to all sorts of pursuits embedded in everyday life, including garden design, flower arrangement, interior design, fashion design, the tea ceremony, and various culinary procedure.”[41] Might it not equally be regarded for having an aesthetic attitude toward mundane activities, such as doing chores, commuting, shopping, communal public bathing, and the specific accounts I am about to describe? In the mode of a descriptive aesthetics and along with an adaptation of Berleant’s aesthetic field framework, I will turn to the two accounts.

4. Descriptive aesthetics: two appreciative encounters in Japan

This paper is yet again indebted to Berleant for pointing to another praxis: descriptive aesthetics.[42] As an addition to substantive aesthetics and meta-aesthetics, descriptive aesthetics enriches the methodological tools of aesthetic inquiry. Whereas substantive aesthetics is more traditional, focusing broadly on the meaning and relevance of art, meta-aesthetics is rather contemporary, presenting how to best define, distinguish, and classify the problems of art and aesthetics.[43] Contrasted with substantive aesthetics and meta-aesthetics, descriptive aesthetics offers not just another approach to recount an aesthetic experience but one which its produced account might be sufficiently evocative to produce a secondary aesthetic experience. Descriptive aesthetics’ richness may also be characterized in hyphenated terms: part-narrative, part-phenomenological, and part-evocative but completely concerned with sense perception.[44] That sense perception is what descriptive aesthetics is all about honors the original meaning of aesthetics. Moreover, descriptive aesthetics is well suited for the aesthetics of environment. Here, ‘environment’ should be understood “in its fullest sense,” that is, the “human life-world.”[45] The activities of the “human life-world” or our environment remain potentially charged for an appreciative experience to the engaged.

I should mention two key differences between the appreciative experiences that Berleant presents as examples of descriptive aesthetics and the ones given below. One is that they are accounts about nature and the outdoors, titled, “A Paddle on the Bantam River” and “Scenes from a Connecticut Landscape…”[46] However, the accounts below are primarily about social encounters and observations. The other difference is that Berleant’s accounts are described in pure form, with no background notes and interspersed analyses, but the cases with the appreciative accounts presented below include both.

4.1 A McDonald’s encounter

There was a time when free coffee refills were on offer at McDonald’s in Japan. On an afternoon at a McDonald’s in the city of Noda, knowing that the refill service had been discontinued, I had finished my coffee and wanted to free-up the space on my small table so I could continue working on a paper. Thus, I proceeded to dispose of the trash and return the tray. The rest is described below and then analyzed in section 5.

I went to the trash box closest to where I was sitting that also happened to be close to the service counter. On my way there, I made eye contact with a worker behind the counter. For some strange reason, smiling, I jokingly uttered “okawarikudasai” (“May I have another serving?”). The worker, a young woman, who could have been any of the students I teach in college, apologetically and with a congenially coordinated facial expression, replied that the refill service had ended. As she repeated the apology, while not losing that cultured demeanor and tonal appropriateness, her entire manner seemed to have been honoring the Japanese saying: okyakusama kamisama (The customer is god!). Repeating the apology was presumably because she had interpreted my reaction— after “learning” that the refill service had ended—to be one of astonishment tinged with disappointment. In the moment, I felt a strong sense of guilt, as I knew I was simply joking by asking for a refill, so I replied I knew the service had long ended with the tag: amerikan jooku desu (“an American joke”).[47] Yet, I wondered if my reply was sufficient to diffuse the charged atmosphere caused by my “pulling a leg” in an ordinary life experience at a McDonald’s shop. For what followed my saying I was simply joking by asking for a refill and my proceeding to complete the process of trash disposal and tray return included a moment of heightened exchange.

To my surprise, the clerk, still behind the counter, asked for the tray with the trash, saying she would take care of the matter. Her offer to take the tray and dispose of my trash was both surprising and embarrassing for three main reasons. The first and most important reason was that I was standing next to the trash box and it would take no more than about ten seconds, with minimum ease, to do it myself. Second, the clerk was the only staff behind the counter at that time and another customer, who was presently approaching the counter, would be of greater priority for the clerk’s service. Finally, I thought she might have felt a bit embarrassed replying so apologetically and with exquisite textbook demeanor only to learn I was just joking by asking for a refill. Therefore, I thought it would only be appropriate that I do it myself; that I did not deserve her help relieving me of my “burden” on top of the discomfiture I had already caused her. So, I refused her offer twice, saying it was OK while gesturing and explaining that I was already standing at the trash box. However, she insisted, using coordinated verbal and facial expressions, as well as direct hand gestures, that I hand her my tray with the trash. I relented, handed it over and returned to my seat, embarrassingly perplexed, I must admit.

Walking back to my seat to continue my work, I reflected. For about ten minutes, remorse, meaning-making, and empathy arrested me, preventing me from resuming my work. It was during this ten-minute pause that I engaged with what had transpired in the space of about one minute between the clerk and me. Perceptually and being overwhelmed by both the cognitive dissonance and deep culture at play at a poignant moment, I recalled arriving at a sweet spot; I felt transported. What was characteristically an ordinary encounter among the carrying out of perfunctory tasks, by way of a reflective engagement, led me to a deep appreciation for all that had transpired. This experience afforded me a moment of heightened sensibility reminding that the aesthetic pervades even the mundane, everyday activities.

4.2 Observation at a train station

This second heightened experience—one that colored one of my ordinary summer days— centers on something I saw that arguably was not part of the ordinary course of events normally encountered at a train station. This experience differs characteristically from the previous McDonald’s Encounter in that there was no person-to-person communication. Instead, it purely describes an episode of my own intrinsic perceptual engagement through the immediacy of my focused attention at a certain moment at a train station.[48]

Sitting on a bench close enough to an escalator awaiting the next train, I happened to turn my head in the direction of the escalator and saw a lone woman riding down. I held my gaze in that direction for a while because I noticed she was reading a book and did not seem to realize the escalator was approaching the platform floor, and, if she was not careful, God forbid, she could fall over. Thankfully, like many people who engage in some daily routine and are able to multi-task and not miss a beat moving on to the next step or process, the woman was able to continue reading while disembarking the escalator. With my eyes still trained in her direction, I saw the woman lower the book from her face as she was walking past the bench where I was seated. At that moment, I noticed something extraordinary. With her eyes wide open and appearing to be staring into space, contemplating, absorbing what she had just read, she had tears running down her cheeks. Seeing streaks of tears running down a woman’s face in a public space for no obvious reason was quite a surprise. The observation then sparked a train of thought in my head: What was she reading? How emotive or cathartic was the book? What difficulty was she having trying to keep her emotions under the lid in such a public space? One imagines how embarrassing many adults would feel to be seen crying in public without any perceptible reason. I reflected: pondering and analyzing what I had witnessed. I thought how this observation was coloring the atmosphere of my ordinary day while I routinely awaited the train. During those moments of my cognitive gymnastics, empathy arrived, and with it came an intense feeling of inter-connectedness. I felt a oneness, that what I had just observed about the woman could also be my experience, too. There was, for me, something poignant, yet comforting, about this observation. Fleetingly, during the humdrum of a daily activity, I became perceptually engaged; then I empathized with the sadness (or happiness!) tinged with awe that simultaneously caused and instantiated those poignant tears streaking down a stranger’s face.

5. Super-imposing on Berleant’s aesthetic field framework

Berleant’s aesthetic field model, with its focus on a context-based aesthetics, allows for theorizing the sensibilities of our everyday, social, and cultural life. Admittedly, the recounts are personal, appreciative experiences. However, they illustrate Berleant’s thesis of the ever-present potential for sensuous experience and perceptive awareness in social life, as the aesthetic is pervasive. Let me now offer a structural analysis and discussion of the McDonald’s Encounter by way of a super-imposition on Berleant’s aesthetic field.

5.1 McDonald’s aesthetic field

Figure 2: Analytical Illustration of an aesthetic experience at a McDonald’s

Recall that the aesthetic field refers to the entire situation, including what is present and not present and what is observed and unobserved. Since the focus here is on the social situation of a restaurant or café, itemizing some of the key elements in the now-framed field of a McDonald’s store would include customers and staff as the people engaged in welcoming, ordering, taking order, and serving. Customers are also engaged in eating, talking, teleworking, studying, reading, relaxing, resting, sleeping and killing time. Then there is disposing of trash and leaving. Regarding sounds and sights, there are the background music being played, wall decoration, and color-theme creating ambience. An interesting English inscription on the wall of my local McDonald’s reads, “i want to be LIGHT and FROLICSOME I want to be IMPROBABLE BEAUTIFUL and afraid of NOTHING as though I had wings (sic.).”[49]

5.1.1 Transaction

Focusing on the specific events and social interactions that lead to my aesthetic experience, they include approaching trash box, then making eye contact with the staff. Then the coffee refill exchange occurs, punctuated by heightened customer service etiquette of apologizing for not being able to provide a customer with a service or product. This interactive performance continues with a polite offer to take the tray and dispose my trash: my decline, the staff’s insistence, my relenting. This interactive and performative exchange between the clerk and me lasted for about a minute.

5.1.2 Engagement

Being engaged with and absorbed by what transpired essentially started while returning to my seat. Was it a return, a pause that carries the existential, Sisyphean weight that deeply interests Camus, leading him to characterize it the “hour of consciousness”?[50] Being seated, frozenly I reflected on the one-minute of exchange for about ten minutes. I thought about the clerk’s form, grace, and the coordinated body language in expressing apology for not being able to satisfy my request. Even if initially empty and robot-like, the discomfiture I caused, which was tantamount to her losing face, triggered by her learning I was merely joking when I asked for a nonexistent service, was responded with an offer of professional kindness. Moreover, after the offer of kindness was rejected, on the basis that it was unnecessary and embarrassing, I yielded to the clerk’s insistence, thinking if only it would make her feel good, it was imperative I obliged.

5.1.3 Unity of experience: from field to aesthetic experience

Of note, the graphical representation in Figure 2 is primarily for analytic purposes and therefore must not be mistaken for the experience itself. Moreover, a prime characteristic of an aesthetic experience of social situations is the notion of continuity, as articulated by Berleant. This continuity, enfolding, or immersion implies that the aesthetic experience is merely a paradigm of the unity of experience.[51] From entering the McDonald’s to transacting, noticing, interacting, and reflecting on the aesthetic trigger, and also the value therein, the engagement is one of continuity and harmony. There is an inescapable overlap and interplay among all the elements, making it difficult to pinpoint the succession of each element. This is why Berleant labels it the “unity of experience:” a fading away that instantiates and “secures” the defining feature of an aesthetic experience and its “contextual character,” respectively.[52]

6. Concluding comments

In illustrating that there is a certain kind beauty or sensibility potentially present in even the mundane, everyday social situations, this paper provides aesthetic descriptions of the author’s own experiences in Japan. Re-reading and superimposing on Berleant’s aesthetic field model, the paper offers a structural analysis of one of the appreciative encounters described. I would like to conclude with the following points.

First, I return briefly to the Observation at a Train Station account, which I did not treat analytically. Importantly, the perceptual sensibility I recounted is inextricably intertwined with the contextual character of the situation. A stranger descending an escalator with her head buried in a book signaled to me a potential accident, and then, having cleared the potential danger, later removed the book from her face to reveal tears streaking her face. This was the main aesthetic trigger. The observation set off a cognitive interplay of reflection on the scene, the culture, and my own engagement, leading to a feeling of inseparableness.

Let me briefly explain my “reflecting on the cultural context of the scene” with two examples. One is the manner, when riding an escalator in Japan, of positioning oneself to one side such that others who are in a hurry can pass easily. However, positioning oneself, mindfully or not, also means that one could engage in sending a text message or get lost in a novel while riding. The other is the cultural norm of acting while being mindful of the eyes of others, which could make crying in public be considered shameful. It is a rather terse explanation; however, the appreciative experience does not easily lend itself to analyses, especially by the appreciator. Perhaps what matters or left to be said is that my engagement at the train station includes a passage of time when I could not separate myself from what I was observing: the woman who was a stranger became an acquaintance, like a friend. Indeed, I saw myself in her.

Second, Saito’s theory about our everyday care, civility, and mindful attitude toward others as characteristics of Japanese moral-cum-ethical based sensibilities are implicit, if not explicit, in the two accounts. Cultivating an everyday, aesthetic, and moral sensibility can enrich our individual lives; however, this enrichment is not (should not be) the end. The italicized toward others is critical in that it suggests the development of civic values because “…we humans are all implicated in the collective and cumulative project of world-making.”[53] This notion of a “world-making” project and the central role of a moral aesthetic sensibility is in accord with Berleant’s social aesthetics, a spin-off from his aesthetic field and aesthetic engagement theories. Indeed, the aesthetic and the moral are inextricably intertwined in our human relations, the social intercourses of our everyday lives. For the value of being human and the value in art and judgement existentially rest on “…their aesthetic and moral claim.”[54]

Third, and as a corollary to the previous point, guided by a participatory aesthetic theory the two accounts of social situations and the everyday in Japan have their aesthetic and moral imports, hopefully not only for the appreciator. This normative, participatory aesthetics debunks traditional, Western, and art-centered aesthetics. Moreover, it answers the call that “we must face the problem of dealing with such a complex and unframed subject matter. The main reaction one gets at the mere proposal of a non-artistic aesthetics is its disqualification for panestheticism, implying that if everything is aesthetic, the topic becomes trivial.”[55] Were the sensibilities recounted false, in the Kantian dualistic, disinterested sense, or were they, in fact, the results of “…an active process that integrates sensible data with discriminating intelligence,” as Berleant argues?[56] The goal was to advance the latter thesis.

Finally, if reading Hearn’s Kokoro was the beginning of my paddling in the sensibilities of everyday social intercourses in Japan and the centrality that feelings play therein, then encountering the works of Berleant and Saito has provided the necessary scholarly anchorages, one result of which is this paper.


Garcia Chambers

Garcia Chambers teaches academic English courses at Toyo University, Hakusan Campus, in Tokyo. His current research interests include everyday aesthetics, applied social aesthetic theory, and Japanese aesthetic sensibilities. He is currently working on an application of environmental and social aesthetic theory to a re-reading of the novel, Convenience Store Woman (コンビニ人間, conbini ningen).

Published on March 3, 2020.

Cite this article: Garcia Chambers, “The Aesthetics of Social Situations: Encounters and Sensibilities of the Everyday Life in Japan,” Contemporary Aesthetics 18 (2020), accessed date.



Much gratitude is owed to the reviewers and the CA editorial team who, through their engaged and thorough exchanges, made possible this paper’s publication.

[1] Hearn, Lafcadio. Kokoro: Hints and Echoes of Japanese Inner Life (Tuttle Publishing, 2005).

I read this book more than a decade ago after arriving in Japan to teach English and promote internationalization on the Japan Exchange Teaching (JET) program.

[2] Encyclopaedia Britannica. Accessed February 18, 2020.

[3] Murakami, Haruki. Norwegian Wood. Trans. J. Rubin (Random House, 2000), p. 362 [Emphasis added,]

[4] Garcia Chambers, “Cultural Ambiguity in the Caribbean and Japan: Notes and Reflections on a Lecture,” Toyo University Sociology Bulletin, Vol. 55, No. 1 (2018): 109-116, p.112.

[5] A major portion of this paper stems from my recent conference paper: “Everyday Aesthetics in Japan: a Descriptive Analysis of Conversational and Interactive Encounters,” The Fifteenth Conference of the Nordic Association for the Study of Contemporary Japanese Society (NAJS), CEAS, Turku, Finland, (23-24 May, 2019). For this conference, I focused on the same two experiences in this paper plus a third one: Cleopatra Bathhouse Encounter. A related essay, in which I used Yuriko Saito’s and Arnold Berleant’s works as theoretical anchors, and titled “Aesthetics and the Humble Neighborhood Bathhouse: A Perspective on Everyday Sensibility in Japan,” has been published contemporaneously to revising this paper. Toyo University Sociology Bulletin, Vol. 57, No. 1 (December, 2019): 151-161.

[6] Yuriko Saito, Everyday Aesthetics (Oxford University Press, 2007). Aesthetics of the Familiar: Everyday Life and World-Making (Oxford University Press, 2017).

[7] Arnold Berleant, The Aesthetic Field: A Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience, 2nd ed. (Cybereditions, 2000).

[8] John Dewey’s much-quoted book, Art as Experience (New York: Minton, Balch, and Co., 1934), is a principal and influential text on the scholarship that theorizes art and aesthetic experience with a non-Kantian approach.

[9] Liu Yuedi and Curtis Carter, eds., “Introduction” to Aesthetics of Everyday Life: East and West (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014).

[10] Berleant argues that a non-cognitive framework and an experiential model are appropriate approaches to understanding aesthetic experience beyond the restrictive and traditional art objects. See especially Berleant’s “Objects into Persons: The Way to Social Aesthetics,ESPES, Vol. 6/ 2 (2017).

[11] This point is a central theme adopted from Yuriko Saito and has informed one of my recent conference presentations, titled “Everyday Aesthetics and Mono no Aware: Betwixt and Between,” 4th Annual Conference of the European Network of Japanese Philosophy, ÜbergängeTransitions, Universität Hildesheim, Germany (September 5-8, 2018).

[12] The notion of the aesthetic in the classificatory rather than the honorific sense is adopted from Yuriko Saito, whose works are punctuated by this definitional clarification. (See note 6.)

[13] See especially Yuriko Saito, Everyday Aesthetics; “The Moral Dimension of Japanese Aesthetics,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 65 (2007): 85-97; “Body Aesthetics and the Cultivation of Moral Virtues,” in Body Aesthetics, ed. Sherri Irvin (Oxford University Press, 2016) pp. 225-242.

[14] G.A. Rudolph, “The Aesthetic Field of I. A. Richards,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 14, No. 3 (1956): 348-358.

[15] A quasi descriptive aesthetics mode, as I am modeling on Berleant’s approach to descriptive aesthetics but applying it in a different way and to different situations than he did in The Aesthetics of Environment (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992). See especially pp. 25-39.

[16] See especially Saito, Everyday Aesthetics, “The Moral Dimension of Japanese Aesthetics;” “Body Aesthetics and the Cultivation of Moral Virtues.”

[17] Saito, Aesthetics of the Familiar, p. 185.

[18] Multiple press carried the news story but see, for example, Kyung Lah’s “Amid disaster, Japan’s societal mores remain strong,” CNN, April 10, 2011. Accessed February 18, 2020.

[19] See Kashmira Gander’s “World Cup 2014: Japanese fans clean stadium after losing 2-1 to Ivory Coast,” Independent, June 16, 2014. Accessed FEBRUARY 18, 2020.

[20] Saito, Aesthetics of the Familiar, p. 31.

[21] Saito, Everyday Aesthetics. See especially pp.104-148.

[22] Saito, “Body Aesthetics and the Cultivation of Moral Virtues,” p. 240.

[23] Berleant, The Aesthetics of Environment, p. 23.

[24] Berleant’s argument is that hitherto Western aesthetic traditional models of Kant, Bell, and Bullough, whose works are referenced by Berleant, are constrained by the dualistic dilemma for which they find refuge focusing on a disinterested, contemplative, and distancing attitude. However, welcomed by this paper are the contemporary frameworks of Dewey, Margolis, and Berleant that advance a more inclusive, interactive, and engaging attitude as a more appropriate approach to study, understand, and theorize the appreciative experience, especially beyond object-centered art.

[25] Arnold Berleant, “Aesthetics and the Unity of Experience,” Humanities Commons.Org. (2013) p.2. Accessed February 18, 2020.

[26] Arnold Berleant, The Aesthetic Field, p.16.

[27] Ibid., pp. 32-43.

[28] Berleant, “Aesthetics and the Unity of Experience,” pp. 3-4.

[29] In The Aesthetic Field, Berleant notes what art is as defined by others: “…experiencing things aesthetically, either as intuitive expression with Croce, as intrinsic perception with Gotshalk, as an integral experience with Dewey, or as pleasure with Ducasse.” p. 50.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid., p. 51

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid., p. 53. This point can be gleaned from the diagram of the aesthetic field.

[35] Ibid., pp. 82-83.

[36] Berleant, “Aesthetics and the Unity of Experience”, p. 3.

[37] Arnold Berleant, Sensibility and Sense: The Aesthetic Transformation of the Human World (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2010), p. 222.

[38] Ibid., p. 87.

[39] Berleant, The Aesthetics of Environment, p.168.

[40] Ibid., pp. 169-170.

[41] Dani Cavallaro, Japanese Aesthetics and Anime: The Influence of Tradition (McFarland & Co Inc., 2013), p. 12.

[42] Berleant, The Aesthetics of Environment. See especially pp. 25-39.

[43] Ibid., 25-26.

[44] This characterization is a rephrasing and reinterpretation of the definition offered by Berleant. Ibid., p. 26.

[45] Ibid., p.23.

[46] Ibid., See especially pp. 29-56.

[47] “American joke” is thus explained: “an Amerikan Jōku doesn’t have to be told by an American, or be related to the United States in any way. It’s just what you say in Japan when you have the feeling the person you’re talking to is making a joke, but you don’t really understand what’s funny – and want to avoid the potential awkwardness of explicitly saying so.” Accessed February 18, 2020.

[48] Berleant, The Aesthetics of Environment, p. 23.

[49] There is now literature and debate on the notion of aestheticization and commercialization. Such an inscription on the wall of my local McDonald’s can be viewed as an example. Thomas Leddy’s “Aesthetization, Artification, and Aquariums,” Contemporary Aesthetics, Special Volume 4 (2012), accessed February 18, 2020, and Giovanni Matteucci’s “Everyday Aesthetics and aestheticization: reflectivity in perception,” Italian Journal of Aesthetics, Vol.7 (2017): 217-227.

[50] Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, trans. Justin O’Brien (Penguin Books, 1995). I am comparing the return-while-contemplating to my seat after the poignant exchange with the clerk (a moment of heightened engagement) to Camus’s treatment of Sisyphus’ return, which affords a pause, a moment to think and tantamount to the ‘hour of consciousness.’

[51] Berleant, “Aesthetics and the Unity of Experience,” pp. 6-7.

[52] Arnold Berleant, “Ideas for a Social Aesthetic,” in The Aesthetics of Everyday Life. Ed. Andrew Light and Johnathan Smith (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), p. 28.

[53] Saito, “Body Aesthetics and the Cultivation of Moral Virtues,” p. 232

[54] Berleant, “Objects into Persons: The Way to Social Aesthetics,” see especially p. 12.

[55] Katya Mandoki, “The Third Tear of Everyday Aesthetics,” Contemporary Aesthetics, 8 (2010), Subsection 3, para. 4. Accessed February 18, 2020.

[56] Berleant, “Aesthetics and the Unity of Experience,” p.3.