Iki (いき, English: roughly "chic, stylish") is a concept in aesthetics, the basis of which is thought to have formed among urbane commoners (chōnin) in Edo in the Tokugawa period. Iki is sometimes misunderstood as simply "anything Japanese" overseas, but it is actually a specific aesthetic ideal, distinct from more ethereal notions of transcendence or poverty. As such, samurai, for example, would typically, as a class, be considered devoid of iki (see yabo). At the same time, individual warriors are often depicted in contemporary popular imagination as embodying the iki ideals of a clear, stylish manner and blunt, unwavering directness. The term became widespread in modern intellectual circles through the book The Structure of Iki (1930) by Kuki Shūzō.
Iki, having emerged from the worldly Japanese merchant class, may appear in some ways a more contemporary expression of Japanese aesthetics than concepts such as wabi-sabi. The term is commonly used in conversation and writing, but is not necessarily exclusive of other categories of beauty.
Iki is an expression of simplicity, sophistication, spontaneity, and originality. It is ephemeral, romantic, straightforward, measured, audacious, smart, and lacking in detrimental self-consciousness.
Iki is not overly refined, pretentious, complicated, showy, slick, coquettish, or, generally, cute. At the same time, iki may exhibit any of those traits in a smart, direct, and unabashed manner.
Iki may signify a personal trait, or artificial phenomena exhibiting human will or consciousness. Iki is not used to describe natural phenomena, but may be expressed in human appreciation of natural beauty, or in the nature of human beings. Murakami Haruki (b. 1949), who writes in a clear, unflinching style—at turns sentimental, fantastic, and surreal—is described as embodying iki. In contrast, Kawabata Yasunari (1899-1972) writes in a more poetic vein, with a closer focus on the interior "complex" of his characters, while situations and surroundings exhibit a kind of wabi-sabi. That said, stylistic differences may tend to distract from a similar emotional subjectivity. Indeed, iki is strongly tied to stylistic tendencies.
The indefinite ideal of tsū (通) can be said to reference a highly cultivated but not necessarily solemn sensibility. The iki/tsu sensibility resists being construed within the context of overly specific rules about what could be considered as vulgar or uncouth.
Iki and tsu are considered synonymous in some situations, but tsu exclusively refers to persons, while iki can also refer to situations/objects. In both ideals, the property of refinement is not academic in nature. Tsu sometimes involves excessive obsession and cultural (but not academic) pedantry, and in this case, it differs from iki, which will not be obsessive. Tsu is used, for example, for knowing how to properly appreciate (eat) Japanese cuisines (sushi, tempura, soba etc.). Tsu (and some iki-style) can be transferred from person to person in form of "tips." As tsu is more focused in knowledge, it may be considered superficial from iki point of view, since iki cannot be easily attained by learning.
Yabo (野暮) is the antonym of iki. Busui (無粋), literally "non-iki," is synonymous to yabo.
In the Kamigata or Kansai area, the ideal of sui is prevalent. Sui is also represented by the kanji "粋". The sense of sui is similar to iki but not identical, reflecting various regional differences. The contexts of their usages are also different.
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- (in English) (in Japanese) "An Aesthetics of Everyday Life: Modernism and a Japanese popular aesthetic ideal, Iki" -(A modern approach towards iki)
- (in Japanese) 九鬼周造『「いき」の構造』 -(A classic theory of iki)