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Scent and Sense in Japanese Culture/@ZHdK(日本文化の香りと感覚)【Delivering a lecture at the Zurich University of the Arts】


9th/Nov/2018  スイス・チューリッヒ芸術大学<perfumative>にて講演しました。 後日、邦訳をアップします!

a new way of looking at perfume through the eyes of Japanese culture.

CONCLUSIONTranslucent and without shape or form, I believe that in a post-modern sense, perfume can be regarded as Art. To enjoy "beauty with no form" is typical of Japanese aesthetic sensibilities. Today I would like to introduce everyone to a new way of looking at perfume through the eyes of Japanese culture.  AbstractIt has been said - that which is fleeting and ephemeral cannot be regarded as Art. However, this actually flies in the face of Japanese sensibilities because in our culture, "fragility" is highly valued. We can observe a contrast in how fragrances and perfumes are perceived in Japan and Europe. In my country, the preference is for light, delicate scents - fragrances that breathe, you could say. The Japanese market is known for being a "perfume wilderness." On the other hand, fabric conditioners are becoming as entrenched in Japanese society as they are abroad. Although differences in scent can be put down to differences in climate and dietary habits, it is also greatly due to our sense of aesthetics rooted in our culture. Hence, I will try to present a study regarding the differences in perceptions towards fragrance based on the following aspects: 1.  What is Art?2.  Artistry in traditional Japanese Culture3.  Is Japan a perfume wilderness?




1.What is Art?

When I received the theme for this speech, it gave me the opportunity to reconsider the relationship between scent and Art. First of all, I would like pose a question - what is Art?

It is said that in the West, "art is expected to have eternal qualities."

If permanence is a condition, then how long must a work of Art exist to be regarded as permanent? 

From the point of view of the Cosmos, one hundred years, one thousand years are just brief moments in time where everything with "form and shape" is destined to disappear.

 If that is the case, then to have form does not automatically mean permanence.

I believe that a work of Art is a medium that links "the artist or creator" to "the viewer." The artist discovers the beauty around them and expresses their awe, which the viewer picks up on.

Art does not lie within a picture or a sculpture. Art lies within the "viewer" themself. If the viewer has no sense of beauty, even the most sophisticated piece of Art is tantamount to garbage.


The Japanese sensibility towards Art is to appreciate what lies beyond mere shape and form and cherish it for posterity. That is why it is easy for the Japanese to consider scent - which is formless and invisible - as Art. 


 "Time" is in a constant state of flux. Even though we may meet the same person in the very same place, each encounter is special. We call this一期一会(ichi-go-ichi-e/one opportunity, one encounter.

Whatever or whomever we encounter, it is a once in a lifetime experience. I believe that "eternity" manifests when you are living to your utmost in every single moment.  



2.Art in traditional Japanese culture

 "Dou" or "way" is one of the most typical Japanese aesthetics in traditional culture. If permanence is sought for in Art, then flower arrangement "Kadoh," the tea ceremony "Sadoh" and the way of incense "Koudoh" can certainly be regarded as Art.

I would like to take time here to introduce Kadoh and Sadoh and talk a little about my background with a particular focus on "harmony" and "permanence."





2-1Kadoh - Flower Arranging

Nothing is as soothing or reassuring as flowers.

When I was a little girl, I would carry a pocket-sized book of flora with me on my way to and from school. My mother ran her own flower arranging school at home and I used to mimic her. 

 flower arrangement west.jpg

There are many differences between Japanese Kadoh and Western flower arranging. Simply put, Western flower-arrangement involves combining a whole host of flowers to fill a space. 

Japanese Ikebana, however, is the opposite. Flowers and plants are used to a minimum to express one part of a space. In Ikebana, we consider tree shapes and add leaves to create an arrangement that reflects the elegance of Nature.


japanese kado.jpg

The more you learn about the ins and outs of Kadoh, you realize that in order to optimize the beauty of the flowers you are using, you have to remember the importance of harmony within the whole.

I adopt the same policy when I prepare fragrances. Even though a floral fragrance may be at the forefront, I have to combine proper quantities of a top note that will draw out the main scent and a last note that will support it in order faithfully express the mood of the flowers and natural scenery.

Furthermore, I must remember that perfume serves to color a single scene of a person's life, so the fragrance must co-exist in harmony with person who wears it and their environment.




The life of a flower is extremely short - and that is why it has gained the status of immortality. It blooms in the morning and wilts in the evening. This fragility carries with it a sadness, which the Japanese sensibility regards with affection. 

It favors the practice of finding the beauty within the transient, within the impermanent. To regret the passing of something that is dear to you is an essential part of the Japanese character.  


When one is enveloped in a momentary fragrance, the emotions you experience are themselves "immortal."



2-2The Tea Ceremony or "Sadoh"


I started to learn how to conduct the Tea Ceremony when I was 12. Although I looked forward to tasting the tea and the Japanese sweets, when I recall the lessons, the scent of incense and the sound of boiling water in the serene, bright tearoom come flooding back.


People, flowers, light, the iron pot, the room itself combine in harmony to create a sense of Art.



For example, if the tea ceremony existed merely to quench one's thirst, it would not be regarded as Art. Instead, it is the ceremonial practice of preparing the tea that quenches the thirst within your heart. In the same way, for example, Kaiseki course cuisine does not exist merely to satisfy hunger. One's heart is warmed by the immaculate service provided.


Therefore, perfume is not just another consumer item. To wear a fragrance means to sense the beauty within a particular time and space. Rather than wearing an assertive fragrance, one should think more of co-existing in harmony with one's environment and conducting oneself in an elegant manner. This is a major aesthetic of the Japanese culture.




2-3 The History of Fragrance in Japan


  In the West, perfume has been 

"inextricably linked to the body, which was long considered the abominable garment of the soul." ( Pope Gregory Great)

 In Japan, it is used to cleanse the impurity of one's body.



Perfume originated in Europe where there is a long history of applying a liquid fragrance to one's skin. After a long period of self-imposed isolation, Japan opened itself once again to the world during the Meiji Era. Consequently, the history of Western perfume in Japan is still only 150 years old and still lags behind Europe in this respect.


Having said which, Japan has a long history of room fragrance using solidified incense.

The history of incense in Japan can be traced back to the introduction of Buddhism in the sixth century. Eventually it was incorporated into court culture as a sophisticated pastime.

In the 8th century, dyes called "ko-zome" using aromatic ingredients such as cloves or cinnamon were used to dye silk. Not only were the silks beautiful to the eye, the fibers emanated a fragrance and luxurious clothes for the nobility were made from them. The Kimonos, warmed by body heat, would give off a fragrance when the wearer moved.


The Japanese literary classic "The Tale of Genji" was written in the 11th century. One memorable section of the book describes a scene where incense was burnt to infuse the cloth of the Kimono with scent. This scent is used to explain the background and the feelings of the characters in the story.

In the Samurai culture of the 15th century, the incense ceremony was established to heighten spirituality. During this time, various disciplines were carried out to encourage mental training. As a result, this laid the foundations for a unique Japanese culture that seeks to enhance education and artistry.


Buddhist altar.jpg

Even today, most Japanese houses have a Buddhist altar to honor their ancestors and will burn incense every morning and every evening. Japanese people are well acquainted with the aroma of incense from their childhood days.

Although this affinity for scent is different from applying an alcohol-based liquid directly to the skin, a culture centered around fragrance has evolved in Japan, too.  

Incense not only expresses the sense of smell but the sense of hearing as well. We physically sense the aromatic molecules through our noses and at the same time, our heart hears the story the fragrance is telling us.

Scent does not speak in a loud voice. As it is made up of aromatic elements, we sense "beauty" rather than defining it as a "good" fragrance.

Aromatic wood possesses a history of 1400 years, incense 1000 years and the incense ceremony 600 years. Scent has developed hand in hand with religion, literature and education in Japan. Japanese aesthetics have honored the spirituality rather than the physicality of fragrance.




japanese cuisine.jpg

2-4. Japanese food and scent

The Japanese fragrance culture is not just centered around aromatic trees or incense. From season to season, the scents that Nature brings us are the bounty from the sea and the mountains.

Although Japanese cuisine was first introduced to Europe over four hundred years ago, it took a while for its true nature to be appreciated. Japanese cuisine found recognition at last in 2013 and was designated as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.


However, it is not just the ingredients of Japanese food that have found approval -the food culture that surrounds it that has been appreciated as an Art.

 20181109 japan.jpg

Stretching from South to North, the four seasons are very distinct in Japan. We enjoy the beauty of the constantly changing seasons, respect our many annual events and pay much attention to the ingredients and tableware that we use. At face value, although Japanese cuisine appears to be simple, its preparation is, in fact, deceptively intricate.

Just as this penchant for delicacy in flavor has been understood throughout the world, I believe that in the future a deeper understanding of Japanese scent will grow, too.



 2-5. A question from France

 Before I arrived here in Switzerland, I was interviewed by a French TV network. I thought everyone might be interested in this particular question, so I will answer it here.


Q.And the question was: "I have heard that Japanese people are very sensitive when it comes to odor and that strong perfumes are unpopular. What then are the most popular fragrances for men and women?"


My Answer,

 Well, rather than a particular fragrance or ingredient, Japanese people tend to prefer general scents that are dry or airy.

 Some of the most popular scents are citrus-based notes, which are light and simple and express a love of the seasons. In fact Japan is home to an abundance of citrus fruits including Yuzu, Kabosu, and Sudachi, which are all used in Japanese cuisine. Each fruit has its own distinct fragrance.


kodo incense pot.jpg


The woody note of the agarwood used in the incense ceremony is spicy, warm and dry and acts as a cleanser of the heart.

During the Incense Ceremony, a small piece of lit charcoal is placed in the ash of the incense burner. It is covered with a Mica plate and a piece of agarwood is put on top of it. However, the agarwood is not burnt. By indirectly warming aromatic wood, its perfume is released into the air in a milder fashion and gently surrounds the incense burner.

This is an alternative method of diffusing scent different to that of using ethanol. Indeed I have tried to create scents that express the indirect soft light from Shoji, paper sliding doors.





3-1. The Perfume Wilderness

What we can glean from this Questionnaire

These are the results of a research regarding perfume (Image Source: Marsh)



Only 8.4% of those questioned wore perfume everyday. People who "often" wear perfume also accounted for 8.4%.

40% of women and 60% of the men questioned said they never wear perfume at all.

This is why Japan is often regarded internationally as a "Perfume Wilderness."

On the other hand, the demand for fabric conditioners and room deodorant is expanding at a similar rate to Europe and the USA.

Many Japanese women said they were attracted to "fragrance" even if they do not wear perfume. However, this does not refer to essential oils. Many end users said that they often spend up to an hour walking around a supermarket sniffing aromatic agents and fabric conditioners.

So, in spite of having an affinity for scent, why has Western style perfume not taken root in Japan?

That is because the reasons for wearing scent is completely different, which in turn leads to the approach towards the consumers as well differs.


3-2. Reason why

For instance, in Japan, perfume is not worn to attract the opposite sex.

Western advertising tends to contain sexual or fashion-based messages for perfume and this type of advertising generally appeals to established users. However, most Japanese wear perfume for their own satisfaction and I believe this is genderless.   


Secondly, Japanese people seek out perfume to create harmony with those around them.

Japanese people may want to keep a distance from overpowering Western fragrances. As I mentioned in my section on the Japanese tea ceremony, there is a respect for maintaining an overall balance and harmony.

Relaxation and calm is born from a love of the seasons and the Japanese appreciate the atmosphere and mood produced by perfume.




Thirdly, there is the question of humidity.


Most perfumes on sale in Japan were manufactured in the West. However, due to the influence of climate, the fragrance they give off is different.

The air in Japan tends to wrap itself around you and encase odor, which means that European fragrances come across as too aggressive. This is because they were created in accordance with dryer climates.


As Japanese people value harmony above self-expression, many perceive perfume with suspicion and even actively dislike it.


Although Japan has the capacity to accept scent as Art, the sexual and fashion-related image of Western culture has struggled to establish itself there. This is why I decided to create Japanese-style perfume.


 3-3. Japanese-style blending and the world


New perfumes are created not through seeking out unusual fragrances, but through new accords of standard ingredients. If Japan has recourses, it is in its understanding of culture. I would like people to understand the story behind matter - history and lifestyles, for example.


I believe that perfumes should be created for local, not global tastes. Instead of basic and uniform fragrances, scents should become more personal. 

From the viewpoint of diversity and inclusion, niche perfumes can contribute to worldwide abundance, which in turn will no doubt lead to more people enjoying the wonder of perfume.





.In Conclusion

Although Western Art values that which is permanent, true permanence can actually only be found in that which has no form - that is the Japanese perspective on Art. 


 "Fragrance is more than a fashion accessory and is worth a theoretical reflection. It becomes a paradigmatic form of the time."


When I received the theme of this meeting, I felt an affinity towards this new western wave.

I believe the possibilities of perfume are limitless, because more than any other kind of Art, it penetrates the soul.


Thank you so much for listening to my speech today. I would like to extend my gratitude to everyone involved in the organization of this event. 


【Delivering a lecture at the Zurich University of the Arts】
Satori Osawa is delivering a lecture at the Symposium 'The Perfumative - Parfum in Art and Design' 
organized by the Zurich University of the Arts. 
 The title of the lecture is 'Scent and Sense in Japanese Culture'. 
→ Refer the program as below
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