Para Kendo-san, ignoto japanófilo.
Japan, as many a country, has a profusion of faces despite its often monolithic façade. Some of them are two aesthetic traditions that deserve the attention of any visitor—and of any pen enthusiast.
On one hand, we encounter the beauty of simple things and empty spaces. And concepts as shibui, or wabi-sabi can be found to describe and explain this tradition. Wabi-sabi —侘寂— refers to two different ideas: the beauty of imperfection (wabi), and the beauty that comes with age (sabi). This term is also related to the Buddhist principles of the three marks of existence: imperfection, impermanence, and incompleteness; and for some authors, wabi-sabi is the material representation of Zen Buddhism.
The word shibui (渋い), literally astringent, is the everyday word to reflect the wabi-sabi beauty of simple and elegant attitudes. “Severely simple, tastefully bare”, the dictionary says of shibui. Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows (陰翳礼讃, Inei Raisan, 1933) is a passionate, even if reactionary and nostalgic, chant to shibui life and aesthetics.
There are many cultural traditions in Japan that embraced this aesthetic way of thinking, many of them with a direct influence of Zen Buddhism: tea ceremony (chadô or sadô; 茶道), nô theater (能楽), ikebana (生け花), Japanese pottery… And, of course, gardens and palaces: Ryôan-ji stone garden, Katsura Rikyu in Kyoto…
On the other end of the spectrum we find the idea of hade, 派手. Where shibui is subtle and subdued, restrained, hade is flashy and ostentatious. Hade asks for attention. If nô theater is shibui, kabuki is kabuku and hade—loud, flashy. But hade is not without rules and patterns. Kabuki theater, for instance, or the all-female Takarazuka Company, have very defined codes and symbolisms.
Needless to say, flashiness can be easily pushed beyond the limits of good taste. Then we reach the realm of yabo (野暮) or, in slang, kebai (ケバイ). These words refer to tacky things, corny at times, loud and unrefined.
So, what about pens? What about Japanese pens?
Simplifying things, I thought that urushi –lacquer--, truly falls in the simple shibui sophistication. At least, when using the traditional colors—subdued, dark, tone down. Then, maki-e would mostly fall in the area of hade. Certainly a lot flashier than urushi; colorful more often than not, albeit not without exceptions such as some examples of chinkin technique, and some simple patterns on pens.
The problem –you all could see this coming— arises when the hade maki-e becomes yabo and we have to endure polar bears on pen barrels. Of course, it is up to each of us to decide where the threshold between hade, and kebai lies. Personally, I rather nô to kabuki.