Iki (いき, often written 粋) is a traditional aesthetic ideal in Japan. The basis of iki is thought to have been formed among commoners (chonin) in Edo, pre-modern Tokyo. Among those who are not familiar with Japanese culture, some tend to misunderstand iki as simply "anything Japanese." Iki, however, is one of Japanese aesthetic ideals and require specific conditions. Samurai are typically thought as devoid of iki (see yabo).
While other Japanese aesthetic ideals, such as wabi-sabi, are almost extinct in today's Japan, iki is widely applied today. An average modern Japanese would find it difficult to translate what wabi-sabi means into English, because its definition relies on certain cultural assumptions. Wabi-sabi continues to influence Japanese culture, although its influence is far less than in pre-modern times. On the other hand, iki is commonly used in conversation or publications.
An iki thing/situation would be simple, improvised, straight, restrained, temporary, romantic, ephemeral, original, refined, inconspicuous, etc. An iki person/deed would be audacious, chic, pert, tacit, sassy, unselfconscious, calm, indifferent, unintentionally coquettish, open-minded, restrained, etc.
An iki thing/person/situation cannot be perfect, artistic, arty, complicated, gorgeous, curved, wordy, intentionally coquettish, or cute.
Iki can be used for almost anything, but especially for people (and their personality and deeds), situation, architecture, fashion, design, etc. It always describes something to do with people, or their will. Iki is not found in nature itself, but can be found in the human act of appreciating the beauty of nature. The most widely-known Japanese writer embodying iki is Haruki Murakami, who writes straightforwardly of idiosyncratic topics. Contrast Murakami with Yasunari Kawabata, whose work is firmly in the wabi-sabi tradition.
In the 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.
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.
- Gallaher, John. Geisha: A Unique World of Tradition, Elegance, and Art. p. 8.
- Gallagher, John. (2003). Geisha: A Unique World of Tradition, Elegance, and Art. New York: Sterling Publishing. ISBN 1-856-48697-4
- Heidegger, Martin. (1982). "A Dialogue on Language: between a Japanese and an Inquirer." On The Way to Language. San Francisco: Harper & Row. ISBN 0-0606-3859-1 (paper)
- Nara, Hiroshi. (2004). The Structure of Detachment: the Aesthetic Vision of Kuki Shūzō with a translation of "Iki no kōzō." Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-8248-2735-X (cloth) ISBN 0-8248-2805-4 (paper)
- Pincus, Leslie. (1996). Authenticating Culture in Imperial Japan: Kuki Shūzō and the Rise of National Aesthetics. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-5202-0134-5 (paper)
- Seigle, Cecila Segawa. (1993). Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. ISBN 0-8248-1488-6 (paper)
- (in Japanese) 九鬼周造『「いき」の構造』 -(A classic theory of iki)
- (in English) (in Japanese) "An Aesthetics of Everyday Life: Modernism and a Japanese popular aesthetic ideal, Iki" -(A modern approach towards iki)