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The gifts underfoot

Although I was born and raised in Japan, I have spent more than half my life in the United States. My academic work in aesthetics and experience living outside my homeland have given me a new insight into my native culture. In particular, I have come to appreciate the way in which Japanese aesthetic sensibility embodies an attitude of respect, consideration, and thoughtfulness. Now, every time I go back to Japan, I discover new gems that had remained invisible to me because of their very mundane nature. One such dimension is the aesthetics under our feet.

For me, a fond childhood memory is when my family changed our tatami mats every several years. After the craftsman completed his job, I would inhale the fragrance of fresh straw emanating from newly woven green mats, a dramatic transformation from the worn, brownish ones that had ceased to grace the air with scent. And the texture! The new mats’ springy feel was so pleasant on the bare sole.

Tatami mats on the floor of a Japanese room. Photo: Masahiro Hayata.

Wooden verandas and corridors of old castles and temple buildings offer an equally thrilling sensory experience. Their raw surfaces feature prominent grains, showcasing materiality as well as natural aging accelerated by human use. Walking on wood produces a heightened tactile experience, accompanied by the chirping sound of the “nightingale corridor” originally designed to deter intruders.

Japanese garden paths often meander, marked by stepping stones and pavements. Their arrangements often illuminate and enhance the native characteristics of the material by juxtaposing rocks of contrasting colors, shapes, and textures. They are also placed irregularly, so the visitor needs to slow down and pay attention to what she is stepping on, providing another layer of aesthetic experience. Finally, the meandering and often gently curving pathway is enticing: a constantly shifting viewpoint provides a multidirectional perspective of the garden and enriches the walker’s experience. In comparison, a utilitarian-oriented straight walkway, more common in Western landscapes, tends to make us focus only on the destination. Although this kind of thorough attention to the design of pathways is most prominent in gardens, the same sensibility can be seen in more quotidian spaces today, such as an entrance to a condominium.

One of my favorite subway stations in my hometown of Sapporo is located near a zoo. Its long underground corridor connecting to the terminal for a zoo-bound bus features a floor that has inlaid design of various animals. What fun and anticipation this floor generates for children, whose line of sight is close to the ground. Adults cannot help but appreciate this heartwarming design, knowing that its creator got down to the children’s level, both literally and figuratively, to create this special gift underfoot.

I continue to marvel at how seemingly simple design features go a long way toward shaping our aesthetic experience as well as cultivating a certain attitude. When we feel that our experiences are honored and attended to, we are more inclined to “pay it forward,” by acting thoughtfully and respectfully. On the other hand, if we are surrounded with objects and environments that do not reflect any care or consideration for our experience, we tend to become demoralized and indifferent. We may treat objects and environments callously, with no regard for how other people’s experience is affected by our actions.

It is not enough for a society to promote justice, freedom, equality, economic security, opportunity, and health. We also need to be able to experience through tangible evidence that our needs and interests are taken seriously and attended to. Designers play a critical role in shaping a better world, not only through their literal creations but also by encouraging moral virtues and civic attitudes in all of us. As such, their power is awe-inspiring, as much as their responsibility is humbling. ■