Booklovers try to understand it through “Iko no Kozo” (「いき」の構造) or “The Structure of Iki” the 1930 treatise by Shuzo Kuki but such an attempt is doomed to failure. On the one hand because the Germany and France-educated academic probably had a deeper agenda (also) touching on political matters –and the international developments in the beginnings of the 20th century point out to what that agenda was) an on the other because “iki” (粋), the concept of the Edo times about what is aesthetically acceptable both in outer characteristics and in behavior defies, like all aesthetic ideals, quantization and any scientific description. “I can’t define it but I know it when I see it” was the phrase used by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when discussing hardcore pornography and this phrase fits perfectly in the case of iki: the people of Edo and their present day descendants do know what is and what isn’t iki.
For the townspeople of the 17th and 18th centuries, iki was the semantic differential, what set apart the Edoko, the native of Edo who knew how to appreciate life from every bound by convention “other”; in the latter category were included the samurai and the people from the provinces (who often, because of the mandated by the Tokugawa shoguns system of alternate attendance to Edo, were one and the same) and in the former the merchants, artisans and all those who worked hard to make money to spent in the Yoshiwara, Kabuki or Sumo, commenting on books or poems, listening to the songs of the oiran and the geisha or appreciating the woodblock prints by Utamaro or Saraku. Where Kuki was right was in spotting some of the elements that made up iki: the subtle eroticism, the pride that doesn’t slip into conceit, the balance between simplicity and sophistication and the originality.
All the above could very well be the Japanese version of the West’s “cool”; I tend to agree since this is how I have understood them especially living in an area that boasts (and not unjustifiably) being the treasury of Edo’s heritage. The attention to detail in attire and accessories, the everyday behavior that comes as a stark contrast to what one sees in the average Japanese crowding in the subway on his way to and from work, the generosity in money and emotions, the sensibility to the changing of seasons, the astuteness to the changing of times, the appreciation of hard work (and particularly the hard work done with one’s two hands) but also of its counterbalance, resting and entertainment are all elements of the elusive and undefinable iki and characteristics of the “tsujin” (通人) Edoko who became cosmopolitan without ever leaving his own city.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.