Kenya Hara’s book, “White”, explores the philosophical significance of the color white in Japanese culture. White to Hara isn’t simply a color, but it’s a way to think about life and design. I’ve read “White” a few times, and in this post I’ll talk about what I think it means to Hara and how I interpret it.
White as a Color
On a very basic level, Kenya Hara sees the color white as a special color. It’s a color that’s only found in the extremes of life and death. In the early stages of life, we see white in milk, eggshells, and the insides of fruits. As soon as white appears, it starts losing its whiteness.
“White is delicate and fragile. From the moment of its birth it is no longer perfectly white, and when we touch it we pollute it further, though we may not realize it.” - Kenya Hara, “White”
White is also found on the extremes of life, like in dead shells and bones.
“According to one of the most prominent experts of kanji ideograms, Shirakawa Shizuka, the Chinese characters for white (白) was modeled after the shape of the human skull. This is supposedly because the image of white held by the people who lived back then was based on the sight of abandoned skulls in the fields, bleached by wind, rain and sunlight.” - Kenya Hara, “White”
Things go from a non-colored state to gaining color, and once it dies, it goes back to it’s non-colored state. Thus, Hara makes the point that we can actually see white as a non-color. He relates white’s ability to take on the possibility of many colors to a concept called kizen. Kizen refers to the latent possibilities that exist prior to an event taking place.
“Insofar as white contains the latent possibility of transforming into colors, it can be seen as kizen.” - Kenya Hara, “White”
A manifested form of kizen is a sheet of white paper. Hara believes that white paper is one of the reasons humans have been able to make great progress as a race. The whiteness of paper has allowed people to express their ideas via type and writing. This has proven to be invaluable for mankind’s learning and advancement.
Paper’s practical application, however, “is less important than its “imaginative impact.” Human beings who come in contact with its latent potential are naturally driven to express themselves.”
The imaginative impact of facing a sheet of white paper is more powerful than its practical use. It invokes kizen, which is the limitless possibility of what that piece of paper can hold–and this is white. “When white emerges from the boundless chaos, it becomes information.”
This is where Hara goes from talking about white as a color to something more philosophical.
White as a Philosophy
Japanese minimalism is often seen to encapsulate phrases like “less is more” and “simple is best.” These phrases, however, miss the mark of what Japanese minimalism is really about. Japanese minimalism is about expressing “emptiness.”
“The roots of expressions like “simple is best” and “less is more” are subtly different than those that underlie emptiness. Emptiness does not merely imply simplicity of form, logical sophistication and the like. Rather, emptiness provides a space within which our imaginations can run free, vastly enriching our powers of perception and our mutual comprehension. Emptiness is this potential. Therefore, even if someone self-consciously applies a simple geometrical style to his work, or maintains a pretentious silence, he or she cannot grasp the true meaning of emptiness. One must train oneself and build up experience in order to apply that concept efficiently. The ideal that we strive for is the realization of a plan that will evoke the imaginative powers of our audience.” - Kenya Hara, “White”
Emptiness is closely related to kizen and the piece of white paper. It’s the potential for something to be filled, whether it be filled with thoughts, emotions, ideas, etc. Emptiness is found in many of Japan’s art and design forms, for example in their architecture, the way they think about space, and even book design and gardens.
An example of white in art is found in Hasegawa Tohaku’s, “Pine Trees.”
“it conveys the lively image of the trees by intentionally avoiding detailed description, and approach that activates the imagination of its viewers. In short, the paintings very roughness and omission of details awake and our senses.” - Kenya Hara, “White”
“Pine trees” is a way for us to start to understand white as Kenya Hara sees it. It isn’t elaborate in nature, and instead asks the audience to fill his artwork with our own creativity. This is one expression of white, but it isn’t all there is to white.
White, again, refers to the latent possibilities that are available prior to an event taking place or even while it happens. To better understand the concept, Hara gives us a history lesson on where Japanese minimalism “started.”
Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436 to 1490) was a Shogun who had a leading part in the Onin war. The Onin war resulted in the destruction of many lives and shrines, art, and culture. This caused Yoshimasa to retire and reflect in Higashiyama. He spent his days practicing calligraphy, painting, and performing tea ceremonies. He also started the construction of the Ginkaku, better known as the Silver Pavilion. These activities and the Ginkaku were the start of Japanese emphasis on simplicity and emptiness.
Hara asks a rhetorical question to us about this culture that Yoshimasa had help start, “Why did Higashiyama aesthetics put such an emphasis on “simplicity” or “emptiness”? Could a general war-weariness have caused Yoshima and his fellow Kyotoites to look at the world differently? Perhaps. What is more important than such idle guesswork is the fact that Japanese desperately sought beauty in simplicity on their own from this period on, breaking away from foreign influences.”
And although we don’t know exactly why emptiness became important in Japanese culture, it most likely was influenced by Zen Buddhism and Wabi-Sabi.
Wabi-Sabi is a concept derived from the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence (三法印), specifically impermanence (無常), suffering (苦) and emptiness or absence of self-nature (空, kū). “If an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi.” - Wikipedia
The Silver Pavilion that Yoshimasa built incorporated Wabi-Sabi and more specifically, the concept of emptiness.
Hara gives an example of the famous tea room in the Silver Pavilion that was simple in design due to its “scant furnishing.”
“When a host invites his guest into his tiny teahouse for an exchange of thoughts, there is a reason for scant furnishings: one’s imagination expands in uncluttered, simple space.” - Kenya Hara, “White”
The room is like a sheet of white paper, a medium for people to fill it with their thoughts and imagination. This is a concept that’s important to any field, whether it be in business, art, or design. When you start off with white and free yourself of any pre-conceptions, you’re able to have a new and better understanding of the thing you’re talking or thinking about. It’s probably a lot harder to do than say. But Japanese design and culture attempts to incorporate white into their work.
“When knowledge and other habitual ways of thinking about things sinks to the bottom of our consciousness, that thing we call “understanding” floats to the surface like pure white paper.” - Kenya Hara, “White”
Another interesting example of white and emptiness in Japanese culture is found in Shinto shrines. The Shinto shrine is a temple of worship for the Japanese and is designed to have an empty space in the center. This empty space is called “Yashiro.” Yashiro simply means, Ya, a roof, over Shiro, which means white. It literally means white with a roof on top of it.
One of the reasons for the yashiro to be left empty is so that it can be filled with the possibility of gods and deities to visit the temple. Another reason it’s left empty is for the person who goes into the temple to pray. It gives them a space to empty their minds. Prayer allows us to empty our thoughts, feelings, worries, concerns, etc. into a medium that houses it. The medium, which is the temple, is designed with “white” and emptiness in mind, so that it’s conducive to the person praying.
This may be the reason why prayer in many religions and beliefs take place in a quiet, open space that has minimal furnishing. Whether you look at a church, a mosque, or a temple, white plays a big part in their design. Japanese culture has taken it one step further away from their religious and cultural activities to their daily life and aesthetic.
White in Communication and Culture
The most interesting part of white to me is how we can use it to create better business cultures and communication styles. In the prologue, Hara says:
“In other words successful communication depends on how well we listen rather than how well we push our opinions on the person seated before us. People have therefore conceptualized communication techniques using terms like the “empty vessel” to try to understand each other better. For example, unlike other signs whose meanings are narrowly determined, symbols like the cross of the red desk in the Japanese flag allow our imaginations to roam free of any boundaries; they are like enormous empty vessels that can hold every possible meaning.” - Kenya Hara, White
As people communicating with one another, we can use the idea of white to treat ourselves as vessels that can be filled with the ideas of other people. To truly hear someone out and absorb their viewpoint and ideas is effective communication. And although it sounds easy and simple, it isn’t. In my professional experience, I’ve spoken with thousands of people who go into a conversation with expectations of what they want out of it and never really listen to the other person. This is the antithesis of “white” in communication. To imagine yourself as a vessel to be filled up with information is a great analogy for someone to use when trying to be a better communicator.
If you’re a decent communicator, that is probably common sense and obvious to you. Where white becomes interesting, however, is in group communication and culture. Hara talks about how white takes place in Japanese culture and communication. He says that Japanese communication to foreigners seem really strange and difficult to understand. When foreigners see that meetings usually don’t end with anyone deliberately giving orders or making a decision, it’s strange to them. Hara notes that this is a key part of Japanese communication and not only does it work, it’s also very efficient. (Side note: I have disagreements with Japanese culture and communication in the workplace, but for the purpose of philosophical discussion of how white can impact communication and culture, I will not get into it.)
If we were to use a driving analogy, white in Japanese communication allows people to operate in more of a roundabout system instead of a traffic sign system. In a traffic sign system, everyone is deliberately told what to do and how to do it via traffic lights, which isn’t efficient and also stipples creativity. In a roundabout system, drivers can move toward their desired positions without any specific rules of stopping.
This can be applied to companies too, as companies grow larger, they create many rules to prevent mistakes. But these rules are also counterproductive to a company’s ability to perform and innovate. Instead, incorporating the concept of white into our culture and communication might give us a better answer. A company that has incorporated white, in my opinion, into their culture, is Netflix.
In the beginning, Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, thought that every company would eventually have to become bureaucratic to reduce mistakes. Over time, however, he learned that reducing the employee’s freedom hurt the organization’s ability to be creative, pivot, and innovate (which was the reason of the failure of his first company, Pure Software.)
So, instead of creating bureaucracy, Hastings designed a culture that enabled Netflix’s employees to have more freedom. He incorporated “white” into the company’s culture and policies. An example was when he got rid of vacation limits, removing rules whenever they can, spending limits on company expenses, etc. (Simplicity is one of the ways to incorporate white, because simplicity leads to emptiness.)
The way that Netflix manages is also via providing context and not control. They don’t manage by telling others exactly what to do, which is how most companies will manage their employees. They let their employees figure out how to achieve their objectives themselves, which is more efficient and natural, just like driving in the roundabout system instead of a traffic light oriented one.
In Netflix’s culture deck and webpage, they quote the Little Prince:
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for vast and endless sea.” - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “The Little Prince”
To me, this encapsulates the white that Kenya Hara writes about. It’s incorporating the concept of limitless potential and kizen into people so that they can bring forth their own creative ideas and energies.
In Hara’s book, he doesn’t give us any methodology or way to incorporate white into the way we live and do things. Instead, it leaves you yearning for more. He leaves you wanting to come up with your own thoughts and critique for the book. And maybe that was his intention.