Wabi-sabi, the Heart and Soul of Japanese Aesthetic

Stones 2 by John Zabawa, 2017

Stones 2 by John Zabawa, 2017

Yes, wabi-sabi. Not to be confused with that spicy green condiment you put on sushi, wasabi.

If you ask someone from Japan to define wabi-sabi, they will probably struggle to find the right words and clumsily fumble through a response. This isn’t because they wouldn’t know what it is (as it is a central idea of Japanese culture), but rather because the concept of wabi-sabi is obscure and difficult to define. It is much easier to understand the feeling behind wabi-sabi than to articulate a tangible concept.

Wabi-sabi is the natural aspect of the Japanese aesthetic, its heart and soul. It is about finding beauty in things that are imperfect and transient. Opposed to the crazed materialism of our time encompassing so many artistic expressions in Western Culture (architecture, design, literature, etc.), wabi-sabi is an aesthetic based on nature; it reintroduces simplicity in art, balance, and asymmetry.

Wabi-sabi: All things are transient and imperfect

Wabi-sabi: All things are transient and imperfect

The Origin of Wabi-sabi

When examining the sources of inspiration for wabi-sabi, we find the simplicity, non-intervention, and natural sterility of Chinese Taoism and Zen Buddhism.

But it wasn’t until the 16th century, with sado or chado (tea ceremonies), that wabi-sabi became a tangible idea. It was then, little by little, that wabi-sabi became an art form in its own right, even morphing into a way of life or a philosophy for some.

The most dedicated followers of these tea ceremonies needed to be capable of organizing all of the components for the ritual in order to experience the fullness of the universe of wabi-sabi. It was passed down to others through architecture (in tea houses, primarily), interior design (decorations, utensils, tea bowls, etc.), exterior design (garden and floral design), paintings, and even cuisine.

Wabi-sabi: Know how to see beauty in everything

Wabi-sabi: Know how to see beauty in everything

A State of Mind

Etymologically, the word wabi is derived from finding the solitude, nature, and simplicity in absence. The word sabi, on the other hand, refers to the wilting, weathering, and aging of objects. In this way, wabi-sabi connects two very distinct Taoist concepts, making them inseparable. Nowadays, when someone Japanese says “wabi,” they are subsequently implying “sabi.”

While the meanings of these two words may seem rather negative to us Americans, in Japan, they express a desirable aesthetic. There, the solitary life of a hermit is considered to be rewarding from a spiritual point of view. This way of life places more attention to the minute details of everyday life and the discreet, often overlooked beauty of nature.

Book of Leonard Karen about Wabi-sabi

Book of Leonard Karen about Wabi-sabi

The Principles of Wabi-sabi

All things are transient and imperfect:
even those which seem eternal and perfect (like rocks, trees, or even the stars), in reality, only offer the illusion of permanence. Everything will be worn down and end by disappearing into nonbeing. The closer something gets to becoming nonbeing, the more it becomes disfigured and imperfect.

Know how to see beauty in everything: greatness and beauty exists in all things, in those small, overlooked and subtle details that remain invisible to the eye of the unenlightened. In fact, beauty can even be found in ugliness. Wabi-sabi teaches that the sentiment of beauty is something that occurs inside each of us, that this feeling can come at any time as long as we know how to look for it: beauty is not an objective reality, but a subjective state of mind.

Do away with the excess: whether in our way of life or what we create, we must strip it down to the bare essentials. Do not preoccupy yourself only with success or fancy baubles that clutter more than they embellish. It is necessary to reduce down to the quintessence, without removing the intrinsic poetry. Creating things that are simple and pure but not sterile.

John Zabawa Stones, 2016

John Zabawa Stones, 2016

Wabi-sabi vs Modernism: Similarities and Differences

Modernism is an artistic trend with a minimalist aesthetic extending through the entire 20th century. It encompasses entire pieces of Western culture: architecture, urbanism (think of buildings in the cubic style made of concrete or glass), industry, automobiles, machines, and gadgets of all kinds.

We can find some similarities between modernism and wabi-sabi, though, which might be a bit confusing. Both tend towards eliminating superfluous ornamentation that is not an integral part of the structure, and both are abstract ideas of beauty that extend to everything humans can do (organization of space, objects, art, etc.).

Yet, there are fundamental differences between these two trends. While modernism boasts logic and rationality, wabi-sabi is linked with an intuitive and passionate understanding of the world. Modernism endorses faith in progress, emphasizes technology, and tends towards mass production. On the other hand, wabi-sabi turns to nature and seeks to create personal pieces, unique and special.

In closing, I would like to leave you with this poem by Fujiwara no Teika that is considered to evoke the essence of wabi-sabi:

All around, no flowers in bloom

Nor maple leaves in glare,

A solitary fisherman's hut alone

On the twilight shore

Of this autumn.


Laura Margna