Though it might suffice to say that wabi-sabi is the beauty of imperfect things, that would be an overly simplistic explanation of such a deep and profoundly rooted notion in the Japanese spirit. An artistic concept, philosophy of life, and subconscious feeling, wabi-sabi is omnipresent in Japanese culture.
Developed from the philosophy of cha-no-yu (the tea ceremony) in fifteenth-century Japan, wabi-sabi is an aesthetic born out of a reaction to overconsumption and extravagance, finding beauty in the imperfections, impermanence, asymmetry, incompleteness, and simplicity, with an appreciation for nature.
Wabi and sabi are two key Japanese aesthetic concepts that are sometimes mistaken for being one and the same. Though they have quite distinct meanings, over time, the two have been combined to form a new word, wabi-sabi.
The term wabi-sabi (侘寂) remains difficult to translate into English. In Japanese teachings and beliefs, wabi-sabi is a feeling, more than a concept, that can be found in simple Japanese aesthetics such as flower arranging, literature, philosophy, poetry, the tea ceremony, and Zen gardens. Going against all things fake, overproduced, and over-consumed, wabi-sabi encourages simplicity and authenticity in everything.
The term wabi-sabi is composed of two kanji characters. The second part, sabi (寂) is said to date back to the eighth century when it was used to designate desolation. Over time, the term evolved and referred more precisely to the delightful contemplation of what is old and worn and the beauty of faded or withered things. Sabi could also translate to “old and elegant” or “rusty”, with an untranslatable impression of peacefulness that can apply to the human condition, physical beauty, or an appreciation for art.
The Japanese term wabi (侘), meaning less is more, denoting simplicity and minimalism, came along much later than sabi, not appearing until the fifteenth century to designate a new aesthetic still closely related to the tea ceremony, but referring to the general atmosphere and to the objects used during this formal service. The definition of wabi can be traced back to loneliness or melancholy, to the appreciation of a serene life, far from the urban hustle and bustle.
Wabi-sabi refers to an awareness of the transient nature of earthly things and a corresponding pleasure in appreciating the scars, cracks, and dents that make us human. This notion of wabi-sabi is a feeling that has certainly always been part of Japanese sensibility.
Its origin can be found in the story of Sen no Rikyu, a sixteenth-century Zen monk. According to the legend, the young Rikyu, eager to learn the codes of the ancestral ritual of tea ceremony, looked to a legendary tea master named Takeno Joo. Joo, who tested his new apprentice’s abilities, asked Rikyu to tend to a garden.
Rikyu cleaned the garden thoroughly and raked it until it was perfect. Before presenting the work to his master, he shook a cherry tree and sakura flowers fell onto the ground. This touch of imperfection brought beauty to the scene, and that’s how legends tell the story of the way the concept of wabi-sabi was born.
By using imperfect objects, sometimes broken and repaired, in a room devoid of clutter or superfluous items, Rikyu made the moment of tea tasting a true communion for the spirit, which was nourished by the following principles: harmony, purity, respect, and tranquility. This kind of ceremony is also referred to as wabi-cha (cha being the Japanese word for tea), or a simple tea ceremony.
Today, traditional tea ceremonies are still carried out with antique teacups and utensils. In Japanese pottery, cups are often distorted and irregular because each object must be unique to have its own charm. The imperfect beauty of wabi-sabi is found in many other Japanese art forms including Bizen ware, a style of wabi-sabi pottery.
Kintsugi, the Japanese technique for repairing objects with gold, celebrates giving a second life to bowls, cups, or vases, and is symbolic of the way things improve with age. The Kintsugi focus on reuse and repair is related to the concept of mottainai, or the avoidance of waste, which is more important today than ever.
Behind this practice, intricately linked to the notion of wabi-sabi, lies a wish to celebrate the beauty of time passing. Kintsugi is also used as a metaphor for resiliency in human behavior. One may experience trauma, be damaged, and then be repaired, and made to be just that more beautiful and stronger from having been through the difficult experience.
Kintsugi is one demonstration of the Japanese concept of honoring and preserving the perfectly imperfect. Filling cracks with gold represents finding true meaning in times of despair and loss and creating something different, and possibly even better than the original.
Elusive and beautiful, wabi-sabi is an integral part of Japanese life. Omnipresent, it is the basis of the delicate Japanese sensitivity that so often surprises us. Today, this notion deserves to be given more emphasis since it encourages a return to humble and unpretentious values.
Wabi-Sabi Goes Hollywood
Famous women in the US, known for their striking appearances and youthful presence, began embracing the concept of wabi-sabi, feeling comfortable in their own skin as they age, during the pandemic. Free to break away from rules society has dictated that lines and wrinkles should be erased with botox, and gray hair means you’re a has-been, women like Sarah Jessica Parker, who played the young, glamorous, and fabulously beautiful writer, Carrie Bradshaw in the hit series, Sex and the City, chose to embrace the changes that happen with age. And she isn't alone. Inspiring co-star Cynthia Nixon and movie icon Andie MacDowell to leave their roots, Hollywood seems to be embracing this concept of wabi-sabi.
But there’s more to the Japanese concept of beauty than aging gracefully. So, we’ve decided to peel back the layers and dig deeper into more than the trendy wabi-sabi movement and examine the less talked-about concepts that determine Japanese beauty.
There are actually four concepts that represent the true essence of beauty in Japanese culture: sabi, wabi, shibui, and yugen.
Sabi, meaning the bloom of time, or beauty that stems from age, is the celebration of naturalness and imperfections, and fosters an appreciation for archaic, unpolished, unfinished, and uneven things. Because there's no such thing as perfect anyway, sabi allows one to stop trying so hard to achieve something that can never be. Sabi is seen in the cracks, dents, and missing pieces of inanimate objects and roughness, scars, and blemishes in everything that makes us human.
Wabi represents the beauty of simplicity and functionality. By cultivating an appreciation for simple interior design and the ability to be content with less, the Japanese find and appreciate beauty in simple things, whether it be a bamboo spatula for laying rice or a hand-painted tea cup, simple treasures can be invaluable treasures.
The third principle of Japanese Beauty is shibui. Shibuii sees beauty in natural unprocessed materials and focuses on practicality.
Shibui (渋い) (adjective), shibumi (渋み) (noun), or shibuya (渋さ) (noun) are Japanese words that refer to a particular aesthetic of simple, subtle, and unobtrusive beauty. Like other Japanese aesthetics, such as iki and wabi-sabi, shibui can apply to a wide variety of subjects, including art, interior design, landscaping, and fashion.
A person, performance or object can be considered shibui—authentic and appealing without the need for decoration.
The Japanese aesthetic of shibui is a concept of harmony and balance in nature, art, decor, and fashion. Shibui philosophy is wisdom and enlightenment, mindfulness, grace, and presence. If one is seeking a sense of enlightenment and harmony because their life is in disarray and needs peace, the shibui aesthetic can bring tranquility, calm, and zen to the home or one’s life.
Shibui can come in the simple act of watching nature and being mindful and present at the moment. An example of shibui might be focusing on a single flower in a flower arrangement or a single branch on a tree.
Similar to what can be achieved from practicing Zen Buddhism and Japanese minimalism, the shibui aesthetic focuses on subtle and silent qualities that are understated.
Benefits of shibui include:
- Focusing on essential and important elements can help offer a fresh perspective on a problem
- Intentionalism allows for peacefulness in the journey without regard for the destination
- Recognition of wasted time by savoring the moment
- Brings clarity of thought by decluttering the mind and the space that surrounds us
- Meaningful change can come from a balance of complexity and simplicity
Characteristics of shibui
Finally, the fourth principle of beauty is Yugen, finding beauty in the unspoken and admiring the unseen. Yugen is an innuendo, an embodiment of subtexts, hints, and symbolism.
In a poignant essay, Randal Morris discusses how our English translations of yūgen fall short because it is a concept that points to what’s intangible, not seen, and mysterious.
Sometimes described as a bridge between artist and viewer, yūgen offers a unique and powerful perspective—the simultaneous appreciation of beauty and heartache, happiness and grief.
Because these things really aren’t as separate and neatly compartmentalized as we’d like to believe., one emotional state can gracefully flow into another, so even sadness can feel wonderful on some level.
Many articles highlight how yūgen is inherently connected to Buddhism and a mindful way of living. Slowing down, noticing, reflecting, accepting, and embracing the essence of life, in all of its darkness and light, shadow and sparkle, emptiness and abundance, expressions of yūgen can be found in Japanese art by way of intentional flaws, lack of symmetry, and empty spaces.
In life, yugen is a hunger we can quite satiate, a longing for something we can’t quite name, a song we can’t quite sing, and a color that can’t be described.
Yūgen, like other Japanese concepts, may pose more questions than answers. Whether it be wanderlust, nostalgia, simple creativity, or all of the above, there are no words to describe it. It’s yūgen.
Yūgen hints at a connection with the divine, to magic, to the universe, and to that which lies beyond the surface layers of this life—behind all the bullshit.
It’s a scent you’ve smelled, a food you’ve tasted, a melody you’ve enjoyed, yet it’s so subtle that if you so much as blink, you could miss it. Yūgen is a suggestion, a hint, a twinge. It’s in the back of one’s mind, an aftertaste, an implication, or a word on the tip of the tongue.
We’ve all felt yugen—that unexplainable feeling you can’t describe; a memory you can feel but cannot recall. It’s astonishingly beautiful, and yet, terrifyingly bleak because, as humans, we fear the unknown. But it’s the road less traveled that most often leads us to inspiration, wonder, and love. Yugen is beauty that cannot be described with words but must instead, be felt.
The essence of Japanese beauty comes in many forms, both tangible and intangible, present and invisible, and perfectly imperfect like life itself. To describe beauty is to define life, both which defy mortal explanation though ultimately worth exploring.