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A complicated idea

There are a few core concepts in Japanese culture that seem utterly bewildering to westerners; Shinto being one of them, alongside that of the term known as Wabi-sabi. It’s a concept that permeates much of Japan from artistic qualities to the very mentality of its citizens, and is so interconnected that they themselves acknowledge its existence but are often at a loss at trying to explain its principles in a coherent manner. 

What then is the chance for the rest of us? 

In truth, trying to explain Wabi-sabi is often like trying to grasp rain as it falls, that’s because, as a whole, it simply has no counterpart in English. While certainly difficult, Wabi-sabi can be broken down into core components that we can all understand, and in doing so can appreciate why it is such an important part of Japan. 

However, once acknowledged, you may find that Wabi-sabi is something that could also benefit you in multiple ways.

So shall we get started?

The concept of Wabi-sabi

Wabi-sabi is a philosophy that is able to manifest itself in numerous ways, hence why it is often confusing when encountered. It’s a term you can hear a lot around the arts and crafts circle which suggests a purely aesthetic principle; in this scenario you are able to get a visual representation after all, however, you will also hear it regarding the natural world, elements of a daily routine, and the very nature of a person themselves. 

These may seem all unconnected, but in reality there is a common theme that can run through each of them.

How about some examples? 

Have you ever had a carefree friend who is unfazed by mishap and worry? Do they also appreciate the little things in life? Can you look at something e.g a piece of art, design or just an object that ‘technically’ isn’t perfect but still appreciate its character and beauty? 

These kinds of things contain the essence of Wabi-sabi. In each of these scenarios there is an appreciation of what is in front of them or an acceptance of how things currently exist. And this doesn’t mean appreciation and acceptance that is reluctant, but instead comes from a place of contentment. 

In a sense you could use Wabi-sabi like an adjective: you could say something or someone ‘is very Wabi-sabi’ or ‘shows Wabi-sabi-like qualities’. (Although you would never use the term like this.) 

Going slightly further, it’s a philosophy that appreciates the natural order of things as they naturally come to be in all aspects of life.

In order to visualise these ideas let’s look at some real life examples in Japanese society.

Examples and traits of Wabi-sabi

First off, an important point to note when I say ‘how the Japanese use Wabi-sabi’; I believe Wabi-sabi is not intentionally created or sought after but rather a natural outcome; a trait which sticks with the core principle.. 

Of all the visual representations of Wabi-sabi in Japanese culture there is perhaps no better example of the concept as a whole than in the Japanese art of Kintsugi. Very briefly, Kintsugi is the art of repairing and admiring broken pottery often with golden joinery. To those unfamiliar with this practice, this craft exemplifies much of Wabi-sabi in a single offering.

In this craft you can acknowledge a number of things:

  • How something asymmetrical and uneven is still interesting
  • Acknowledging how the object has changed through time
  • Satisfaction in the simple process and result

In turn it represent the following traits of Wabi-sabi

  • Contentment in simple things
  • Simplicity in design and execution
  • Transience and the acceptance of natural occurrences
  • Functionality above appearance
  • Unconcerned with perfection

Aside from kintsugi some of these traits can be found in Zen gardens, also known as dry landscape gardens. They’re simple in design; they represent natural and transient scenery; and are places of contentment for many. 

We can also say things like cherry blossom viewings and the people who enjoy them inherit Wabi-sabi principles for similar reasons. Haiku poetry, especially those they deviate from traditional form; the mis-match of cutlery in tea ceremonies and at home the simple but beautiful nature of ikebana, all these inherit Wabi-sabi principles to some extent.

You could say it’s about seeing the positives in any given situation that comes from an open-mindedness.

kintsugi plate
A plate repaired using Kintsugi practices

A Wabi-sabi definition

After discussing the principles and usage of Wabi-sabi above, I want to try and specifically define and answer the question ‘what is Wabi-sabi?’ at least in the way I understand it. 

Wabi-sabi for me is not an aesthetic concept but a state of mind, a mentality, a character trait within a person. Hence why it can seemingly appear in everything. In every example mentioned thus far there is a heavy reliance on individual input and feeling either through creation or observance.

It’s much like two people looking at the same piece of art, one enjoys the subject and detail while the other does not. 

It’s just a personal way of viewing the world.

Why you should use Wabi-sabi

By now hopefully you have some understanding of what Wabi-sabi is or how it represents itself in Japan. Hopefully you may also begin to understand how incorporating Wabi-sabi in your own way could prove useful

A lot of the benefits come from seeing things in a different manner; can you currently look at a situation and see a positive side? Are you able to not get hung up on trivial things? These are the kinds of questions that will start you in the right direction. If you can adjust to or learn to consider the Wabi-sabi mentality then some of the benefits will include:

  • The ability to regulate and relieve stress
  • Becoming less anxious in situations
  • Gain the ability to appreciate the little things
  • Gaining a more positive outlook
  • Becoming more observant
  • Able to adapt more easily to change 
  • Being less concerned with perfection
  • Become less materialistic 
  • Find yourself able to live in the moment more often. 

Going outside and appreciating nature in all its forms will also help consider wabi-sabi principles more clearly. Do you enjoy the sounds of birds singing or just the feel of wind, or just being in the presence of plants and wildlife? The Japanese art of Forest bathing or Shinrinyoku is another great example to look at. 

It’s a concept that can ultimately help you feel more relaxed, more positive, as well as appreciating the little things in life. It can help identify things that are beyond your control, what is truly important and live in the moment.