Wabi Sabi

Of all things Japanese, perhaps aesthetics is the most Japanese. An unadorned tea cup of rough, baked clay, the interior of an old fashioned house with straw mats, paper sliding doors and wooden tables, a garden with rocks, moss and small trees and an ink drawing of just a few lines, they all share something unmistakably Japanese. But what is this something, can it be defined? What we can learn from observing these Japanese things of beauty, is that the Japanese love elements of suggestion, irregularity, simplicity and perishability in their works of art. This aesthetics was developed by the Zen-Buddhists who created the tea ceremony, and is often called wabi-sabi, coming from the Japanese words wabi meaning the misery of living alone in nature, away from society and suggesting a discouraged, dispirited, cheerless state, combined with the Japanese word sabi meaning chill, lean and withered. In their association with Zen-Buddhism, these words came to mean something positive around the 14th century. This is because Zen-Buddhism considered the self-imposed isolation, voluntary poverty and ascetic lifestyle of the hermit opportunities for spiritual richness. Wabi-sabi fosters an appreciation of the minor details of everyday life and insights into the beauty of the inconspicuous and overlooked aspects of nature. This unprepossessing simplicity is the basis for a pure beauty.

Hasegawa Tōhaku (1539-1610)

Suggestion in Japanese art can be seen in for example ink drawings: a few lines bringing to life a bird sitting on a stalk of bamboo swinging in the wind. Or it can be read in poetry. The ambiguous, evasive nature of the Japanese language is exploited to the full in the short haiku or tanka. Or take the imagery in this famous poem by Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241):

     In this wide landscape
     I see no cherry blossoms
     And no crimson leaves-
     Evening in autumn over
     A straw-thatched hut by the bay.

The poet describes a landscape lacking all the traditionally beautiful elements, and presents us in stead with a poor hut. But he evokes a scene of beauty nonetheless. Or think of the Nō actor who, with only a costume and his gestures, transports his audience to times gone by. A far cry from the special effects used in Hollywood movies.

Tea cup from the raku-ware school

Irregularity can be seen in cups for the tea ceremony. The more misshapen, the more they are prized. Or in the art of calligraphy, as an individual handwriting with oddly shaped characters is more appreciated than regular brush strokes imitating printed writing. Most Japanese art lacks symmetry, just think of the gardens with their irregular rocks and weather-beaten trees; they are to resemble nature, however cultivated and man-made they are. Bonsai trees are an extreme example of this ideal. In some of Japan‘s traditional music the parts are written independently by the individual performers, creating especially in the rhythm section highly irregular patterns. This shows a great contrast with the extremely regular rhythms in much of western baroque and classical music.

Simplicity is found in the materials used in Japanese art: plain wood, reed, paper, black ink or clay. Here we recognise the inheritance of the Zen philosophy that it is best to get the desired effect with the most economical means. Japanese art can look austere, because all superfluousness has been removed, but this focuses the attention of the observer to the most essential statement of the object. This will make the work of art more intense and expressive.

Perishability, lastly, is a characteristic perhaps furthest removed from western ideals in art. Japanese love cherry blossoms, precisely because they are so fragile; one moment you can enjoy them, the next they are gone. This, again, can be connected to the Buddhist concept of the fleeting nature of all things, often referred to as shogyō mujō. The fragility of human existence makes beauty possible; imagine how boring life would be if it would not grow, and all things would stay the same for ever! So marks of ageing on objects of art are appreciated, because they show us the fleeting nature of existence. Restoring a work of art to its original state, therefore, is an alien concept in wabi-sabi aesthetics.

David van Ooijen

In this article I have borrowed freely from two publications:
* Japanese aestetics in Appreciations of Japanese Culture, an excellent collection of articles on various aspects of Japanese culture by the specialist of Japanese literature Donald Keene. As with all his publications, it comes higly recommended. (Kodansha International ISBN 4-7700-2932-2)
* Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren. An attempt to analyse wabi sabi, very clearly written. (Stone Bridge Press. Brekely, California 1994 ISBN 1-880656-12-4)

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