The Japanese art of wabi-sabi

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Is wabi-sabi a useful label to put on an old table, or an age-old ideal through which we can find beauty in impermanence, decay, and death? Here we trace the term from its Buddhist origins through to its more modern, and far more positive, iteration.

Wabi-sabi is a hard-to-define Japanese term, which, depending on how you choose to interpret it, is a Buddhist aesthetic theory about impermanence and death, or a genre of style and design. Here we take a brief look at what wabi-sabi is, its history, and what wabi-sabi likely is not.


What is wabi-sabi?
Wabi-sabi, often referred to as “the Japanese art of wabi-sabi”, is much broader than an art. Simply put, it is something like an aesthetic appreciation for nature and the natural effects of time. The art of wabi-sabi would then be something that reflects this in its design.
Novelist Richard Powell explains: “Wabi-sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect”.
The major characteristics of wabi-sabi aesthetics are: asymmetry, roughness, simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy, and appreciation for natural objects and forces.
So, can one truly design something in the style of wabi-sabi? Big question. Given what the ideals of wabi-sabi aim to illuminate, it may be that consciously trying to design something in wabi-sabi style is contrived and misses the point. More on this later.


There is no direct translation for these words into English. Much like all words, their meanings in Japanese have shifted over time.


Initially, “wabi” referred to the loneliness and isolation of living within nature, far away from society. Whether this originally had semantic implications of wisdom is unclear, but it certainly gained them over time. Eventually, it gathered about itself connotations of rustic simplicity, beauty, quietness, and freshness.


“Sabi” initially meant something like “chill”, “lean”, or “withered”. So it is from sabi that the concepts of decay and appreciation for the effects of time come. However, much like wabi, sabi took on more positive connotations over time, and came to denote the wisdom that comes with age, and the beauty to be found in obvious flaws and repairs.


As usual, interesting philosophical and artistic ideals become adopted by the fashionable elite. Not only does this happen today, but it happened in the Japan of old too. Around 700 years ago, the Japanese nobility began to adopt wabi-sabi as part of reaching satori—enlightenment.
The logic went that one couldn’t become enlightened until one was able to appreciate and accept the passage of time. Therefore, wabi-sabi simultaneously allowed them to come to terms with their own decay and wear it as a blanket of wisdom and satori.

Yuqo quotes“Wabi-sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”
—Richard Powell



The origins of wabi-sabi
As with many Eastern, and particularly Buddhist, traditions, they are nowadays understood (at least in the West) as fairly vague and positive philosophies. However, this is essentially wrong, and wabi-sabi is no different.
Reaching beyond the words themselves, instead looking more at the general ideals, wabi-sabi originates from the ancient Buddhist notions of sanboin (impermanence), mujo (suffering), and ku (emptiness or the absence of self-nature). In fact, in ancient Buddhist tradition, these are the three marks of existence.
So, ultimately, wabi-sabi is about the acceptance of imperfection, decay, and, essentially, death.


What wabi-sabi is not
Seeing as wabi-sabi is essentially the acceptance of natural forces and our own inability to bring them to a halt, can design ever truly be wabi-sabi?
Many indeed claim to be wabi-sabi designers, but they are likely either wilfully mistaken or missing the point. Sanding down a cupboard so it’s “distressed” is not wabi-sabi, because it is not an acceptance of decay, but rather an artificial imitation.
Wabi-sabi, it would seem, would rather have us still appreciate a cupboard once it’s in less-than-perfect condition.
Much of the art and design from Japan that is deemed wabi-sabi focuses on simplicity and uses natural materials, such as clay and rice paper. In using such materials and more traditional methods, it is easier to design something in such a way that gets to the core of wabi-sabi.
But ultimately, as with Buddhism, wabi-sabi is all about letting go and accepting a lack of control. So really, any attempt to create this is in opposition to its deepest intention.
As with all philosophical ideas, it comes down to how you choose to interpret words. In this case—whether you adhere with the Buddhists of old, or the more recent Japanese nobility.