Wabi-Sabi – What Is It?

I have been gifted a book WABI-SABI WELCOME by Julie Pointer Adams, an interesting read and do recommend. I knew about Wabi-Sabi but really didn’t understand what it actually meant until I arrived in my new role here at Active Asia as the Creative Director. A role where I wear many hats.

Sachiko, Active Asia’s Japanese expert shares her stories with passion and adventure of her homeland and even though I am not the best traveller, I have booked a flight for myself to discover the Land of the Rising Sun.
I am looking forward to skiing down slopes, unlike anything I’ve braved before, wandering the neon streets of Tokyo in a euphoric daze, falling for Kyoto’s refined history or gorging on everything delicious among the culinary streets of Osaka. But mostly enjoy and embrace a notion so deeply rooted in Japan’s culture that it even had its own name, Wabi-Sabi.

As with most concepts of the mind, wabi-sabi is near to indefinable. I asked Sachiko what it means and she laughed politely and told me it’s an impossible answer. There’s even conjecture over the meaning of each word, though as far as I can gather Wabi is the cutting out of the non- essential, while Sabi connotes a sense of change, of time passing. Together it’s been described as the grace that comes with age and use, based on a fundamental acceptance of transience and imperfection.

Founded in some of the basic tenets of Zen Buddhism (that everything changes and nothing lasts forever), Wabi-Sabi was first articulated by monk Murata Juko in 1488 when he requested that the proponents of the traditional tea ceremony eschew ornate, status angling Chinese crockery for its more rustic Japanese counterparts. Wabi-Sabi then went on to permeate all artistic forms, including poetry, art and architecture, before becoming an inextricable element of the nation’s soul.

In its most obvious form, Wabi-Sabi is best understood through the prism of beauty. In the West, beauty is found in perfection, order and ideal proportion, while in Japan it manifests in the imperfect, the unfinished and random. Instead of struggling against the passage of time, the Japanese celebrate impermanence, which is perhaps best described by writer Jun’ichiro Tanizaki in his essay In Praise of Shadows: “we do love things that bear the marks of grime, soot, and weather, and we love the colours and the sheen that call to mind the past that made them.”
These days, many are concerned that the ever-increasing impacts of globalisation are diluting ancient philosophies like Wabi-Sabi but it might be interesting to consider that this is also the most recent example of it. Time has brought to Japan shopping malls, materialism and consumerism, but rather than give in to them, the nation has absorbed and reshaped itself around them, highlighting the imperfect but staying true to itself. And if this isn’t the essence of Wabi-Sabi, I’m not sure what is.