What the hell is wabi sabi?
Regular readers of this space have heard the Japanese term wabi sabi before, and it even feels like the term is headed toward that elite group of Japanese words that somehow make it into common English usage (think anime, manga, samurai, haiku, origami and of course all of the food and ingredient names, and countless others).
I’ve been trying for a number of years now to come up with a good definition of wabi sabi, so I thought, for a change of pace, to do so in this space. Please forgive the length, and the break from our usual programming: readers interested in only food and matcha may wish to skip it.
First, I want to say that my ideas on Japanese art aren’t really very original. The entire synthesis of the view may be mine, but the components have been expressed elsewhere, and probably more eloquently. The classic, and excellent, text in English is Leonard Koren’s wonderful Wabi Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets, and Philosophers.
To most Japanese, the term wabi sabi is a confusing one; it tends to touch rather deeply on issues of identity and what it means to be a Japanese. It quickly devolves into something known as nihonjin-ron: the seemingly endless debate in the popular Japanese press about what, exactly, it means to be a Japanese. Ask a random Japanese person to try to define wabi sabi, and you will almost always hear something like, “It’s really difficult to explain.”
I’ve never met a Japanese who can confidently articulate what it means. But, like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, (who was talking about pornography) many will say something like, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”
“The zen of things” might be as good a definition as any, since the first Japanese to develop the concept were priests and tea masters. And since zen is itself difficult to express/articulate, wabi sabi is too, and most Japanese have given up trying.
Along the way, wabi-sabi was reduced, simplified, and packaged by Japan’s many iemoto (heads of long family lineages that teach traditional Japanese arts), who are really entrepreneurs of a sort, into a narrow—and definitive—set of rules. This represents the morphing—one might even say death—of wabi sabi from its origins of rustic simplicity into its opposite—something packaged, decided, and even polished and sacrosanct.
Wabi-sabi images force us to think about our own mortality, and evoke a tender sadness, and maybe loneliness, but those feelings are comforted by the knowledge that ALL things in existence share the same fate. Nothing will remain in the end, if we think in evolutionary terms of billions of years.
Diffused light through washi (Japanese paper), the color and textural changes of metal as it rusts and decomposes are classic wabi sabi images. This state of going toward our eventual fate—from something to nothing—and a conscious appreciation of that very state can give rise to incredible feelings of beauty and stillness, yet evoke a feeling of being totally alive and free. It’s a nice space to be in. Playing music is another doorway into that space for me. Wabi sabi is about enjoying the delicate balance between the pleasure we get from things, and the pleasure we get from the freedom of things.
Wabi-sabi is, in one sense, antiJapanese, in that true wabi-sabi diametrically opposes—hates, you might even say—hierarchy. Everyone in the tea room is the same, whether you’re the company president shacho or the garbage guy. Modern clues to discernment——brands, that is—are anti wabi-sabi, by definition.
Very few Japanese I know are comfortable making aesthetic judgments, especially concerning art. Like clothing/fashion, they want to know—from the very first—who made it. Only then will they make the calculation of a final judgment, which won’t be their own anyway; it’ll be the consensus.
When I was editor of a publication based in Tokyo, a quarterly journal on public policy worldwide, published by Japan’s largest and allegedly most prestigious “think tank,” I often got in arguments with my bosses about author submissions. I insisted on reading them blind, and making my judgments accordingly, but my bosses were unconcerned about the intrinsic quality or merit of a given work.
The same goes even more, I think, for more subjective things like painting and sculpture. If a work is well-known, it gets a thumbs-up. If not, no judgment can be “safely” made. This idea of making “safe” judgments is very problematic, and accounts, in my opinion, for the dismal state of literary criticism (or any kind of intellectual criticism, for that matter) in Japan; even to call it dismal overstates the case, as it is essentially nonexistent. Criticism is taken personally in Japan, as an attack.
When we get into something like wine—and there are more licensed sommeliers in Japan than anywhere in the world—this trend is even more exaggerated. Blind tasting makes most Japanese very nervous, because they’re forced, unwillingly, to use their own aesthetic standards, not those of someone else. Japanese sommeliers are the iemotos of wine.
The best side of Japanese art—the purest expression of wabi sabi—is the sense of quiet authority that comes across in an understated, unpretentious piece. I sometimes see this quality in Japanese artists and craftsmen. I know a potter in Bizen, and another one in Yamakita, who simply exude this sense of quiet authority. Everything they touch is done with such a sure hand. There is no need to let everyone know that they are masters—they are utterly secure in who they are and what they do. They don’t really require outside validation, because they know that it lives inside them. That, in my mind, is the real thing.
Today, lots of rich Japanese people are making an attempt to reconnect with their wabi-sabi roots. I was once invited to a weekend of relaxation (which was anything but relaxing) near Hakone, at the country home of a wealthy Tokyo businessman, a house that he attempted to recreate in the spirit of wabi-sabi. His effort was doomed from the outset, unfortunately, as he simply threw money at “the problem.” He paid, at great expense, someone to tear down a beautiful old farmhouse in Tohoku, and transport it to his land in Hakone. The problem was that he was convinced that the place must be sterilized, so he employed an army of cleaners (his wife seemed to be the main cleaner) to mop up the last traces of the very feeling he was trying to create, one of relaxed beauty amid ordinary farm objects and materials. It was more like a farmhouse museum than a farmhouse, a kind of “mansion” interpretation of a farmhouse, in which a very harried housewife nervously and meticulously swept away the remnants of our meals, literally seconds after consuming them. He was a kind of potentate, lording over his fantasy of being king of his country castle.
So on the one hand, I see lots of Japanese people who are longing for more wabi-sabi in their lives. So many of my Japanese guests came to my house in Kamakura house and told me, “I would like nothing more than to live in an old Japanese house.” They saw the old, cheap tansus, the simple garden, the lovely wooden sliding glass doors, the engawa, the wooden cabinets, and got nostalgic for them because some part of them recognizes the intrinsic beauty of those things. Yet in the next breath, comes the inevitable refrain: “But isn’t it hard to clean? Isn’t it fuben (inconvenient) to live here, like this?”
And therein lies the problem. People are willing to give up aesthetic living for convenient living, even if it means living in a small box in an especially nasty area of Tokyo and being surrounded by nothing but depression in the form of indescribable ugliness, all in the name of convenience; as long as the room is easy to clean and the commute to work isn’t so long. Such low hopes for the very people who developed wabi sabi! I hear over and over again how wonderful it must be to live in Kamakura, in an old wa-fuu house, yet when I point out that the rent here is just a fraction of what they’re probably paying in Tokyo, and yes the commute is an hour from Tokyo but one hour is not exactly lengthy by Tokyo commuting standards, a kind of defensiveness sets in, as if they are trying to convince themselves that they’ve made the right decision, the one to live an un-wabi sabi life.
For more on wabi sabi, please do read Koren’s book.
(photograph by Bruce Seltenright)