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What about wabi-sabi?

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I asked Watanabe-san about wabi-sabi.  “That’s difficult, even we Japanese do not understand that”, she replied.  “I don’t really know what it means”, said Saiko-san.  

But all the Japanophile foreigners in Tokyo are talking about wabi-sabi.  They see it in art, design, food, music and even people.  Could wabi-sabi just be another Asian cultural fantasy that these Westerners have latched onto?

In his book “Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers”, Leonard Koren describes it as a beauty that is "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete".  Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, asperity, simplicity, modesty, intimacy, and the suggestion of natural processes.  Andrew Juniper claims, "if an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi".  According to architect, Tadao Ando, “wabi-sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death”.

So what are some examples of wabi-sabi?  Rustic and simple pottery, fading autumn leaves, ageing bare wood, Zen music, Japanese gardens, bonsai.  Again, according to Tadao Ando, “Wabi-sabi is flea markets, not warehouse stores; aged wood, not Pergo; rice paper, not glass. It celebrates cracks and crevices and all the other marks that time, weather, and loving use leave behind. It reminds us that we are all but transient beings on this planet-that our bodies as well as the material world around us are in the process of returning to the dust from which we came. Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace liver spots, rust, and frayed edges, and the march of time they represent.”

How much wabi-sabi can you see in Tokyo?  If you look hard, you can always find evidence of wabi-sabi in old temples, gardens and decorative objects.

But in my experience, the Japanese may be among the least wabi-sabi of all the peoples that I have met.  They do not rejoice in imperfection and incompleteness, rather they are a very meticulous and finicky people.  They are obsessed with cleanliness and details, and would never get excited about a dying lotus or peony flower.  Ageing and antique architecture basically does not exist – true, much was destroyed in the 1923 earthquake and then the war.  But much of Tokyo is quite simply gaudy and crass, especially the ubiquitous Pachinko parlours.  And coffee shops, which must represent the height of European wabi-sabi, are all copies of Starbucks.

All cultures have the co-existence of the opposing forces of yin and yang.  In ancient China, the art of gentleman scholars tended to idealize retreat into the beauties of nature and contemplation – even though they usually lived in enormous cities, and were members of large families.

And so it seems in Japan that wabi-sabi is an aesthetic of ancient elites, which has been picked up by the Japanophile foreigners, but has little relevance to the average Japanese. 


I am now interviewing young Japanese artists on the subject of wabi-sabi.  Half of them have never heard of it, and the other half still do not know what it means.  This is not entirely surprising, as much of modern Japanese art is computer-based, and this far removed from any notion of wabi-sabi.