What is Wabi-Sabi? – A Westerner's Interpretation

10 Sep

This article is a guest post by Liam, on behalf of Housetrip.com; take in the culture in style with apartment rentals in Barcelona, New York and around the world.

===Guest Post starts from here===

CC Via Flickr

If most westerners were asked the question:
“What is wabi-sabi?”
Most of the time they would simply reply:
“Isn’t it the really hot green Japanese mustard you put on your sushi?”
Nice try, Westerner. However, that green spicy horseradish named ‘Wasabi’ (which when eaten can feel like a small ninja has kicked you in the nose) is completely different to the Japanese concept of ‘Wabi-Sabi’. Wabi-Sabi is the Japanese view of the world based around the concepts of transience and imperfection. Key to Wabi-sabi is the idea of aesthetic, which is derived from ancient Buddhist teachings – that beauty is not always perfection; it can be far from it.

Wabi & Sabi
As a Westerner trying to get to grips with wabi-sabi, it’s important you understand where the words come from. The words wabi & sabi were not always linked. In Japan, certain individuals think that the two words should have their own space, separately wabi and sabi, which is down to both words having their very own distinct identities:

Derives from the word ‘wa’. In Japenese, ‘wa’ connotes thoughts of harmony peace & balance. Originally the word ‘wabi’ meant sad, desolate and lonely; but in more coming-of-age poetic & artistic terms the words now means simple, free, at one with nature & purposely humbled. A phrase that sums up wabi is:

CC Via Flickr

“The joy of the little monk in his wind-torn robe”
Someone who is wabi would be embodying the Zen concept; to be happy with little to nothing, to not be tied down to materialistic objects’ allowing to be freed from gluttony, sloth and anger.


CC Via Flickr

The word sabi on its own directly translates as ‘the bloom of time’. Fundamentally what this is means is that beauty is a fleeting concept – something which now sparkles will indeed grow rust in time. sabi cannot be bought or be given as a present; it is simply the gift which time brings. So, understanding now the history behind the words – when is an object wabi-sabi? Simple, when an object’s use and beauty are the are the only things attached to it; when an objective is enjoyable to use and that you have a deep respect for also.

A good example of wabi-sabi would be an old handmade heirloom which has been handed down through multiple generations which you would still use on occasion. A beautifully intricate handmade pocket watch would be a great example, as it has been built with immense detail from scratch completely from hand; resonating with the heart and hands of the watchmaker.

CC Via Flickr

Loved ancient family photos would have an essence of wabi-sabi about them. The reason for this is that with an old family photo, the deep historical connection you have with it transcends the physical.

Rules of Wabi-Sabi
Even though an object may appeared old & weathered, but unless it is possesses cleanliness it is not wabi-sabi. The Japanese have a thing for cleanliness; it is a mark of respect – wherever you are. If a beautiful object has decayed and is inhabited by rot and insects; it is not deemed within wabi-sabi. However, if an ancient artefact which has been used frequently and has survived the test of time – it is indeed wabi-sabi.

For westerners it is hard to abide by the ways of wabi-sabi; we are constantly the subject of advertising barrages instructing us that we need a new Porsche, sofa or a set of sparkly white teeth. Yes in a Western world it is difficult to avoid all the ‘evils’ which are pushed upon us, so if trying to find wabi-sabi we must simply find a way to escape it; to find a sanctuary from all life’s distractions. Whether that is a looking at a picture of your great grandmother, taking a walk round place you used to play as a child – or even putting your four year old’s macaroni artwork from class on the fridge.

Wabi-Sabi is all around you, you just need to slow your life right down to see it.
===end of the post===

Kirin’s opinion:
Wow! Wabi-Sabi is definitely a difficult concept even for us Japanese. That’s because it’s an idea that Japanese people used to have long time ago and nowadays most of us have forgotten it. It’s not only westerners that are pushed to buy things. Many of us in Japan live a similar life style to westerners nowadays. With Wabi-Sabi thought, living minimal should be OK. But look at our life today. Most of us are having hard time throwing things away among too many unnecessary goods and information around all the time. lol

I think Wabi is from Wabishii (adjective, meaning poor or desolate) and Sabi is from Sabishii (adjective, meaning sad). But Google “Wabi-Sabi example” in Japanese and you’ll find many Japanese people asking what Wabi-Sabi actually means with specific examples. It shows how that concept is not common nowadays in Japan. Thus, please don’t be appalled at me when I have to say I can’t add any insightful comment to this post from a Japanese point of view. lol

Thank you Liam for your great challenge trying to explain such a difficult concept and sorry for my poor knowledge and understandings to it. Being Japanese doesn’t help anything! lol 😀 hahaha!!


5 Responses to “What is Wabi-Sabi? – A Westerner's Interpretation”

  1. icosnap September 10, 2012 at 7:00 pm #

    Thank you for the very informative post – I naturally assumed wasabi was the green sushi paste. And I learned something new today which made me very happy. Take care always 🙂

  2. Alberto September 17, 2012 at 9:10 am #

    Hi Kirin ^_^
    I hope you all are ok.

    This is a great post. Of course not as good as your posts, but good enough to be in TKE!!! 😀

    I'm sorry I couldn't answer to your previous posts, but right now we are starting our jobs after holiday and I got a lot of work to do 😮
    That doesn't mean I lost interest in TKE. THAT WILL NEVER HAPPEN!!!!

    So… Wasabi… I tried it once with sushi and… well, I think I used too much. I almost even cry!!!! I would say like 100000 ninjas kicking my nose and my head LoL I thought it was like mustard or something.

    I find this post extremely interesting. I have been reading several books about Buddhism, Taoism, Shinto, and other things about Japanese culture and mentality. Now with this post I can say I understand a little better your great culture, although it's a bit hard for Westerns to understand some specific concepts, I consider myself quite open-minded, so I always try to understand such complex things.

    Also, it made me angry to know how our world influenced yours. I know that our culture has (and is) influenced yours a lot, but your culture didn't influenced much ours (except otakus, manga, anime and such fashions), and I would like to see more of the Japanese values in our culture because I'm sure that a bit more of "Japanization" will made the world better 🙂

    Now that I know and understand a bit better your culture, I can really explain the main difference between your country and western countries. Basically, we don't have Bushido. People here doesn't even know what that means (people thinks that is some kind of martial art like karate or judo), so you don't expect people here to be always kind, not to you or to me. There is not much people that you can really call "kind".
    Also, don't try to live here if you love your country: things here are fast, crazy, bad done and moaming ^_^
    That's one of the reasons why Spain is still deep in the crisis (there is also corruption, but that's another story).


    Compra churros para tu marido, para desayunar (desayunar = breakfast)

    P.D. I hope you are ok, I saw in TV your actual problems with China due to a small piece of land. Those images of Chinese people burning a Japanese flag made me mad… 😥

    • kirin September 20, 2012 at 11:45 am #

      Japan has become a worse country. It used to a better country with kinder people and safety. Yet, it's true that we wouldn't burn a Chinese flag or attack Chinese consulate or Chinese people just because Chinese did that to Japanese companies and Japanese people living in China. Of course, what's reported in the news will be part of Chinese people, not all of them.

      We, the Japanese wouldn't get mad so easily just by watching what's going on in China now. Of course we are quite unhappy to see/know that, but that doesn't mean that we attack the Chinese living in Japan as a revenge. I think that's a good example why you like Japan, our culture or people. As you say, if the world is more Japanized, it could be a more peaceful place.

  3. Daniel October 1, 2012 at 5:43 am #

    The article is very good and I learned many useful and interesting Nea who until now did not know. I follow your site often and loving much. Always there are many useful things for beginners

  4. Vidhu November 15, 2013 at 4:33 pm #

    Hi Really Nice post on wabi sabi. I also wrote an article on wabi sabi for youth . Hope you like it . http://news4kid.com/science/wabi-sabi/

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