Roots of Japan


What is “Wabi-sabi”?

Did you know that the word “Wabi-sabi”, a word that all Japanese people have heard of at least once, originally wasn't a very positive concept? One of Japan's aesthetic senses, “Wabi” and “Sabi” were originally two separate words. It is only in recent history that the two words were combined.

“Wabi” is the noun form of the verb “Wabu”.
Discouragement, disappointment, despair, sorrow, shabby etc. make up the main inner definition. From the middle ages, the term began to be used to express enjoyment of a quiet life.

“Sabi” is the noun form of the verb “Sabu”.
The kanji characters can be written either as “寂び” or “然び”.
Originally it conveyed feelings of dissatisfaction, a melancholy longing etc. And a deteriorated state over the passage of time. There is also a connection with the Japanese word “sabi”, “to rust”. After being given the kanji character “寂”, it began to mean a state of quiet solitude and desolation. In contrast to “Wabi”, it has a more “external” meaning.

So, what do you think?

It still seems far off from being an aesthetic sense of beauty. So, when did the term we now know as “Wabi-sabi” come into existence? First, let's unravel the meaning behind “Wabi”. The original word was “Wabu”, an archaic Japanese verb. This ancient word is found as far back as the Tanka poetry of the Manyoshu (“Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves” - late 7th to late 8th century), an anthology of ancient Japanese poems.

Then, changing conditions in the Kamakura period saw “Wabi” evolving into a new aesthetic sense that depicts an “incomplete beauty”. However, it was still only a concept and no word for it had yet been coined. One common theory is that its rapid development can be linked to the tea ceremony in the late Muromachi period and also to the haiku poet of the Edo period, Matsuo Basho, who pursued “The beauty of Wabi”. (These days there is also a theory that buried within history, this aesthetic sense can be found among the common people.)

If the expression, “The beauty of Wabi”, appeared in the Edo period, what words did they use before? Unfortunately, there were no words that have the exact same meaning. A close expression may be the word “Sosou”, or “coarse”. However, as the historical figure SEN no Rikyu, who had a profound influence on the style of tea ceremony called “Wabicha”, so disliked the word, we can see that it does not necessarily have the exact same meaning.

“Wabicha” emphasized the importance of the spiritual connection between the guest and the host, which was directly opposite to the luxurious tea parties that included gambling and drinking that were mainstream at the time. The person who started the trend of “Wabicha” is thought to be Juko Murata, a monk from the mid-Muromachi period. He studied a style of tea ceremony called “Shoincha” under the tea master Noami and found beauty in simplicity and frugality and felt the spirit of “Wabi”.

In this way, the original concept changed to a “consciousness that focuses on contentment within poverty or a lack of material possessions”.

On the other hand, how about “Sabi”?

The original word “Sabu”, was an archaic term that can be found in the Manyoshu anthology and also in Tanka poetry. As we wrote above, “Sabi” can be written as “寂” or “然び”, and the theory is that in the original meaning, “寂” was used to express an “internal essence” and “然び” conveyed a meaning of “flows to the surface”. Originally the kanji character, “寂”, didn't have a very positive concept. For example, “寂しい” or “Sabishii” which means “lonely”. No doubt it's a word you have also used at least once.

As you can probably guess, this comes from the word “Sabu”. When did the word change to mean an aesthetic sense of beauty? Let's investigate.

It seems the concept to “deeply appreciate things that are old” existed in “Tsurezuregusa” or “Essays in Idleness” written in the Kamakura period. In this way, there is more to the passing of time than simply deterioration. As you may well know, the Great Buddha of Kamakura and the Statue of Liberty (American World Heritage Site) etc., have a blue-green color called “Rokushou” or “Verdigris” which is a layer that forms on the copper when it rusts.

This is the beauty that is created with the passing of time. Other familiar items include jeans, leather, brass etc. Of course, some people will say new is best, however, over time many of these products will develop a charm that cannot be found in a brand-new item. This here is “Sabi”.

In the Muromachi period, special importance was placed on haikai, a seventeen-syllable poem. Basho Matsuo, a haikaishi or haikai poet of the Edo period said that: “The school of haikai shall decide basic philosophy.” In Haiku poems after Basho, an aesthetic sense of beauty became a central theme, but there seems to be very little record of Basho himself writing about “Sabi”.

“Sabi” as well as “Wabi” are both vital when talking of the spirit of the tea ceremony. However, there is no mention of it in the tea literature of the Rikyu era. How surprising! One theory is that as haikai poems became popular from the Edo period onwards, the spirit of “Sabi” spread and together with “Wabi” became an important part of the tea ceremony. From around this time, the concept changes from one that originally wasn't very positive to “naturally feeling a sense of beauty of the profound and the abundant, within a state of tranquility”.

In this way, it transformed into the “Wabi” and “Sabi” we know well. “Wabi-sabi” is, in other words, quiet, simple and unpretentious. While the West preferred things perfect and artificial, imperfection in its natural state was favored in Japan. Throw away the unnecessary and keep things plain and simple. At times it will fall into decay by just leaving it to nature. It may seem shabby and sad. But it's here that we find spiritual abundance and beauty.

So where can we feel “Wabi-sabi” in the modern day? Perhaps something well-known and easy to understand would be Bonsai, dwarf miniature potted trees. Recently we even hear of overseas fans of Bonsai. Different from simply enjoying a potted plant, Bonsai uses the shape of the plant to symbolize “nature” and “the world”. It is almost like a very small garden.

Also, there are Japanese traditional gardens. The famous Three Great Gardens of Japan are: Kenroku-en garden in Kanazawa city, Ishikawa prefecture, Koraku-en garden in Okayama city, Okayama prefecture and Kairaku-en garden in Mito city, Ibaraki prefecture. Each season brings a variety of beauty but it is especially at the end of the season that a different kind of beauty can be found.

As you take a walk in a Japanese garden keep aware of the various techniques and styles such as “Shakkei”, borrowed scenery, “Tsukiyama”, artificial hills, “Yarimizu”, garden streams, “Jodo style gardens”, a style of Buddhist temple garden or “Karesansui”, rock gardens and you may find you encounter thoughts and feelings, unique to your own experience.

Finally, color. Tokyo Skytree changes color with different lighting displays each season or by event and uses an LED lighting system to display a traditional color called “Edo purple”. Traditional colors are also used for the Skytree logo. The advertisement “Japanese seasoning: Japanese food made with Japanese colors” created by Ajinomoto Co., Inc. that ranked at number 2 in the “Best Ads of 2014” brought awareness to Japanese food and color that tends to be overlooked and forgotten, even by Japanese people.

It is not glamorous or flashy. It may seem to use the simplest of ingredients, but isn't that why it's indulgent and delicious? In this way, “Wabi-sabi” may really be more familiar to us than we had previously noticed. Japanese people may be so familiar with the concept that they stop noticing. However, the spirit continues to live on quietly, in simple everyday life. How about going on your own journey in search of “Wabi-sabi”?

It is my opinion and summary. Please acknowledge that there are various opinions.