Tuesday 11 May 2010

Wabi Sabi

Just as in English there is a whole vocabulary available for the discussion of Art and Beauty, so too does such a vocabulary exist in Japanese. There is a tendency among people with a passion for and some experience in Japanese art to use the word “Wabi sabi”, and yet so little understanding of what the term refers to. Leonardo da Vinci said that, “If you cannot explain something, you don’t understand it.” To be anecdotal for a moment, there was one young American anthropologist who had studied pottery briefly in Mashiko, who gave a slide lecture here to coincide with an exhibition of American ceramics. Anything in his slides which seemed even vaguely Japanese influenced he described as possessing “Wabi sabi”. One of the thirty or so professional Japanese potters in the audience enquired, “What do you mean by Wabi sabi?” He laughed as he responded, “Nobody knows what Wabi sabi means!” The entire audience laughed also, but the young gentleman never realized that it was not because they agreed with him, but because of his naivety. Wabi sabi is not some mystical secret, but a basic aesthetic principal. Merely because he didn’t understand it doesn’t mean that it cannot be understood.

Historically “Wabi sabi” was first coined by Sen Rikyu, the founder of the Japanese tea ceremony. Tea was used as a political tool at that time, and the Daimyou, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, often invited political opponents to enjoy tea with him. The sheer richness and lavishness of his style of tea were designed to impress and intimidate. In contrast to this Sen Rikyu proposed a style of tea which was about simplicity and minimalism. Essentially the tea ceremony is about enjoying a nice cup of tea, with all of the five senses. The word for “Delicious” in Japanese is “Oishii” which literally translates as “Beautiful flavour”. So, tea was about beauty. Beauty of sound, of touch, of taste, of fragrance, of vision. If all five senses are to be involved then it is imperative to control the environment in which the ceremony takes place, hence the birth of the tea house and garden. For Sen Rikyu, beauty was not about lavishness. What he proposed was that by eliminating all of the extraneous clutter it was possible to appreciate the essential quality of beauty.

Etymologically, “Wabi sabi” is based on the root forms of two adjectives, both of which are generally translated as “Lonely”. “Wabishii” however focuses on the object which is lonely, where as “Sabishii” focuses on the absence which makes the object lonely. The principal of “Wabi sabi” is therefore; Beauty reduced to its simplest form, and that form brought to a peak of focus by its relationship with the space in which it exists. That is to say, the presence of an object and the presence of the space interacting to strengthen each other.

The idea that space has presence is not new. Two and a half thousand years ago the Greek philosopher Parmenides proposed that it is impossible for anything which exists to conceive of anything which does not exist and that therefore even the space between objects “exists”. This remains in modern English as the concept that “I have nothing”. In Japanese however, it is grammatically impossible for “Nothing” (Nanimo) to exist (aru). “Nothing” (Nanimo) must be followed by “Is not” (nai). The idea of the presence of a space was therefore revolutionary.

To take it one step further, a tea bowl, being a vessel, is defined by the space it contains. It is not the pot which is important, but the space. In the tea bowl it is therefore possible to have the object (Wabi) and the space (Sabi) interacting within the same pot.

There is a story about Sen Rikyu having a hedge of Morning glory planted in his tea garden, and Toyotomi Hideyoshi was to enjoy the tea ceremony when it blossomed. On the morning of the ceremony, the hedge was in full bloom, a swathe of pink flowers. Sen Rikyu came along and clipped off every flower, saving only the single most perfect blossom, which he displayed in the tea house. Had he left the flowers as they were this single blossom would have been lost in the crowd. In the space of the tea house, however, it was beautiful beyond compare. That is the essence of “Wabi sabi”.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi was apparently extremely angry, and it is interesting to note that shortly afterward Sen Rikyu was forced to commit “Seppuku” suicide.

The long and the short of it is that “Wabi sabi” is about simplifying the beauty of nature to its essential elements, and the vitality brought to that beauty by the mutual interaction of object and space, even within the same object. That which is not there is just as important as that which is. This concept has pervaded the Japanese aesthetic and is not confined to pottery, but can be found in any art, including literature and cuisine. It does not exist in every piece of art work, though, and care should be taken in using the term appropriately. It does not mean somber, that would be “Shibui”, nor calm, that would be “Ochitsuita”. There is a whole vocabulary in Japanese to describe art and beauty, just as there is in English. Perhaps we would be wise to use the one we understand the best.

Trees are generally beautiful, but a leaf is beautiful in a very specific way. Having a thousand leaves does not make a tree a thousand times more beautiful than a single leaf.



  1. I love this post.
    Thank you!


  2. Very well put Euan.

  3. I seem to recall another story involving Sen Riyku and wabi sabi. He once placed several bowls (or perhaps it was cups) in front of his students. There was one for each plus one extra. He told them that they could choose and keep whichever they wished. Then he took the last one remaining as it was wabi sabi (lonely) and used it and cherished it for the rest of his life. Do I recall this correctly?

  4. Nice post Euan.
    Rikyu was probably ordered to kill himself because he opposed Hideyoshi's campaign to invade Korea and China (many generals were already jealous of him) and the statue of himself placed at Daitoku-ji, (Rikyu paid to have Daitoku-ji rebuilt), which Hideyoshi would have to pass under to take his lessons. The statue was seen as a direct insult by Rikyu against Hideyoshi. But the morning glory story is a wonderful illustration.

  5. That's a wonderful explanation, Euan. Was I misled to think that part of wabi sabi had to do with object worn by life and use, but still useful?

  6. Thank you for your comments everybody.

    Yes Ken, that story is about the "kimamori" tea bowl which is still an heirloom of the Mushakojisenke school of tea.

    This blog was intended to be about the aesthetic rather than the history, and the morning glory episode illustrates Rikyu's aesthetic rift with Hideyoshi. It wasn't the reason for the Seppuku. They had many differences of opinion on matters aesthetic, economic, politic and moral, and there are many stories concerning them. History doesn't tell us the exact reason Hideyoshi ordered Rikyu to suicide, but the statue was one excuse. Rikyu donated the funds for the restoration of the Daitokuji Sanmon but the priests put the statue of him there to honour him. That was three years before his seppuku. The trigger Hideyoshi used to order the seppuku was Rikyu's refusal to apologise for serving him tea in a tea ceremony using a black raku chawan, knowing full well that Hideyoshi disliked it. Such an apology would have meant compromising Rikyu's tea aesthetic, but to not apologise insulted the Daimyou. Rikyu's patron (Toyotomi Hidenaga, Hideyoshi's maternal half brother)had recently died and he was without that political clout. Hideyoshi was looking for an excuse to put Rikyu in his place. It was kind of like "Days of our Lives", with power politics and intrigue. Rikyu's aesthetic was above that, and that legacy remains, regardless of petty political machinations, and it is that aesthetic rather than the history which interests me.

    Have you noticed, Hollis, that some (but not all) objects worn by long use are better at performing their function than new ones? And when they are not in use their beauty is emphasized by the memory of and the space left by their function? Many new things have no "space", they must "worn in". Wabi Sabi is about beauty made complete by what is not there as much as what is.

  7. Lovely concept, Euan. Thanks for that.

  8. Thank you so much for writing about this Euan.I have kjust written about the importance of tea-drinking and the elements of the ceremony in my blog. I love drinking tea and consider it one of the highlights of my daily life. I think that the paring down of the ritual and it's elements can be translated into a european way of drinking tea but shouldn't be confused with the "tea-ceremony" or wabi sabi. Do you think that the term wabi sabi could be used in conjunction with a western tea drinking ceremony or is it specific to Japan?

  9. Great post as always Euan. I love the story of the young western potter at the start, it is so easy to use Japanese words to give an air of mystique when it would be better to try hard to understand the concept and explain it in our native language. Just as you have done for us. Putting Wabi Sabi into amazon shows a host of books on the subject, I have several of them but most books just cloud the issue, I suspect because few of the authors have deep understanding. This short blog is clearer and more comprehensive than most books on the subject. Thanks.

  10. Thank you Shannon,
    I have often thought about the western "Tea ritual", and used it as a foil in my essay "Just My Cup of Tea", which you can find on my website in the essays section. Many objects, rituals and situations that exist in other cultures than Japanese express the same aesthetic as "Wabi Sabi", albeit unintentional. Many tea bowls and other tea ware are found objects, originally made for other purposes, which the tea master finds aesthetically pleasing in the tea ceremony. This is called "Mitate", and is a very important part of tea. I often wonder what would have happened had coffee found its way to the Japanese archipelago before tea did.....?

    Robin, you honour me. Many artists and potters have a vested interest in perpetuating a mystique, and like the "Emperors New Clothes" there are many who kowtow to that. There is, however, liberation in simplicity. And that, I believe, is what Sen Rikyu was all about.

  11. Thank you! That was very clearly explained! Could I quote your last few sentences about the tree and the leaves on my art blog? If you'd rather I didn't, I understand.

  12. Thank you Katherine,
    Your blog is lovely.
    I'm glad you asked before quoting me, that is very courteous of you. You may quote my blog, and it would be nice if you said it was me you were quoting. Drop me a line when it's up, if you could.
    All the best.

  13. This post is awesome. Perhaps if you find yourself with the time, could you do another post on some abstract and complex Japanese aesthetic term? I find it all extremely intriguing