“Wabi-sabi,” which is two words combined, represents in abbreviated form an elusive concept that is key to the understanding of traditional Japanese aesthetics. Indeed, rather than a single concept, it is a cluster of ideas that permeate artistic practice in Japan, or at least did so in the past. Now, as the titles of these books indicate, it is gaining currency abroad.
The portmanteau term unites two separate but related notions: wabi means what is desolate or wretched, while sabi suggests the lonesome or melancholy. Taken together, they evoke an autumnal or even wintry feeling, an unaffected rusticity, a sense of which was keenly developed by the tea ceremony master, Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591) and came to inform other arts as well.
That the term has a variety of applications is suggested by the title of Leonard Koren’s book, which itself partakes of the aesthetic. The subdued cover of the book is a quiet brown, with a picture of a single autumn leaf, but not the author’s name. It appeared first in 1994, and this new edition from another publisher is essentially unchanged, except that the paper has a slightly different feel, and the black-and-white illustrations are more sharply realized.
Koren’s “Wabi-Sabi” would appear to be the first volume with this title, and is surely the inspiration for several others that have followed it in recent years. The text, interspersed with pictures, is remarkably concise and clear, and the comparison he makes between the Japanese aesthetic and modernism helps to clarify our understanding of how it functions, besides the reach and implications that each has. The similarities are quite surprising.
Like the publisher’s name, wabi-sabi is a “beauty of things imperfect,” but it is also much more than that, an attitude to life that values the hidden, small, obscure and unostentatious, in the belief and recognition that everything changes and nothing will endure. There may be some “Carpe diem” (Seize the day) here, or a sense of “Ars longa, vita brevis” (Art is long, life is short), to quote the Latin poets. The sad thing is that much of this tradition has been lost in modern Japan, even as it has been discovered overseas.
A Christmas tree decorated with jewels, such as we might have seen in a Tokyo department store, is the complete opposite of all that this aesthetic represents. Koren notes with some regret how the wealthy (and snobbish) patrons of tea ceremony have moved far from its modest original ideal. But the notion is not dead, and can still be found even in contemporary department stores, where the food hall will furnish good examples.
Mark Reibstein’s illustrated tale for children tries to explain this idea with a story of a Kyoto cat. Named Wabi Sabi, the feline protagonist goes off in search of understanding, and is instructed by another cat, a dog, and finally a monkey. The gnomic replies are made in the 5-7-5 form of haiku, and the tea ceremony background is acknowledged in the story, which also alludes to Basho’s most famous haiku, about a frog.
Ed Young’s illustrations for this book are collages made from washi, Japanese paper, with subdued colors in keeping with the project. But the pictures have been reproduced by other means, so that the pages give off a chemical odor when first opened, which is not the case with Koren’s volume. Yet both books are attractive.
The appeal of this nexus of ideas at present involves the need to preserve the environment. The phrase is memorable too since it follows the pattern of other expressions in English, particularly onomatopoeic ones (pell-mell, hugger-mugger). Properly understood, wabi-sabi is not limited to Japanese arts, like pottery and poetry, but can be applied to many aspects of our lives, willy-nilly.