You could spend your entire life in modern Japan without ever hearing the term wabi, though no overview of Japanese history or art is complete without it. It’s a beautiful word, hard to define like most beautiful words. Poverty is the heart of it, which sounds dispiriting, but there’s the Zen phrase “To fill a monk’s tattered robe with a cool refreshing breeze,” quoted by Zen master Daisetz T. Suzuki (1870-1966) as an invitation to see poverty through Zen eyes.
“A life of wabi,” he says, affords “an inexpressible quiet joy deeply hidden beneath sheer poverty.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, many of whose political goals spring from a professed love of Japanese tradition, has little to say about this particular one. It’s hard to blame him.
A politician would sound silly campaigning on a wabi platform. Economic growth is Abe’s mantra. It’s every politician’s. It has to be, in keeping with the times. If tradition scorns it, who really cares? No one, not even traditionalists — at least those who run for office.
“An inexpressible quiet joy hidden deep beneath sheer poverty.” If that’s wabi you can keep it, would be the modern verdict. These days we prefer other joys.
But the sages and poets of old were curiously drawn to it. The seeds of wabi were sown by a poet and Shinto shrine official named Kamo no Chomei (circa 1153-1216), who bequeathed to posterity a charming little memoir known as the “Hojoki” (“The Ten Foot Square Hut”).
His withdrawal from society, he candidly admits, was due less to religious yearning than to a string of disasters, natural and personal, that had frustrated his worldly ambitions. Retiring deep into the forested mountains near Kyoto, he lived alone for 30 years in a succession of primitive huts, each smaller than the one before, discovering in the process how little a person needs in order to enjoy the serene tranquility whose joys only poverty can reveal. His last and smallest hut became a model for the tea hut where the classical tea ceremony — wabi ritualized — came to be performed.
“With this lonely cottage of mine, this hut of one room,” said Chomei, “I am quite content. … If your food is scanty, it will have the better relish. … My only luxury is a sound sleep, and all I look forward to is the beauty of the changing seasons.”
The theme echoes down the ages. A century or so after Chomei, the priest Yoshida no Kenko (1283-1350), in a miscellany known as “Tzurezuregusa” (“The Grasses of Idleness”), wrote: “What a foolish thing it is to be governed by a desire for fame and profit and to fret away one’s whole life without a moment of peace. … You had best throw away your gold in the mountains and drop your jewels into a ravine.”
The haiku poet Matsuo Basho (1644-94), setting off on one of several journeys undertaken not to arrive somewhere or accomplish something but because life itself is a journey, wrote, “Following the example of the ancient priest who is said to have traveled thousands of miles caring naught for his provisions and attaining the state of sheer ecstasy under the pure beams of the moon, I left my broken house on the River Sumida … among the wails of the autumn wind.” On the road he discovered, along with much else, “Fleas, lice/ the horse pissing/ near my pillow.” Revulsion is uncalled for, for Basho’s mind was “one with nature,” and “whatever such a mind sees is a flower, and whatever such a mind dreams of is the moon.”
Then there’s the poet Ryokan (1758-1831) — beggar, monk, wabi personified: “I’ve forgotten my begging bowl/ but no one would steal it/ no one would steal it — / how sad for my begging bowl.” Speaking of fleas and lice: “Fleas, lice/ any autumn bug that wants to sing — / the breast of my robe is Musashino moor!” In other words: Come, fleas, come, lice, make yourselves at home in the breast of my robe.
The tradition endured well into the 20th century. The protagonist in “Kikyo” (“Homecoming”), a novel by Jiro Osaragi published in 1948, is Kyogo, a disgraced naval officer who, having spent the war years as a vagabond in Europe, returns to a Japan in ruins and ponders the poverty around him in terms of wabi: “Kyogo had grown used to Europe, so that after his return he was able to see what a really meager and impoverished life the Japanese had had through the centuries. … It was because they were so poor, Kyogo saw, that the Japanese had discovered a world of beauty unknown to Western aesthetics and called it by names suggesting melancholy and unfulfillment. They had been denied the luxury of really satisfying their human desires, so they had suppressed them and found ways to enjoy poverty.”
Wabi withered in the modernizing, industrializing blast of the Meiji Era (1868-1912). It breathed its last in the still more frenetic reconstruction boom of the postwar years. By 1980, some 90 percent of Japanese considered themselves solidly middle class. Poverty had been defeated. Wabi was no longer necessary.
The victory proved ephemeral. One measure of the damage done by a recession that set in the 1990s and lingers still is the rising child poverty rate: 1 in 6 Japanese children is said to be growing up in poverty. Given a choice between economic growth and wabi, Kamo no Chomei, Basho and Ryokan would surely choose wabi, but they, having cut their worldly ties, could afford the indulgence. Their sexual abstinence didn’t affect the birth rate, and impoverished modern parents with children they are unable to feed and educate would sound more callous than enlightened offering them wabi instead.
Wabi is, indeed, beautiful in its simplicity, but harsh, as Basho perhaps unwittingly reminds us. Approached on one of his journeys by a starving, abandoned child of about 3 years old, the poet wrote, “Alas, it seems to me that the child’s suffering has been caused by … the irresistible will of heaven and I must pass on, leaving it behind.”
Michael Hoffman is the author of “Other Worlds” and “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan.”