Wabi-Sabi: The Japanese Aesthetic of Impermanence and Simplicity

Shoseian teahouse inside the Seattle Japanese Garden reflects the wabi-sabi aesthetic. Photo: Wikipedia.

The Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi is subtle and difficult for Westerners to grasp. The two words, wabi and sabi,[1] were joined together and their aesthetic introduced to the West in a slim 1994 book by Leonard Koren, Wabi –Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets, & Philosophers.

Koren is an American writer and design philosopher with a background in architecture. He was greatly influenced by numerous trips to Japan in the 1980s and 1990s.

Although the term wabi-sabi is unfamiliar to many people in Japan, the ability to find beauty in objects that are simple, irregular and imperfect is an integral part of Japanese culture. According to a 2005 New York Times review of Koren’s book by Pilar Viladas, wabi-sabi “celebrates earthiness, chance, unpretentiousness and intimacy of scale. It isn’t about perfection, slickness, mass production or fabulousness.” This is in marked contrast to the values of the West, which derive from our Greek & Roman heritage (monumentality, symmetry and perfection) and the realities of contemporary consumer culture (celebrity, expensiveness and trendiness).

According to Koren, the metaphysical basis of wabi-sabi is the reality of change and impermanence: “things are either devolving toward, or evolving from, nothingness.” The values underlying it include the following: “Truth comes from the observation of nature. Greatness exists in the inconspicuous and overlooked details. Beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness.”

Objects that reflect the wabi-sabi aesthetic are, in Koren’s words: “irregular; intimate; unpretentious; earthy; murky; simple.” That is, they reflect the processes of nature, and the cycles of life and death. Beauty is to be found in rustic simplicity, imperfection and change, and even in the processes of withering and decay.

Historically, wabi-sabi has links to Zen philosophy, the tea ceremony, Japanese garden design, haiku and ikebana.

In the Seattle Japanese Garden, wabi-sabi is seen most clearly in the teahouse, Shoseian --which means the Arbor of Murmuring Pines--and its garden Roji – literally, dewy ground or path. The shades of green, the stepping stones, the rustic architecture of the structures -- all reveal the Zen emphasis on achieving inner simplicity, humility, quietude, and sharing with others the way of tea.

Corinne Kennedy is a trained guide for Seattle Japanese Garden and a contributor to the garden's blog.