Wabi-sabi (Japanese Beauty Part 2)

The concepts of Japanese beauty are most interesting, primarily because the aesthetic values, to the Japanese, are not forthright or external as western ideals of beauty tend to be. As is with aware, wabi-sabi captures the essence of what is not seen.

Wabi-sabi, or 侘び/寂び which today essentially means beauty in simplicity and elegance, originates from two different words: wabi and sabi.


Roger Davies and Osamu Ikeno define wabi as an aesthetic appreciation for simplicity, and an understanding of beauty beyond material objects. Culture expert Kanako also adds that it is a beauty of “quietness, being simple, old, imperfect and not gorgeous”.

Originally this word meant to be lacking, having bad fortune, and discouragement. However the meaning evolved over time to become positive.


Also holding a negative connotation, sabi once referred to “a lonely state of mind or the desolate conditions of nature.” The Japanese once again changed their perspective, and sabi now represents a beaty in old age, loneliness, and quietude.

The History

The spread of Buddhism, especially the Zen Budhism sect during the Kamakura Period (1192-1333) had a strong impact on the Japanese way of thinking. Coming at a time of materialism, Zen monks discovered the beauty of living a simple and lonely life.Mu, which means emptiness or non-existence, an essential Zen practice, also became essential to wabi-sabi.

Mu carries the perspective that “everything exists in emptiness: flowers, the moon in the sky, beautiful scenery” (Davies and Ikeno).

Traditional Practices

While wabi-sabi is no doubt infused with many traditional arts and practices, Davies and Ikeno cite tea ceremony and haiku as prime examples of the importance of this concept of beauty.

The practice of tea ceremony was simple, unrefined, and imperfect, causing people to “complete their surroundings in their minds” by acknowledging what is unseen.

Haiku lives by this idea. With only seventeen syllabols to express ones thoughts, true haiku is mysterious, thoughtful, and goes beyond what is skin deep.


Please feel free to share your thoughts and questions about wabi-sabi.


The Japanese Mind edited by Roger J. Davies and Osamu Ikeno