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Ancient Aesthetics of Japan: Wabi-sabi (Japanese Culture)

Japanese culture boasts a variety of unique aspects: the dramas of Noh and Kabuki, the tea ceremony, calligraphy and bonsai, to name a few. One reason these forms are acknowledged as unique is owing to a deep connection with the particular modes of Japanese aesthetic thought. Today, we’d like to tell you in detail about wabi-sabi, one of the most representative of these modes. Understand the philosophy of wabi-sabi, and you’ll gain an appreciation for the more profound parts of Japanese culture.


An Overview of Wabi-sabi

Though this compound is usually encountered as a set, it actually refers to two separate ways of thinking, “wabi” and “sabi”, even as the two share a deep-seated connection. One feature of “wabi-sabi” is its ambiguity, as it doesn’t have a precise definition. Perhaps this ambiguity is one of the reasons for the individual character of the products of Japanese culture.


Stemming originally from the verb “wabiru,” “wabi” refers to an unadorned or coarse appearance. When imbued with aesthetic significance, it comes to represent an awareness which strives to discover emotional satisfaction among poverty and lack.


Similar to “wabi,” “sabi” also comes from a verb (“sabiru”), and indicates an aged or deteriorated state. When “sabi” is given aesthetic significance, it speaks to the diverse, unique beauty woven by that which decays with the passage of time.


Combining “Wabi” with “Sabi”

Within something decayed with age and said to have “sabi,” there is a feeling of poorness and insufficiency called “wabi”. Imperfect beauty is found in deteriorated things; in other words, a “wabi” heart discovers “sabi” beauty. The former describes a state of the human spirit and the latter an appearance of the world—they are two sides of the same coin.


Photographs Demonstrating “Wabi-sabi”

Falling cherry blossoms

A dimly-lit Japanese room


A roof covered in dead leaves

A mossy garden

Tea made in a simple Japanese room



Both “wabi” and “sabi” referred at first not to things of the aesthetic realm but instead to negative concepts. However, they came to express the sense of beauty that the Japanese felt for simple, quiet things, thus taking on positive meaning. Awareness of “wabi-sabi” has been widely taken up by other Japanese traditional practices and art forms of yore, which have come to adopt not gaudy gorgeousness but the spiritual quietude loved by the people of Japan.

Related: 8 Elegant Kyoto Gardens Rich in the Wabi-Sabi Aesthetic

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