What is Wabi-sabi?

The Japanese have these complex concepts. Though part of their daily living, these concepts are often hard to explain in words. One of them is the concept of wabi-sabi, another Japanese concept gaining attention in the West. But how do we define it?

Rie Takeda and Nick explore what wabi-sabi is and its role in Japanese aesthetics.

Nick: I'd like to touch on one more thing and we're sort of branching out a little bit here, but it is another Japanese word that's gaining popularity, and you mentioned it, and it's actually something you said inspires you with your calligraphy and it's wabi-sabi.

So how would you define wabi-sabi? And how does it inspire you as an artist?

Rie: It's a big word, as you know. I could really say, from my point of view, as an artist and calligrapher/teacher, I would define wabi-sabi definitely the beauty of imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete things.

I feel the central awareness of these elements is wabi-sabi too, and it is the nucleus of Japanese aesthetics, in all directions, right? And wabi-sabi helps you to understand a deeper sense of the natural cycle of our lives.

I mean, our own lives and including death, and it leads us to appreciate, let's say, every moment of life, and every here and now. Does it make sense?

Nick: It does make sense. There's a story behind this for me, it's the only word my father-in-law taught me. So he's actually a potter, he makes matcha chawan. So he's quite good at what he does.

Rie: He should know wabi-sabi.

Nick: Yes, so he actually built an anagama, for like a passion project. I mean, he's already retired, but he did this about 15 years ago. And he had to buy land and hire machinery and build the anagama and his big project, and he had to get the community involved in it.

Rie: Wow, sounds great.

Nick: So he's really dedicated; he makes shino-yaki, which is quite a beautiful form of pottery. At first, they had to do it at a certain time of year as well, they could only do it in, I think, in autumn or spring when the temperature was right.

So the first fire failed, all the pieces were listed and broken. Then six months later, they tried again, and they failed again. And I was like, oh, no, this is just painful, like all this effort. Then they tried again in spring or autumn, I can't remember, and yeah, they had this success and they had really good pieces that they could gift and sell.

So I was in the factory one day, and he was boxing these matcha chawan -- these tea ceremony cups, and I was looking at two of them. One was this kind of the perfect catalog, matcha chawan, it was well balanced, it was nicely curved, and this other one was slightly wonky and off.

Rie: Okay, you can see that..

Nick: But it drew my eye. I kept looking back to the one that was slightly off. And he said something like, I come in then he's like: dochi uereu no, something in his tono-ben, like, which one do you think will sell more?

And so he speaks with such an aggressive tone. I'm like, ah, and I was thinking, well, it should be the opposite of what I think. And I was thinking, well, all the catalogs have beautiful, well shaped ones. So I was thinking, it should be the opposite. 

But then at the last minute I said naname, it would be the one that looks like a catalog. So I said it must be this perfect looking one. And he's gone chigau, and he just finds it and says, wabi sabi and he walks off, and I knew it was significant.

I thought "Wow, he's never taught me anything. This is something important." But of course, he didn't explain it to me. Then I asked my wife and she's like, yeah, too hard to explain. And then I got online..

Rie: You hear that from everybody. This is really like a deep philosophy.

Nick: So it took me a long time to understand. It's like, in the West, people think it's an adjective, but it's actually a noun. It goes back to this idea of it's something you experience, you feel it from the object, and I had this idea, it's kind of tied into the natural elements of, in this case, clay.

So there's, you know, it's tied to nature -- with earth, water, fire. And he did produce it, but he really had no control of what he was producing. So people think you can make a Wabi Sabi table or you can make a Wabi Sabi cup or something, but you can't.

So there is this randomness, or this natural process. It took me like 20 years to find that out, or 15 years later, I found that out.