Understanding the Wabi-sabi

Japanese people tend to state that foreigners can’t understand the concept of wabi-sabi. But is this really true? Or is it one of these myths Japanese like so much hearing and spreading about their country and culture like that one about other countries don’t have four distinctive seasons?

When I came to Japan as a trained gardener, who was interested in Japanese gardens since her teens, I was so proud I always answered to above statement with a “No! Of course, I understand wabi-sabi!” and added one of the uncountable explanations you can find in books or the internet.
My Japanese companion then used to smile and nod in the typical, calm Japanese way. Today I know exactly which thoughts began to form inside his mind at this point while he said nothing and let me believe that I impressed him with my knowledge.

Actually, wabi-sabi is easy to explain in encyclopedia definitions. When I look it up in my dictionary app, a whole sentence appears: “aesthetic sense in Japanese art emphasizing quiet simplicity and subdued refinement.” My personal favorite is “the beauty of simplicity and transience”. But there are so many more. Goto and Naka call it: “synonyms for the beauty found in purity and serenity”. Marc P. Keane explains it with: “the appreciation of simplicity and rusticity”. However, you see the point, it is actually quite easy to translate and similarly easy to explain it even further.
Everyone, who studies Japanese gardens, immediately has some images of examples ready to pour out to the willingly listening ear. The image, which forms in my mind when hearing wabi-sabi, is a withered bamboo fence and camellia flowers lying on a carpet of moss. Both are simple but beautiful and show the transience in this world, just as rust (sabi) on an old metal gate in a natural garden in England.

But what is it now with Japanese people claiming that foreigners can not understand wabi-sabi?

The Japanese culture is very unique and still permeated by a lot of visible and invisible rules. Some are very popular and widely known among foreigners: slurp your noodle soup in Japan! Don’t use a tissue in public! Wear a surgical mask when you fetched a cold! Other well-known beliefs about Japanese people are, that they never show emotions and that they always try to keep their face. These two are already a little bit more difficult to understand because it needs some knowledge about the structures in a traditional Japanese company and about honne and tatemae – what people say and what they really think. Wabi-sabi now is even harder to understand.


The term wabi-sabi, in the form we know today, dates back to Sen no Rikyū (1522 – 1591), who used it to describe a style in the way of tea. However, the concept behind wabi-sabi is even older, it dates back to the Heian period (794 – 1185).
Reading about Japanese history, especially the Edo period, and about the several codexes existing in historical society, it becomes already clear, that it might not be so easy to understand the culture and also the beauty ideals of those times. Do you completely understand the social rules and ideals of your own country from 400 years ago? You can guess that it is even difficult for some Japanese to understand wabi-sabi, who are not raised in a very traditional mind.

What Japanese people really mean when they say a foreigner cannot understand wabi-sabi is, that foreigners cannot easily detect it in everyday life.
Imagine you have a walk around an old and silent neighborhood in Tokyo with several old, wooden houses. It is one of those days, not too cold because the winter sun is heating up the concrete you are walking on. The sky is blue and there is not one single cloud in the skies. Suddenly your gaze gets caught by one house, which seems different than the other houses. It has a curved tile roof and a traditional clay wall, a rare sign in the streets of Tokyo. The front yard is neatly cleaned and the shrubs are in a perfect condition. Camellia trees are standing next to the approach and some of its flowers have fallen on the recently swept floor, dotting it with pink and white. You feel stunned by the beauty of this scene and ask yourself: is this what a Japanese person calls wabi-sabi? How do I, the foreigner know?
I hope you got the point. It is not about explaining, it is about seeing. It took me some time to understand, but now I can take the next step and learn to discover the wabi-sabi in everyday life.

Even if it is difficult learning to see wabi-sabi in everyday life, it is not impossible for a foreigner. However most Japanese say it takes several, very likely more than ten, years to master.

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