The imperfect perfection of Wabi-Sabi

The other day the wind on my porch blew a cup of coffee I liked onto a table, shattering it. I did what most people would have done: pick up the pieces and throw them in the trash. There are people in Japan, however, who would have handled the breakage differently. They would have glued the pieces back together with gold lacquer, following an ancient practice known as kintsugian expression of the elegant Japanese aesthetic philosophy known as wabi-sabi. The damaged cup would have taken on a new form of beauty, one that spoke of the impermanence of life in general. One can have a beautiful object that in an instant shatters, just as one can have a beloved friend or relative who loses his life in an instant.


Americans live in a disposable society. We replace anything damaged even slightly as we can only accept perfection. If we thought the wabi-sabi way, we would embrace imperfection, allowing us to see something that might be considered decrepit in our sleek, mass-produced culture as having a singular beauty.


Wabi-sabi, an outgrowth of Buddhist teachings, merges two Japanese concepts into a unique blend. There is no direct equivalent of the word wabi in English. “Rustic” is probably the closest equivalent, but it’s short. The word originally referred to the solitude of living in nature, removed from society, but its meaning has evolved over time, taking on less melancholy connotations. “Imperfect Beauty” is what he refers to now. Sabi expresses the effect that time has on objects. An old rusty metal wall exposes sabi. Nobody would build a rusty wall, but it is still possible to see the aesthetic value.


Consolidating the two words in wabi-sabi expresses an aesthetic based on the appreciation of aging, defective objects and the search for beauty in simplicity. It’s about celebrating the way things are rather than the way they should be. An object exhibiting wabi-sabi has the quality of inevitability – time changes everything. Maintaining a perfect look is impossible over time, and it’s not something to strive for. If people could accept this on their own, they would be happier and save money. But the Kardashians and Instagram set our superficial cultural tone at this time, and they’re about as anti-wabi-sabi as they come.


The concept of wabi-sabi, the rough Japanese equivalent of the Greek ideals of beauty and perfection, has been central to Japanese artistic expression for centuries, but wander around Tokyo asking random people to define the word, and you will find many struggling with the task. Someone could possibly say that wabi-sabi refers to the “soul” of Japan, which is concise and precise, but not quite a definition. Most Japanese know wabi-sabi when they see it, but explaining it is another matter. How many Americans could, on the spot, explain what Americana is and how it is reflected in the music, film, fiction, folklore and material culture of this nation?


The West is obsessed with symmetry and perfect proportions. Murata Jukō, founder of the modern Japanese tea ceremony, saw too much flawless beauty in the aristocratic way in which the tea ceremony was performed in 15andJapan of the -century. He was appalled that the shoguns held the ceremony in a garish environment to show off expensive vessels and utensils imported from China, which was a deviation from the spiritual roots of the practice. Jukō’s redesign of the ceremony was in accordance with the principles of wabi-sabi. Back then, tea ceremonies were held on balconies during a full moon. Jukō wanted this to happen during the subtle play of shadows during a half moon or partially darkened moon, and he wanted to replace fancy imported goods with rustic, imperfect items made by Japanese artisans. To this day, the tea ceremony remains one of the most widespread manifestations of the wabi-sabi philosophy.


Wabi-sabi is under enormous pressure in Japan from Western consumerist values. About 45% of Japanese women own a Louis Vuitton handbag, an item representing the Western obsession with symmetry and perfection. The Japanese are obsessed with prestigious brands, which is the antithesis of wabi-sabi. Prestige has no place in the wabi-sabi aesthetic.


As for American culture, it’s all about material possessions and bling. No one can be too rich, too young or too fit. The pursuit of perfection comes at a price: depression, anxiety, addiction, and burnout. Advertisers fuel this culture by tricking us into pursuing unattainable goals, which is exhausting and unnatural. It is also dangerous for mental health. Striving to live a life of perfection ultimately means that all it takes is a little hiccup to bring you down. It gives people a fragile quality that those who are able to find satisfaction in their current situation do not have.