Zen garden of Ryōan-ji. It was built during the Higashiyama period. The clay wall, which is stained by age with subtle brown and orange tones, reflects sabi principles, with the rock garden reflecting wabi principles.[1]
A Japanese tea house which reflects the wabi-sabi aesthetic in Kenroku-en (兼六園) Garden
Wabi-sabi tea bowl, Azuchi–Momoyama period, 16th century

In traditional Japanese aesthetics, wabi-sabi (侘寂) is a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection.[2] The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of appreciating beauty that is "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete" in nature.[3] It is prevalent in many forms of Japanese art.[4][5]

Wabi-sabi is a composite of two interrelated aesthetic concepts, wabi () and sabi (). According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, wabi may be translated as "subdued, austere beauty," while sabi means "rustic patina."[6] Wabi-sabi is derived from the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence (三法印, sanbōin), specifically impermanence (無常, mujō), suffering (, ku) and emptiness or absence of self-nature (, ).[7]

Characteristics of wabi-sabi aesthetics and principles include asymmetry, roughness, simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy, and the appreciation of both natural objects and the forces of nature.


Wabi-sabi can be described as "the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of what we think of as traditional Japanese beauty. It occupies roughly the same position in the Japanese pantheon of aesthetic values as do the Greek ideals of beauty and perfection in the West." Another description of wabi-sabi by Andrew Juniper notes that, "If an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi."[8] For Richard Powell, "Wabi-sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect."[9]

When it comes to thinking about an English definition or translation of the words wabi and sabi Andrew Juniper explains that, "They have been used to express a vast range of ideas and emotions, and so their meanings are more open to personal interpretation than almost any other word in the Japanese vocabulary." Therefore, an attempt to directly translate wabi-sabi may take away from the ambiguity that is so important to understanding how the Japanese view it.[8]

After centuries of incorporating artistic and Buddhist influences from China, wabi-sabi eventually evolved into a distinctly Japanese ideal. Over time, the meanings of wabi and sabi changed to be more lighthearted and hopeful. Around 700 years ago, particularly among the Japanese nobility, understanding emptiness and imperfection was honored as tantamount to the first step to satori or enlightenment. In today's Japan, the meaning of wabi-sabi is often condensed to "wisdom in natural simplicity". In art books, it is typically defined as "flawed beauty".[10] Wabi-sabi artworks often emphasize the process of making the piece and that is ultimately incomplete.[11]

From an engineering or design point of view, wabi may be interpreted as the imperfect quality of any object, due to inevitable limitations in design and construction/manufacture especially with respect to unpredictable or changing usage conditions; in this instance, sabi could be interpreted as the aspect of imperfect reliability, or the limited mortality of any object, hence the phonological and etymological connection with the Japanese word sabi (, lit.'to rust'). Although the kanji characters for "rust" are not the same as sabi () in wabi-sabi, the original spoken word (pre-kanji, yamato-kotoba) are believed to be one and the same.[12][13]

Modern tea vessel made in the wabi-sabi style

Wabi and sabi both suggest sentiments of desolation and solitude. In the Mahayana Buddhist view of the universe, these may be viewed as positive characteristics, representing liberation from a material world and transcendence to a simpler life. Mahayana philosophy itself, however, warns that genuine understanding cannot be achieved through words or language, so accepting wabi-sabi on nonverbal terms may be the most appropriate approach.

In one sense wabi-sabi is a training whereby the student of wabi-sabi learns to find the most basic, natural objects interesting, fascinating and beautiful. Fading autumn leaves would be an example. Wabi-sabi can change the student's perception of the world to the extent that a chip or crack in a vase makes it more interesting and gives the object greater meditative value. Similarly materials that age such as bare wood, paper and fabric become more interesting as they exhibit changes that can be observed over time.[14]

The wabi and sabi concepts are religious in origin, but actual usage of the words in Japanese is often quite casual because of the syncretic nature of Japanese belief.

Nijiriguchi entrance of a tea house


Wabi-sabi originates from ancient Chinese Taoism and Zen Buddhism. It didn't start to shape Japanese culture until the Zen priest Murata Jukō (村田珠光, 1423–1502) changed the tea ceremony.[15] He introduced simple, rough, wooden and clay instruments to replace the gold, jade, and porcelain of the Chinese style tea service that was popular at the time. About one hundred years later, the tea master Sen no Rikyū (千利休, 1522 – April 21, 1591) introduced wabi-sabi to the royalty with his design of the teahouse. "He constructed a teahouse with a door so low that even the emperor would have to bow in order to enter, reminding everyone of the importance of humility before tradition, mystery, and spirit."[15]

In Japanese arts

At first, something that exhibited wabi-sabi qualities could only be discovered, it was "found in the simple dwellings of the farmers that dotted the landscape, epitomized in neglected stone lanterns overgrown with moss or in simple bowls and other household utensils used by the common folk."[16] However, towards the end of the late medieval period, the ruling class began using these aesthetic values to intentionally create "tea ceremony utensils, handicrafts, tea ceremony rooms and cottages, homes, gardens, even food and sweets, and above all manners and etiquette."[16]

Many forms of Japanese art have been influenced by Zen and Mahayana philosophy over the past thousand years, with the concepts of the acceptance and contemplation of imperfection, and constant flux and impermanence of all things being particularly important to Japanese arts and culture.[8]

As a result, many of these art forms contain and exemplify the ideals of wabi-sabi, and several display the concept's aesthetical senses particularly well.[8]

Garden Design

Ryōan-ji (late 16th century) in Kyoto, Japan, a famous example of a Zen garden

Japanese gardens started out as very simple open spaces that were meant to encourage kami, or spirits, to visit. During the Kamakura period Zen ideals began to influence the art of garden design in Japan.[8] Temple gardens were decorated with large rocks and other raw materials to build Karesansui or Zen rock gardens. "Their designs imbued the gardens with a sense of the surreal and beckoned viewers to forget themselves and become immersed in the seas of gravel and the forests of moss. By loosening the rigid sense of perception, the actual scales of the garden became irrelevant and the viewers were able to then perceive the huge landscapes deep within themselves."[8]

Tea Gardens

Due to the tea gardens close relationship with the tea ceremony, "the tea garden became one of the richest expressions of wabi sabi."[8] These small gardens would usually include many elements of wabi-sabi style design. They were designed in a way that set the scene for the visitor to make their own interpretations and put them in the state of mind in order to participate in the tea ceremony.[8]


Japanese poetry such as tanka and haiku are very short and focus on the defining attributes of a scene. "By withholding verbose descriptions the poem entices the reader to actively participate in the fulfillment of its meaning and, as with the Zen gardens, to become an active participant in the creative process."[8] One of the most famous Japanese poets, Basho, was credited with establishing sabi as definitive emotive force in haiku. Many of his works, as with other wabi-sabi expressions, make no use of sentimentality or superfluous adjectives, only the "devastating imagery of solitude."[8]


Hon'ami Koetsu Fujisan 1

As the preference for the more simplistic and modest was on the rise, Zen masters found the ornate ceramics from China less and less attractive and too ostentatious.[17] Potters began to experiment with a more free expression of beauty and strayed away from uniformity and symmetry. New kilns gave potters new colors, forms, and textures, allowing them to create pieces that were very unique and nonuniform. These potters used a specific kind of firing which was thought to produce the best ceramics due to the part played by nature and the organic ash glazes, a clear embodiment of wabi-sabi.[17]

For example: Hon'ami Kōetsu's (本阿弥 光悦; 1558 – 27 February 1637) white raku bowl called "Mount Fuji" (Shiroraku-Chawan, Fujisan) listed as a national treasure by the Japanese government.[17]

Kintsugi, a specific technique that uses gold lacquer to repair broken pottery, is considered a wabi-sabi expression.[8]

Flower Arrangement

Sen no Rikyu saw the rikka style that was popular at the time and disliked its adherence to formal rules. He did away with the formalism and the opulent vases from China, using only the simplest vases for the flower displays (chabana) in his tea ceremonies.[8] Instead of using more impressive flowers, he insisted on the use of wildflowers. "Ikebana, like the gardens, uses a living medium in the creative process, and it is this ingredient of life that brings a unique feel to flower arrangements."[8]

Ikebana then became a very important part of the tea ceremony, and the flowers were treated with the utmost respect.[8] "When a tea-master has arranged a flower to his satisfaction he will place it on the tokonoma, the place of honour in a Japanese room. It rests there like an enthroned prince, and the guests or disciples on entering the room will salute it with a profound bow before making their addresses to the host."[18]

And More

Honkyoku (the traditional shakuhachi (bamboo flute) music of wandering Zen monks)

The cultivation of bonsai (miniature trees) – a typical bonsai design features wood with a rough texture, pieces of deadwood, and trees with hollow trunks, all intended to highlight the passage of time and nature. Bonsai are often displayed in the autumn or after they have shed leaves for the winter, in order to admire their bare branches.

Tea ceremony, by means of an analogous study of action and environment.[11]

A contemporary Japanese exploration of the concept of wabi-sabi can be found in the influential essay In Praise of Shadows by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki.

Influence upon the West

Wabi-sabi concept apartment design and decor

Wabi-sabi has been employed in the Western world in a variety of contexts, including in the arts, technology, media, and mental health, among others.

The arts

Many Western designers, writers, poets and artists have utilised wabi-sabi ideals within their work to varying degrees, with some considering the concept a key component of their art, and others using it only minimally.


During the 1990s, the concept was borrowed by computer software developers and employed in agile programming and wiki, used to describe acceptance of the ongoing imperfection of computer programming produced through these methods.[22]

Mental health

Wabi-sabi has been evoked in a mental health context as a helpful concept for reducing perfectionist thinking.[23]

In media

On 16 March 2009, Marcel Theroux presented "In Search of Wabi Sabi" on BBC Four, as part of the channel's Hidden Japan season of programming, travelling throughout Japan trying to understand the aesthetic tastes of its people. Theroux began by comically enacting a challenge from the book Living Wabi Sabi by Taro Gold, asking members of the public on a street in Tokyo to describe wabi-sabi – the results of which showed that, just as Gold predicted, "they will likely give you a polite shrug and explain that Wabi Sabi is simply unexplainable."[24]

See also


  1. ^ 森神逍遥 『侘び然び幽玄のこころ』桜の花出版、2015年 Morigami Shouyo,"Wabi sabi yugen no kokoro : seiyo tetsugaku o koeru joi ishiki" (Japanese) ISBN 978-4-434-20142-4
  2. ^ "What Is Wabi-Sabi?". nobleharbor.com. Retrieved 2017-07-13.
  3. ^ a b Koren, Leonard (1994). Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers. Stone Bridge Press. ISBN 1-880656-12-4.
  4. ^ DAVIES, TREVOR (2018). 1001 IDEAS THAT CHANGED THE WAY WE THINK. [Place of publication not identified]: CASSELL ILLUSTRATED. p. 293. ISBN 978-1-78840-088-6. OCLC 1032029879.
  5. ^ Zia, East Liberty. "Wabi-Sabi: The Japanese Art of Finding the Beauty in Imperfections". Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Retrieved 2024-01-07.
  6. ^ "Japanese Aesthetics". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 31 October 2022.
  7. ^ Daisetz Suzuki "Zen and Japanese Culture" Iwanami Shoten, 1940 ISBN 978-4004000204 The stillness of the tea ceremony is wider than silence. Synonymous with awabi. (136 pages)
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Juniper, Andrew (2003). Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence. Tuttle Publishing. ISBN 0-8048-3482-2.
  9. ^ Powell, Richard R. (2004). Wabi Sabi Simple. Adams Media. ISBN 1-59337-178-0.
  10. ^ Gold, Taro. (2004) Taro Gold's Living Wabi Sabi (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, ISBN 0-7407-3960-3), pp. 20–21.
  11. ^ a b John, Joseph D. (2007). "Experience as Medium: John Dewey and a Traditional Japanese Aesthetic". The Journal of Speculative Philosophy. 21 (2): 83–90. doi:10.2307/25670649. ISSN 1527-9383. JSTOR 25670649.
  12. ^ 錆びをめぐる話題, 井上勝也, 裳華房, 1994
  13. ^ さびの文字 on the Kinugawa Chain Mfg. Co. Ltd website
  14. ^ Yury Lobo, In the Wake of Basho: Bestiary in the Rock Garden, Xlibris, 2017, 23*
  15. ^ a b Reibstein, Mark (2008). Wabi Sabi. Little, Brown. ISBN 978-0-316-11825-5.
  16. ^ a b Teiji, Itoh (1993). Wabi Sabi Suki: The Essence of Japanese Beauty. Mazda Motor Corporation.
  17. ^ a b c Suzuki, Nobuo (2021). Wabi Sabi: The Wisdom in Imperfection. Tuttle Publishing. ISBN 978-4805316313.
  18. ^ Okakura, Kakuzo (2008). The Book of Tea. Applewood Books. ISBN 978-0983610601.
  19. ^ Green, Penelope (22 September 2010). "An Idiosyncratic Designer, a Serene New Home". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-09-25.
  20. ^ Hess Art Collection, Hatje Cantz, 2010
  21. ^ Cor van den Heuvel, editor. The Haiku Anthology. Fireside, 1986. ISBN 0-671-62837-2 p285
  22. ^ "Wabi Sabi". Retrieved 2006-11-19.
  23. ^ Mathews, John (February 23, 2016). "Wabi Sabi: The Simple Beauty of Serene Melancholy". Virginia Counseling. Retrieved July 7, 2022.
  24. ^ Gold, Taro. (2004) Taro Gold's Living Wabi Sabi (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, ISBN 0-7407-3960-3), p. 6.