Wabi, Sabi and Shibui


Wabi and sabi are two of the key Japanese aesthetic concepts. Their definitions are not exact, but one can get a sense of them from a short discussion of them. Over time, the two have been combined to form a new word, wabi-sabi, meaning an aesthetic sensibility which includes these two related ideas.


Wabi means things that are fresh and simple. It denotes simplicity and quietude, and also incorporates rustic beauty. It includes both that which is made by nature, and that which is made by man. It also can mean an accidental or happenstance element (or perhaps even a small flaw) which gives elegance and uniqueness to the whole, such as the pattern made by a flowing glaze on a ceramic object.


Sabi means things whose beauty stems from age. It refers to the patina of age, and the concept that changes due to use may make an object more beautiful and valuable. This also incorporates an appreciation of the cycles of life, as well as careful, artful mending of damage.

Other Views

"Wabi is the quality of a rustic, yet refined, solitary beauty. Sabi is that trait, be it the green corrosion of bronze, or the pattern of moss and lichen on wood and stone, that comes with weathering and age."

	- "Reflections of the Spirit: Japanese Gardens in America",
		Maggie Oster

"Originally, the Japanese words wabi and sabi had quite different meanings. Sabi originally meant 'chill', 'lean' or 'withered'. Wabi originally meant the misery of living alone in nature, away from society... Around the 14th century, the meanings of both words began to evolve in the direction of more positive aesthetic values. ... Over the intervening centuries, the meanings of wabi and sabi have crossed over so much that today the line separating them is very blurry indeed."

	- "Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers",
		Leonard Koren

"The word wabi ... does not lend itself readily to translation, for it can mean a number of things: loneliness, desolation, rustic simplicity, quiet taste, a gentle affection for antique, unostentatious, and rather melancholy refinement."

	- "The Classic Tradition In Japanese Architecture: Modern Versions Of
		The Sukiya Style", Teiji Itoh, Yukio Futagawa

"... Kobori Enshu, the man widely regarded as the designer of Katsura Palace. Enshu's style as applied to architecture and gardens was a synthesis of the elegance and grace of the imperial court tradition with the austere rusticity favoured by Sen no Rikyu. This combination was by no means as far-fetched as it sounds, because Rikyu's sabi - an aesthetic ideal connoting seclusion, quietude, pastoral simplicity, and closeness to nature - was akin to a certain escapist element that had long been a prominent feature of traditional Japanese culture."

	- "Katsura: A Princely Retreat", Akira Naito, Takeshi Nishikawa

"Wabi-sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional. ... The closest English word to wabi-sabi is probably "rustic". ... Things wabi-sabi are unstudied and inevitable looking. .. unpretentious. .. Their craftsmanship may be impossible to discern. "

	- "Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers",
		Leonard Koren

"Wabi-[sabi] is characterized by humility, restraint, simplicity, naturalism, profundity, imperfection, and asymmetry [emphasizing] simple, unadorned objects and architectural space, and [celebrating] the mellow beauty that time and care impart to materials"

	"Introduction: Chanoyu, the Art of Tea",
		Urasenke Seattle Homepage

"A certain love of roughness is involved, behind which lurks a hidden beauty, to which we refer in our peculiar adjectives shibui, wabi and sabi. .. It is this beauty with inner implications that is referred to as shibui. It is not a beauty displayed before the viewer by its creator .. a piece that will lead the viewer to draw beauty out of it for themselves. The world may abound with different aspects of beauty. Each person, according to his disposition and environment, will feel a special affinity to one or another aspect. But when their taste grows more refined, they will necessarily arrive at the beauty that is shibui."

	- "The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty",
		Soetsu Yanagi, Bernard Leach

"Throughout your stay in Japan you must have heard the word shibui uttered frequently. It is impossible to translate this word accurately into English. 'Austere', 'subdued', 'restrained', 'sombre' - these words come nearest to acceptable substitutes. Etymologically, shibui means 'astringent', and is used to describe profound, unassuming and quiet feeling. ... this simple adjective is the final criterion for the highest form of beauty."

	- "Folk Crafts of Japan", Soetsu Yanagi

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