Renaissance magazine

Wabi-sabi

WABI-SABI ALLOWS TO ACCEPT THAT NOTHING LASTS FOREVER,
NOTHING IS FINISHED, AND NOTHING IS EVER PERFECT.

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering 

There’s a crack in everything 

That’s how the light gets in.

Leonard Cohen, Anthem

It was a warm afternoon sometime in September, in a little village south of Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture, Japan. I remember rushing through the narrow streets of the artisan district, passing a line of small, crooked buildings, all made of wood, with their doors open and windows full of handcrafted goods. There were little paper dolls, bamboo brushes and piles of fine shavings of wood covering the floor of one of the shops.

I was in a hurry, already late for my hairdresser’s appointment, when in one of the rooms I saw an older woman hunched over her work desk, quiet and focused. She was painting a tall blue vase gold. I have always admired ceramics, so I went inside and asked her whether I could buy it. It turned out she was one of the few remaining people in Japan who still makes a living by mending broken objects with lacquer and gold. We chatted for a few moments in a mixture of Japanese and English, and I soon left for my appointment, carrying a small bowl covered in golden lines. It looked old and fragile, beautiful and proud.

That’s how I first learnt about the Japanese art of kintsugi, translated as “golden joinery”.

The beauty of flaws

When your favourite teacup or a well-loved coffee mug falls and breaks, you probably throw it away, feeling a sense of loss, waste and regret. Yet in Japan there is another way – to restore it and proudly expose the exact place, where the cracking occurred. That practice sends a unique message: flaws can be a source of pride. Barbara Bloom, an American artist fascinated by Japan, sums it up poetically: “Japanese people believe that when something has suffered damage and has a history, it becomes more beautiful.”

Actually, the Japanese art of kintsugi, which honours the imperfect, flawed and aged, is part of a wider philosophy called wabi-sabi. Loosely translated, ‘wabi’ means simplicity and poverty, and ‘sabi’ could refer to the natural progression of time. Or as Leonard Koren, an American artist, aesthetics expert and writer, calls it: “a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete” (Wabi-sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, 1994).
In other words, wabi-sabi entails a deep acceptance of change and inevitability of death, which is deeply rooted in Buddhist philosophy.

Love the unpolished

“Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in”, Leonard Cohen once wrote beautifully, pondering the value of imperfection. However, it took him 10 years to complete the song, which makes one wonder: maybe he was a perfectionist himself?

Our modern world is ruled by an unreal dream that things should be smooth and sleek rather than unpolished and rusty. Most of us strive to have fulfilling jobs, perfect bodies, flawless skin, ideal husbands and wives and of course, smart offspring. If there is any room left for suffering, it is not appreciated and emphasised, but closed with a neatly packed label: “Private”.

It is often media that promote the view that one person can have everything: an ideal job, where he or she is fulfilled and well paid, a warm house with organic, home-made meals, a head full of glossy hair and an ever-youthful complexion. Despite the fact that everyone is ruled by change, there seems to be little place for appreciation of the passing time.

Alan Watts, a British Zen-teacher (often called the pioneer of Buddhist teachings in the West), very smartly observed: “There is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity. But the contradiction lies a little deeper. If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life. To understand music, you must listen to it. But so long as you are thinking, “I am listening to this music,” you are not listening” (The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety”, 1951).

Follow nature

And nature itself is the best teacher of wabi-sabi. The changeability of seasons, for example, reminds us that everything on this planet is transient. That there are times of bloom – the spring, and times of decay, occurring in the winter. Nature’s cycle is best shown through the signs of age: rust, mould and decomposition.

We, people of the West, often cringe while looking at slightly damaged objects. The Japanese, however, believe that being in touch with things that are old and imperfect – wilted leaves, cracked pottery, fallen trees or uneven floor of an old house – brings a feeling of melancholy over passing time.

In his essay In Praise of Shadows, 1933, the great Japanese novelist Tanizaki Jun’ichirō explains the Japanese love for unpretentious things: “We do not dislike everything that shines, but we do prefer a pensive lustre to a shallow brilliance, a murky light that bespeaks a sheen of antiquity. He adds, too: “We love things that bear the marks of grime, soot, and weather, and we love the colors and the sheen that call to mind the past that made them”. In essence, through the lens of wabi-sabi, everything around us – in our home, city or workplace – can be a source of beauty.

Through the lens of wabi-sabi, everything around us

– in our home, city or workplace

– can be a source of beauty. 

Local notions of beauty

In 1859 Darwin noted that people in different parts of the world define physical attractiveness according to local criteria. In Japan, for centuries ideals of beauty meshed with personality traits. The most interesting women were the ones with subtle, subdued physical and character qualities. However, Japanese bubble economy of the 1980s, along with the emulation of media images from the world, created a whole array of more contemporary beauty types. Suddenly, the perfect woman started to resemble a little Lolita from anime stories – with wide eyes, big breasts and long legs.

Then in the 1990s a new marketing term, bihaku, which means: ‘beautifully white’, took the local beauty industry by the storm and sent many Japanese women on a spiral of whitening lotion overuse. Fair skin epitomised purity, class and closeness to the Caucasian beauty type. To this day, whitening products have dominated Japanese skin care industry and advertising pages of women’s magazines. So big is this culturally constructed obsession with whiteness that there are even bleaching products for nipples and intimate parts. They stem from the old Japanese folk belief that promiscuous women’s skin in these areas gets darker. A backlash to the idea of fair skin followed few years later with a subculture of girls called ganguro (translated: witches). They rebelled against whiteness by tanning their skin and wearing African-inspired clothes. The fad died out by the end of the 2000s.

Body image-less

Beauty is a tricky concept, even more so as it has become immensely commodified. In the West, there is an obsession with staying young with the aid of plastic surgery, a growing industry that treats even 25-year-olds as being ‘on the verge of ageing’. Interestingly, in Japan ageism is more subtle, but nonetheless humiliating to women. They grow up thinking that slim and white is the ultimate beauty goal, believing they can fight the signs of ageing by a traditional diet, full of soy (which contains isoflavonoids – plant hormones), and expensive cosmetics. There is a certain hypervigilance over the body in Asia, not seen even in the beauty-obsessed countries like United States or Australia. In fact, as Laura Miller, an American anthropologist and linguist, points out in her book Beauty Up: Exploring Contemporary Japanese Body Aesthetics, more Japanese people are working in the beauty sector than in wedding, funeral, automobile and IT services combined.

On the other hand, the Japanese seem to be unfamiliar with the Western notion of ‘body image’, for which there is no word in their language. In the US and Europe, ‘body image’ is understood to be a picture of one’s own physical appearance that comes from self-observation and a reaction to society’s demands. In Japan, however, more importance is put on what others think rather than one’s own perceptions. People believe that the physical body, called ‘karada’, has no boundaries, and is an empty, fluid container that changes constantly.

Therefore, ageing gracefully seems easier in Japan than in the Western countries. A wabi-sabi approach to time means that certain age is associated with age-specific events, and the older the woman becomes, the more freedom she gets. There is also a deep sense of communality that binds women of similar age – they volunteer, shop and go to sauna together. In fact, social bathing – known in Japan as a naked communion, since hot springs, onsen, rarely allow the mixing of genders – is the place where women from different stages of life share their experiences.

I often witnessed naked women in Japanese public baths – for hours they bathed, chatted, and later scrubbed each other’s backs and combed their hair. It seemed like a spiritual and liberating experience that allowed the fat and slim, young and old, fresh and wrinkly bodies to co-exist.

Wabi-sabi me?

Now imagine that an appreciation of passing time applies not to old pottery, buildings or leaves in the autumn, but to the human body itself. French feminist Simone de Beauvoir, in her analysis The Coming of Age (published in 1970, when she was 62), wrote, “Old age is particularly difficult to assume because we have always regarded it as something alien, a foreign species.”

Maybe it is Japan’s role to spread the concept of wabi-sabi ageing? It already is one of the fastest-ageing societies on Earth – people over 65 make up a quarter of Japan’s population, and it’s soon going to reach 40%. With modern inventions in science and technology, we can slow the ageing process, but why not just feel through it? Or appreciate, just as a cracked bowl painted gold, for what an amazing experience it’s been?

French artist, Hélène Guggenheim, decided to challenge the perfectionist beauty standards. In one of her projects (Mes cicatrices je suis d’elles, entièrment tissé, My scars, of them I am fully woven), she applied gold to people’s scars. She wanted to show how people could be strong and vulnerable at the same time. Just as wrinkles and age spots can be a gracious evidence of a rich life experience, scars are a gentle reminder of one’s braveness in the face of adversity. Guggenheim’s photographic art project is a powerful example of the wabi-sabi of life.

There is a story about Buddha’s own struggle with perfectionism. As a young man, he concentrated hard on fighting the imperfections of the real world – sickness, old age, and death. To understand the problem deeper, he decided to endure a harsh diet and nearly starved himself to death. Only then the enlightenment came. He understood that all things are temporary. His last words, the words of the happy man, started with an observation: “Decay is inherent in all things.”

 Scars are a gentle reminder of one’s braveness in the face of adversity

Wabi-sabi can be the lens through which to view the world around. The Japanese believe that when you accept that nothing lasts forever, nothing is finished, and nothing is ever perfect, you can live a happier and more fulfilling life. We should think more about the language, which renders understanding to the mind. If we exchange the word ‘old’ with ‘mature’ or ‘ripe’, we will start to treat time differently. Let us welcome each wrinkle with a smile and contemplation, just like an appreciation of falling leaves or the sunset. A beauty that is beautiful not despite, but because of the fact that it’s transient and has to end. Just like artist Yoko Ono wrote in one of her poems from the book, Acorn: “Watch a hundred-year-old tree breathe. Thank the tree in your mind for showing us how to grow and stay.”

Words: Alex Reszelska

Published originally in the international fashion magazine Renaissance, issue BODY, June 2017