I have always found Japanese culture fascinating. Have you ever seen a living room with worn, mismatched furniture and loved the aesthetic? Or maybe you have a favorite bowl that’s stained and chipped but still brings you much joy? You’ve been experiencing wabi-sabi, another unique concept birthed by Japan.
Wabi-sabi is part feeling, part philosophy, and part concept in which one finds beauty in simplicity and the imperfect. Rooted in Zen Buddhism, the idea started during the tea ceremonies, when the monks would use mismatched and misshapen cups and bowls, scratched and marred with use.
Since then, wabi-sabi has permeated all avenues of life, transforming into a design aesthetic and a way of life. Read on to discover the benefits of wabi-sabi and how to incorporate this ancient practice rich in Japanese culture into your everyday life.
What Is Wabi-Sabi?
Wabi-sabi is to find beauty and joy in simple, imperfect things, especially aspects of the natural world. It is to observe nature, to flow with life instead of creating against it. The origins of wabi-sabi started in the tea house.
The act of serving and drinking tea together held great significance in Japanese culture because it was a space of mutual respect and relationship. Wabi-sabi encourages acceptance of one another and embracing the flaws of ourselves and others.
Benefits of Wabi-Sabi
Wabi-sabi, at its core, can be considered a form of minimalism. It promotes simplicity and being present, enjoying the imperfections, flaws, and uniqueness — of ourselves, others, nature, and all the little details in between. Some benefits of wabi-sabi include:
- Promotes minimalism, discourages materialism
- Greater sense of acceptance
- Enables you to be more present
- Increased state of gratitude by focusing on what we do have
- Creates peace and harmony with nature
- Celebrates each individual’s uniqueness and encourages radical self-acceptance
- Fights against perfectionism
- Increases compassion and empathy for others
Wabi-sabi promotes universal acceptance, gratitude, and joy for life as it is, choosing to see the beauty in the everyday.
“Wabi” when translated means simplicity. “Sabi” translates to the beauty of age and wear, which can further be inferred as “imperfect.” In Western culture, something used and worn is seen as imperfect. It is not celebrated. But in wabi-sabi, there is an emphasis on seeing the beauty in the scratched family table or giving grace to our friends who simply cannot be on time, no matter how much we try to get them to be.
Wabi-sabi promotes universal acceptance, gratitude, and joy for life as it is, choosing to see the beauty in the everyday. The principle of wabi-sabi reminds us that things, including beauty and knowledge, are transitory and imperfect; we should always assume a position of humility and openness and not of superiority and arrogance, according to research published in the San Beda University Journal of Health and Caring Science by Rudolf Cymorr Kirby Martinez.
Here are some ways to incorporate wabi-sabi into your daily routine:
- Let go of hustle culture – Stop stressing about everything you need to do, and get done what you can. Set boundaries, say “no” sometimes to social engagements, and create space in your schedule for self-care.
- Spend time in nature or bring nature to you – Today’s world is fast-paced and promises success and happiness through making more money and having more material possessions. Get outside, buy some house plants, and do some earthing (spending time with your bare feet in the dirt or grass).
- Create spaces that reflect the principles of wabi-sabi – Think asymmetrical, with lots of greenery (fake plants will work!) and loved pieces. It doesn’t need to be cluttered; simplicity is key.
- Stop comparing and start praising – Ever heard the phrase, “comparison is the thief of joy?” By constantly comparing ourselves to others or even past versions of ourselves, we negate the characteristics that make us unique. Practice encouraging those around you and being a light. See your flaws as beautiful.
- Find joy in the simple things and take the time to appreciate them – What are some of life’s simple pleasures for you? Is it that fresh cup of tea or coffee in the morning? Or curling up on the couch reading a good book? Taking the time to engage in good conversation with friends or spend quality time with your children and spouse? Carve out time to do the things that bring joy amidst the busyness of life.
Wabi-Sabi Interior Design
When using wabi-sabi for interior design, incorporate these key elements: simplicity, asymmetry, natural materials, worn/imperfect statement pieces of decor, neutral color palettes, and big, leafy plants.
One of the fundamentals of wabi-sabi is focusing on the process, not the final product, which is translated through its art.
Remember that this style reflects Japanese culture, so think furniture that is low to the ground, fluffy beds reminiscent of clouds, and wooden tables and chairs. Choose furniture that has straight lines and a worn feel. Don’t forget to incorporate asymmetrical pieces as well, items with unique shapes or varying levels.
The aesthetic should promote the beauty in the simple and the flawed. Go for a minimalist meets rustic vibe. Build the room in an asymmetrical design — put the bed in the corner, and a chair in the other, and make the wall art a mismatched collage of shelves, art, and plants.
Use a neutral color palette that echoes the outdoors: tans, grays, whites, with a pop of green from the plants, or black as statement pieces. Use materials that also come from nature: wood, marble, concrete, and other natural stones.
Opt for handmade textiles with a lovingly worn feel as statement pieces, such as rugs and ceramics. If possible, let in natural light, and incorporate a lot of plants, so you always have a bit of nature in your life.
One of the fundamentals of wabi-sabi is focusing on the process, not the final product, which is translated through its art. For artists, it’s incredibly easy to focus on the end goal of creation instead of the act of creating itself.
It’s also easy to strive to get better in our craft instead of enjoying the process of becoming better. Wabi-sabi encourages artists to be present and enjoy the process. An imperfect or flawed piece is celebrated. Wabi-sabi in art is more about creating than the final result.
Wabi-sabi philosophy is founded on finding beauty in the imperfect and simple. Life is temporal, all things wear, and all people age. Wabi-sabi believes beauty can be found in all things, places, and people, no matter how old they are or how damaged an item is.
The things that make us unique make us beautiful; the same goes for objects and places. Keeping life simple by choosing to spend more time in nature and developing a wabi-sabi aesthetic for the home environment directly opposes Western ideas of what it means to be happy and successful.
According to an article by Jaime A. Teixeira da Silva published in The Asian and Australasian Journal of Plant Science and Biotechnology, the concept of wabi-sabi is a state of sensitivity that is inherent but can be acquired. It is not a state of curiosity or frugality but can be found in simplicity and the inner peace of knowing that the things we see and have are enough.
Want to learn more about this ancient, beautiful practice? Here are some books on wabi-sabi that will inspire you to seek the beauty in the simple details and embrace your flaws:
- WA, The Essence of Japanese Design by Rossella Menegazzo
- Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence – Understanding the Zen Philosophy of Beauty in Simplicity by Andrew Juniper
- The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty by Bernard Leach
- Wabi Sabi: Finding Beauty in Imperfection by Oliver Luke Delorie
- In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki
- The Wabi-Sabi Way: Simple Principles to Bring Calm, Meaning & Authenticity to Your Daily Life by Mike Sturm
- Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren
- Wabi-Sabi Welcome: Learning to Embrace the Imperfect and Entertain with Thoughtfulness and Ease by Julie Pointer Adams
- The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo
- Living Wabi Sabi: The True Beauty of Your Life by Taro Gold
In this helpful video, learn how the concept of wabi-sabi captures the beauty of the impermanent and imperfect and why it describes the core differences between Japanese and Western cultures.
What is wabi-sabi lifestyle?
So how do we take the concept of wabi-sabi and create a lifestyle out of it? Here are some ideas for creating a lifestyle that focuses on the simple and rejoices in the imperfect:
- Prioritize spending time in nature
- Take time for self-care
- Declutter and live more minimally
- Practice radical self-acceptance and acceptance of others
- House plants are the new pets! Bring nature inside to fuel that wabi-sabi spirit
- Step out of the hustle culture and focus on being present
- Create a home space that reflects the wabi-sabi aesthetic
- Focus on the process, not the product
- Go thrifting, find pieces that are worn and loved
- Practice consistent gratitude for what you have and who you are
- Build empathy and compassion for others
What is the opposite of wabi-sabi?
Western culture highly contradicts wabi-sabi on all levels. In the West, beauty standards are measured by perfection, success is promised if you just work harder, and happiness tries to be found in material items. We can always be doing more and doing better.
We cut people down online, cancel people whose ideas oppose ours, and endlessly compare ourselves to those who seemingly have it better than us. Western culture isn’t all bad — it’s a gift to live in developed, free countries — but generally, its ideals have a lot of chaos and negativity.
Real People’s Perception of Imperfection and Acceptance
I asked friends and family to list three synonyms for the word “imperfection” and two for the word “acceptance.” From a poll on social media, it’s evident that most people’s idea of the word “imperfection” is negative, which isn’t surprising in Western culture.
The most common synonym was “broken,” while “defective” and “not up to standard” were also high on the board. When asked for synonyms for the word “acceptance,” “approval” was the most common answer, while “understanding” came in second. Here is a table representing the percentages of their responses and what I learned about how people interpret the words imperfection and acceptance.
|Synonyms for Imperfection and Acceptance|
|44% of people polled said broken was a synonym for imperfection|
|33% of people polled said defective was a synonym for imperfection|
|11% of people polled said not up to standard was a synonym for imperfection|
|11% of people polled said flawed was a synonym for imperfection|
|67% of people polled said approval was a synonym for acceptance|
|22% of people polled said understanding was a synonym for acceptance|
|11% of people polled said belonging was a synonym for acceptance|
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Wabi-sabi is an ancient but revered concept, philosophy, and feeling that can be applied in all areas of life. The scholars, monks, and Samurais of Japan discovered a beautiful way of living that transcends the hustle and bustle of Western culture. By focusing on the simple, and appreciating the flaws in ourselves, others, and life in general, we can find happiness, contentment, and peace.