Wabi-Sabi | Tips for understanding unique Japanese concept


Wabi-Sabi is one of the most elusive Traditional Japanese concept

What is the position of “gold” in your country? For many countries, it is valuable. Some people think of gold as an investment, while others see it as a real asset. In the Olympic Games, a gold medal represents the highest honor. From a global perspective, gold is probably the one and only. This is also true in Japanese culture, but please know that Japan is a unique country which has a culture putting emphasis on a different value of gold. Of course, for us Japanese, gold is also an investment and a real asset. There is no doubt about that. However, we are a nation that sees value in its brilliance and contrast with other colors, not  only in its monetary value. I would like you to learn about the Japanese people’s traditional value standards and perspectives on gold.

Cultural concepts of Wabi-Sabi

First of all, there is something you need to know. Have you ever heard of the words “wabi” and “sabi”? It is one of the most difficult words in the Japanese language to express in a foreign language. There are so many words in the Japanese language that contain so-called connotations, and in many cases even the same word has completely different connotations depending on the situation. This is why it is said that it is difficult to understand Japanese language and culture. Among them, “wabi-sabi” is the highest level. Even some Japanese people mistakenly believe that “wabi-sabi” is a single word, but it is made up of two words, “wabi” and “sabi.

1. Sabi

The words start with “wabi”, but in understanding the meaning you better know “sabi” first. In fact, this “sabi” is rust. So what kind of connotations does this rust contain?

In its original meaning, rust is the deterioration of metal and is dirty to look at. But Japanese culture conceptualizes the expression as “beauty in appearance. In other words, “things in this world rust, stain, and chip as they age. While this is generally considered to be a form of deterioration, it is also an expression of the diverse and unique beauty of these changes.

What a roundabout, eccentric thing to do! Did you think that? That’s a fair point. Young Japanese today would probably feel the same way if they heard it. However, as they grow older, those Japanese who had such impressions somehow come to understand this concept. When I was a teenager myself, I used to think, “What are you talking about? But now that I am over 35, I have come to understand what it means. Let me try to express it in my own words in a simple way.

I believe that the viewers of this site are interested in Japanese culture, even if only a little. If that’s the case, I’m sure many of you have seen pictures of Japanese temples at least once. Recently, Iniesta, a soccer player, and his wife are so absorbed in Japanese temples that they have posted about them on Instagram.

How do you feel when you see a temple in Japan? Do you think, “It’s a dirty building”? Of course, it is no wonder that some people think so. But thankfully, I believe that many tourists find a certain beauty in the majesty of the buildings and the atmosphere of silence that surrounds them. This is exactly the point. The temples and shrines that you have seen are already decades old. Some temples have been built for more than 50 years and are in constant need of repair and restoration. Yes, they are already deteriorating and decaying over time. It no longer has the perfection it had when it was built. However, the color of the wood changes over time, and the luster of the wood becomes brighter as it is continuously polished and cared for. There is a new beauty created by deterioration. we call this beauty as “Sabi”.


2. Wabi

    Wabi is the mind that finds the above “Sabi” beautiful. In other words, it is a positive mind that accepts and enjoy the beauty derived from rust and deterioration. That is, it is an inner state that finds beauty in “Sabi”. When you see a temple or shrine in Japan and feel that something is beautiful, it means that you have the heart of Wabi.

It’s kind of anticlimactic, isn’t it? That’s okay. To begin with, the words “Wabi/Sabi” are not something to be trained or disciplined, but rather a term that expresses our innate sensitivity to beauty. These words have been around for a long time just because the Japanese people culturally have the stronger sense of this beauty than other countries. If you find traditional Japanese culture, historical architecture, and crafts beautiful, then you are definitely a person with wabi.

What kind of “wabi-sabi” is there in gold?

Now that we have discussed the premise, I will finally explain the Japanese cultural perspective on the value of gold (gold leaf). Where is the “wabi-sabi” in gold, especially gold leaf which is perfect gold without any stagnation or contamination?
kinkakuji temple
Kinkaku temple in Japan
In fact, gold leaf is combined with other colors, especially the colorless colors such as black and transparent, to express “wabi-sabi”. It is important to note that “something not perfect” is considered as a kind of “Sabi” here. For example, let’s consider a plate. A plate with only a small portion of gold leaf decoration on a black base, as opposed to a plate that is entirely covered with gold leaf and sparkles. The former is clearly more flashy and shiny as a whole. In terms of monetary value, the former is definitely more expensive due to the amount of gold leaf. However, the contrast of painting most of it in jet black and decorating only part of it with gold leaf expresses the imperfect. And the shining gold leaf in black or transparent highlights the beauty of the imperfection. Plus, it is the heart of “Wabi” that feels and owns such contrasts and reflected gold as beautiful.

Wrap up

I hope I was able to convey the content clearly. This aesthetic sense is based on an extremely Japanese cultural logic, and there are parts of it that do not match the so-called rational logic. I am glad if my explanation has helped you understand better about Japanese culture and tradition.
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