Wabi or Sabi?

Not all Japanese landscapes are beautiful in the same way. This one, which I shot with my cell phone last week in Misato, Saitama Prefecture, is tinged with sabi, the Japanese aesthetic sense of of loneliness, desolation, and picturesque decay.

Or should I say wabi?

Wabi and sabi are two aspects of Japanese aesthetics that can be difficult to tell apart — so much so that many people, including some Japanese, content themselves with the compound “wabi-sabi.”

Kenkusha’s New Collegiate Japanese-English Dictionary, 3rd Edition, defines WABI as “the beauty to be found in poverty and simplicity” and SABI as “an antique look…patina…elegant (quiet) simplicity.”

The Random House Japanese-English/English-Japanese Dictionary defines WABI as “stillness or loneliness (aesthetic concept)” and SABI as “antiquated elegance (aesthetic concept).”

Tokyo Shoseki’s Favorite Japanese-English Dictionary defines WABI as “an aesthetic principle originating in the lifestyle and thoughts of hermits in medieval times. It emphasizes mental serenity and austere beauty…” and SABI as “the tranquil, restrained aesthetic sensibility that is fundamental to the haiku of Matsuo Basho and others.”

The pocket encyclopedia “Japan: Profile of a Nation,” from Kenkyusha, has a section on WABI that reads in part, “…it emphasizes a simple, austere type of beauty and a serene, transcendental frame of mind…The word…originally denoted the pain of a person who fell into adverse circumstances. But aesthetic literati…developed it into a more positive concept by making poverty and loneliness synonymous with liberation from material and emotional worries and by turning the absence of apparent beauty into a new and higher beauty…and stressed the importance of seeking richness in poverty and beauty in simplicity.”

The same book discusses SABI as a “poetic ideal” that “points toward a medieval aesthetic combining elements of old age, loneliness, resignation and tranquility.” It has “connotations of loneliness and desolation, pointing to such images as frost-withered reeds on the seashore…Underlying this aesthetic was the cosmic view typical of medieval Buddhists, who recognized the existential loneliness of all men and tried to resign themselves to, or even find beauty in, that loneliness.”

“Japan: Profile of a Nation” notes that each word is “at times…used synonymously or in conjunction with” the other.

It may help to remember that the kanji character for “sabi” is the root of the everday Japanese word “sabishii,” which means lonesome or lonley.

To oversimplify, wabi is the beauty of simplicity, while sabi is the beauty of age.

I had to wrestle with these two concepts while working on Tokyo Chic. In one chapter, I described a simple but strikingly beautiful plate of sushi as an “example of the Japanese aesthetic concept of wabi, which refers to finding beauty in simplicity and even austerity.” In another chapter, I used sabi to describe the quaint decrepitude of Ginkakuji temple in Kyoto (never adorned with the silver for which it is named, its walls are dark, weathered wood), describing sabi as “a Japanese aesthetic mood that encompasses a bittersweet appreciation of picturesque decay.”

Thinking along the same lines, I would describe the rusted, half buried car in the photo above to be well toward the sabi end of the spectrum. The same goes for the haikyo ruins visited by people such as the blogger Gakuranman.

These are slippery concepts that often overlap. It’s a real can of worms.

But if pressed, I’d say that worms are sabi, too.

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