As the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What we, as a culture, think is beautiful, other cultures may think otherwise. We normally consider anything that is cracked, crooked, wrinkled or spoilt as something flawed.

But there is a particular culture that will cherish these very qualities as a particularly beautiful quality – exactly for their ‘flaws’.

In this article, we are heading to Japan. The Japanese value authenticity, so much so that they came up with a particular term for it.

It is known as ‘wabi-sabi’ – and it is about the aesthetic of things in existence, that are imperfect, impermanent and incomplete − derived from the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence, specifically impermanence, suffering, and emptiness or absence of self-nature.

Characteristics of wabi-sabi aesthetics and principles include asymmetry, roughness, simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy and the appreciation of both natural objects and the forces of nature.

It stands for these three simple truths: 1. Nothing is permanent; 2. Nothing is finished; and 3. Nothing is perfect.

For the Japanese, imperfection creates individuality, and individuality adds value. It is the most conspicuous characteristic feature of what we think of as traditional Japanese beauty.

But what does wabi-sabi mean?

For the Japanese, imperfection creates individuality and individuality adds value

‘Wabi’ implies rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness, and can be applied to both natural and human-made objects as an expression of understated elegance. It can also be used to refer to the flaws and glitches that arise from the process of making something, which are seen to add uniqueness and elegance to the finished object. ‘Sabi’ refers to the beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear, or in any visible repairs.

From about 700 years ago, the Japanese understood emptiness and imperfection as the first step to enlightenment. In today’s Japan, the meaning of wabi-sabi is often condensed to “wisdom in natural simplicity”. In art books, it is typically defined as “flawed beauty”.

Wabi-sabi describes a means whereby people can learn to live life through the senses and better engage in life as it happens, rather than be caught up in unnecessary thoughts. In this sense, wabi-sabi reflects Zen buddhism. The idea is that being surrounded by natural, changing, unique objects help us connect to our real world and escape potentially stressful distractions.

When adopting a wabi-sabi mentality, one finds the most basic, natural objects interesting, fascinating and beautiful. Fading autumn leaves would be an example. A mature wrinkled face on a person is another.

A photo imparting an impressionistic feel to it through its ‘imperfections’ of low resolution and misty situation. Photo: Mary AttardA photo imparting an impressionistic feel to it through its ‘imperfections’ of low resolution and misty situation. Photo: Mary Attard

Wabi-sabi can change our perception of the world to the extent that a chip or crack in a vase makes it more interesting and gives the object greater meditative value. Similarly, materials that age, such as bare wood, paper and fabric, become more interesting as they exhibit changes that can be observed over time.

Wabi-sabi eradicates the Westernised concept of artificial beauty and admiring a state of perfection that is seemingly unachievable and unnatural. The Western world has made the concept of beauty into something that is becoming more and more refined and more unachievable. This distorts the idea of natural beauty and the acceptance of the flaws of existence.

On the contrary, the Japanese belief and concept of wabi-sabi allows people to be more accepting and open to embracing the beauty of flaws and rawness.

Probably the Western culture is unknowingly getting to appreciate this value when they purposely distress furniture or clothing, tearing up of jeans and stain fatigues or even appreciating the value of unsharp or somewhat blurred photography that imparts a certain impressionistic and emotional quality.

Even in literature, some haiku in English also adopt the wabi-sabi aesthetic in written style, creating spare, minimalist poems that evoke loneliness and transience.

Wabi-sabi is a philosophy that can shake up a rigid perspective of what beauty is really all about, making us appreciate the value and beauty of an old torn, stained or cracked object – rather than quickly hitting for the bin.

Mary Attard, freelance writer and photographer

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