Posted by Susan Shand on January 21, 2013 at 3:50 AM Comments comments (5)


Japanese aesthetics have grown out of a very ancient history of social conditions, belief systems, and fashion. Just like everything else, ideas have changed over time. They also change over social strata; the tastes of the Emperor and ruling classes has often been deliberately different from those of the middle-classes or peasantry. A thousand years of history is unlikely to show any consistent agreement on what is considered aesthetically pleasing. So it is rather a nonsense to make definitive statements about Japanese aesthetic qualities without also being definitive about what era we are talking about.



But I’m going to anyway…


Around the bazaars you will see a smattering of Japanese words which are often used as jargon. You know about jargon, right? Thats when people use words which they know you won’t understand unless you are IN the IN group.  So here is a jargon busting list on Japanese aesthetics. Now you too can sound IN! You kewl dudes!




wabi — this is just about making a virtue about having nothing. So if you are happily sitting on a rag rug in the middle of an empty room (contentedly eating salad from a bowl which you made in pottery class and drinking the cooking sherry out of an egg cup) because you have had all the furniture repossessed, then what you have left shows the simplicity and impoverished rusticity of wabi.



sabi — think shabby. Age, deterioration, and the passage of time. So Granny’s dresser abandoned at the back of the garage with chipped edges, scratch marks, flaking paint, rusted handles, and sun-faded colour, all shows the patina of sabi.



karumi — clarity. Simplicity revealing a profound truth. “He’s dead Jim” would do it; but you might have to go a bit further to get your haiku to do it.



aware — awareness of the short and changeable yet beautiful life we live. Anything that reminds us that change is a constant in universal terms and we are just specs in the great cosmic engine of time which rolls on and on and on…. oops, got carried away there… but its really beautiful that life is so short isn’t it? …and what else could they think when the local Samurai came around to test the sharpness of their katana on a few peasant’s necks, except to make a virtue out of sudden unexpected misfortune and death until it seemed not only right but beautiful? Just eat your strawberry and accept it with wonder.



mono no aware — the pathos of things. Charlie Chaplin’s boot with the flapping sole has mono no aware if we have the nous to respond to the pathos of it with our own deep realisation of the sadness inherent in things which remind us of life’s short and transient nature and the emptiness of all things. When Chaplin sits down, still dressed in his shabby evening dress coat after he is ruined by the Great Depression, and eats his boot he is living in and for the moment. That’s the way the cookie crumbles! Of course if you just laughed you aren’t getting this concept at all, stop laughing!



ate — posh. And what posh people think makes them better than the hoi palloi …ie. us. refinement, gentility, breeding.



iki — chic. bourgeois, sensual, urban, laid-back, kind of beauty. Think Marilyn Monroe, or Princess Diana after the divorce. Very popular amongst young people, it is evident in many of the Manga characters who are ‘cool’.




shibui — smart. refined taste. unobtrusive, subdued, delicately astringent. 4711 rather than Elizabeth Arden. Coco Chanel rather than Diana Dors.




jimi — good taste. well too good really, like wearing an italian suit to a football match. shibui is sometimes a bit jimi too, I mean if you lived in the contrived sparseness of a minimalist house wouldn’t you want to mess it up a little? …write on the pristine white walls? jimi sees the contrivance to ‘good taste’ and mocks it a little.




hade — loud. in your face in a good way, unashamedly extrovert. A cherry tree in full bloom. Chrysanthemums. Rock music and teenage fashions which you just can’t ignore.





yugen — deep and mysterious, moving to the point of tears or such depth of feeling that you are speechless, the shadow in Jungian terms. Only really refined people can appreciate yugen. If you laughed at Chaplain’s boot you haven’t got it yet.




shin-gyo-so — shin is formal, public, classical Chinese – so is informal, private, rural – gyo is everything in between. Chatsworth House formal gardens, to your backyard, with some woman who is in the National Garden’s scheme in the middle. This is used in gardens, the tea ceremony, and flower arranging. It might also cover the current debate in haiku between ‘formal rules’ and ‘I did it my way’; how many wheels are there on the wagon?




furyu — lack of ostentation. The elegance of the inelegant. This is like choosing the rough pot of a rural tradesman rather than the Spode china. It is a quality much prized in pottery.



zoku — vulgar. pictures about farting. using the F-word in a haiku, poems about your scrotum, that sort of thing.






So, I hope that helps with your travels around the bazaars when people try to sound like experts by using Japanese words where perfectly good English equivalents exist.




(stardate 20130121)




5 thoughts on “Wabi-Sabi

  1. Reply
    Johannes S. H. Bjerg 04:55 AM on January 21, 2013
    Træls – a word used mostly in the dialect spoken in Northern Jutland about the unfortunate and tiresome aspects and happenings of life like getting the runs (diarrhoea) and your toilet is frozen …

  2. Johannes S. H. Bjerg 04:59 AM on January 21, 2013
    Oh, forgot: “træls” can also used to describe something really boring or hard to get through like a 5 hour lecture on “The use of fir needles in Roman society” …

  3. Susan Shand 05:14 AM on January 21, 2013

    Yorkshire dialect has a lot in common with Skandinavian/ Northern European languages. My Grandmother, when faced with a flood from a broken pipe, water spraying everywhere, the carpet ruined, people panicking and running about with brooms and buckets… sat resignedly in her chair with her slippers in 2 inches of water and said “Aye, its a trial.”

    It’s really no wonder I have such a strange sense of humour. I’m glad to see that you do too Johannes.

  4. Reply
    Johannes S. H. Bjerg 07:06 AM on January 21, 2013
    🙂 Yes, I recognize that understatement from our Danish language as well and have have noticed that like Danes Brits also say: “Yes, that’s not half bad” when something is really, really good. We’re not easily impressed.

    And “trial” and “træls” (“traels”) might well be the same word and meaning.

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