Wabi-Sabi: The beauty of broken and unfinished things

Words and photo-illustration by Ant Gray

Wabi-sabi is a concept that lies at the heart of Japanese culture—an idea that places great value on incompleteness and imperfection.

Absently browsing in a half-empty bookshop, I came across this story. Told in no more than a paragraph—a wisp really—but with just enough detail that, once I close the book, I’m left with the faint smell of cherry blossom.

The story went something like this...

One day in 16th century Japan, Sen no Rikyu—the master of a traditional style of tea ceremony called wabi-cha—was preparing to receive guests. Wabi-cha ceremonies use bowls, utensils and furnishings that have this rustic, unadorned quality to them.

Before his guests arrive, Rikyu asks his son to attend to the garden, and his son immediately sets about making it look beautiful. He prunes the trees, he rakes the paths, he carefully clears away the leaf-litter.

Once he’s done, his father comes to inspect. Seeing that the garden is now immaculate, Rikyu is displeased. He walks up to a neatly manicured tree and shakes a branch, causing a few leaves to fall gently across one of the freshly raked paths.

For Rikyu, a flawless garden was unacceptable; now, with a smattering of leaves, it was just right.

Bareness reveals merit

The story about Rikyu is often used to illustrate the ethos of wabi-sabi—an idea that pervades Japanese culture even to this day.

The concept is notoriously difficult to translate. Originally wabi meant ‘lonely’, ‘forlorn,’ or the ‘misery that comes from solitude’. Sabi used to mean ‘to rust’ or ‘to become desolate.’ But eventually the meaning of these words shifted into a positive sense of these attributes. According to Tadao Ando, wabi has come to mean “simple, unmaterialistic, humble by choice,” and sabi refers to the beauty that can be found as something ages—in “the bloom of time.”

In this way wabi-sabi is a quality in Japanese art and culture that prizes and celebrates imperfection.

The book I was browsing through in the bookstore was The Pocket Universal Principles of Design by Lidwell, Holden and Butler. They explain that, “Wabi-sabi runs contrary to many innate biases and aesthetic conventions,” and this is especially true of the Western preference for orderliness and symmetry. Instead, wabi-sabi is the aesthetics of the beautifully flawed, the arrestingly wonky, the broken but somehow prettier for being so.

In the often-quoted story of Rikyu, a perfect garden is missing something. It needs to be messed up just a little bit, like a good haircut. It must be tweaked, mussed, tjuzed.

The same went for the wabi-cha tea ceremonies Rikyu is famous for. In some circles in 16th century Japan, delicate, intricately decorated cups and bowls imported from China were all the rage. But Rikyu preferred to use modest, rustic pottery, which traditionally might have been the preserve of peasants and people of low status. This pottery, sometimes called raku, is characteristically hand-made. The style is simple, unadorned, featuring defects where the clay has been misshapen, or sporting imperfections in the way it has been fired and glazed.

Wabi-sabi also finds expression in kintsugi—a Japanese tradition where broken ceramic bowls or pots are glued back together with golden lacquer in order to accentuate the beauty of their resurrection.

Alain De Botton says that kintsugi—which literally means ‘joined with gold’—shows us that the,

“care and love expended on the shattered pots should lend us the confidence to respect what is damaged and scarred, vulnerable and imperfect—starting with ourselves and those around us.”

A friend who studied and lived in Japan has the word kintsugi tattooed on her forearm. “I like to tell people when they ask that it’s about the life of the broken thing,” she explained. “Kintsugi tells the story of the life of an object. One that is more beautiful for having been broken and put back together.”

Influenced by Zen Buddhism, objects such as these are a reminder of the impermanence of all things. They are beautiful, but in the same way a bunch of dried roses are beautiful in their faded richness—in the way they speak to transience of life and the inevitably of it passing.

“It takes a long time to get the ruins right,” the American poet Jack Gilbert writes in his poem Ruins and Wabi:

The Japanese think it strange we paint
our old wooden houses when it takes so long to find
the wabi in them. They prefer the bonsai tree
after the valiant blossoming is over, the leaves fallen. When
bareness reveals a merit born in the vegetable struggling.

Overall in Japan, as Catherine Maxwell points out, “there is a noticeable tendency towards simplicity and restraint.” She writes:

“Beauty is found in the ordinary, the imperfect, and the everyday; in soft, natural and subdued colours, and irregular shapes and textures. While such works may appear somewhat homely and rough, at the same time they impart a sense of elegance and tranquillity, a kind of ‘unsophisticated sophistication’.”

In this way wabi-sabi, in both objects and attitude, represents an appreciation for a reduction to the essential—a light, easy and uncluttered modesty.

Make Your Own Wabi-Hole

Although I might not understand all its nuances, I love the idea of wabi-sabi.

I get a sense of what it entails—the story about Rikyu being a beautiful illustration of it. I can see that garden and the sprinkle of leaves, and I get why it was important to Rikyu. Visit a house that’s spotlessly clean, and it doesn’t feel welcoming. You’re afraid to touch anything. You can’t relax. Whereas a house with a little wabi in it? It’s honest, unpretentious, inhabited, loved.

Trying to understand what wabi-sabi is makes me wonder if I can think of any examples from my own experience. The crocheted blanket my mum made that I’ve repaired many times comes to mind. I think of my guitar that I’ve had for more than twenty years now, which I bought from a friend, which has had its headstock broken twice and been glued back together, and which is worn in all of the places where I’ve worn it through long, loving and repeated use.

In our consumption driven society, we are obliged to value newness above all. But as brilliant as they are, the treasures bought from Apple and Ikea have little to no wabi in them.

Once they wear, even a little, they just don’t look as good as they did out of the box, let alone next to the latest version. These days, the choices we’re given don’t leave much for our future selves or our children to inherit. And as our things lose rather than increase in value with age, we feel devalued too.

Wabi-sabi is said to underscore the impermanence of the world, but I see it as holding on to parts of it as well. For me it seems to trace a humble line. Like a moment when we might glimpse ourselves in the mirror and find ourselves older, but content with who we are. Like hearing a friend’s voice you haven’t heard in years. Like a lovely idea you can’t quite explain.

Like a freshly raked path with a blush of leaves.

Special thanks to Cath Colvin for telling me more about kintsugi and the story of her latest tattoo.


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