What does wabi-sabi mean? – It’s Japanese version of “shabby chic”

Wabi-sabi is not easy to understand, especially because it’s a concept or philosophy that is more than 500 years old. Many Japanese would have a vague idea exactly what it is, as it may not resonate with them or sound relatable. But in order to make the concept more accessible, let’s think wabi-sabi as a “distressed” or “shabby chic” aesthetic/style that became popular in Japan 5 centuries ago: wabi meant disappointed, distressed, become degraded, feeling sad, helpless, miserable, lonely or embarrassed. Sabi originally meant depressed, fade, distressed, worn out or become rusty. So all-in-all, wabi + sabi is “distressed” and “shabby chic.” Just imagine traditional Japanese art or items that are weathered or became old. You won’t be far away from what people consider wabi-sabi design, style or products.

But wabi-sabi is a little bit more than aesthetics style – it’ was also about a lifestyle choice or philosophy. Fundamentally, wabi-sabi is a pursuit to find beauty in the exact opposite of how you want to feel about yourself: happy, blessed, accomplished, affluent, respected and loved.

What kind of extreme people came up with such an idea?? 

There are two things: it wasn’t “extreme” in Japan during 15~16th century, where social unrest and civil wars were a norm. People were forced to live in despair, so the sense of loss and helplessness was rampant. Secondly, in such an excruciating situation, Buddhist leaders, especially Zen priests, played a pivotal role of a moral compass.

The fact that Buddhism played a role in finding hope/peace to survive difficulties was a big factor for the emergence of wabi-sabi, as Buddhism finds beauty – eternal peace – in the vast, boundless “nothingness” that you can reach after you were able to extinguish all of your desires and greed.

So imagine a situation in which our (people’s) world is gradually going back to natural state, or to nothingness. The beauty of wabi-sabi is found in the process. 

  • Raw/untreated
  • Bucolic
  • Transitional/elusive/fading
  • Decaying/declining
  • Getting old/worn out
  • Lonely
  • Asymmetric/disproportionate 
  • Imperfect/unfinished
  • Anonymous 

The list can go on, as far as you can find sublet beauty as you let yourself thrown in the process.