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“Wabi,” “Sabi,” “Yūgen”: The Surprising Changes in “Traditional” Japanese Aesthetics

Culture History

Together, wabi, sabi, and yūgen encapsulate an essentially Japanese aesthetic: one that values depth, understatement, shadow, and imperfection over surface sheen. The three terms are often used together to describe artforms like waka poetry, nō drama, the tea ceremony, and haiku. But how old really is this use of the three terms together as shorthand for traditional “Japaneseness”?

Foreign students of Japanese culture often ask me: What is the essence of Japanese esthetics? Wabi, sabi, and yūgen are a handy trio of terms in this situation, providing a ready-made answer that seems to communicate an important strand that runs through much of Japanese traditional culture. Every time I fall back on this convenient cliché to answer this question, I almost persuade myself that I am telling the truth, even though I know that in fact many other elements are just as important. It’s like a magic spell, whose power never fades. Nevertheless, if someone follows up by asking how wabi differs from sabi, or by challenging me to define yūgen, things soon get more difficult.

When did we start to think of wabi, sabi, and yūgen as together encapsulating the essence of Japanese aesthetics? Presumably, having been told repeatedly that these trio of terms express the essence of our culture, we came to believe it ourselves at some stage. It’s like a kind of imprinting.

In this article, I want to consider the process by which wabi, sabi, and yūgen came to represent the core of Japanese aesthetics, looking at some of the changes that have taken place in cultural practices often regarded as typically “Japanese” along the way, including nō drama, the tea ceremony, and haikai poetry (commonly known as haiku).

An Aesthetic Dating to the Middle Ages

But before we start to trace those changes, I should probably start by attempting to give a simple account of what is meant by the terms themselves.

1. Wabi

According to Kumakura Isao (b. 1943), a historian of the tea ceremony, the term wabi expresses “a state of mind that seeks spiritual satisfaction in simplicity and poverty.” He writes: “In the age of the eighth-century Manyōshū poetry anthology, wabi expressed the suffering and loneliness associated with unsatisfied romantic longing, and it was not a term with strong aesthetic overtones at all.”

From the Heian Period (794–1185), as well as expressing the pain of loneliness, the term wabi came to be used to describe an appreciation of stillness and solitude, and in the Middle Ages the term came to refer to a hermitlike state of removal from the secular world, characterized by an ascetic embrace of simplicity. A new aesthetic preference took root, partly inspired by Zen Buddhism, which found beauty in imperfection and esteemed occasional glimpses of a moon otherwise obscured by clouds rather than a bright full moon.

Wabi was part of this aesthetic, which became widespread in medieval Japan, becoming established through its connection with the tea ceremony that emerged as part of the machi-shū merchant culture that played a prominent role in Kyoto during the late Muromachi Period (1333–1568). In the Edo Period (1603–1868) that followed, the tea ceremony’s ritualized respect for restraint, solemnity, and tranquility became known as wabi-cha.

2. Sabi

Horikoshi Zentarō (1937–2004), a scholar who worked on nō drama and kabuki, describes sabi as “a term that expresses the esthetic perception of richness and profundity in the midst of stillness.”

It is an aesthetic that appreciates the signs of encroaching time, stillness, and solitude, that relishes the patina of old age and decline, and finds purity and depth in frigid wintry landscapes. Like a pebble tossed into a pond, the subtlety and simplicity of these mundane perceptions opens out like a ripple to reveal a rich and expansive world of new perceptions. Sabi describes a kind of beauty that is diametrically opposed to superficial gaudiness.

Both wabi and sabi express an aesthetic sense of detachment from the concerns of the secular hurly-burly world and are associated with a wish to remain free from material attachments. They came to be used together, particularly through their close associations with the tea ceremony, and reinforced each other by the frequency with which they were used in close proximity. A significant influence on the development of this aesthetic came from the sensibility and spirituality of Zen, which had a profound cultural impact in Japan during the Middle Ages.

3. Yūgen

Unlike wabi and sabi, yūgen is originally a Chinese term. In Chinese Buddhism, it is used to refer to the profound mysteries of esoteric Buddhist teachings. In Japan, too, it kept this primary meaning until the late Heian Period, but from the Muromachi Period on, the word came to be used with an additional sense of mysterious grace and refinement. In one of Zeami’s discourses on the nō drama, “Kakyō” (trans. “A Mirror Held to the Flower”), Zeami describes the term as follows:

Although there is considerable overlap between the meanings of wabi, sabi, and yūgen, they each have somewhat different qualities too. In particular, there is a disconnect between wabi and sabi on the one hand and yūgen on the other. One difference is that while wabi and sabi describe an aesthetic sense that finds beauty in the realm of the understated, old, tranquil, and imperfect, yūgen deals with subtle, hidden depths of grace and beauty. But all three terms became associated with the concept of the state of mu, or emptiness, taught by Buddhism and Zen Buddhism in particular, and came to overlap and share many connotations in common.

A Surprisingly Modern Concept

Wabi, sabi, and yūgen were used as terms to express a traditional Japanese aesthetic sensibility from the Middle Ages on, but they did not become a “set” until later. A study of the relevant materials reveals a surprising fact: These terms were not commonly thought of together until the second half of the twentieth century.

Most people today probably associate wabi and sabi with the tea ceremony, and believe that the terms have come down together in an unbroken line since the time of Sen no Rikyū, the man who refined and popularized tea as an artform. But looking through books on tea written from the seventeenth century to the present reveals that wabi and sabi have not consistently been seen as the main aesthetic aims of the tea ceremony, according to Iwai Shigeki, a scholar of Japanese culture.

Although many tea books written in the Genroku era in the late seventeenth century discussed wabi/sabi, the terms were much rarer in the rest of the Edo period, when only a few books mention the terms at all. In the Meiji Era (1868–1912), simplicity and plainness were seen as the most important qualities of the tea ceremony, while in the Taishō years (1912–25), the focus was on tea as an embodiment of the virtues of harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility. Even in the famous Book of Tea (1906) by Okakura Tenshin, the man who made the tea ceremony famous outside Japan, the essence of the esthetic is shibumi, an “astringent” type of beauty characterized by an appreciation for the reserved, sober, and quiet.

Neither was the sabi of Matsuo Bashō’s haikai poetics part of mainstream aesthetic theory during the Edo period. The merchant culture of Edo and Japan’s other major cities was characterized more by a fondness for sui and iki: a sprezzatura-like dandyish form of urban wit and style.

The nō drama is often described as an artform that embodies the aesthetics of yūgen and brings it alive on the stage. But despite the earlier importance of the term for theorists like Zeami, none of the texts written on nō in the Edo period speak of yūgen as an important aspect of the drama. It was only from the twentieth century on that nō came to be spoken of in these terms. Zeami’s Fūshi-kaden, something of a sacred text for nō, was handed down privately among daimyō families and was not published until 1909. It was only in the period after World War II that leaders of the various nō schools started to talk about yūgen.

The Truth About What Is Japanese

Today, in the twenty-first century, cultural diversity is something we take for granted. But there is still a deep-rooted idea that each country has a traditional culture that survives unchanged from generation to generation. Much of this kind of discussion of the “distinctively Japanese” is built on flimsy foundations. It was only at the end of the nineteenth century that wabi, sabi, and yūgen came to widespread prominence for the first time, amid the cultural nationalism of the Russo-Japanese War. Another phase of chauvinistic navel-gazing about the essence of a uniquely Japanese esthetic sensibility came with wartime propaganda during World War II. After the war, the terms became familiar internationally, and were widely accepted as encapsulating the essence of Japanese aesthetics.

Widespread international use of the terms wabi, sabi, and yūgen as a set coincided with the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 and the Osaka Expo in 1970, as terms that were thought to describe the most characteristic aspects of Japanese traditional culture. But no pure culture can exist in any country. If a distinctive aesthetics does exist, it is surely formed as the result of exchanges and encounters with the cultures and sensibilities of other countries. At least part of the popularity of the wabi-sabi-yūgen idea seems to come from its convenience as a catchphrase to promote Japanese culture overseas, where it was popular in many countries not long before young people started to embrace the very different culture of “Cool Japan.”

Today, other terms often used to describe Japanese esthetics include aware and iki. Aware (something like “awareness of impermanence”) is an idea that plays a crucial role in the Tale of Genji, and is widely acknowledged as an important part of the aesthetics of Kyoto court culture, while iki became emblematic of the culture of the urban sophisticates of early modern Edo (now Tokyo), partly through Kuki Shūzō’s 1930 study Iki no kōzō (The Structure of Iki).

The aesthetics of “Japaneseness” and Japanese culture have undergone multiple transformations on their evolution to the present day. As we pass on our aesthetics and culture to future generations, we should engage seriously with the history of these terms and the transformations in tastes they represent. If nothing else, learning about how the terminology has changed is a rewarding study in its own right.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Foreign tourists at the famous Zen rock garden at Ryōanji, Kyoto. Wabi, sabi, and yūgen are indispensable to conversations about this style of garden today, but were not yet commonplace when such gardens were designed. © Aflo.)

tradition tea ceremony Japonism wabi sabi yūgen