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We throw out old, broken objects and worry about how we will look in the future. Yet, as the Japanese ...
2020-03-24 09:00:00

The Past Perfect
The Japanese Philosophy of Wabi-Sabi

Cat Catching a Mouse, Japanese woodcut, 1930, Ohara Koson
The Past Perfect
The Past Perfect

“Why does bread with cracks in the crust seem to sharpen the appetite more than a smooth loaf?” was the question Marcus Aurelius posed nearly 2000 years ago. The Japanese found the answer.

Read in 12 minutes


“The drooping flower
As yellow as the moon beam
So slender tonight

I nodded. The image seemed to me at once so fleeting and so permanent, like the way I had experienced time as a young child. It made me a little sad and glad at the same time.

‘Everything passes, Hiroto,’ Dad said. ‘That feeling in your heart: it’s called mono no aware. It is a sense of the transience of all things in life. The sun, the dandelion, the cicada, the Hammer, and all of us: We are all subject to the equations of James Clerk Maxwell and we are all ephemeral patterns destined to eventually fade, whether in a second or an eon.’”

[Ken Liu in his short story Mono no aware, 2013]


In Meditations, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wondered why bread with its crust cracked from baking sharpens his appetite more than a perfectly shaped loaf: “A certain fashion contrary to the purpose of the baker's art, are beautiful in a manner, and in a peculiar way excite a desire for eating.”

If Marcus Aurelius were alive today, he would have certainly been a Buddhist. Only Buddhists have the ability to admire everyday life so beautifully. After all, the essence of everyday life is imperfection, fragility and the passing of time. Buddha would repeatedly tell his disciples: “Remember, decay is inherent in all component things.”

When we hear such a sentence for the first time, our reaction is mental escape. Questions arise: how can that be, decay, degradation, the end? So we should prepare for death while we’re still alive? It’s worth turning to Japan to find the answers – in Japanese books, haikus or in ceramic art. ­

Imagine that your favourite coffee mug falls to the floor and breaks into several pieces. What do you do? You probably throw it in the dustbin, with a heavy heart filled with loss and grief over everything you’ve associated with it. Perhaps you’ll run to the shop right away to buy yourself something similar. After all, the modern world does not tolerate any type of void.

In Japan, however, a different approach is practised. Damaged objects, such as ceramics, are taken to a master of the art of kintsugi (literally meaning: ‘golden joinery’), or the repair of broken ceramics using lacquer mixed with gold. The traces or seams of the golden connections are considered to be a valuable reminder of past events. The artistic and spiritual value of the object that has been brought back to life increases. You can continue to use it and set it on a shelf as a work of art. Kintsugi is a philosophy of life which states that the passing of time and physical flaws may be a source of pride, something we do not need to be ashamed of. As the American artist Barbara Bloom writes: “[The Japanese] believe that when something’s suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful.”

Kintsugi is an art that is a part of the Japanese philosophy of life called wabi-sabi. If we were to translate those two words, the particle wabi means ‘simplicity’, while sabi is ‘the natural passing of time’. Researchers of Japanese culture have long toiled over finding an adequate definition of the term. We find one of the most precise definitions in the book Wabi-sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers (1994); its author is the American writer and philosopher Leonard Koren. According to Koren, wabi-sabi is “a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete.” In other words, this means anything that leaves traces which mark the passing of time.

It’s the withered yellow leaf that blew into our garden at summer’s end as a sign of the upcoming autumn. Or the worn creaking floor, which reminds us of all the people that had walked on it each time it grumbles. Wabi-sabi is the old wedding dress we keep in the closet to remind us of that special day, or the old book with its yellowed oily pages which remember the times of our forefathers. It’s also the grey hair and the web of wrinkles on our faces.


Very few were able to sing about the struggle of people with the passage of time as aptly as Leo­nard Cohen. “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in,” he sang in “Anthem”. It was his comment on the events that defined the 20th century: World War II, the attack on Hiroshima, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The song is saying that time heals wounds and that there are no ideal solutions. It took Cohen a full 10 years – a trifle – to write it! A few years after he released the album The Future (with “Anthem” on it), the musician proclaimed to the world that he was abandoning the materialistic life of a star and retiring to the Mt. Baldy Zen Center monastery located in the mountains near Los Angeles. He spent the next five years there as the assistant of 80-year-old Zen teacher Kyozan Joshu Sasaki (the Japanese master died in 2014 at the age of 107). Cohen lived there under the monastic name of Jikan. In Japanese, the word means ‘time’, but in Buddhist philosophy the word also describes the silence that appears between two thoughts.

Alan Watts, a British philosopher and teacher of Zen, wrote in his treatise The Wisdom of Insecurity in 1968 that one of the reasons for human unhappiness is the inappropriate approach to the passing of time. That issue is that in our constant hustle and bustle we try to speed up time, claiming that we are afraid of wasting it.­ On the other hand though, we try to trick the same time, and dream of having pleasant moments or our youth last forever. That way, we are stretched between two unreal expectations.

“Why does life seem so frustrating? Not because there are facts called death, pain, fear, or hunger. The madness of the thing is that when such facts are present, we circle, buzz, writhe, and whirl, trying to get the ‘I’ out of the experience. To understand music, you must listen to it. But so long as you are thinking, ‘I am listening to this music,’ you are not listening. In a material sense, there is not, was not and will never be anything else than the present,” Watts explains.

So the Buddhists would say the same: in our fascination with the passing of time, it isn’t a matter of cultivating superficial fascination, but rather understanding the essence of the passing time. Yet this does not mean empty acceptance, but rather the fact of being rooted in it and fully experiencing its effects.


The Japanese believe that contact with things that are old and physically imperfect provides us with the possibility to experience a type of melancholy that is healthy for the spirit. In his essay, Praise of Shadows (In’ei Raisan, 1933), this is how the writer Jun’ichirō Tanizaki explains the love of the Japanese for chipped bowls and rusty textiles: “We love it when the world is just a bit dirty, worn, covered in soot. We also prefer patina colours to remind us of the past which created them.”

Yet the contemporary Western world prefers to celebrate perfection. We prefer to buy a new thing rather than fix the old one. We think the same way about relations. Many of us believe that a happy life is one in which you do not feel any pain. Our desire is to have everything smooth, shining and to a tee. We must have the perfect job and prudent children, as well as wise partners who must be a source of support and stabilization, yet also of fascination and ecstasy. We work on ourselves, because we want to be ideal inside and out. Nobody even needs a computer graphics expert anymore to look like a celebrity from the cover of a fashion magazine. The cameras in our phones apply beautifying filters on their own, thanks to which we seem to be younger, more healthy and more beautiful. We do not appreciate suffering. We hide that into a folder labelled ‘private’.

Alan Watts believes that in our desire to be perfect, we are applying the law of regress. Because people who want very much to be beautiful concentrate on what they are missing to achieve full beauty. If they fight with nature and refuse to grow old, they are governed by the fear of passing time. The only thing that people who are desperate to be loved think about is why they are still alone.


“Beauty is a wound,” is what Eka Kurniawan disparagingly wrote in his bestselling novel of the same name, which comes to terms with the history of Indonesia – a history full of tragedy. During a meeting I had with him a few years ago, I asked why he thought that way. He gave a brief answer: “Because I don’t know a beautiful person who would have a beautiful life.”

Kurniawan is right to the point that physical perfection is not even a cultural virtue these days, but rather a hot commodity that is being brutally sold to us. Advertisements of anti-wrinkle creams are now already being directed to 20-year-olds. You can buy weight loss supplements, some of which are potentially harmful, at any pharmacy over the counter. More and more teenagers are adding plastic surgery to their list of dream presents for their 18th birthday.

What’s interesting is that in Japan youth and freshness (including a pale complexion!) are considered to be inseparable attributes of beauty, while the cosmetics sector employs more people than the wedding, funeral, IT and automotive sectors put together. This impressive and complicated world of beauty treatments is explained in detail in Beauty Up: Exploring Contemporary Japanese Body Aesthetics by anthropologist Laura Miller. It’s a reality in which women whiten their private parts to feel younger and more innocent, or undergo dangerous plastic surgery of their eyes; the goal here is to make Japanese women look more like European or American women.

On the other hand, thanks to their melancholy and philosophical attitude to the world, the Japanese have a more healthy approach to aging than other nations. In Japan, each stage of life has its customs. More often than not, men work well into old age, spending most of their time at their companies, while in their free time they play golf with other men from their sector of work. Women devote their time to their families until a certain age, and once their children leave the nest, they lead very active social lives. Typical for Japan are communal baths, which take place in public bathhouses with natural hot springs (onsen) or artificial hot springs (sento). Traditionally, these are bathhouses where women and men bathe separately, which strengthens a feeling of community within each gender.

I remember my first visit to a Tokyo onsen; my initial feeling of embarrassment associated with having to undress in front of dozens of Japanese women, followed by the feeling of complete freedom in being naked. Women meet several times a week in public bathhouses to talk or sit together in silence; they scrub each other’s backs using rough towels or comb their hair. It’s one of the most beautiful experiences of a cross-generational here and now.

You can also observe the exceptional approach of the Japanese to the passing of time in their vocabulary. In the 1980s, American anthropologist Margaret Lock conducted a sweeping comparative survey of women from Japan, the US and Canada.­ She discovered at the time that unlike Americans and Canadians, Japanese women go through menopause much more gently; they do not experience hot flashes or any other symptoms of climacterium. One of the reasons could have been a more healthy diet, rich in flavonoids. But it’s not just that. The researcher noticed that in Japan, there are no such words as ‘menopause’ or ‘hot flashes’. That particular period in a woman’s life is referred to as the ‘transition’ from one stage to another. As a result, menopause is not medicalized, and old age is not considered to be an undesired state. The Japanese approach of having respect for the passing of time is therefore wise as well as profitable. In an aging society (every fourth Japanese person is at least 65 years old), it helps to prevent depression and treats age not as a burden, but rather a subsequent, interesting, and colourful stage on the road of life.


If we were to apply the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi not only to the world of ceramics or interior decoration, but also to the way we think about our bodies, we would understand that each change and each event are meaningful and unavoidable.

The French artist Hélène Gugenheim has been trying for years to fight against the stereotypical approach to the standards of beauty. In her project, Mes cicatrices, Je suis entièrment tissé (My scars, of them I am fully woven), she shows that the body is like a mirror in which we see everything that has happened to us. Just like a Japanese master of kintsugi joins the fractured fragments of vessels using precious metals, the photographer covered the scars of the participants of her exhibition with gold paint. This created portraits of people touched by fate, such as women who went through a mastectomy or patients with congenital conditions, who proudly show what their bodies have been through. “When I first saw the body of a woman after a mastectomy, I saw a mix of strength and fragility, beauty and tragedy. At one point or another in your life, you’re hurt: in your skin, in your heart or in your soul. Scars are proof of the healing process,” Gugenheim explains.

The wabi-sabi school of thought lets us distance ourselves from earthly life and all the stress associated with it. It helps us enjoy imperfection and the fact that nothing lasts forever and nothing is ever completely finished. The beginning and the end are not important; it’s what’s in the middle that matters. Regretfully, nowadays simple patterns on how to live your life are all the rage. For example, warm woolly socks and a special mug for hot chocolate are supposed to draw us near to a Danish lifestyle in the mood of hygge.

Yet things should look differently with wabi-sabi. It’s a philosophy that is something more than a rustic carpet or chipped tea cup. Wabi-sabi is tea that you enjoy with your grandma and grandpa instead of having another latte in a cafe. It means buying second-hand things, because new doesn’t necessarily mean better if there’s still plenty of life in the old. It means viewing your wrinkles as good friends from years past, while old age is the best time to practice the ‘I-don’t-have-to’ approach. Finally, it means love, thanks to which you accept your faults and flaws.

A beautiful metaphor for the praise of imperfection could be a story from a certain children’s book. It’s a tale about a cat called Wabi Sabi who gets lost in Kyoto as he looks for the meaning of life. The illustrator Ed Young said that when he heard the story, he immediately drew up the illustrations to go with it, something he was very proud of. He ran out to get them to the publisher, when something beckoned him back home. He had left the drawings on the porch for a moment, but when he came back to get them, they had disappeared! Rather than plunge into the depths of despair, Young decided to put the wabi-sabi lesson to a test. “I found strength in this adversity and I redrew the images. And they were so much better,” he reminisces.

Because sometimes you have to lose something first to find something else.


Translated from the Polish by Mark Ordon

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