If one were to pick a phrase that aptly sums up the traditional aesthetic sensibility of the Japanese, it might well be wabi-sabi. A combination of two old words with overlapping definitions, wabi-sabi might be the Buddhist view of the facts of existence: Both life and art are beautiful not because they are perfect and eternal, but because they are imperfect and fleeting.

If you note a touch of melancholy there, you have begun to understand wabi-sabi.

Born of the Mahayana Buddhist understanding of life as impermanent, marked by suffering and ultimately empty, wabi-sabi adds to that recognition a distinctly Japanese sensitivity to natural processes and materials, and to the pleasures of simplicity. Whereas classical Western aesthetic ideals were of beauty and perfection, of symmetry and a fine finish, wabi-sabi is hard-nosed and realistic: Nothing lasts, nothing is perfect. Accepting these hard facts opens the door to the realistic appreciation of a deeper beauty.

The words were born separately and referred to different things. Wabi originally described the loneliness of living in nature, far from society; sabi meant lean or withered, a flower past its bloom. But during the 14th century, the two words began to take on more positive meanings, with wabi describing the more positive aspects of living alone in nature: a quiet, rustic simplicity. Sabi, on the other hand, began to find beauty in old age, in a weathered character, focusing instead on the serenity that can come with time, when inevitable wear becomes a patina, and scars become signs of experience.

The driver in the conflation of these two words, and their change into the more optimistic wabi-sabi, was Buddhism, as members of society in Kyoto during the 14th century saw the acceptance of this reality as a positive step towards enlightenment. At the same time, the simple, elegant craftsmanship becoming known as wabi-sabi came as a reaction to the extravagant perfection of the Chinese art and culture that had given birth to Japanese high culture. Thus, Japan claimed its own unique aesthetic.

In Japan, signs of wabi-sabi are so ubiquitous that one hardly notices them. But they are there in the pottery from which ones drinks tea, or sake; in the weathered wood of Kyoto’s temples; in the Japanese gardens where petals cover the mossy ground; and in the faces of the elderly people who have lived through a century of remarkable change in this singular country.

Wabi-sabi is also widely discussed at design conferences, in art galleries and symposia, and in home decorating magazines, foreign and domestic, which run features on how to adopt the principle of wabi-sabi to decorating the living room with old family furniture and properly-chosen (and positioned) thrift store knick-knacks.

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Thus, in contemporary culture, wabi-sabi has been relieved of much of its existential melancholy and has been embraced as a pleasure – in authentic expression, natural materials, rough edges, imperfect glazes, even deliberate flaws. It stands in particularly marked contrast to the characteristics of modernism, with its mass-produced uniformity and its seemingly-indestructible materials like plastic, stainless steel, silicon and the rest. In Japan particularly, the contrast can be startling.

Wabi-sabi preceded modernism, and starkly contrasts with it. The clean, smooth lines of modern design and architecture are the opposite of the uneven, asymmetrical and always curved lines of wabi-sabi. The technological polish and visual clarity of the modern is nothing like the naturalism and ambiguity of wabi-sabi.

In Japan, as in other cultures, the rise of technological perfection has driven a corresponding appreciation of natural materials and organic processes. It is as though the promises of perfection of technology – and the increasing awareness of its limitations in an imperfect world, with deeply-flawed humans – has given a renewed appreciation to a concept like wabi-sabi.

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As with many Japanese concepts, wabi-sabi can refer to something as quotidian as the design of a tea set or as fundamental as Enlightenment (satori) itself. It can refer to the manufacture of pottery for the home, or open up inner visions that can change a life.

In Japan, as in other cultures, both of these concepts, and their products, coexist. But in Japan, both are perhaps more strongly felt, and more elegantly-displayed. How these two very different concepts coalesce into something new, or even if they continue on as two parallel paths, will be part of the story of Japanese culture well into the 21st century. But no matter the course of modernism, given the Japanese character, it is likely that the concept wabi-sabi will endure.

By DAVID WATTS BARTON