Wabi Sabi

10 October is Mental Health Awareness day, an issue which is as important today during the COVID19 pandemic as it has ever been. I am very happy to support this campaign. As I did for the Cardiff Half Marathon in 2019, I will be supporting MIND when I run in 2022 (race postponed many times!). My fundraising page is https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/christopher-hood96

In relation to writing about mental health, I find myself being drawn to the topic of wabi sabi (詫寂, わびさび) this year. The link between the two was highlighted to me in the winning speech at the The Sixteenth Japanese Speech Contest for University Students which I was a judge of earlier in the year. Then, more recently, when at the Tokyo: Art & Photography exhibition in Oxford, I picked up a copy of the book ‘Wabi Sabi’ by Beth Kempton.

One of the things that actually drew me to this book was the look of the book itself. I suspected that I could get it cheaper as an eBook, or even off Amazon, but I decided that I wanted to pick up a copy then and there. This probably goes completely against one of the things that Kempton teaches in the book.

Another thing that attracted me about the book was the topic itself.

The concept of wabi sabi is one that, having been visiting and studying Japan for over 30 years, is familiar to me. But exactly what is it and how important is it? More than this, how is it taught or learnt? These are questions that I want to address further in the update to my book Japan: The Basics, as well as some of my other research related to symbolism that I am planning to turn into a monograph that builds upon Japan: The Basics, my work on Roland Barthes’ book Empire of Signs, and ties together my interests in memorialisation, symbolism, identity, and wrapping culture.

So what is wabi sabi? The cover of Kempton’s book appears to offer a suggestion – ‘Japanese wisdom for a perfectly imperfect life’. And this, of course, is where it could offer help to those suffering from mental health problems. ‘Could’, however, is a key word. Kempton’s book doesn’t address the fact that as widespread an understanding and appreciation of what wabi sabi is in Japan, it is still a country that has a huge number of people with mental health problems that don’t get help (due to an acceptance of wabi sabi and the suffering element of life?) and suicides. Japan is not unusual in these two things – although the Western media may like to paint a picture to suggest otherwise, especially with the articles about Aokigahara.

But, is it fair to expect Kempton’s book to address these points? Probably not. It’s not an academic study per se (although clearly has been well researched). It is more of a self-help book and an introduction into a concept that most who read it are likely to be largely unfamiliar with (and, indeed, more importantly it’s probably trying to steer people away from an incorrect understanding or application of the term). It is up to academics, such as myself, to take books like this and think about how to incorporate them (where relevant) into our own studies. This is particularly relevant to me due to both my own research interests and the fact that my writing (including my blog) and teaching needs to take account of the knowledge that the general, non-Japan-specialist, public may have of aspects of Japan.

One aspect of wabi sabi that Kempton touches upon, though doesn’t go into explicit detail about (other than to point out that it is a feeling and so something in itself cannot be a wabi sabi design) is the difference in the understanding and application of the term in ‘the West’ and in Japan. There is a very good way to demonstrate this – by showing the imagery details for the term when searching on Google.UK and Google.JP (I do something similar in one of my classes when talking about the Yakuza)…

Image search result for ‘wabi sabi’ on google.co.uk
Search result for ‘わびさび’ (wabi sabi) on google.co.jp

The difference between the two is obvious to see (and you can perhaps imagine the problems that I had when I wondered what sort of image of my own to attach to this post). Arguably both Google.UK and Google.JP show the same thing, just in different ways. They may even both show wabi sabi – but as wabi sabi is about emotion, not design, that’s perhaps harder to articulate or show. And, while I would agree with Kempton that wabi sabi is partly (at the very least) about not only an acceptance of imperfection (and, indeed, it can be linked to a greater appreciation of the ‘beauty of irregularity’ or even being ‘grotesque’ – there is further discussion on this in my book Shinkansen: From Bullet Train to Symbol of Modern Japan), but a celebration and preference for it, there is something overly perfect about the first string of images that appear in the Google.JP results. Indeed, scrolling down the pages further, it is the Google.UK results that first bring up an image which shows an imperfection (albeit a repaired bowl rather than something that has completely maintained the imperfection as is).

Wabi sabi is not merely about imperfection. It also often encapsulates the transience and impermanence of things (tied with the concept of mono-no-aware, as Kempton’s book also discusses). It is that aspect of wabi sabi that helps to explain many of the pictures in the Google.JP images. In that respect, a good example of what gives me that wabi sabi feeling in the UK, is when I read one of my favourite poems (it is probably no coincidence that poetry gets a few mentions in Kempton’s book) – The Lake by Gary Feeman.

Returning more specifically to Kempton’s book – I did enjoy it. I liked the personal stories and links to her own work. I’m not sure I could use it as a handbook for helping me improve my own life. That may be due to my own acceptance of the elements of what wabi sabi is all about (and connected concepts) already. If only more people around me had the same knowledge and philosophy. Perhaps ‘Wabi Sabi‘ will become a super trendy book read by all managers on training courses. I bloody well hope so. But, let’s hope it’s more than a trend. There are universal elements to wabi sabi that we could do with more people embracing. I agree with Kempton, wabi sabi is not peculiar to Japan and it can be learnt and embraced at any time. But if the book is to be adopted more widely, I hope the pronunciation of wabi sabi is addressed – the suggested version on the back of the book looks painfully wrong and doesn’t fit with the contents of the book which largely are well presented and have conventions which I tend to use for my own writing. In both words the ‘a’s are short – not ‘ah’.

There is so much more I could write about wabi sabi. Like omotenashi, I worry it’s another word/term that will be thrown around, in a soup of quasi-Nihonjinron (discussions related to the uniqueness of the Japanese) ways, without any proper analysis to what it means, how it’s learnt, or how it’s taught. Comparing it to the question, ‘Does falling tree in the woods make a sound if nobody hears it?’, how does wabi sabi exist if there is no dictionary definition of it and it isn’t openly discussed? After all, one of the images in the Google.JP has text asking what is wabi sabi, pointing to the fact that many Japanese themselves may be unclear on this.

But all of these are things for me to consider more for future posts and publications. For now, I want to return to the start of the post and that today (10 October) is World Mental Health Day. It’s such a shame that we need ‘a Day’ for mental health. Everyday should be about mental health, but I understand how having greater attention on one day may be a means to focus people’s attention on the issues surrounding it and lead to some change. While wabi sabi doesn’t provide a fix to mental health problems, I think there are many elements within it that could help those who suffer more acutely from mental health problems to find greater happiness, and also for others to gain a better understanding of alternative world views that could help everyone.

4 Comments Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s