Some words are mere (!?) prototypes, defined more by the kinds of words they attract and repel than by any essential definition. Wabi-sabi is one of those words, perhaps by design.
“Things wabi-sabi are unstudied and inevitable looking…unpretentious…Their craftsmanship may be impossible to discern.”
”Pare down to the essence, but don’t remove the poetry. Keep things clean and unencumbered, but don’t sterilize.”
It’s not hard to see why designers would tend to focus on the minimalist aspects of wabi-sabi; Inevitable-looking, pared-down, essential. But Leonard Koren also describes wabi-sabi as:
. . . a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.
Hmmm, okay. Inevitable-looking, pared down, essential as well as imperfect, impermanent and incomplete? These contradictions mean we’re in koanville; wabi-sabi is as much Rorshach Test as descriptor or philosophy. While it’s possible to see wabi-sabi as being about ‘rustic’ interior design or as the new Feng Shui, this is little more than the inscrutable canard-meme rebranded as an off-the-peg rustic pan-Asian design aesthetic.
What is wabi sabi? Ask a Japanese this question and there will likely be a long silence. Pose the same question to an American, however, the answer will often be quick and sure: “It’s beauty of things imperfect!” Why do the Japanese struggle for an answer to the meaning of wabi sabi that seems to come easily to Westerners? Could they be searching for a different answer altogether?
The above quote comes from an artist’s web page on wabi-sabi called Learning to See the Invisible. Perhaps wabi-sabi is less about an aesthetic of simplicity but more about ungraspable complexity? One of the classic wabi-sabi myths goes something like:
“Sen no Rikyu desired to learn The Way of Tea. He visited the Tea Master, Takeno Joo. Joo ordered Rikyu to tend the garden. Eagerly Rikyu set to work. He raked the garden until the ground was in perfect order. When he had finished he surveyed his work. He then shook the cherry tree, causing a few flowers to fall at random onto the ground. The Tea Master Joo admitted Rikyu to his school.”
What does this mean? Beauty is ineffable? Town Planning might be more complex than we first thought; the ingredients of an interesting place to live are beyond conscious effort? Taming perfectionism is an approach to producing great work? Elegance might be a product of goofiness or of the half-baked idea? Here’s a modern-day fable for fans of wabi-sabi:
Japan is home of the Manga, which, according to Wired, make up 22% of all printed material in Japan.
Yet the role of manga in the broader economic ecosystem is perhaps more important than its actual sales figures. Japan’s vaunted pop culture apparatus, it turns out, is really a manga industrial complex. Nearly every aspect of cultural production — which is now Japan’s most influential export — is rooted in manga. Most anime (animated) movies and television series, as well as many videogames and collectible figures, began life as comics. Dragonball — now a multibillion-dollar international franchise comprising movies, games, and cards — debuted as an installment in Weekly Shonen Jump in 1984. Uzumaki Naruto, the protagonist of the mega-property that bears his name, first showed his blond ninja head in the pages of the same magazine eight years ago. Trace any of Japan’s most successful media franchises back to their origins and you’ll likely end up inside a colorful brick of newsprint, where 20 pages of exquisitely matched words and drawings tell the inaugural story.
But manga has become a bit like network television in the US. It reaches a wide but inexorably shrinking audience. Weekly magazine circulation is on a steep and steady downward slope; book sales are no higher than they were a decade ago despite a rise in population. Still, manga is more influential in Japan than network television is in the US. Comics occupy the center, feeding the rest of the media system. If they dry up, other media players risk losing their deepest and most vital source of material. If manga gets creaky, and by all accounts it is heading that way, it could undermine Japan’s entire pop culture machine. What the industry needs is something that can rescue it from decline — a force that can reenergize its fans, restock its talent pools, and revive its creative mojo. The sound of those flapping backpacks may herald the arrival of that savior.
Enter the doujinshi, usually amateurs, who produce their own versions of the original manga. In 2007, the doujinshi sold manga worth 277.3 billion yen, a good proportion of them breaking copyright rules. Why don’t the lawyers get involved?
“Obviously, there are copyright issues at play here,” Ichikawa said. When the markets expanded beyond the clutch of early adopters in the 1980s and 1990s, publishers and authors made threatening noises, and some accused successful dojinshi circles of violating copyright law. But lately, as the markets have reached such enormous scale, the big publishing houses have taken a different approach.
“This is something that satisfies the fans,” Ichikawa said. “The publishers understand that this does not diminish the sales of the original product but may increase them. So they don’t come down here and shut it down.”
“Is that something publishers have told you?” I asked.
No, he said, not exactly. “This is something very Japanese. It’s an ancient sensibility — like the wabi-sabi of the tea ceremony.”
In case you missed the wabi-sabi lecture back in high school, it means something like “aesthetic transience.” I asked Takeda about it.
As recently as a decade ago, he told me, creators of popular commercial works sometimes cracked down on their dojinshi counterparts at Super Comic City. “But these days,” he said, “you don’t really hear about that many publishers stopping them.”
“Why not?” I asked.
They have an understanding, he said, using a phrase I’d encounter again and again: anmoku no ryokai, meaning essentially “unspoken, implicit agreement.”
“The dojinshi are creating a market base, and that market base is naturally drawn to the original work,” he said. Then, gesturing to the convention floor, he added, “This is where we’re finding the next generation of authors. The publishers understand the value of not destroying that.” And as the manga weeklies falter and decline, new talent is more important than ever. Meanwhile, Takeda said, the dojinshi creators honor their part of this silent pact. They tacitly agree not to go too far — to produce work only in limited editions and to avoid selling so many copies that they risk cannibalizing the market for original works.
“Obviously,” Takeda said, “this is something that no one comes out with a bullhorn and states.”
Japanese lawyers seem to understand that some things are too complex to control or, at least, that attempts to control and simplify may destroy the beauty (ahem, the ‘value’, cough) of the things they’re trying to defend. They show an understanding of obliquity. Wabi-sabi is the opposite of the Pyrrhic Victory - it’s a triumphant surrender? This seems, somehow, too neat an idea, too symmetrical.
In The Son Also Roses, an episode of King of the Hill, Bobby disappoints his all-American dad, Hank Hill, by giving up on gridiron and taking up rose-cultivating. Hank is initially disappointed but comes round to the idea when he realises that growing roses can also be a competitive sport:
BOBBY: This one’s pretty.
HANK: Not if we go by the book. According to the checklist, this one’s perfect.
BOBBY: But I like how mine’s a little off-center. It’s got wabi-sabi.
HANK: You can’t win an argument by making up words.
BOBBY: Wabi-sabi is an Eastern tradition, Dad. It’s celebrating the beauty in what’s flawed. Like the crack in the Liberty Bell or the mole on Cindy Crawford’s face.
HANK: The Liberty Bell is great. But come on, if it was in a competition with a bunch of other bells without cracks, it would lose.
Hank’s looking for his perfect rose in a checklist but this implies perfection is predictable. It’s not a uniquely Asian trait to see the folly in this.
But it seems to help. Hiroshi Suzuki’s an artist who spends weeks hammering silver to make a single form, the vase (from The Economist, print version):
His very individual approach has led him to acquire or make an ever growing number of hammers and invent new techniques. It has also required considerable bravery. Silver is expensive; hammering it demands great precision. Even so, and most unusually, Mr Suzuki does not make a plan or even a drawing. “If I did, there would be no reason to make the work,” he says. “I want to enjoy how things develop.”Wabi-sabiWabi-sabi The Beauty of Imperfection