Monday, October 28, 2013

THE JAPANESE MIND Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture


THE JAPANESE MIND Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture Edited by Roger J. Davies & Osamu Ikeno TUTTLE Publishing Tokyo   Rutland, Vermont   Singapore

In the text there was an interesting discussion about the how the modernisation of Japan has had an effect on Japanese thinking. The Wabi Sabi term stemmed from poor Japanese monks exploring the arts with humble, simple, cheap, natural materials. The whole process had a connection with Zen Buddhism and meditative discipline of mind.

Japanese culture today is highly industrialized and is quite affluent, especially compared to earlier times. Modern life and technology may contribute to the misunderstanding or ignorance about traditional cultures, religion and art forms.

I recently spent some time with my Japanese friend Maki and we discussed the idea of Wabi Sabi. For one thing there is no direct translation for English. Then she agreed that there was a whole history and nuance that was hard for her as a modern Japanese person to understand as well.

A materialistic society is perhaps opposite of what Wabi Sabi stands for. In the text they discuss that Wabi Sabi goes deeper than just surface value.


Originally, wabi and sabi were used to express the dissatisfaction of people with the difficulties of their lives; however, attitudes toward such unfavorable conditions changed under the influence of Zen. Such feelings were transformed as people began to contemplate what exists beyond manifest existence, and wabi-sabi began to play an important role in the arts as an ideal sense of beauty. Wabi-sabi is not “apparent beauty” or “atmosphere”—people can recognize these qualities only through inner contemplation which is felt unconsciously in the heart. People used to live simple lives free from materialism and had the opportunity to cultivate a sense of unity with nature. The modern Japanese lead more luxurious lives but need to realize that these lifestyles were built on other values that should not be forgotten. 229

It is interesting that out modern lives with more technology and materialism but with less nature can make us lose understanding of the Wabi Sabi meaning. I am wondering if there is possibility for a new contemporary Wabi Sabi aesthetic to evolve? Listed below from the Bibliography are the terms defined from Ohbunsha Kogojiten (Dictionary of Archaic Japanese Words, 1988.)

1. Wabu: to worry or be pessimistic, to feel lonely, to be perplexed, to be reduced to poverty, to enjoy a quiet and deserted state. Wabishi: lonely and unsatisfactory, deserted, hard and troublesome, shabby and poor, uninteresting, unbearable (Ohbunsha Kogojiten, 1988, p. 1254).
2. Sabuhas two related sets of meanings: (1) to lie in waste or go to ruin, to feel lonely, to get old; (2) to rust, to become weaker or fade, to have an elegance that comes from aging. Sabishi: quiet and lonely, discouraging because of a lack of necessities (ibid., pp. 551 & 552).

I am interested to explore in my artwork a contemporary Wabi Sabi that still evokes the above meanings but perhaps with more modern materials such as the cement I use that evoke modern day building materials with faded paint and bright colours seen in Japanese advertising. 

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