Recently, for whatever reason, a number of Japanese phrases have come to my attention – either through general reading or conversations with Dan.
I’ve never been to Japan, but it is most definitely on my list. I want to witness cherry blossoms in bloom, eat some delicious ramen and meet a culture so beautifully different to my own.
The phrases and words I came across recently are difficult to directly translate, but when you dig into them, they resonate deeply. The more I found, the more I wanted to take a closer look and see what life lessons we can learn from them.
So, here are three phrases, what they mean and what lessons we can take away from them.
Wabi-sabi | 侘寂
Other than being great fun to say, wabi-sabi is an aesthetic which can be described as ‘imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete’. Wabi translates to ‘less is more’ and sabi means ‘attentive melancholy’.
Japanese tea ceremonies offer this idea up with rustic, simple and off-kilter pottery. It’s about appreciating this specific type of beauty. One that is transient, natural and even decayed. It’s accepting that nothing lasts forever.
The concept actually comes from Buddhism and the ‘three marks of existence’, specifically ‘impermanence’, ‘suffering’ and ‘emptiness or absence of self-nature’.
Here’s someone much more knowledgeable than me describing it:
“Wabi-sabi is an intuitive appreciation of a transient beauty in the physical world that reflects the irreversible flow of life in the spiritual world. It is an understated beauty that exists in the modest, rustic, imperfect, or even decayed, an aesthetic sensibility that finds a melancholic beauty in the impermanence of all things.”
What we can learn from wabi-sabi: That we don’t have to make everything perfect or fit the typical ‘beauty’ ideals. That there is beauty in imperfection and decay. That wabi sabi is better than wasabi (that last one might be a matter of opinion).
Mono No Aware | 物の哀れ
Translated this can mean ‘the pathos of things’, ‘an empathy towards things’ or even ‘a sensitivity to ephemera’. Cool. So… what does this actually mean? Essentially, it means an awareness of impermanence, the transience of things (impermanence and transience are running themes I notice).
It’s about a ‘gentle sadness’ but also a wistfulness at this reality of life (i.e. nothing lasts forever). There is sadness behind this term, but rather than mourning the loss of something, mono no aware encourages a quiet celebration that we got to witness/have it at all. I liked a description I read online, ‘We are sighing rather than weeping.’
The concept was captured rather wonderfully by Matsuo Basho in this Haiku:
Summer grasses —
the only remains
of warriors’ dreams.
What we can learn from mono no aware: To be grateful to have experienced certain things, to have certain people in our lives and look back with a smile. To recognise that everything is temporary – both happy times and sad times. To sigh rather than weep.
Kintsugi | 金継ぎ, きんつぎ
This word describes the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold, silver or platinum. The attached philosophy is that breakage and repair is part of an object’s history. So rather than throwing it away when it breaks, it is repaired and celebrated in gold, making it even more beautiful.
It’s about not hiding or disguising flaws, but making art out of them. There’s just so much to love about this, besides the pretty pottery.
What we can learn from kintsugi: Our breaks are part of our history. Don’t hide them, don’t disguise them. Make gold out of them and be proud of your humanity, because that’s what ‘flaws’, ‘imperfections’ and ‘broken bits’ are. They’re human. And, they’re beautiful.
The more I learn about the way Japanese culture views the world, the more I want to go. Are there any other words or phrases I could add to my list?