20 Oct 2008

Japanese aesthetics 101

It is entirely appropriate, I am sure, to begin my first foray into explaining our love of Japanese aesthetics with a children's book on philosophy.

Our home is decorated using a wabi sabi style of interior decoration. Wabi and sabi are Japanese words describing a simple organic decorating style that emanates tranquility (take a look at a room we stayed in on our last trip to Japan and you may get an idea of what I mean.)

You can see that I'm struggling here, so imagine how Wabi Sabi the cat feels one day as she overhears his mistress discussing his name with a couple of overseas visitors. When asked what wabi sabi means, the young woman replies, “That’s hard to explain.” Curious, Wabi Sabi sets out to find the true meaning of her name. Each creature she asks tells her how difficult the concept of wabi sabi is to explain, and each ends their thoughts with a little haiku poem describing wabi sabi.

It isn’t until the cat meets a wise monkey who makes her tea in a plain and beautiful bowl that the phrase begins to take on a real meaning.

A warm heavy bowl
comfortable as an old friend -
not fine, smooth china.
Wabi sabi is the feeling you get when you find harmony in the imperfect. Wabi sabi is simple, rustic, earthy, sophisticated, organic, elegant, textured and beautiful. It is peaceful, tranquil, calm.

By the end of the book Wabi Sabi truly understands her name. Perhaps by reading the book you will too.

Jemimah loved this book, but then again wabi sabi has always been part of her life and reality. As I read the book, I wondered somewhat about its intended audience. The idea of a cat searching for the true meaning of its name is something that young kids will grasp easily, but the added haiku in the text, seems to imply that the book is aimed at older children.

If you were studying haiku with your child then this book would make a natural literature link, teaching a little about Japan at the same time as learning about Japanese poetry. Normally when a child learns about haiku they are handed an anthology of poems that are separate from one another. What Wabi Sabi does is to place haiku poems within the context of a story, much the same way as many of the great haiku writers did, where short prose passages set up each haiku. Matsuo Basho, perhaps the greatest haiku writer, recorded many of his wanderings around Japan in this way, known as the haibun style.

My favourite of Basho's haiku, written in 1686 is this:

furuike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

old pond
a frog jumps
the sound of water
The haiku calms the reader - you find yourself reading with a quieter voice - and as a result, you gain some of the influences of wabi sabi just by reading about it. Maybe it will calm your children too! Finally, my very favourite haiku written by Kobeyashi Issa:

A moonlit evening
Here beside the pool, stripped to the waist
A snail enjoys the cool

You can hear the former US Poet Laureate Robert Hass reading a translation of Issa's haiku here. (Please listen before playing this to your kids!) Now, nobody could call that poetry boring!!


  1. Just got this out from the library - lovely. I had intended it for my younger two, but now I think I'll get my eldest to read it, too.

  2. Thank you for sharing these. You have a lovely blog, and I share your love of Japanese aesthetics.


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