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The Japanese Aesthetic of Wabisabi (侘寂) by William Milberry

The Japanese Aesthetic of Wabisabi (侘寂) by William Milberry

Much of William Milberry’s photography is influenced by the Japanese aesthetic sense of wabisabi (侘寂).

Wabisabi is a guiding aesthetic that can be found across all areas of Japanese culture, art, design, and even in traditional performing arts.  It’s marked by an appreciation and acceptance of imperfection and transience.  Author Richard R. Powell says “Wabisabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities:  nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”  The origins of this line of thought can be traced back to Buddhism (a dominant religion in Japan), which stresses similar concepts.  So it’s somewhat natural that people who live with a Buddhist world view would find objects that match these ideas as “beautiful.”

Common traits found in the wabisabi aesthetic are simplicity, modesty, and austerity.  In terms of manifestation of wabisabi, you see a lot of asymmetry, roughness, and a lack of complex design or pre-planning.  This aesthetic is applied by the Japanese to many things such as ceramics, paintings, photography, architecture, and even traditional music and theater.

Japanese sake flask exhibiting wabisabi aesthetic
Japanese sake flask exhibiting wabisabi aesthetic

As a westerner, I would say that many western aesthetics view things that are carefully designed, perfectly crafted or that have an eternal quality as “beautiful.”  (Perhaps this is influenced by many monotheistic western cultures’ ideas about the eternity and perfection of God  and heaven?)  Wabisabi, on the other hand, embodies an appreciation for things despite their imperfections.  Imperfections include wear acquired by time (like weathered wood or patina on metal), or artifacts leftover by the process that something was created by. Beyond just imperfection, in line with Buddhist thought, things that are transient and impermanent are also seen as especially beautiful.  Expression of this focus on transience can be seen in arts like Japanese Ikebana (flower arranging), where the beautiful arrangement will be short lived due to the nature of flowers.  Also a preference for transience can be seen in the choice of subject matter in art (short lived cherry blossoms, fleeting moments in life, etc.), and even key elements in stories and movies (particularly in period pieces such as samurai movies.)

The sake flask in the photo to the left is an example of wabisabi aesthetic.  It’s one of my personal favorite items which I found at a flea market in Fukuoka.  It is uneven and worn, yet still elegant and balanced.  I see it and appreciate it’s creation and long history rather than feel put off by it’s sunken in sides and heavily worn, uneven glaze.

Not every uneven, crooked, or imperfect thing is admired under the idea of wabisabi.  It must garner a sense of tranquility or almost spiritual thoughts.  The “defects” as it were, are often quite intentional or allowed to be there as a testament to an objects creation or history.  There is an art to imperfection.  There is an intuitive understanding and something intangible communicated in a perfectly uneven teacup made by one of the respected ceramic artists of Arita, Japan, which, is probably not present in a crooked teacup made by someone who simply doesn’t know what they are doing.  There is a deep sense of presence in dark, grainy photos taken by Moriyama Daido which probably isn’t present in a photo snapped by someone who doesn’t actually see the world in line with this aesthetic.

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In what ways does wabsiabi relate to Japanese photography?  At first glance the photos of many of the noted Japanese photographers like Moriyama Daido, Nobuyoshi Araki, and Shomei Tomatsu are not “beautiful” in the typical western sense I was used to.  They are not carefully composed, don’t have pinpoint focus, and are often not well exposed.  Their subjects seem to have little setup and are fleeting moments that would be impossible to go back and catch again.  Contrast this is with noted western photographers like Ansel Adams or Annie Leibovitz whose works are carefully planned, composed, focused, and executed.  While these may be arbitrary examples that illustrate my point, I think they do demonstrate the general preference for and pattern of wabisabi ideas in Japanese photography/art, and the preference for a “clean” more “carefully crafted” style of western photography/art.

Shinjuku Plus - Moriyama Daido
Shinjuku Plus – Moriyama Daido

When I lived in Japan I wanted to learn more about Japanese photographers.  I would browse photobooks (of which there are many), in the local book stores.  I was disappointed at first and thought that the Japanese had failed to master photography techniques.  Still, I wanted to buy a few books for my collection, so I bought Moriyama Daido’s book Shinuku Plus.  When I slowly looked through it, I slowly began to understand.  The photos together told a story without words, they drew you into the time and place where they were taken.  After feeling this for the first time I started to appreciate the individual images because I no longer focused on what they weren’t (clear, sharp, detailed), but I learned to focus on what they offered.  I had discovered, at least in part, the aesthetic of wabisabi.

While I enjoy a well executed photo, I feel more free to look beyond the surface now.  Japanese photographers often seem to look into their subjects and reflect what they feel more than focusing on capturing the subject to present to your eyes.  It’s a very different way of appreciating the world.

I plan on writing more articles about Japanese culture and Japanese photography.  It’s something that I have fallen in love with and think that English speakers have had limited exposure to.

by Moriyama Daido
by Moriyama Daido

Article by William Milberry.
Click here to see additional posts tagged with wabisabi

Fukuoka Sunset

Fukuoka Sunset

I went to Fukuoka to see a friend who was returning to the U.S. the next day off. Before meeting him I was walking around a bit and there was a beautiful, orange, sunset. I only had my little point-n-shoot camera, but I used it’s manual controls to capture it as best I could.

Fukuoka Sunset Streetlight by William Milberry
Fukuoka Sunset Streetlight by William Milberry
Fukuoka Sunset Fisherman by William Milberry
Fukuoka Sunset Fisherman by William Milberry

 

南無妙法蓮華經

南無妙法蓮華經

I’ve always been a fan of Buddhist art.  I would often go on long scooter rides through the countryside and every time I saw a temple I’d stop to explore and photograph it.

(c)2013 - William Milberry

The Temple Gate

The Temple Gate

To the southwest of the town I lived in there was a Buddhist temple that always caught my attention when I passed it.  The side of the road dropped off steeply and about 2 stories down was the temple with a cemetery next to it.  The day I took this photo I stopped by with one of my vintage cameras (I can’t recall which one, it might have been my Super Ricohflex).  While walking around the temple grounds, an old Japanese lady saw me.  I politely asked her if it was OK for me to be there and shoot photos?  Rather than asking me what country I was from as so many from my rural area impulsively did, the old lady smiled at me and started telling me about the history of the temple.

According to her the temple burnt down a long time ago and was rebuilt.  The gate was the only original part that survived.  She suggested that I take a picture of the gate, which turned out to make a nice photo:

The Temple Gate - William Milberry
The Temple Gate – William Milberry
Class is out

Class is out

One of the schools I taught at in Japan was large (~1,000 students) and old.  The decades had worn on the main classroom building quite a bit.  Students were moved to temporary buildings as the main building was scheduled to be demolished and rebuilt, adhering to new earthquake resistence standards.

The number of memories held by these walls must be uncountable … first loves, best friends, fights, successes, failures.  No matter what memories one winds up carrying away from their high school experience, it is an extremely rich time in our lives in terms of memories, experience, and development.  Japanese, who culturally have very strong group identity, seem to feel particularly strong about their schools.  I wonder how the graduates of this school feel about it’s demolition?  Is it the end of an era,or the rebirth and continuance of it?

Given the native Japanese religion of Shintoism’s views on renewal, my guess is that most would look upon it positively.  The main national Shinto shrine, located at Ise, actually has it’s main building torn down and rebuilt every 20 years.

My guess is that while the buildings wall’s seem full of memories, the actual holding place of the memories is in the existence of the school.

(Shot on film – Kodak 400tx @ HC110)

Engrish

Engrish

You might come across humorous photos of “Engrish” (misspelled or misused English in Asia), on-line.  But unless you’ve been there (Japan in particular), you might not know how truly abundant it is.  Everywhere you turn you find English on signs.  It’s not so much because people understand English, but because it’s trendy to use.

When used in this fashion, it seems that limited effort is put into forming good English (which is surprising because the Japanese are very meticulous and capable people who study English as a regular subject in Jr. and Sr. high school.)

Japanese cemetery – Infrared composite

Japanese cemetery – Infrared composite

In my last post I commented on how the Japanese follow both Shinto and Buddhist traditions at the same time.  One place where you see Buddhist beliefs is in funeral and death related rituals.  The Japanese cremate their dead and places the ashes into family tombstones.  I’ve been told that in Buddhist beliefs cremation is a way to free a person’s soul or karma.

This is a photo of a Japanese cemetery.  The color is not a digital effect, but rather the result of a technique that combines infrared and color light to make the photo.  Plants strongly reflect infrared causing them to stand out dramatically in infrared photos.  A normal color photo is made by combining red, green, and blue light.  What I’ve done here is combine infrared, green, and blue.

Religion in Japan

Religion in Japan

I lived in Japan for a long time and religion there is somewhat different from the typical western idea of religion.  In Japan the simple, native, nature based, Shinto religion co-exists with Buddhism.  On some special holidays and festivals (Setsubun, 7-5-3 Festival, and New Years for instance), the Japanese go to Shinto shrines and pray or partake in Shinto rituals, and for other events.  On other special times, such as the Obon Festival and funerals, the same people go to their Buddhist temples to partake in Buddhist traditions.  The two religions co-exist and are not mutually exclusive.  If I had to describe how this works I would say that Shinto takes care of people’s daily spiritual needs and focuses on this world, while Buddhism takes care of their soul’s spiritual needs and gives them a larger philosophy about things such as the afterlife.  This dual belief system doesn’t conflict, but rather compliments very nicely.   It some ways it seems as if it can address more topics than some mono-theistic religion such as Christianity, which often have difficulty in saying clear things about this world, often requiring the practitioner to simply rely on faith and focus on the next world or afterlife.  This of course is only my perspective.

There are Shinto shrines EVERYWHERE and people visit them often to pray.  But if you ask Japanese people, they will tend to say that they are not religious.  Shinto and Buddhism seem to me to be very personal religions where practitioners often visit temples or shrines on their own time to pray individually and as needed as opposed to many Western religions which focus more on services that groups attend at set times.  I often found this a little perplexing as the Japanese are an extremely group oriented culture while western (Christian) cultures tend to me more individual.

This is but one of many Shinto shrines in the small town where I lived.  This was on the outer edge of town, along a river, a very pleasant 25 minute bicycle ride from my apartment.  Typically on the path or road leading to the shrine you’ll find a big cement arch called a “torii.”  The shine will have a rattle or a bell that you ring by shaking the rope hanging from it to get the attention of the deity you are praying to, then you pray while standing at the steps at the front of the shrine.  Often a holy object is protected inside in an alter in the back.  A common holy object is a mirror which I believe symbolizes the deity enshrined.