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  • John Barr

Sabi (A Matter of Life and Death)

Sabi is an important concept in Japanese aesthetics that can be difficult to grasp because there is no directly equivalent word in English. It refers to the subtle beauty that can come with age, patina, fading. I touched on it in my previous post (Katsura: All Things to All Men) where I described it as elegant decay but it has a depth of meaning that cannot be adequately conveyed by any single phrase in English…

The Meaning of Sabi

When trying to understand a Japanese word it is useful to start with an examination of the kanji character used to convey its meaning. Phonetically, the word sabi can mean rust or it can mean the ‘elegant decay’ (my term) that we are trying to understand here. The two are clearly related, as rust itself is an embodiment of age and patina. But the sabi that means rust and the sabi under discussion here, although sharing the same pronunciation, are written using different characters. The character used for rust is 錆 (sabi) and conveys merely oxidised metal. The character used for the concept being discussed here is 寂 (sabi), which carries a variety of meanings including: quiet, mellow, mature but also, when used in combination with other characters, lonely, solitary, desolate, silent, still. For example, when converted into an adjective 寂しい (sabishii) it is usually translated as lonely.

Here it is useful to understand the different ways in which adjectives are used in English and Japanese. In English the adjective could be applied to the person (I am lonely). In Japanese it is applied to the situation or scene being experienced or viewed by the person. When something is described as sabishii it may engender feelings of loneliness, loss, sadness, etc. in the person experiencing or viewing it, but it is important to understand this shifting of emphasis onto the situation, scene or object if we are to fully grasp the meaning of sabi. When an object is described as possessing sabi, it conveys much more than the physical properties of age, patina, fading, silence, stillness; it means that the object also has the power to call up in the viewer those emotions of loneliness, loss, sadness, maybe nostalgia.

In Western culture these qualities might seem like something to be avoided rather than to be sought, but not in Japanese culture which, from the transience of the fallen cherry blossom to the faint sadness of mountains wreathed in mist and rain, has always valued them. When asked in a poll to describe the ideal circumstances in which to sing enka* most Japanese said: In the rain.

*Enka is a type of song and is the Japanese equivalent of Country and Western. Both genres are similar in their use of a formulaic musical structure and in the themes and emotions that they explore. Enka is sometimes described as Japanese Blues but can only be compared to Blues to the extent that Country and Western can. I’ve attached some links to enka performances at the end of this post. Check out a few examples; you’ll soon get the idea.1

Sabi in Architecture

Sabi requires time to develop. Usually it cannot exist in new things, but the potential for sabi can be built into new things or, equally, can be excluded.

Sabi is not a style, nor does it depend on any particular style. It might be thought that sabi is always related to some kind of traditional style but to do so would be mistaken. Modernism can possess sabi, just as modernism can evoke loneliness or sadness or any of the other emotions listed earlier.

I recently visited the town of Kurume, in Fukuoka Prefecture, where I photographed two examples of sabi in architecture, one traditional and one modern. Both are temples:

Bairin-ji is a Zen Buddhist Temple founded in 1621 and famous for practising a particularly stringent form of asceticism. It served as the temple for the Lords of Kurume, the Arima family, and is home to the family tombs, which provide much of its atmosphere.

Tokuun-ji is a small and rather cultish-looking Buddhist temple mostly known for housing the grave of Den Inoue, who, as a young girl, developed the fabric dyeing technique known as Kurume Kasuri, and I went there specifically to see the ossuary building designed by Kiyonori Kikutake in 1965.

Bairin-ji : Sabi in quiet form and patina.

Bairin-ji : Sabi in the beauty of something imperfect.

Nature disrupts man-made perfection and both are enhanced.

Bairin-ji : Sabi in the signs of age: in the monuments, in the trees, in the buildings.

Bairin-ji : Sabi in the whole environment. Everything is muted; everything is faded.

Bairin-ji : Sabi is present not only in the detailed marks of age; a scene can possess sabi.

Bairin-ji : Sabi in the simple elegance of a single, bare lightbulb.

Tokuun-ji : Sabi in understatement. There is no superfluous gesture in this building.

Tokuun-ji : Approach to the entrance, from which viewpoint the whole building appears to be levitating.

Tokuun-ji : Sabi in acceptance. What once must have looked like an alien spaceship hovering between staying and going has settled into its place.

Tokuun-ji : Sabi has rendered gravestones and building almost identical.

The ossuary building at Tokuun-ji has weathered to look almost identical to the gravestones that surround it and this is due to Kikutake’s choice of material. He could have chosen any number of materials but he chose concrete, and concrete of an open texture that would accept the growth of moss and lichens in the same way as the gravestones that surround it. The later trend in Japanese architecture, ultimately perfected by Tadao Ando, is for a smooth, tight-faced concrete that is virtually impervious to water and to the establishment of any kind of growth or patina. This is concrete that starts perfect and is designed to stay perfect. It rejects sabi. In my previous post (Katsura Imperial Villa: All Things to All Men) I included an image of sabi at Ando’s Museum of Literature in Himeji. I took that photograph back in 2008 simply because I thought it made a rather beautiful image, but the staining was not the result of natural weathering. It was an anomaly, the result of a water leak and I’m guessing that if I went back today I would find that the leak has been repaired and the staining removed – returned to perfection.

The end result at Tokuun-ji and Himeji Museum of Literature might be similar but the intent is different. Kikutake built-in the potential for sabi, we could say the inevitability of sabi. But Ando and most contemporary Japanese architects have rejected sabi by choosing clean-cut materials that will resist weathering or, if they do weather, will be easily cleaned and restored or replaced. Doubtless there are sound practical, or even contractual, reasons for this but a key element in Japanese aesthetics is being lost in the process. Actually, a key element in Japanese thought is being lost: the relationship with nature; the idea that humans, and human endeavours, are part of nature and the acceptance, even celebration, of nature's disruption of man's attempts at perfection.

Imagine if it were different. Imagine if Ando’s Chikatsu-Asuka Museum, for example, had been built using the kind of concrete used by Kikutake at Tokuun-ji and allowed to weather in a similar way. The Chikatsu-Asuka Museum is a monumental and powerful piece of architecture set amongst ancient ceremonial burial mounds (kofun), but for all its power it doesn’t speak to us about the essence of the kofun: the passage of time, decay, death itself. And, because it doesn't speak to us about the passage of time or decay or death, neither does it speak to us about life.

Chikatsu-Asuka Museum, Minamikawachi, Osaka, Tadao Ando, 1994.

Chikatsu-Asuka Museum re-imagined.

Sabi in The Imagination

From all the examples I’ve used to try to get at the meaning of sabi it might seem to be a phenomenon that can only be manifested physically, but I do not believe that to be the case. I believe that sabi can exist in ideas; I believe that sabi can occur in literature for example. The following extract is from Osamu Dazai's novel The Setting Sun and, for me, it is the epitomy of sabi:

The wool is of a somewhat faded rose… The pale rose wool originally came from a scarf that mother knitted for me twenty years ago, when I was still in elementary school. The scarf was very different in colour from the scarves my school friends wore… I felt so ashamed to be seen in it that I refused to wear it again, and for years it lay hidden away in a drawer somewhere… It was only while I was knitting that I realised the pale rose of the wool and the grey of the overcast sky were blending into one, making a harmony of colours so soft and mild that no words could describe it… The wool I held in my hands became vibrant with warmth, and the cold rainy sky was soft as velvet… Mother had chosen the pale rose wool because she knew just how lovely it would look against the snowy winter sky…2

You might say that, if sabi exists in Dazai's text, it is only through images of the physical embodiment of the wool and sky. It's true that those images, by themselves, embody sabi but I believe it goes much deeper. The whole episode, indeed the whole book, resonates with loss, with revelation that only comes with the passage of time, and with deep sabi. It is a beautiful passage and, if you want to take away from this post an idea of sabi, I believe this is as good as any.

1. Below are links to some enka performances. To the untrained ear these

may sound like different lyrics all set to the same tune but they are actually all


2. The Setting Sun, Osamu Dazai, translated by Donald Keene, published by Charles

E Tuttle (1956).

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