Japanese Minimalism: Wabi Sabi, Ma, and Japanese Design
The Japanese ability to find beauty in little things is famous worldwide. Marie Kondo’s best-selling book the life-changing magic of tidying up and her new Netflix show “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” sparked an international revolution in organization and interior design, driven largely by a single imperative: have less stuff.
Marie Kondo's best-seller, the life-changing magic of cleaning up
Japanese manufacturing has become synonymous with meticulous precision and quality, and Japanese brands Muji and Uniqlo have achieved rapid international success through minimalist branding and their simple, quality products.
In the arts, too, the Japanese have been admired as masters of the minimal: American litterateur Ezra Pound’s fascination with the microcosmic art of the Japanese haiku inspired whole generations of Modernist poets and artists attempting to recreate such concentrated beauty.
Japanese painting by Chikuso (1763-1830)
To understand such a simple yet abstruse concept of beauty, it is necessary to unpack two important Japanese sensibilities: the appreciation of objects and the value of emptiness.
Handled with Care: Japanese Appreciation for Objects
In Japan, one often hears the phrase mono wo taisetsu ni suru (物を大切にする- to cherish or treasure physical things). This phrase highlights not only a defining aspect of Japanese culture but also an essential lesson to impart to Japanese children.
An important part of the Japanese minimalist conception of beauty is the understanding that objects we surround ourselves with are not simply things to be used. Rather, these objects are passed down to us with a history of being and are directly involved with our human, emotional lives.
Marie Kondo’s central tenet of cleaning is to fill one’s house only with objects that spark joy; it is this Japanese mindset of cherishing objects for their affective impact that made her method so revolutionary in the West.
An important aspect of the Japanese appreciation for the history of objects is the aesthetic of wabi sabi (侘寂). Wabi can be taken to mean “imperfection,” sabi to mean “erosion” or “wear.” Yet the two terms are rarely used independently today; rather, they are used together to refer to an appreciation for that which has become imperfect through its passage through time, to the beauty of the natural blemishes conferred by an object’s existence.
Through the lens of wabi sabi aesthetics, the stones breaking out of the finely combed gravel do not break the harmony and beauty of the rock garden. Instead, it brings the image of natural imperfection and the passage of time against the unity of the garden that calls the mind to calm reflection.
It was in the spirit of wabi sabi that Sen no Rikyu scolded his son for his insufficient cleaning of their garden path. Rikyu's son had left the path spotless, but it was only when adorned with a natural scattering of autumn leaves that Rikyu found the path properly cleaned.
It is in the spirit of wabi sabi that an inexperienced Japanese maid was traditionally scolded for over-polishing the tableware, leaving the dishes sparkling and preventing the development of natural signs of use, the longed-for soft patina of age.
It is in the spirit of wabi sabi that a simple, old scroll of a few brush strokes is preferred over a colourful masterwork to decorate the traditional Japanese alcove, the toko no ma—the aged scroll blends in with the natural play of shadows in the alcove, while a new painting would draw attention to itself and break the sense of natural harmony in the room.
Empty Space for an Untroubled Soul: Ku and Ma
The other side of the Japanese minimalist spirit comes from one of the core concepts of Japanese Zen Buddhism, Ku (空 – emptiness). Ku originates from a mix of the Taoist concept of wu wei (無爲 – Non-purposiveness) and the Buddhist concept of sunyata (void).
Wu Wei - Act without Action
Taoism is a naturalist school of thought, and wu wei can be described as a spiritual state in which human will has been effaced so that the individual simply follows the natural way of being.
This is often likened to the flow of a river: the human will, to the extent that it tries to assert the self and pursue selfish goals, is as a snag disrupting the stream; a Taoist following the principle of wu wei is as a rock carried freely by the current. It is not a doctrine of simple inaction: the rock moves, and so the Taoist acts; but these actions are not of self-serving artifice, but rather of a genuine, spontaneous nature in accordance with the three central Taoist virtues of compassion, moderation, and humility.
Japanese ju-jutsu is an illustration of the spirit of wu wei in martial arts. When facing opponents, the ju-jutsu fighter seeks not to overwhelm them with his own strength, but rather follows his opponents’ movements and turns their force against themselves.
Credits: Wikimedia Commons
Wu wei comes out in Japanese minimalism in what is called “material honesty.” Rather than adding excessive decoration to disguise bare elements, minimalism presents its ideas simply. A minimalist painting of a bird would not have the bird flying into a beautiful sunset, but highlight the elegance of the bird’s own form. Likewise, a minimalist room would not drape its bed in tassels but high light beauty in its plainness.
Egrets from Quick Lessons in Simplified Drawing, 1823
Credits: Wikimedia Commons
The Buddhist concept of sunyata can refer to a quality of the universe as well as to a state of human perception. Sunyata in objects refers to the lack of essence in the universe perceived as reality. Objects and our feelings about those objects are all transient and dependent on external causes. They lack true essence, and so preoccupation with them is a distraction on the path to true awakening.
A helpful illustration can be found in the feeling of hunger. In a famine, a human’s hunger can develop to the point that it consumes their entire consciousness and erase any other human qualities the person may have had. Despite this, we can still recognize that this human’s hunger is solely dependent on the condition of their not having eaten and will pass as soon as they eat. We would never consider the hunger to be any part of that human’s essence; it is merely a circumstantial fact of their current existence. To Buddhists, current possessions, thoughts, and identity are similarly just circumstantial facts of a human’s current life compared to their eternal soul.
Buddhists aware of the sunyata of the external world can then strive to empty their mind of attachment to that world. This sunyata of thought results in a state of consciousness which mindfully recognizes its momentary perceptions and feelings without passing judgement. They simply observe, “this is this,” without applying an external value judgement.
Nagarjuna and Aryadeva as Two Great Indian Buddhist Scholastics
Credits: Wikimedia Commons
The essence of the Ku of Japanese Zen can be found in the unification of these two ideals of emptiness. The Zen practitioner seeks to achieve this spiritual sunyata through zazen (座禅 – seated meditation), a practice which depends on the effacement of self and unity with nature found in the Taoist wu wei spirit. In zazen, meditators achieve this mental purity through focusing their spiritual energy on simple, natural external stimuli – the faint trails of smoke rising from an incense stick, the peal of a singing bowl, the rustle of air in the back of the throat as breath passes through.
The art, architecture, and other representations of the beautiful culture are always closely dependent on the religious thought driving the culture. The focus on simple, natural objects in Zen meditation is critical in developing the sensibility of Japanese minimalist design. In Europe, the Christian church birthed more and more extravagant, lavish displays of beauty to embody the glory of God. Whereas, in Japan, Buddhist temples birthed an architecture closely intertwined with nature and shadows, finding respite from worldly distractions in the calming oasis of the tea room.
Left: Exterior of Saihô-ji Temple. Right: Exterior of a cathedral
Left: Interior of a Japanese house. Right: Interior of St Andrew's Catholic Church
“Negative Space”: Ma
The Zen Buddhist spirit of purity and emptiness is expressed in Japanese arts, architecture and design in the use of ma (間), meaning space, the same ma as in toko no ma.
Taoists taught that the essence of a water pitcher was found not in the glass exterior but in the empty space it surrounded. Similarly, the centrepiece of a traditional Japanese room could be found in the alcove of the tokonoma, a rare design feature that specifically designates space never to be entered despite the paradigm of the spatial economy in modern Japanese design.
Fusuma, Japanese paper curtains that partition spaces in Japanese houses, are decorated with illustrations that create shapes in the blank spaces between the brush-strokes. Famed Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu (1930- 1996) wrote that he rediscovered his Japanese influences through incorporating in his music the use of auditory ma, alternating sounds and silences, from traditional Japanese Noh theatre.m.
Manpukuji Shoin Fusuma
Credits: Wikimedia Commons
Minimalist Spirit in Modern Japan
Informed by the nation’s cultural, spiritual, and aesthetic history, the mindful use of objects and space has permeated the buildings and cities of Japan for ages, and the spirit of Japanese minimalism is thus inculcated in Japanese people by their surroundings from birth. For the cloistered Zen Buddhists of old, this simplicity represented the purity of a humble soul on the quest to free itself from worldly attachment. For the modern Japanese, it means both an economy of organization that allows for focus and quality work and cleanliness that allows us to feel at home and relax.
Japanese thoughtfulness regarding the history and future of objects manifests itself in one of the greatest mysteries to visitors of Japan: the streets of even urban Tokyo, despite being curiously free of trash cans, are spotless of litter. Jaded New Yorkers are long-used to the layer of grime and trash that covers the streets of Manhattan and do not flinch to see disarray of discarded newspapers or a pile of pretzels leftover from an overturned street stand. Yet should the wind knock over one of Tokyo’s rare recycling bins, you will see several passersby rush at once to reset the lid and restore the cans to their proper place inside the bin.
Credits: Wikimedia Commons
Against the backdrop of a flashy, modern consumerist culture, Japanese minimalism remains in Japan in a soft sensibility to beauty and a mindfulness for ordinary objects that is hard to notice if you don’t look for it.
At the same time, it is a sensibility so deeply embedded in the Japanese upbringing and in the formation of spaces in Japan that when aware of it, it is impossible to overlook.
The immaculate maintenance of public facilities and streets. The strict, specific waste disposal process. The technological optimization that designs automated convenience for all possible uses of household appliances, such as lights with customizable colour and brightness and auto-cleaning, auto-opening toilets with multiple flushing levels, both of which are standard in Japan.
The simple, modest design of the traditional Japanese room, and the hyper-efficient use of space in the modern Japanese room. The consciousness that all objects have a specific history, place, and purpose, and that they should be designed and cared for according to such, runs through Japanese culture, and it is one of the unique treasures that makes modern Japan as beautiful a place as it is.