The Power of Japanese Cultural Ethics - Part 4

John Middleton
July 14, 2023

Wabi-Sabi (わびさび)  (侘寂 or 詫び寂び ) -  An aesthetic sense and artistic practice, permeating Japanese life with art. It is centered around the acceptance of transience, impermanence and imperfection. It extends grace to oneself, to others and to the world in general. Incompleteness or imperfection (intentional or unintentional) are supported, balanced or paired carefully with other concepts such as ikigai, oubaitori, ganbaru and gaman, to create context. The relative balance or harmony (like flavors in fine cuisine) between the various concepts are the guide to protect against one overpowering the other and creating something harmful or distasteful. In Japanese Wa is a unifying grammatical reminder as well. Words and phrases contain clues for how to harmonize, Wabi-Sabi and Watashi, the word to refer to oneself, are scattered throughout the language and usage as a way to firmly root harmony into the way a person moves through the world.

Oubaitori (桜梅桃李)-This word contains the characters for 4 blooming fruit trees (cherry, plum, peach, and apricot) that bloom in the spring and each create a riot of color that is iconic to Japan. These four-characters represent an idiom and Japanese way of being. The sakura blossom is iconic. It is represented in fabric designs and various artistic cultural concepts across Japan. Japanese people are mindful of this idea as they try to live their lives without comparing themselves to others, but instead seek to value their own unique traits. The idea is that people like flowers to bloom in their own way and in their own time. This uniqueness is held in tension or balanced and supported by other aspects of their character. The idea of a string under a specific amount of tension can become something with intrinsic and unique value and beauty. Such as the way a bow string and bow and the archer work together, or the way a musical instrument needs a specific gauge strings, specific tension, as well as a skilled artist playing it, to produce a tune.

The Japanese principle of oubaitori is a concept guiding you to a fulfilling life based a ideal based around the beauty of these four trees and the fact that they blossom for only one week in Japan.

It expresses the value that individuals have differences. And it is the tension created by these differences that enhance the beauty of a diverse community. The fact that these trees only bloom for a few weeks in the spring demonstrates that brevity and impermanence of life also enhances its beauty. Because life is fragile and brief, it should be cherished and enjoyed. The experience of contentment is only possible when we are also able to let go or recognize when something is ending and move forward to the next thing.

Kintsugi (金継ぎ, "golden joinery"), also known as kintsukuroi (金繕い, "golden repair"), is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum

How do these aesthetic concepts translate to politeness? It is the harmony it creates within a community that values or makes use of mistakes and painful experiences. A community who shares the value of supporting the individuals with in it, values the individual and seeks to mend what gets damaged. Even the something becomes damaged it still can be made beautiful and useful again. An individual can bring honor to the community by achieving aesthetic acclaim. Through the efforts of the community, to make use of the things or people within it's care, showing value to the thing or individual by bringing meaning and beauty to the damage. Individual achievement in a certain area can elevate the community by extension. It also provides a way to think about achievement in an imperfect and impermanent world. It isn't just perfection that is beautiful. Something can become more beautiful by the way we care for it when it has been damaged.

The Japanese care about simple things. Enjoying simplicity is a central Japanese ethic. It is also a path available to any culture to find contentment and community once again.

The idea of simple design is a hallmark of Japanese art and culture. It can be seen in architectural design, furniture design, flower arranging, use of space, asymmetry. It expands the definitions of art. It attempts to mirror the beauty and elegance of the natural world but on a smaller more simplistic and understandable scale.

Floral Arrangement in the Japanese style

It is expanded to treasuring the natural world, and one’s environment. Keeping things clean and orderly is a big part of this value. But there is also a way of valuing the patina of age and even a little bit of chaos. Caring for the natural world and caring for your home are parts of the same idea. When you are able to notice and recognize this it adds real value to a community. Mutual care is a big part of the intent and focus. This awareness and consideration is an extension of being Japanese.

When someone makes a mistake, or when individuals in a community fail in their duties, the community can make up for them. They will not excuse them, they continue to set high expectations and hope for better future outcomes. It is the pressure and the accommodation is what allows confrontation to take place with grace and tolerance. Creating an intentional and polite culture is not about eliminating emotion it is about refocusing our frustration and disappointment. It is not going to be perfect, these measures fail, but everyone is expected to take responsibility and then work hard to improve.

Without this unifying idea of wa, things can break down even within this fabulous and rich culture. But, indidividual differences, mistakes and grace can be brought together again in new ways when we create understanding and remember/discover how mistakes can be redeemed and transformed into useful even beatiful things once again.

It is the importance the Japanese place on balancing ideas, that makes them work. Ideas like diligence, hard work, excellence in your work, enthusiasm, and making use of mistakes help the Japanese to strive for perpetual improvement in a way that creates a vibrant and sustainable social experiences.

Interdependence is unique in asian culture. It is a more collectiveist philosophy. It is very different than our idividualist understanding in the West. Dependency of any kind is, for us, often synonymous with weakness and giving up. But in most asian and some South American cultures it there is a different understanding. Interdependence is not lack of something, but the fullest kind of benefit. When no single concept or idea dominates, but each one supports and improves the community. My kids and I have something we like to do on the weekends, movie night. It can be tricky to balance out everyone's tastes. It takes work but we all need to agree on what to watch. It's this rule we follow that allows it to be an enjoyable experience. It can create tension when one person really wants to watch something, but if we keep at it we can usually come to some agreement. Like the spokes in a wheel, or the folds in origami each attempt to balance the individual needs with the collective ones can guide us to better solutions for all.

John Middleton