Japanese Philosophy of Living

As humans, we often seek deeper meaning and balance in our lives. Yet only some of us make it in our endeavour. Today, we will discuss two Japanese life principles of Wabi-Sabi and Ikigai, whose goal is to teach us how to make the most of what we have and leave life to the fullest. Ikiɡai is there to help us find our true calling in life, while wabi-sabi can help us embrace the decay that comes with ageing, make peace with the things we cannot change, and enjoy our imperfect lives.

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The Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi teaches us to appreciate the serenity that comes with ageing, that leaves marks on objects and humans alike. While “wabi” connotes understated elegance of asymmetric and unbalanced items, “sabi” translates into “to rust” and it celebrates the transience of life. The wabi symbolises the imperfections of objects that come from the limitations of design or manufacturing, while sabi reminds us of the mortality of everything, including ourselves. Wabi-sabi teaches us that nothing is perfect, to begin with, and that everything deteriorates with age. That’s why the wabi-sabi aesthetic favours imperfect, asymmetrical design, and items that carry the marks of a long existence of extended use.

White ceramic bowl with a chipped rim on a wooden table surface
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Image via Celia Slattery

Wabi-Sabi in Art

The wabi-sabi aesthetics has found fruitful ground in various art fields, particularly pottery. Cracked, rustic, mismatched, and asymmetrical cups are often used in Japanese tea ceremonies. There’s even an ancient art called kintsugi, in which the artist repairs cups and bowls with gold lacquer, to emphasise the beauty of cracks and damage, rather than hiding it. But the traces of wabi-sabi can be found in other artworks as well, for example, in Japanese garden sculptures surrounding the Adachi Museum of Art, or in the photographs of Shikanosuke Yagaki capturing the transitory interplay of light and shadows.

Wabi-Sabi in Architecture

Wabi-sabi architecture favours dim, simple, small houses. Instead of clean, new, sterile constructions, wabi-sabi philosophy prefers houses that look like they’ve been lived in, with all their impurities, wrinkles, and imperfections. Japanese tea houses represent one of the best examples of wabi-sabi architecture. These small, wooden buildings used for tea ceremonies, feature warm earth materials, an asymmetrical design, the lack of straight lines, and handmade flawed opening.

But wabi-sabi philosophy isn’t limited to small retreats only. Large modern buildings can follow the wabi-sabi philosophy as well. The famous Awaji Yumebutai buildings in Japan, designed by Tadao Ando are proof of that. The large complex of buildings, despite being crated almost completely out of concrete, also decays over time, as the concrete becomes greyer, and the buildings devoured by nature through the passage of time.

Organic wabi-sabi interior design of the minimalist bedroom
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Image via Japana Home

Wabi-Sabi in Interior Design

Wabi-sabi principles are often incorporated into interior design projects to emphasise the simpleness, uniqueness, and imperfection of a space. Wabi-sabi interior design values used items that age well. Instead of buying items that are vintage or look used, designers focus on buying new items and objects that age well. That means that the style favours materials that can be used for a long time and can be repaired if damaged, such as wood, clay, linen, stone, or iron.

Unique and often made from natural materials, handcrafted pieces are also a common feature in wabi-sabi design. Another way to connect to nature is by bringing plants and other organic adornments indoors. Refresh your interior with house plants, bring ornamental tree branches into your home, or decorate with scattered leaves and petals. Paint your walls into warm sandy colors, to evoke the notion of a desert or a beach.

Wabi-sabi interior requires a lot of natural lights as well. In wabi-sabi homes, you will often see bare windows without curtains or drapes. The lack of curtains gives an “imperfect” quality to the design (like something is missing) while embracing the natural light, which will help you connect to your surroundings. Not only will natural light save you money on electricity, but it will also help reduce depression and the feeling of loneliness, particularly by making you feel connected to the world. Open the windows occasionally to let the fresh air come in, carrying the scents of the outdoors inside. You can also use fragments and essentials oils, to make your home sentient.  Last but not least, since Japanese aesthetics celebrates minimalism, it’s important to declutter your home and get rid of the stuff you don’t use: clothing, furniture, even digital garbage.

Diagram of ikigai
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Image via WikiMedia


Composed of two Japanese words iki (meaning life, alive) and kai (effect, result) the term can be roughly translated into “a reason for living”. The goal of ikigai is to discover what you should be doing in life to obtain a sense of purpose. According to this philosophy, a reason for living is hidden in the centre of 4 overlapping segments: passion, mission, profession, and vocation. You will discover your ikigai by asking yourself 4 important questions: what you love doing, what you are good at, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for.

The ikigai philosophy implies that you should first find your passion and then see how what you are good at can help the world, and bring you financial safety. According to research, finding your purpose in life can help you live longer, and have a more meaningful life. It is believed that ikigai philosophy is partly responsible for the long life expectancy among Japanese people extending way past 100-years of age.

Lessons to Learn from Japanese Philosophy of Living

The principles of wabi-sabi and ikigai are inherently connected, and together can help us find happiness and balance in our lives. Wabi-sabi teaches us that we are all transient beings on this planet. By following the natural birth and death circle, the wabi-sabi reminds us that everything is prone to damage and decay. And the human body is no different. That’s why we should accept our imperfections and enjoy the ageing process rather than fight it. Ikigai, on the other hand, teaches us to spend our time wisely, by focusing on meaningful things in life. Devoting our time to building our strangest and perfecting our skills, will eventually lead to well-paid professions we enjoy, but also contribute to society as a whole.

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