“Iki, wabi-sabi, what now?” – The language of Japanese aesthetics

Language is a fascinating thing. There are so many different ways to express certain things. Nowhere is this more apparent than when dealing with multiple languages. Often, there is no way to translate a kimono-specific word into English, because there’s not been a need for it. Loanwords are a fantastic solution for most of these, things that can easily be clarified with a glossary or reference chart with a short definition.

Sometimes, however, a simple glossary isn’t enough. These concepts are more abstract and can’t easily be translated into English or explained in a sentence or two. I thought it would be both useful and interesting to break down some of the more common terms or expressions that often get used when describing certain styles. I use several of these, and they’re more complex than any floating tool-tip or single line definition, so here they are collected in one easy reference.

Iki – いき

The concept of iki evolved from the streamlined and urbane sense of style of the merchant class during the Edo era. In stark contrast to the overly ornamented, almost gaudy fashions worn by samurai and the ruling classes, a sense of iki evolved from simple colours and patterns and thoughtful unexpected touches. A sense of refinement would be clear in the quality of fabric and attention to detail more than flamboyant colour and embroidery. Think of the fashionably effortless appeal of a young Parisian woman, and there you will find a western analogue for iki.

Wabi-Sabi – 侘寂

Wabi-sabi is probably the aesthetic term most commonly referenced in English when discussing Japanese style. Here in the west, it has almost come to mean “anything Japanese”, but in reality it has a more precise usage. When something is truly wabi-sabi, it embraces the fragile imperfection of nature. It evokes a sense of transience, a slight roughness of aspect that reminds us all of where we came from. Raw slubbed silk, uneven handmade pottery, naturally winding and twisted branches are all wonderful examples of wabi-sabi.

Shibui – 渋い

Shibui is quite possibly the most straightforward of these terms. Like a sense of excellent, refined taste, shibui is simple and elegant, again focusing on quality craftsmanship and sparse lines. If iki is a stylish young woman, shibui is her refined grandmother. Unlike some of the others mentioned here, shibui may aim for perfection, but with the implicit understanding that it will never be fully achieved. Subtle but exceptional decoration and luxurious fabrics and materials are essential here.

Mono no Aware – 物の哀れ

When you think of the fleeting, ephemeral beauty of the short-lived sakura blossom, appreciating the moment all the more because you know it’s going to be over soon, you’re experiencing mono no aware. There is a distinctly Japanese awareness of the constantly changing essence of the natural world around us, as evidenced by the seventy-two micro-season calendar.Mono no aware not only acknowledges the impermanence of things, it focuses on that impermanence, as well as the wistful feelings it engenders.

Mottainai – もったいない

A bit of an outlier, mottainai isn’t a sense of aesthetics so much as a general philosophy of regret about waste and excess. It comes into play especially when it comes to vintage pieces, which are often remade into new things. It’s very common to find fukuro obi that may have been stained or are too small converted into hanhaba obi or tsuke-obi. Less common but still frequent are conversions like turning a kimono into a haori, or into a western-style dress. There is beauty in the history of a garment, and in giving it new life instead of creating more waste. This becomes more and more vital as a preservation method as traditional techniques start to die off, and a way to protect our increasingly fragile environment.

Kawaii – かわいい

If you’ve spent any time on the internet, odds are you’ve encountered kawaii. It’s absolutely a more modern concept than the others mentioned here, and may not necessarily be as relevant in the world of kimono, but it’s definitely starting to have more of an influence. We’re seeing more pastels, more frills, more lace, than ever before. Kawaii as an aesthetic isn’t just “cute”. It’s cute beyond cute. Cute as a lifestyle choice. It’s about embracing the youthful and girly in a way that can feel almost subversive in a world that encourages us all to grow up fast.

Are there any other terms like this you think should be included? Something you’ve heard or read but aren’t sure about? Please leave a comment below!

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