W is for Wa

Wa, 和, Harmony, unity.
Used to designate traditionally Japanese concepts.

When I sat down to figure out a topic for today’s entry, I realised I had a surfeit of words beginning with W. Not just W, but “wa”. Then it hit me, these words all have the same root and explaining why that is, and what that root really means, would be a perfect subject. Rather than pick one word, I’m essentially doing all of them!

I’m sure you’ve noticed the common thread of wa- used in Japanese items. Here are some of the more common ones that crop up, especially amongst kimono collectors and fans of traditional arts and crafts. But why is that, exactly?

The character , Wa, alone is most frequently translated into English as harmony, like I mentioned above. However, it’s really so much more than that. It’s come to represent an intangible quality of a Japanese-ness, a cultural identity that defies any real definition. It’s often used as a way to distinguish the Japanese version or aesthetic of something that has a western or cross-cultural equivalent as well. For example, where yofuku means “western clothes”, wafuku means “Japanese clothes” and is used for kimono and all related bits and bobs. Yogashi are often elaborate, French-style desserts like tiny pastries and cream cakes, whereas wagashi are the iconic, minimalist, seasonal sweets made from traditional ingredients like bean paste and sakura leaves. Less frequently but becoming more common, yoshitsu can be used to describe rooms (particularly hotel bedrooms) that have a raised western-style bed and legged chairs and tables, where washitsu regularly describes the idealised Japanese room with tatami flooring, sliding screens, and seating on the floor.

There are so many more examples of words using this root, but here’s a small selection that are the most likely to crop up on this blog. This list is far from complete, but if you see a word that begins with wa and is written with theyou can be fairly certain that it’s got at least something to do with traditional Japanese arts and aesthetics.


“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!