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Japanese Aesthetic Sense “Shibui”

“Shibui” is one of Japan’s traditional aesthetics, expressing a deep-seated charm. Although commonly used to describe flavors, as for tea or wine, the term is versatile and finds its way into everyday language, describing not only taste but also colors or expressions, such as color is “shibui colors” or “wearing a shibui expression.”

The kanji character “渋” (shibu) is written as “澀” in the ancient script, and it means “difficult for water to flow through.” The astringency found in persimmons, referred to as shibu-gaki, is caused by tannins contained within. Interestingly, the perception of tannins is not a taste sensation but rather a tactile one, sensed through stimulation on the tongue. This is similar in the worlds of wine and tea; a high tannin content contributes to the perception of shibumi, astringency. In the realm of the Japanese tea ceremony, where simplicity is sought after for its beauty, and the concept of shibusa gradually evolved into a unique Japanese aesthetic.

The difference between shibumi and nigami

The distinction between shibumi and nigami lies in how they are perceived. While shibumi is a tactile sensation, felt through touch, nigami is a taste sensation, experienced through the sense of taste. The term nigai or nigami in Japanese often carries a negative connotation, suggesting an unpleasant taste. In the context of tea, nigami implies an undesirable flavor, while shibui suggests a taste with sophistication. Although in English both sensations are often encompassed by the term “bitter,” shibumi is challenging to translate directly, and it is sometimes expressed simply as “shibui” in English.


Modern “shibui”

The term shibui is commonly employed in everyday language to describe the depth and richness that develops in people or things over time. It is not used for young children or fresh items but is reserved for things that exude a profound charm from within. Additionally, the term is used in contexts such as being reluctant to spend money, shiburu, or expressing a feeling of dissatisfaction when things don’t go as expected shibui. These expressions likely stem from the original meaning of the kanji “澀,” indicating a state where water does not flow easily, conveying a sense of depth and complexity.

Shibui in crafts

In the early Showa period (1926-1989), figures such as Soetsu Yanagi and Bernard Leach who promoted mingei (folk crafts), conveyed the allure of shibusa both domestically and internationally. Beyond the realm of food, they likely inspired the impression of shibui as describing the beauty of expressions that are simple yet profound. While it is sometimes seen as synonymous with wabi-sabi abroad, it is essential to note that it is not the case that everything characterized as shibui” also embodies “wabi-sabi.” Shibui represents a beauty that emanates from deep within, and it does not always correlate with the characteristic imperfect beauty of wabi-sabi.

One of the charms of crafts lies in the beauty that evolves over time, where colors and textures transform through use, creating a profound and nuanced character. This phenomenon is precisely what we would describe as “shibui.” If the transformation through aging brings forth a sense of desolation akin to “wabi,” it can be expressed as “wabi-sabi.” However, when a subtle and gradual refinement emerges, the term “shibui” is more fitting.

As discussed in this series of columns, the concept of beauty in Japan is diverse and multi-faceted. Wabi-sabi finds beauty in imperfection, yohaku (empty spaces) appreciates meaning in space and time, and shibusa discerns beauty from depth. With the diverse climates and seasons in Japan, people have continuously found beauty in the ever-changing elements, reflecting on and enjoying life. Despite advancing urbanization and the homogenization of lifestyles, these various perspectives on beauty remain deeply rooted in daily life, and I encourage you to learn about them through crafts.


Yusuke Shibata

Editor in Chief

Yusuke Shibata (born 1981) is CEO and founder of HULS Inc. Based in
Tokyo and Singapore, and specializing in the international promotion of
Japanese crafts, Shibata is experienced in the planning and execution of
both creative and business projects.