Shibui 渋い


A speech delivered by Sen no Ikkyu III at an international aesthetics conference to a group of philosophers.


Good day to you Ladies and Gentleman. It is with great pleasure that I talk to you today about a remarkable aesthetic concept peculiar to Japan. The Japanese term this concept “shibui”.


The root form of shibusa is shibu, which means “persimmon juice” – or on a more subtle level, the astringent taste of persimmon juice . . . a taste that has a remarkable affinity which the Japanese view of aesthetics and ideal form of human behaviour.


In aesthetics and matters of taste, shibu is extrapolated to an adjectival form, shibui, which means “astringent” and/or “sour” and the noun form, shibumi, which implies a deep spiritual quality.


When used as an adjective, shibui refers to an object or scene that is “simple”, “rough”, “refined” to the ultimate degree. The taste of the powdered green tea used in the tea ceremony is described as shibui. The taste of very dry, tart wine is also described as shibui, as is a very sober kimono, necktie or suit.


When used in the sense of sour, the connotation of shibui may relate to either taste or appearance, as in sour, sullen looks, the latter being conspicuously represented in many noh masks, and, until recent times, was a facial expression that was characteristic of many older men.


The Japanese have traditionally strived to achieve the shibui character in their arts and crafts – a quality that can be described as a restrained, elegant beauty – and to reject things that did not reflect this element. To their chagrin, many American manufacturers discovered this when they first started trying to export U.S.-made products to Japan in the 1970s.


This philosophical, cultural orientation toward “shibui-ism” eventually permeated the Japanese concept of ideal behaviour – behaviour that was meticulously restrained, highly refined, precisely coordinated, and, with the exception of drinking occasions, sober to the point of being sour.


One might stretch the reference a bit and say that the essence of Japan’s traditional culture derived almost entirely from the concept of shibui. But this is rapidly disappearing in present day Japan.


Shibusa is a further, more esoteric extension of the shibui concept in the area of human behaviour. It relates to a profound, spiritual-like feeling that results when we interact with an aged man or woman whose appearance, gestures and way of talking are tinged with shibumi.


The feelings elicited by a tea ceremony, by an aged painting, by a masterful haiku poem are described as shibusa feelings. The sight of an aged priest, who is calm, dignified and exudes both the sorrow and happiness of life, elicits shibusa feelings.


Finally, shibusa is a Buddhist concept of the cosmos – of nature and of life – that incorporates both the joy and sorrow of existence.