The niche of words: Shibumi

“Shibumi, sir?” Nicholai knew the word, but only as it applied to gardens or architecture, where it connoted an understated beauty. “How are you using the term, sir?”

“Oh, vaguely. And incorrectly, I suspect. A blundering attempt to describe an ineffable quality. As you know, shibumi has to do with great refinement underlying commonplace appearances. It is a statement so correct that it does not have to be bold, so poignant it does not have to be pretty, so true it does not have to be real. Shibumi is understanding, rather than knowledge. Eloquent silence. In demeanor, it is modesty without prudency. In art, where the spirit of shibumi takes the form of Sabi, it is elegant simplicity, articulate brevity. In philosophy, where shibumi emerges as wabi, it is spiritual tranquility that is not passive; it is being without the angst of becoming. And in the personality of a man, it is . . . how does one say it? Authority without domination? Something like that.”1

In the opinion of the writer James A. Michener, in the Japanese culture there is a word which summarizes all the best in Japanese life, but it lacks a proper explanation and cannot be translated.
The term shibumi (渋み) originated in the Muromachi period, referring to a sour or astringent taste, like an unripe persimmon. Later, in the Edo period, it started being used for an aesthetic ideal of modest beauty characterized by a refined simplicity and by an effortless perfection, which can be appreciated in different fields.
In art, it is characterized by a sober structure, enriched by a subtle complexity of details which allow different interpretations. In such variety, seven fundamental elements are constantly identifiable, according to the aesthetician Soetsu Yanagi: simplicity, implicitly, modesty, naturalness, everydayness, spontaneous eventual imperfection and silence.
A similar discourse can be done for the personality, with the additional aspect of the growth process required to achieve it: it is necessary to take time to observe, read, meditate and understand, passing through knowledge to arrive at simplicity.
Shibumi can be found in everything around us, including ourselves, but trying to describe it is an attempt that goes far away from the concept of eloquent silent.


1. Trevanian, Shibumi (Ballantine Books, New York 1979)

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