Wabi-sabi and the essence of 'boro'

Famed Japanese author Junichiro Tanizaki devoted a considerable part of his 1933 tractate In Praise of Shadows to bashing the influx of Western technology into Japanese society, particularly into the Japanese home. He goes as far as saying that housemaids should be scolded for polishing tableware, as "we begin to enjoy it only when the luster has worn off, when it has begun to take on a dark, smoky patina." He goes on to state that "for better or for worse we love things that bear the marks of grime, soot and weather, and we love the color and the sheen that call to mind the past that made them."

What Tanizaki is referring to are the deeply rooted Japanese concepts of wabi-sabi and mono no aware, key phrases to fully understand Japanese aesthetics. Both are Buddhist in origin and refer to the transience of things, the flowing of time and a sort of rustic beauty - that imperfect and aged objects are often the most beautiful. Wabi roughly translates as "rustic simplicity" while sabi connotes beauty with age, including visible repairs (we'll get back to that later).


Traces of wabi-sabi are seen everywhere in Japan, perhaps most familiarly in pottery used in the tea ceremony but also in the seemingly symmetric Japanese gardens. As the late doyen of Japanese culture Donald Richie notes in his Viewed Sideways, "asymmetry is a fine compromise between a complete regularity and an utter chaos". The concept of mono no aware dates back thousands of years, most famously put to words by Buddhist monk cum author Kamo no Chomei in his Record of the Ten Foot Square Hut from 1212: "The river flows increasingly on, but the water is never the same water as before."

Exactly that could be said to be the selling point of Japanese boro patchwork, where mainly noragi farm clothing (such as jackets and vests) has been patched up over centuries to be passed on from one generation to the next, in the true spirit of Japanese "mottainai" culture (which means, simply put, "too good to waste"). Each piece of clothing is unique and carries with it a history of its former owners and the hardships they have endured, giving the noragi a strong sense of sabi.

Boro means "ragged" or "tattered" and its garments (sometimes also in the shape of futon mattresses andkotatsu heater covers) consist of a combination of hemp and cotton, as silk and other finer textiles were not allowed or could not be afforded by rural Japanese families, where boro originated. The method culminated before the end of World War II after it became associated with feelings of shame. This led to boro being discarded by many families and a great deal of this cultural treasure was forever lost. But as in the case with ukiyo-e woodblock prints, foreigners soon took an interest and started to collect boro clothing, and eventually Japanese collectors followed suit.

Today websites such as this one carries on the legacy, and you can even find boro style patterns in some contemporary fashion brands. Which is a refreshing thought in a world where the concept of "mottainai" has been put to waste as easily as a used paper cup, and a mentality of "out with the old, in with the new" seems to reign supreme. It would certainly make Junichiro Tanizaki roll over in his grave. As he proudly writes about his rejection of many aspects of modern fads:  "Living in these old houses among these old objects is in some mysterious way a source of peace and repose."

I think most lovers of boro textiles would agree.

This is article was writen by Dan Asenund