8 Japanese Concepts To Improve Your Life.

japanese concepts principles

Japanese aesthetic principles and concepts are often hard to decipher into actionable and practical ways to help you in daily life. In this article, I’ve taken the time to identify the key principles Japanese culture has to offer and linked them to real ways you’re able to use them to help you improve your life.

You’ll also find that many of these concepts will cross over in various areas but they are all different, even if it’s subtle.

1. Yugen – Mysterious beauty

Pronunciation: Yu-gen

What is the meaning of Yūgen?

The meaning and concept of Yūgen is a profound and mysterious sense of beauty in the world. Such concepts are often uninterpretable and have to be experienced to be understood.

Yūgen is about experiencing something that words cannot or need not describe.

Here are a couple of examples that show an experience of Yūgen:

‘To watch the sun sink behind a flower-clad hill.’

‘To wander on in a huge forest without thought of return. To stand upon the shore and gaze after a boat that disappears behind distant islands. To contemplate the flight of wild geese seen and lost among the clouds.’

‘Subtle shadows of bamboo on bamboo.’

Written by  Zeami Motokiyo

As you can see, it’s indescribably moments like these that bring you closer to the universe that are the best representation of Yūgen.

How to apply it to your own life:

Trying to help someone understand how to experience something that barely has a definition is no easy task. So here is an example that represents a sense of Yūgen that you might find useful:

Cherry blossom falling from a tree – Not only is the blossom itself a beautiful sight but so is appreciating it only lasts for a short period of time and is then gone until the year after.

Evening light falling on the ground or behind the horizon – There’s nothing better to me than the spring light in Japan. I know that just like the cherry blossom, once the sun falls behind the horizon it’s gone for the day and eventually the whole year.

Enjoy the fleeting moments as much as the moments themselves.

2. Wabi-sabi – Embrace imperfection

Pronunciation: Wa-bi-sa-bi

What is the concept of Wabi-sabi?

Life as we know it is not perfect. In fact, it’s extremely imperfect. Beautifully imperfect, even. That’s the basis of the Japanese aesthetic concept wabi-sabi.

Wabi Sabi also has several pillars which I’ll point out further down the list.

Characteristics of Wabi Sabi:

The characteristics of wabi-sabi include but aren’t limited to:

  • Rough – A roughly finished pot.
  • Unfinished – A piece of artwork not yet finished.
  • Broken – A broken ornament still holds its beauty with wabi-sabi.
  • Simple – Just because something is simple doesn’t mean it’s not beautiful.
  • Modest – Something can be modest and beautiful at the same time.

How to apply it to your own life:

Learning to appreciate the beauty that is imperfect is the first step to introducing wabi-sabi into your own life.

We are constantly bombarded with other people’s perceptions of beauty and more often than not it shows something, or someone, in pursuit of perfection.

Examples of the Wabi Sabi aesthetic you come across in your own life might include:

  • Rust on a metal wall
  • Cracked pottery
  • Dried or dead flowers
  • Moss on a path

Learn to abandon your opinions of ‘Perfect’ and begin to see beauty where it was never meant to be found.

After attempting to incorporate Wabi Sabi virtues into my life for the last few years, I now know how humbling and grounding the whole experience can be.

It’s extremely easy to get caught up in all the bad that goes on in the world and whilst Wabi Sabi won’t fix any of that, it will absolutely make you thankful for what you do have.

If you’re interested in further reading I highly recommend ‘Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a perfectly Imperfect Life‘ By Beth Kempton.

It’s a really easy read, and with so much to discuss about the topic, it’s probably nicer to read a book than look at something on a computer screen!

3. Kanso – Understated beauty

Pronunciation: Kan-so

What is the meaning of Kanso?

Kanso is one of the 7 pillars of Wabi Sabi that’s all about living a simple, clutter-free lifestyle.

As we’ve learned above, Wabi Sabi helps us understand how most things in life are temporary and that we should find beauty through all paths we take in life.

Therefore we should do all we can to live in the moment which includes keeping our homes (and mind) as clean and simple as possible.

How to apply it to your own life:

Go through your home and strip it down to only things that bring you true happiness.

Remember also that all attachment leads to suffering and nothing is permanent.

Really try and be brutal with this. If you aren’t into minimalism then it will be especially hard, but that may be the reason you need it in your life even more.

Maybe it’s time to let go of those few things that you’re keeping just for the sake of it.

Clean house, Clean mind!

4. Shizen – Nature

Pronunciation: Shi-zen

Like a lot of the words on this list, Shizen is not easy to explain.

1,000s of years ago during the late Heian and early Kamakura periods in Japan ‘Nature as we know it in the west was considered crude, rough, and untamed. Japanese bonsai and gardens were a way to bring order and peace to the landscape by human hand whilst still considering everything natural.

Whilst in the west we would describe nature as a raw and untouched landscape, that isn’t entirely similar in Japan.

‘Shizen’ or ‘Nature’ in Japan can also be described by the adjustments, contributions, or alterations of raw nature by human beings.

To this effect, Shizen could be described as the coexistence of man and nature and their symbiotic relationship. It’s how human beings interact with a raw and crude outside and work with it rather than against it.

Shizen Style has a great definition of it if things still seem a bit confusing.

“With shizen, the goal is not to replicate nature, but to eventually become one with it. It is the concept of ‘No Mind’ in which we can reach that state of flow.” – Shizen Style

“Shizen allows for human beings interpretation, contribution, and adjustment of nature to be included in the meaning.” – Shizen Style

How to apply it to your own life:

A little harder to apply to your own life than other concepts, but still possible. My advice would be to look at the world with an open mind.

For example, if you see a few trees pop up around the city center, instead of seeing these as a poor effort to go green by the council, see it as progress and an opportunity for you to co-exist with nature.

This could even be observed in the opposite way by bringing greenery into your man-made house, you’re appreciating the existence between what is natural and what is not.

It’s still nature, but just an amalgamation of man and nature working together.

5. Seijaku – Tranquility in activity

Pronunciation: Se-ja-ku

Seijaku meaning

Seijaku can be simply described as the feeling you get when you enter a state of energized calm from a period of activity. This might be a physical action or one you make only in your mind.

Examples of Seijaku:

  • Walking into a garden in a busy city
  • Keeping a calm mindset during a busy time of your life.

How to apply it to your own life:

Bring your mind back to a calm state as soon as you feel overwhelmed or life seems busy. If you’re feeling overwhelmed at work, you could use the concept of Seijaku and take a break by stepping outside if you’re able to.

Take any and all opportunities to collect your thoughts and reflect. Don’t let a busy life get the better of you.

You’ve got this. Sometimes you just have to focus your mind and take a step out of the hustle and bustle to realize it.

6. Datsuzoku – Escape from the ordinary

Pronunciation: Dat-su-zo-ku

What is Datsuzoku?

This is a Japanese principle that I think a lot of you will be able to resonate with.

Datsuzoku is the feeling of surprise and amazement that is caused when one realizes you can ‘transcend’ the ordinary and the routine.

From this realization, we can not only look at situations in a new light but also have the opportunity to change things in our life that we once thought impossible or perhaps didn’t even know needed changing.

How to apply it to your own life:

At least, break your daily patterns.

At most, transform your life.

Perhaps you’re content with your job and life, but that doesn’t mean the Japanese concept of Datsuzoku is any less relevant to you.

Maybe it just means taking a new route to work, looking at problems in a different way, or breaking a routine that isn’t 100% beneficial to your growth as a person.

Once you start to look at breaking these patterns, the concept of Datsuzoku will have attached itself to all the different ways you think about life.

If you’ve realized and potentially been surprised that certain ordinary or conventional approaches you’ve taken in one aspect of your life, you’ll understand it’s something that can continue to positively impact other parts.

For some of you, this may mean drastically rethinking your entire life and understanding that life isn’t just about working until you have enough to retire. And for others, it may be far more subtle.

Either way, Datsuzoku is a way to realize and break routines that don’t add anything to your life.

7. Fukinsei – Asymmetry and irregularity

Pronunciation: Fu-kin-se

What is Fukinsei?

Fukinsei, one of the seven pillars of wabi-sabi, is the art of being asymmetrical or irregular.

How to apply it to your own life:

This is an especially helpful concept with art or creative topics but can be approached in most parts of life too.

Letting go of preconceived notions of what it means to be ‘Perfect’ is the first step.

For example, if you’re writing any type of book you may slave over it for hours to make sure each and every line is absolutely perfect.

Whilst you should aim to be the best you can be at any given topic, Fukinsei suggests you should realize that true beauty and perfection come from something that reflects your own personality and values whether it’s completed or not.

Bonsai is another area in which fukinsei can be seen. Asymmetry is one of the most powerful concepts in creating bonsai and yet we see it as a harmonious and beautiful piece of art.

8. Oubaitori – Non-comparison

Pronunciation: o-buy-toh-ri

What is Oubaitori?

This is a really beautiful one. Oubatori gets its name and meaning from the 4 trees that bloom in the spring: cherry, plum, apricot, and peach. Each of these trees bloom and exist alongside each other for long while, and they do it with harmony. There is a specific order of things in nature and each has learned to wait its turn to fully bloom. While one is in full color, the others can respect its beauty without comparison. Everyone has their own time, and everyone is different and unique in many ways.

How to apply it to your own life:

Understand the pointlessness of comparison. We live in a time where social media has us constantly comparing ourselves to everyone else, and it’s not helpful or healthy. Your best friends might be getting married, having kids, or moving house while you’ve decided to travel around the world – or visa versa.

Following the Japanese principle of Oubaitori is about realizing what works for some, may not work for you. It’s about sticking to your own path even if everyone else is doing something different. It’s about being happy for those who are prospering in life rather than comparing yourself to them and your apparent lack of success.

Jonny Gleason

Jonny is the founder of A Day of Zen and has an unhealthy obsession with Japan. In 2022 he moved to Japan on a mission to give his audience the best possible information. He's helped over 300,000 plan their trip so far, and is eager to make that number much bigger!

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