25 Jan 2020
14th October 2018
Beth Kempton: 'Wabi Sabi: Japanese wisdom for a perfectly imperfect life'
Former JET Beth Kempton has written a book seeking to distil the famous and elusive Japanese principle of wabi sabi into an approach to our fast-paced world. Praised by the Sunday Times as "a truly transformative read" (and with translation rights already sold in 19 languages), Wabi Sabi: Japanese wisdom for a perfectly imperfect life also explores the concept's centricity to Japanese culture. For Beth, the book is a culmination of a two-decade love affair with Japan and an extension of her work as a life coach.
Since studying Japanese at university, Beth has had a truly diverse career. While she was a Coordinator for International Relations at Yamagata's prefectural office, she also hosted her own TV show on Yamagata cable TV and interpreted for British skeleton team at World Skeleton Championships in Nagano – something she had also done at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. Post-JET, she worked in roles relating to major sporting events, including the 2002 FIFA World Cup and 2012 London Olympics, as well as managing UNICEF’s global partnership with Manchester United.
In 2010 she struck out on her own to found Do What You Love – a company offering online courses to help people make changes in their lives, with a focus on helping creative people make a living doing what they are passionate about. She has thus far produced two series of a podcast, The Freedom Seeker Chronicles, and published her first book, Freedom Seeker, in 2017. Beth spoke to JETAA UK about the concept of wabi sabi and the book's wider themes. For JETAA UK members, she has also kindly offered a discount on her flagship Do What You Love course until 5 November: please see the newsletter.
What is wabi sabi, the concept?
Wabi sabi is a captivating concept from Japanese aesthetics, which helps us to see beauty in imperfection, appreciate simplicity and accept the transient nature of all things. It has its roots in Zen Buddhism, is deeply intertwined with nature, and in the hearts of many Japanese people is inextricably associated with the tea ceremony. Fascinatingly, there is no definition of wabi sabi in Kojien, the most authoritative Japanese dictionary (although there are long explanations for the individual words ‘wabi’ and ‘sabi’). It has long been somewhat misused in the west, to explain a particular kind of rustic, imperfect look (such as a well-worn farmhouse table or a wonky hand-crafted teacup), but Japanese people don’t use the word as an adjective. By considering it only as a description of what we see, we are missing the depth and beauty of this philosophy of how we see. Wabi sabi is also a feeling that we experience as an intuitive response to the kind of beauty which reminds us of the transient nature of life. When and where this happens varies from person to person, just as each of us experiences the world in different ways. But ultimately it’s a feeling you only get when you slow down and pay attention to small moments of beauty in the world around you.
What is Wabi Sabi, the book, about? And what inspired you to write about it?
Wabi Sabi: Japanese wisdom for a perfectly imperfect life is a deep dive into this centuries-old concept, to explore what life lessons it can teach us for the world we live in today. It is a combination of my own experiences from a twenty-year love affair with the country, and an interpretation of the beauty that lies beneath the surface of Japan, which is particularly inaccessible for people who don’t speak the language. It is both an exploration into the nuances of Japanese culture, and a handbook for living a calm, authentic and inspired life.
Can you describe the first time you feel you experienced wabi sabi? What times has the feeling of wabi sabi particularly struck you?
I can’t! For many years I have had the sense that Japanese people somehow experience the world in a different way, and that this was connected to their aesthetic sense and sensibility and gentle way of being. Over the years a few books have been published about wabi sabi in English but I felt they were missing something really important. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what, although I felt it was connected to the lovely way many Japanese show up in the world. That has stayed with me for a long time, and I have always been curious to find the answer.
For almost a decade I have been working as a life coach, helping people find new ways to navigate life and thrive doing what they love. Over the past few years I have seen more and more people struggling with self-doubt, making too many comparisons, negative self-judgement, exhaustion and overwhelm triggered by the endless pursuit of perfection. I had a hunch that there were valuable life lessons tucked inside the concept of wabi sabi, that could help us reconnect with what is true and important in our lives.
When I set out on the journey to research and write this book, I still wasn’t 100% sure what I was going to find, simply because people really do not talk about wabi sabi without prompting. However, asking the question led me to some of the most fascinating conversations I have ever had in Japanese, with people from all walks of life – from Zen monks to architects, from language professors to taxi drivers. In the end it was really a deepening of my understanding rather than a lightbulb revelation. I was finding language for something I had known about for a long time.
How can people be inspired by or draw on this principle in their daily lives? And why?
There are many ways we can interpret the wisdom of wabi sabi for our daily lives, some of which are inherent in Japanese life, others being particularly relevant in a Western context. The things we can learn include life lessons about acceptance and letting go, dealing with failure, embracing our career journeys, and ageing with grace. I have written about all of these and more in the book. Ultimately, wabi sabi reminds us to be gentle on ourselves, and treasure what we have.
Three wabi sabi-inspired principles to take into your life
(1) Change is inevitable, so trying to hold on to the past or present is pointless. Be open. Your life is happening right here, right now.
(2) Nature reminds us of the transience of our own lives. Paying attention to the passing of the seasons is a way to stay present.
(3) The only true perfection is found in fleeting moments of beauty. Cherish each one.