words to live by: 4 of 5


(Reproduced from Kinfolk magazine, volume 8.)

Shibui describes a tangy bitterness. In food, it may be undesirable – a rawness in spring mountain vegetables that needs to be cooked out, or a flavour present in unripe persimmons. When people are described as ‘shibui’, the image is of a silver-haired man in a tailored suit, with a hint of bad-boy aura about him. It is a subdued edge, an acquired taste appreciated by adults.”

Also see wikipedia.

As I have grown older I have developed a growing appreciation for people who don’t quite fit the norm. We are all unique, but some people add something to our lives that is a bit quirky or rough. I think my natural inclination since my youth has been to conformity and to like people who work within the system. Excel, yes, but conform none-the-less.

I think it was Bertrand Russell who is attributed with the quite, “All progress is as a result of the unreasonable man [sic].” As I have grown older and become more cynical about the dominant systems of our society, I have increasingly appreciated the value of the contribution of people who don’t quite fit. But I have also learned that those who operate outside the systems they wish to change, have little or no power to be part of the solution. Engagement is more potent than advocacy alone.

I confess to not fully appreciating Shibui, but I like the idea of a quality that sits a bit awkwardly within polite society. A quality of engagement but with non-conformity. Individuality, but respect. It is not the brash radicalism of youth, but a matured wisdom that speaks the truth or demonstrates an alternative way of being in the world.

Simplicity in tension with complexity. Japanese society and culture is full of such tension. Old and new, salty and sweet, rough and polished, bland and colourful, conformity and progress …

It is these tensions, when expressed through a way of living that gives rise to what we might describe as Shibui. (I think) I’d love some more understanding if anyone cares to offer some insight.