shibui bath

The Shibui Seven Design Principles of Zen

Shibui interior of Kawai Kanjirō's Kyoto house
Shibui interior of Kawai Kanjirō’s Kyoto house (image source)

Wikipedia Definition of shibui:  

Shibui (渋い) (adjective), shibumi (渋み) (noun), or shibusa (渋さ) (noun) are Japanese words which refer to a particular aesthetic of simple, subtle, and unobtrusive beauty. This is a Western definition which aims to skim the surface of much deeper principles.


The Origins and Meaning of Shibui 

The word itself has its origins in Japan’s Muromachi Period, 1336 to 1673, when shibui was called shibushi, and meant the opposite of sweet: sour and astringent, like an unripe persimmon. But by the Edo Period, 1615 to 1868, shibui began to embody a more pleasing aesthetic. Per wikipedia,  “The people of Edo expressed their tastes in using this term to refer to anything from song to fashion to craftsmanship that was beautiful by being understated, or by being precisely what it was meant to be and not elaborated upon. Essentially, the aesthetic ideal of shibui seeks out events, performances, people or objects that are beautiful in a direct and simple way, without being flashy. ”

Shibui is said to be hard to define, but supposedly once you get it, it’s simple. Elegant, simple and intuitive. Apparently, to those in the know, shibui is what’s left after you remove all of the unwanted and unneeded elements in your design.

Its lack of rational definition comes from its Zen origins, having been used initially by Zen monks, priests, and tea masters. Zen Buddhism is strongly anti-rational in its core spiritual tenets and insists that essential knowledge is transmitted from one mind to another and not by writing or talking. Some say the hard to define qualities of Japanese aesthetic principles have been deliberately obfuscated to keep them mysterious and elusive.

Apparently, America took to the beauty of shibui in a big way, when it was first written about in August of 1960, when House Beautiful published one of its most popular issues of all time, with a front page that read “Discover Shibui: The word for the highest level in beauty.” Elizabeth Gordon, the editor the magazine, wrote about shibui, saying it “describes a profound, unassuming, quiet feeling. It is unobtrusive and unostentatious. It may have hidden attainments but they are not paraded or displayed. The form is simple and must have been arrived at with an economy of means. Shibui is never complicated or contrived.” The Smithsonian Archive calls the issue “one of the most influential ever by a design magazine.” (source

Sages and Poets Talk About shibui

Lao Tsu said:

” Those who know don’t talk.  Those who talk don’t know.”

He further said: ““

Manifest plainness,
Embrace simplicity,
Reduce selfishness,
Have few desires.” 

Here is an example of a person that is shibui by poetess Robin Morgan , in the poem from her book “Lady of the Beasts”:

shibui pottery sake cup
Shibui sake cup (image source)

“Her life is a fine piece of Japanese pottery
in the Shibui style,
so crafted that to see the cup’s exterior
is to be privy only to its dull sienna clay
and to the flavored warmth with which you choose to fill it.

But drained of all your preconceptions
you may discover the bowl inside —
a high-glazed hyacinth blue that rushes to your heart
and there remains
                                            you remember from a fortune told in tea leaves once,
                                            like a wet jasmine flower
                                            that you can never rinse away.”

Core Concepts if Japanese Beauty

Japanese Beauty is said to have four different types: hade, jimi, iki and shibui. There are more aesthetic design concepts beyond those four, like wabi, sabi, aware, and more. It’s not easy to describe beauty.

Here, in a nutshell, are all four types, just to put shibui into some sort of perspective.


Hade is youthful, flashy, energetic and bold. Singers, dancers, performers, actors are hade. They wear wild and colorful clothes and bright jewelry. They are the celebrities, the famous, the showy and ostentatious. Its style also is Harajuku youth culture and street style. Hade is the opposite of wabisabi and shibui.


Jimi is the beauty of the conservative, old money style of somber colors, traditional, trustworthy, long wearing and not concerned with fashion or style. It is timeless and the style of the establishment, where reliability and utility matter the most.  It is quiet and plain.


A Japanese sense of beauty born in the Edo period, embodied then by the elegant, but somewhat austere Tatsumi geisha, who was beautiful, fashionable, refined in dress and manners, wore minimal makeup and were known for having a good heart and frank and direct language. An iki person is neat, frank and plain, stylish and sophisticated, high spirited, urban, as it were, witty and clever. The iki type of beauty is more of a modern concept in Japan at this time, friendlier and more accessible than shibui. Its style is based on quality and appeals to the cultured and educated. You can find the iki style in furniture stores, chic restaurants and beauty magazines.


Finally, we come to shibui, the style that took America by storm in 1960 in House Beautiful, and has had its passionate if quiet following ever since, giving us homes of peace and tranquility, art of subtle yet magnetic beauty, objects of never ending pleasure and continued engagement, yet never boredom.

And so, what is shibui to usand how can we get some into our lives and homes? Shibui is the least talked about because it relies on intuition the most of all the beauties. It is easiest to explain by examples, such as, to get a shibui home, decorators spend their time taking things away till all that’s left are basic lines and shapes, and then one object of meaning is selected to balance the room, of a certain texture, color, shape, usually old. A shibui room lets people relax but inspires them to have interesting conversations. “a shibui woman draws out a thoughtful man. A shibui man listens to a thoughtful woman” (source)

Shibui is humble, natural, and simple, yet has elements of integrity that call for a second glance, arresting the eye or captivating the palate with its taste. Matcha is shibui, green and slightly bitter, but so very pleasing. Old wood siding, natural and textured, is shibui.

The best way to get our homes to become more shibui is to understand  the simplicity of it and apply it with humility and flair.

The Shibumi Seven Design Principles of Zen
Now to try to define the ineffable shibui even further:
1) KOKO Austerity: Create something that has focus and clarity. Don’t add what’s not absolutely necessary.
2)KANSO Simplicity: Beauty and Utility need not be overly fancy. Keep it fresh, clean neat. Eliminate what does not matter.
3) SHIZEN Naturalness: Incorporate naturally occurring patterns in your design, but not haphazardly. Abstract nature’s patterns.
4)YUGEN Subtlety: Limit information just enough to pique curiosity and leave something to the imagination.
5) FUKINSEI  Imperfection, Asymmetry: Let the viewer supply the missing symmetry and complete the creation by leaving something incomplete or asymmetrical. i.e. The symbol for Zen is a circle, but it is rendered never totally closed.
6) DATSUZOKU Break from routine: Reprieve from convention. A pattern of resourcefulness and creativity can emerge after a break. i.e. handle writers block by doing something else for a while.
7) SEIJAKU Stillness, Tranquility: Essence of creative energy comes in states of active calm, tranquility, solitude and quietude, i.e. after meditation. Doing something is not always better than doing nothing. (source)
Achieving Shibumi may not be easy for someone who has not grown up in a Japanese cultural environment, but these seven design principles can put you on the path. Pick out those that fit with your goals and don’t try to incorporate all of them if they don’t apply.

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