Wabi-Sabi: The Art of the Imperfect in Japanese Tea Ceremony Ceramics

Madeline Keithan


Wabi-sabi is a Japanese aesthetic practice and philosophy that grew out of and still encompasses the values of Zen Buddhism. It focuses on embracing and appreciating the imperfect, impermanent and incomplete as well as finding the beauty in the humble, simple and flawed. 

Traditionally associated with the tea ceremony, wabi-sabi was the practice of serving tea in an unpretentious environment; often accomplished through the miniaturization of the tea room, the use of humble, simple materials, and only a small number of objects for the ceremony. 

As a philosophy, wabi-sabi combines the Zen spiritual process of the tea ceremony aimed at bringing harmony and peace with the artistic idea of appreciating the incomplete. Wabi-sabi is an answer to the question of defining Japan-ness – it embodies the Japanese value of finding worth in cracks and flaws and appreciating that nothing is truly perfect or permanent.

Wabi-sabi is not just confined to tea ceremony practice, it has permeated Japanese art and is reflected even in the ceramics that are used. Here‘wabi’ is defined as quiet simplicity and ‘sabi’ as rugged agedness or mellow, experienced taste. Wabi-sabi is commonly displayed in tea ceremony ceramics through uneven edges; cracks and chips; glazes and patterns. 

Tea ceremony ceramics are both a physical representation of wabi-sabi as an aesthetic practice and a physical manifestation of this Japanese value.


During the Momoyama period, kilns throughout Japan were producing tea ceremony ceramics in accordance with their individual aesthetic principles. Iga, Oribe, and Raku are three of the most common wares fired during that era, each with its own design techniques. While they are stylistically different, those differences are actually what brings the wares together under the umbrella of wabi-sabi aesthetics. 

Iga Ware

Iga wares were traditionally made in the kilns near Makiyama in the province of Iga, which is now the Mie Prefecture in Japan. Iga ware were subject to multiple firings, and the long heat exposure caused scorch marks, sagging, and cracks to appear on the body – all of which were effects that came to be highly prized. Another effect of the long, hot firing was natural ash-glaze deposits which would appear when the ashes fell onto the objects, giving them their signature Iga green. 

Iga decorations were unique as well – objects were often decorated with stamped lattices and wavelike zigzag patterns made from spatula scraping, and glazes were intentionally drippy. Iga is also known for its asymmetrical beauty that came from deliberate distortion. 

Image Link: https://library.artstor.org/#/asset/AMICO_ASIAN_SOCIETY_103813431
  • Title: Water Jar for Tea Ceremony
  • Object: Mizusashi, Water Jar
  • Location: Mie Prefecture, Japan
  • Period: Momoyama 
  • Date: Late 16th/early 17th century
  • Material: Stoneware ceramics, clay
  • Dimensions: 9 1/2 x 7 1/4 x 7 1/4 in. (24.1 x 18.4 x 18.4 cm with cover)

This jar is an example of a freshwater container (mizusashi) used during the tea ceremony. Water stored in this container was used for replenishing the tea kettle and cleaning the tea bowls. 

Here, all the hallmarksof Iga ware can be seen: the asymmetry in the lattice stamp on the sides of the jar, the dripping glaze, the cracking and scorching on the lid, and the ash-glaze green around the top of the body. 

These design aesthetics don’t just mark this vase as Iga ware, they also make it a prime example of wabi-sabi. Even with all of the various flaws it possesses, this jar is still perfectly functional, and was often sought after to be used in the tea ceremony. Therefore, it physically represents the importance of embracing the imperfect. 

Oribe Ware

Oribe Wares were traditionally made in kilns throughout the Mino area, now known as the Gifu Prefecture in Japan. Oribe is most famous for its unmistakable copper-green glaze. Often, it was combined with cream-colored glaze and iron-red or brown underglaze designs. Decoration-wise, audacious, bold and abstract patterns were commonplace in Oribe ware, and frequently, one piece would bear several seemingly unrelated designs. Oribe ware is also known for its intentionally distorted, distinctive and irregular pieces. 

Image Link: https://library.artstor.org/#/asset/AMICO_ASIAN_SOCIETY_103813409
  • Title: Square Serving Dish with Bail Handle
  • Object: Square Serving Dish
  • Location: Gifu Prefecture, Japan
  • Period: Momoyama 
  • Date: Late 16th century
  • Material: Stoneware ceramics, clay
  • Dimensions: 5 1/2 x 8 1/8 x 8 1/8 in. (14 x 20.4 x 20.4 cm with handle)

This is an example of a serving dish used in the tea ceremony. The bail handle made it easy for people to serve themselves and was most likely used to serve grilled fish. 

This dish is a great example of Oribe ware – the bright copper-green glaze is an obvious staple of the aesthetic and the contrasting cream glaze can be seen as well. The various decorations are seemingly random, combining dots, circles and vertical lines. Interestingly, this dish also features a bail-shaped handle, another trademark of Oribe ware. 

The quirks of Oribe pottery differ from those of Iga ware, yet they both provide examples of wabi-sabi ceramics. Here, the decorations are random and unorganized and the glaze isn’t perfect, but the dish isn’t designed to be perfect. This expresses that flaws are something to be valued, rather than something that deters from the worth of a piece. 

Raku Ware

Raku ware was traditionally made in kilns in Kyoto, Japan during the 16th century and is the most well-known example of wabi-sabi tea utensils. Raku ware has always been made by hand and is usually round with a slightly constructed rim. 

Raku is most famous for its firing technique, post-fire reduction, which is the process of taking the ceramics from the kiln while they are still red hot and placing them in a flammable material (sawdust/newspaper) to starve the piece of oxygen. When done to a glazed object, this creates a myriad of colors within the glaze, but when done to an unglazed object, the oxygen is taken directly from the clay resulting in a matte black coloring. Post-fire reduction takes away any certainty or control that the artist has over the piece, making them perfectly unique and unpredictable.

Image Link: https://library.artstor.org/#/asset/HUNT_57485
  • Creator: Honami Koetsu
  • Title: Fujisan Tea Bowl
  • Object: Tea Bowl
  • Location: Japan
  • Period: Momoyama
  • Date: 1573-1615
  • Materials: Stoneware ceramics, clay
  • Dimensions: 3 in high

This particular tea bowl is registered as an important cultural property in Japan because of the way the glaze flowed and melted during firing. This cup has the illusion of snow falling over a mountain, giving it its nickname, ‘Fujisan’ or ‘Mount Fuji’.

Fujisan is the ultimate example of glazed Raku teaware. The rough edges and thick walls are clear indications that it was shaped by hand, and its snowy mountain glaze illusion is only possible because of the Raku post-fire reduction technique.

Image Link: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/62898
  • Title: Black Raku Tea Bowl
  • Object: Tea bowl
  • Location: Japan
  • Period: Momoyama
  • Date: Early 17th century
  • Materials: Stoneware ceramics, clay
  • Dimensions: H. 3 7/8 in. (9.8 cm); diam. 5 in. (12.7 cm)

While Fujisan is an example of the effects of post-fire reduction on glaze, this second tea bowl represents Raku firing of an unglazed object. Without glaze, the oxygen is taken directly out of the clay, causing this black, opaque coloring. Here again, the uneven edges and imperfections of the shape of the cup are harbingers of being hand formed and in keeping with wabi-sabi  aesthetics.

Raku is perhaps the best embodiment of the wabi-sabi aesthetic in Japanese tea ceramics, since the artist has lost any element of control in how the final piece will appear. This uncertainty of design, given up during the firing process, truly embodies the wabi-sabi idea of welcoming flaws and mistakes and dismissing the illusion of control and idea of perfection. Allowing randomness in the making of art, gives rise to exceptional pieces like Fujisan. It makes much more of an impression than, say, commercial projects that are planned to perfection (e.g., production line tea cups). 


Image Link: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kintugi.jpg
  • Object: Tea Cup
  • Date: Momoyama period, early 17th century
  • Material: Stoneware ceramics, clay

This small tea cup could not be identified from a certain kiln, but does display kintsugi, a Japanese design principle that is not confined to a specific type of ware. The exact origins of this aesthetic are unknown, but it became more widespread across Japan when associated with the tea ceremony in the late 16th century, or Momoyama period. Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by ostentatiously fixing the breakage or gluing pieces together using lacquer mixed with powdered gold.

Kintsugi exemplifies the wabi-sabi attitude in ceramics because of the way it magnifies, rather than conceals, repairs made on a broken object. Instead of throwing away the broken pieces, effort was taken not only to repair the cup, but to highlight its brokenness and call attention to its flaws. This beautifully encourages imperfection and shows it as something to be valued. 


Each ceramic example discussed above comes from a different region, a different kiln, and has a different style. Yet, they all fit the wabi-sabi criteria. In fact, the uniqueness and differences of each piece and each category of ware is actually what brings the pieces together. They all have flaws, faults and imperfections but they were all frequently used and highly valued.

That so many different artistic aesthetics can be combined under an umbrella term proves that wabi-sabi is a cultural value across Japan. So does the fact that it wasn’t confined to one region, one type of pottery, or one category of wares. Wabi-sabi was and still remains a hugely important philosophy in Japanese culture and one that defines Japan-ness.

Indeed, these ceramic examples are quintessential  Japanese. Designed for use in traditional tea ceremonies right down to the materials, glazes and designs and firing techniques all of which represent the culturally significant philosophy and value: appreciating the imperfect and finding the beauty in the simple and flawed. 


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Author: Madeline Keithan-Resnick

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