As part of my undergraduate degree in Asian studies, I took a class on Haiku, a traditional form of Japanese poetry. At the time, I knew nothing about Japan beyond its youth’s obsession with Hello Kitty and similar colorful animated characters. In analyzing and understanding the magic of these three-lines poems, we talked a lot about the traditional Japanese aesthetics on which they are based. And it was nothing like Hello Kitty.

Traditional Japanese aesthetics–which can be found in their well-known gardens, teahouses, and architecture at large–not only produces well-designed artifacts and surroundings, but also promotes an acceptance of reality. Japanese aesthetics is based on a few principles that highlight the beauty in the impermanent, imperfect, and incomplete (of which wabi-sabi are the more known terms to a western audience). These concepts create a realistic understanding of beauty. Taken as a whole, these aesthetic elements unveil the splendor of temporality, constant change, simplicity, imperfections, and even aging. Or, in other words, they embrace and laud life and nature for what they really are.

Growing up in a western culture, consuming beauty ideals straight from Hollywood movies, this class opened my eyes to a whole different understanding of beauty. Initially, it seemed foreign and odd, but as the course went on and I had the chance to internalize these ideas they started to make more sense than the ones I have known all my life.

This new outlook on the meaning of beauty has been part of me since that illuminating course, in conscious and unconscious ways. It helped me come to terms with my own imperfections, value simplicity, and accept the fact that things I have loved ended. It helped me embrace my reality as it is, appreciate it, and see the beauty in it. Since then I always try to smile when I notice some damage or rust in things I own and am attached to. I do not want to quickly throw them away, rather, I pause to appreciate the changes time has imprinted on them. It shaped how I think of beauty and assisted me in undoing some of the unrealistic ideals my western culture had instilled in me. Of course, I’m not quite there yet, but I will always be grateful to that class for showing me the beauty of the real, simple, and natural.

– Yael Lazar (PhD Candidate in Religious Studies at Duke University and a Curator for the Humanities Moments Project)