Ever since the release of Marie Kondo’s 2011 bible on the Japanese art of decluttering, much of the developed world has been somewhat fixated on tidying up.
Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” has been so influential over the past six years or so that a portmanteau of her name is now commonly used as a verb, with ordinary folk saying such things as “I’m Konmari-ing my (insert extraneous item here).”
Fumio Sasaki’s “Goodbye, Things” (Japanese title: “Bokutachini Mo Monowa Hitsuyo Nai”) continued this trend after it was released in 2015, becoming a best-selling title in the United States.
Together, both releases have helped spread the gospel of minimalism overseas, even if the term is not quite as popular as danshari, a Japanese phrase coined by Hideko Yamashita in 2010 that has its roots in yoga.
The concept has almost taken on a life of its own, if only because it has made many consumers aware that they possess too much stuff.
Kondo attempts to solve this conundrum by advising consumers to keep only items that “spark joy.”
Yamashita warns of the danger of adopting a mottainai mind-set, arguing that it can easily lead to hoarding and unmanageable clutter.
Sasaki, on the other hand, provides real insight into the way in which he downsized from owning too many CDs, books, cameras, clothes and other trappings of an urban single lifestyle to owning just three shirts and a handful of possessions.
“Whether we live alone or with other people, few acknowledge the presence of another roommate,” Sasaki writes. “This roommate is named ‘Things’ and the space that ‘Things’ occupies is typically a lot larger than the space people have for themselves.”
In other words, Sasaki writes, most of us are paying rent and mortgage on behalf of an inanimate freeloader.
Indeed, the Japanese home — frequently touted as the epitome of carefully curated items and spartan cleanliness stored in a compact but attractive space — has become a giant storage closet for all kinds of stuff.
Sasaki notes that many consumers have become appendages of their earthly possessions and in order to accommodate the almighty presence of “Things,” they end up buying into a growing set of storage solutions that ultimately don’t resolve the issue.
Japan’s obsession with material acquisition is a relatively new phenomenon, kicking off in the 1950s with the widespread acceptance of consumerism as a new way of life.
Over the past seven decades, many have refused to throw away old items. My grandmother is a case in point, starting married life in a six-tatami-mat room in downtown Tokyo in the early 1940s. By the time she passed away in 2002, she was living in a 100-square-meter suburban home that was packed to the rafters with her stuff.
Older generations of Japanese are renowned for struggling to pare down their belongings, often to the frustration of family members who must clean the property in the event of their death. Or, in the case of minimalist author Seiko Yamaguchi, being asked to live with her in-laws in the family ancestral home. Yamaguchi’s book “Minimarisuto Oyano Iye Wo Katazukeru” (“A Minimalist Cleans Up the Parents’ House”) reveals how she spent two solid weeks cleaning her in-laws’ house from dawn to dusk, crouched on her knees for hours at a time. This was to secure some living space for herself, her husband and two children, since “there was nowhere for us to sleep.”
Although many more people these days appear willing to embrace minimalism, few seem to get beyond the decluttering stage to understand it properly as a philosophy.
Sasaki is trying to follow this philosophy in the way he lives his life. He says he has moved past simply getting rid of possessions. Having moved to Kyoto from Tokyo, he is now learning to grow his own vegetables and build a camper on the back of an electric truck.
“My next level of minimalism is to become as self-sufficient as possible,” Sasaki says. “I want to create my own living space and grow my own food instead of paying someone to supply those for me.
“If you ask me what minimalism is really about, I would say that it’s the altering of values — enter the small doors of minimalism and come out on the other side with big ideas.”
Hopefully, minimalists in Japan will be able to graduate from simply throwing items away so that they can cultivate their own big ideas.