Minimalism Can Be Found Around the World

Many cultures have long-established traditions of minimizing and simplifying belongings.

Japanese family playing on porch
Three generations of family play a game on a porch.

Mint Images / Getty Images

Minimalism refers to an ongoing quest to pare down one's belongings to what is essential. This concept has gained popularity in the United States in recent years, likely in reaction to the rampant consumerism of the past decades. Houses have become so clogged with surplus goods that it's hard to feel comfortable and relaxed at home, and the time required to maintain these belongings is considerable. People are eager for another way of living.

It can be helpful to look to other cultures for guidance. Philosophies of minimalism have long existed in places like Japan and Scandinavia, where products are designed to be both attractive and functional, and the ownership of physical goods is understood to be an investment, a responsibility, and even a burden at times, not just a status symbol.

We can learn a lot from these other minimalist traditions and be inspired by them. Because minimalism is so at odds with American consumerism, it can feel overwhelming to go against the flow, to "opt out" of the cultural norm. The following examples remind us that we're not alone, that we're in fact choosing to participate in age-old concepts that have proven over centuries to boost one's quality of life.

Japan is the established leader when it comes to minimalism. There, the philosophy is rooted in Zen Buddhism, which encourages followers not to become overly attached to material possessions and to focus on happiness and mindfulness. The Japanese have several words that they use to describe aspects of minimalism within their culture.


Ma is the celebration of space between things, a recognition that what's absent is just as valuable as what's present. This concept is applied to architecture, art, flower arrangements, poetry, gardens, and, of course, interior décor. As Melissa Breyer once wrote for Treehugger, "One way to think about it is in a space that feels chaotic with clutter, it’s not about there being too many things, but about there being not enough Ma." Don't be afraid to remove things from a room in order to let what's left behind shine.


Mottainai is a Japanese phrase that translates as a call to "waste nothing!" It is used as a reminder not to squander resources because they are limited on Earth and to use what you have with a sense of gratitude. Mottainai urges people to find ways to reuse and repurpose items to delay sending them to landfill. The phrase is sometimes summed up as being equivalent to the American three R's – "reduce, reuse, recycle" – with an added fourth R, "respect." 


Even in Japan houses can get cluttered, which is why a new word, "danshari," has become popular in recent years. Each syllable means something different: "Dan" is to refuse, "sha" is to discard, "ri" is to separate. Put together, these describe the process of decluttering one's home and making a conscious decision to withdraw from a consumerist mindset. 

Francine Jay writes for the Miss Minimalist blog: "Danshari refers not just to physical clutter, but also to mental and emotional clutter. It holds the promise that once you’ve disposed of the excess and the unnecessary, you’ll have the space, time, and freedom to live more fully."


Minimalism is prominent in Scandinavia, as well, where furniture and architecture are known for their sleek, simple designs. One curious concept is "dostadning," also known as "Swedish death cleaning." This refers to the act of removing excess belongings from one's home as one ages, so that family members don't have to contend with them later.

It's an unusual version of minimalism, one that focuses more on the long-term impact of belongings, rather than striving to create a minimalist space in which to live, but it refreshingly acknowledges the burden that material possessions can create and the long life they live, even once their initial owners have passed on.

A Swedish woman named Margareta Magnusson, who says she's somewhere between 80 and 100, wrote a book called "The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to free yourself and your family from a lifetime of clutter." She says the first rule is "to speak of it always." Tell others about your intent to declutter and they will hold you accountable.

Minimalism exists in additional forms in other countries and cultures. To name a few, there's France that is known for its "less is more" approach to fashion, with Coco Chanel famously saying, "Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off." The Quakers have their Testimony of Simplicity, which encourages followers to avoid fancy clothing and other belongings, as it distracts from God and service to others. The concept of "devara kaadu," practiced in regions of southern India, rejects synthetic products and urges adherents to live simply, from the Earth, using homemade products made with natural ingredients.

As you can see, minimalism is an ancient, rich, and valuable tradition that deserves a greater place in American society. Hopefully it will get there as people realize the environmental and emotional drain that is modern-day consumerism.