Minimalists in Japan Take Simple Living to New Extremes

A growing number of young Japanese people have emptied their apartment to a point that appears nearly unlivable — and they love it.

©. Fumio Sasaki (via Agência EFE)

In 1899, Edwin Way Teale wrote, “Reduce the complexity of life by eliminating the needless wants of life, and the labors of life reduce themselves.” This philosophy has taken form in recent years as ‘minimalism,’ a growing movement of young people around the world who want nothing to do with acquiring material possessions, but would rather spend their money, time, and effort on things that they truly enjoy. Gone are the obligations to clean, maintain, and expand constantly one’s collection of items and in its place are opportunities to travel, socialize, relax, and engage in hobbies.

Japan, in particular, has become a hotbed for minimalism. A country that is long familiar with ascetic philosophy in the form of traditional Zen Buddhism, minimalism feels like a good fit. Many young adherents, however, are taking it to extremes, emptying their already tiny apartment to a point that almost appears unlivable by conventional North American standards.

Meet Some Minimalists

Take Fumio Sasaki, for example (pictured above). The 36-year-old book editor lives in a single-room apartment in Tokyo with three shirts, four pairs of pants, four pairs of socks, and a few other belongings. He wasn’t always like this. The transformation to minimalism occurred two years ago, when Sasaki grew tired of trying to keep up with trends and maintaining his collections of books, CDs, and DVDs. He got rid of it all, which he says isn’t as difficult as it seems, thanks to the sharing economy:

“Technologies and services allowing us to live without possessions increased rapidly over the last few years, making it easier to reduce what we own.”

Sasaki has since written a book about his new lifestyle titled “We Don’t Need Things Anymore,” in which he explains that the term ‘minimalism’ was “first used in the realms of politics and the arts to mean those who believed in the ideal of reducing everything to a bare minimum.” (Asia News Network)

Other hardcore Japanese minimalists include a 30-year-old male who got rid of his bed because it was a nuisance while cleaning and now wears only ten outfits throughout the year, reads digital books, and cooks in one pot. Thirty-seven-year-old Elisa Sasaki spent one month living out of a single bag and returned home to reduce her closet to 20 items of clothing and 6 pairs of shoes; now her room is a wide-open space. Another is Katsuya Toyoda, an online editor, who has only one table and a futon in his 230 square-foot apartment. The Guardian cites Toyoda:

“It’s not that I had more things than the average person, but that didn’t mean that I valued or liked everything I owned. I became a minimalist so I could let things I truly liked surface in my life.”

Minimalism Is in the Family Home, Too

Even some Japanese families with young children are embracing minimalism – a stark contrast to the rampant materialism that saturates parenting in the Western world these days. One homemaker from Kanagawa Prefecture explains how she swapped decorating her home for clearing it out, and soon her husband and children followed suit. Now her young daughter wears two pairs of jeans on alternate days.

A BBC photo collection of minimalist Japanese homes shows freelance writer and young father Naoki Numahata pushing his daughter’s chair up to a table in a room that’s empty, except for some gauzy curtains on the window. There are only a few small clothes hanging in the closet in another photo. While the thought of having an empty home strikes terror into my heart as a parent (surely there has to be something for kids to do), I can see how not being distracted by the clutter of stuff at home would create opportunities to entertain and educate elsewhere, such as through outdoor play and travel.

Reacting to the Lifestyle

I like the idea, although I think that this sort of extreme minimalism is better suited for urban dwellers. When I think of my own home located in a small, rural community, I realize that many of my possessions are related to my quest for self-sufficiency – specialized appliances to make food from scratch (yogurt, pasta, bread, ice cream, etc.), supplies for canning and preserving all summer long, camping gear, gardening tools, and boxes of clothes for drastically different seasons. I like the sense of independence that comes with having the tools for a job, because I cannot rely on a vast urban community to provide those. I like knowing I’ll be fine when the house becomes enveloped in a week-long snowstorm in the middle of winter.

The Japanese minimalists point out, however, that their lifestyle can save them from bad weather in a radically different way. The 2011 tsunami triggered by an earthquake killed more than 20,000 people and injured countless more. Sasaki told Reuters that 30 to 50 percent of injuries from earthquakes are caused by falling objects, which is not a problem in his stark room.