In Japan, Less is More

Recently, I spent several weeks travelling around Japan, experiencing firsthand the Japanese people’s respect for authority, reverence for nature, and…

In Japan, Less is More

(Photo: Getty Images)

Recently, I spent several weeks travelling around Japan, experiencing firsthand the Japanese people’s respect for authority, reverence for nature, and kind consideration of other fellow beings, which was truly edifying.

While I was certainly impressed by the graciousness of the Japanese, what fascinated me the most is their practice of the Zen Buddhist philosophy, “less is more,” which promotes a minimalist lifestyle. From my travels I learned that many Japanese have embraced a lifestyle of minimalism, which eschews the clutter, unnecessary complications and superfluities of life.

The term “minimalism’ was first coined as an American visual art during the 1960s and is often associated with abstract expressionism. But in Japan minimalism is associated with a way of living simply. Those in Japan who have chosen a minimalist lifestyle often feel overwhelmed by the excesses of a contemporary urban life that is manifest in greed, ruthless competition, conspicuous consumption, noise pollution, and dehumanizing modern technologies.


In order to avoid these excesses, many Japanese have opted to simplify their lifestyle. This desire to have simplicity as a way of life is not done out of necessity or for lack of money.

Their penchant for simple living is strongly influenced by Zen Buddhism, which incorporates minimalist concepts into its philosophy of life. Zen Buddhism teaches us to unclutter the mind, be judicious in the use of emotions, maintain a healthy body and mind, and engage in a life that provides harmony and joy. For the Japanese, living a life of simplicity works, as a Japanese scholar has described, “like the ticking of the clock, the waves of the ocean, the rays of the sun.”

While I do not claim to be an expert of Zen Buddhism, my readings on this subject indicate that the principle of non-attachment to material things seems to have a profound influence on minimalist living in Japan. In Buddhist philosophy, attachment increases desire without producing any satisfaction.

Our material possessions are going to be lost, stolen, broken or outdated, sold, or thrown away some day. Thus, it makes no sense to cling to material possessions because our attachment to material things inevitably produces desire that is insatiable and, ultimately, leads to suffering. More importantly, we should try to overcome our desire and attachment for material possessions because they don’t define who we are.

The minimalist movement in Japan has become extremely popular thanks to Marie Kondo and Fumio Sasaki, two internationally renowned Japanese gurus of minimalist living. Kondo is the author of The New York Times best seller, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Kondo’s method, which she calls the “KonMari Method,” teaches her clients how to organize and tidy up their homes and offices category-by-category, with lasting success.

According to Kondo, simple living involves uncluttering one’s home. And uncluttering one’s home also helps in uncluttering one’s mind. She advises us to keep only those things that are truly precious to us every day and bring us joy. Kondo informs us in her book that our real life begins after putting our house in order.

For Kondo, “when you put your house in order, you put your affairs and your past in order, too. As a result, you can see quite clearly what you need in life and what you don’t, and what you should and shouldn’t do.” In his book, Goodbye, Things, Fumio Sasaki shares the concrete steps he had undertaken to downsize his material possessions to owning just a few shirts and a handful of possessions. Sasaki writes, “Whether we live alone or with other people, few acknowledge the presence of another roommate.

This roommate is named ‘Things’ and the space that ‘Things’ occupy is typically a lot larger than the space people have for themselves.”

According to Sasaki, most of us are paying rent or a mortgage on behalf of this inanimate freeloader named “Things.” 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 renting or buying much bigger apartments or homes, which they don’t necessarily need.

Together, both Kondo’s and Sasaki’s books have helped spread the mantra of minimalism to the West, where it has almost taken on a life of its own because it has raised the awareness of many westerners that they possess too much stuff which they don’t necessarily need. One may wonder what one needs to do to achieve a minimalist lifestyle.

There seems to be some consensus among experts about the following five guidelines:

  1. Make a list: The very first step involves writing down our goals about how we want to go about achieving a simple life. We may want to get rid of the junk that we have collected over the years, which we never use. We need to make a list of all the items that we consider to be junk or unusable. Once we have made a list of the items that we can easily part with, we will need to put the list in a place so that it acts as a reminder to us every day.
  2. Trim our wardrobe: In today’s age, we often buy stuff on a whim that we never use, or we have clothes that have become old or outdated and we are still hanging onto them. We need to spend time going through our closets and wardrobes to make a pile of clothes that we can discard.
  3. Watch what food we buy and consume: We will need to plan beforehand what we want to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Based on that plan, we do our grocery shopping. Our goal should be eating healthy food and avoiding junk food. Once we have a plan for our meals, we will notice that we are wasting less food and our eating habits are simpler and healthier.
  4. Eliminate duplication: We may want to toss anything that we have two or more of. Once we go through our stuff, we may realize that we have two or more of the same things like calendars, staplers, clock radios, and so on. Experts suggest that we store these duplicate items in a container for two weeks and if we don’t miss them, they can be gotten rid of either by donating, selling, or by putting them in trash.
  5. Keep a diary: We may want to note in a diary how we have spent each day. We will need to review our diary after two weeks. We may find that we have spent quite a bit of time watching mindless television, or looking at pictures and reading meaningless comments on social media, or we may even be busy texting messages that are not particularly important.

All this unproductive time could be better spent meditating, or in the company of family and friends, volunteering, or even engaging in some meaningful activity such as reading, writing, painting, learning a new skill, and so on.

Many Japanese, who have embraced minimalism, believe that minimalism is a great practice to adopt not only to bring some discipline in our lives but to also learn to understand that everything in life has a purpose. They will also tell us that minimalism teaches them to value simplicity in life.

When we spend more time in the stores, buying things that we don’t need, or working too hard to make more in order to consume more, we will have less time to spend with our family and friends, while not fully enjoying life experiences instead of pursuing a life that is marked by materialism and conspicuous consumption. Friendships thrive when time is spent on people and not things. According to the Japanese people, the philosophy of “less is more” will help us to become better human beings by appreciating everything around us.

Despite all the spiritual teachings that many of us in India have been privy to concerning the richness of a spiritually grounded life, we seem to have embraced the lifestyle of “maximalists” where the accepted mantra is: “more is more.”

Sadly, many in India seem to have forgotten the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda, and Sri Aurobindo, among others, and, instead, have chosen a path to celebrate the amassing of material possessions. Perhaps it is not too late to pick up our own philosophy of non-attachment to material possessions and engage in decluttering our homes and our minds.

That way we will gain more clarity of mind as the experts inform us.

More importantly, we will also be able to spend our time and passion on what brings us joy and identify the mission that speaks to our heart.

As Marie Kondo reminds us: “Life truly begins after you have put your house in order.”

(The writer is Professor of Communication Studies, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles)