“How Japan Made Me a Minimalist”

It’s not that easy embracing the simple life, says Alexandra Ziminski. But after reorganizing her life to fit into her Japanese apartment, she has a few tips on how – and why – to downscale.

I used to be the type of person who’d hoard disposable chopsticks just so I wouldn’t have to clean them. I’d use my floor as a wardrobe and couldn’t stop adding to it. For me, I was just “laidback” when in reality my happiness was being squashed by these unnecessary possessions. The turning point came when I moved in with my partner. I had to find a way to change and fast. So I started investigating minimalism.

The term “minimalism” was coined in the 1950s by Western artists in response to the over-capitalization of the art world. They created “minimal” works, like a black dot on a white canvas, and hoped they’d be un-sellable. Art for the artist, not the dealer. This movement was heavily inspired by Japan. Before opening their doors to the West and the economic boom, Japanese people lived relatively simply.

The unforgiving power of natural disasters — fires, tsunamis, earthquakes — made it impractical to own so many things. Also, Edo period laws barred commoners from showing off their wealth through possessions, limiting their accumulation. Others practiced the Zen Buddhist lifestyle, believing that to reach spiritual enlightenment you must free yourself from materialistic desires and selfish thoughts. The easiest way to do this? Live humbly and create a distance from your possessions.

Eventually, minimalism grew from a Western art movement into an alternative lifestyle choice. The aim being to use minimalism as a tool in order to reach personal goals. By consuming less, you can finally feel content with what you have and stop constantly comparing yourself to others.

We can’t all be Zen Buddhist monks but we can take inspiration from their doctrine. In recent years, the lifestyle has been brought into the mainstream by fascinating trends such as Project 333 (wearing 33 items for three months), the tiny house craze, and the anti-fast fashion effort. Useful new technology, like car-sharing and renting items apps, has made it easier to live with less. Japan has produced many of their own new-age minimalists. Marie Kondo (whose new Netflix TV series has just been released) rose to fame with her invention of the KonMari method – solely living with items that “spark joy” – and Fumio Sasaki made headlines by only owning three shirts and four pairs of socks.

“I realized how much emotion I’d attached to inanimate objects”

It’s no wonder that minimalism has become an attractive alternative for many people. The anti-capitalist who wants to reduce their consumption, the environmentalist trying to reduce their waste. Or someone like myself, who lives in a cramped 17m² Tokyo apartment with her boyfriend.

I’ll be honest, I came to minimalism with a practical mindset. I needed to utilize my space, not change my life. It was only once I started the journey that I began to see a positive change in my mental well-being.

The hardest part was the first step, I kept making excuses. Glaring at a garish rainbow jumper I’d say, ‘‘Well, I can’t throw that out, it was a gift.’’ I started to use receipts as coasters just to give them a purpose. The judgmental eyes of an ex-boyfriend’s figurine begged me to reconsider. I then realized how much emotion I’d attached to inanimate objects.

Having this feeling is common, and is highlighted by Sasaki in his book, Goodbye Things: On Minimalist Living, which ironically I already owned. He comes up with 55 helpful ways to make the process easier on the soul. Sasaki makes it clear that in the long run the benefits far outweigh the momentary feeling of guilt. He also states that you shouldn’t confuse what you need with what you want.

Before coming to Japan, I thought I needed a four-poster bed with a memory foam mattress. That’s what advertisers conditioned me to believe – that a comfy bed was the pinnacle of happiness. Being introduced to an alternative sleeping habit, the Japanese futon, made me realise my Western pre-conceptions were misguided. There’s no right way to sleep; in fact, millions of people sleep on the floor every day.

The objects I thought necessary were now optional. I started donating or throwing away clothes that I always intended to wear but never did. On Sasaki’s advice, I disposed of any unused items, multiples and things I’d forgotten about.

Clothes I could part with fairly easily, but my forbidden fruit was made of paper. For me, books weren’t just full of ink, but life. It would be a betrayal to throw them away. However, the real injustice was selfishly keeping books I would never re-read.

Finally, I came across one last hurdle — my boyfriend. Living with a “maximalist,” someone who owns 35 pairs of shoes, did not make the process any easier. He was undoubtedly clueless about the benefits of minimalism. Why couldn’t he keep his One Piece manga collection, comprising of almost 100 volumes?

‘‘But it makes me happy,’’ he’d say with his puppy dog eyes. There was no persuading him, I had to compromise. I wasn’t going to make him sacrifice what brought him joy. Minimalism looks different for every individual. Would I dump all my precious art supplies? Of course not. What’s needed changes depending on your personal goals. A chef needs their cooking utensils and a carpenter needs their tools.

In the end, Sasaki was right. I don’t regret anything I threw away. By living with fewer things, I have more space to breathe. I’m not constantly distracted by my possessions. Things aren’t lost in the clutter and my apartment can be cleaned in under an hour.

My perspective has ultimately changed for the better. I can focus on what I have, rather than what I don’t have — a safe home, a loving boyfriend, a supportive family. I’m not perfect, I will never own only 50 things or dress only in black and white, nor is this the goal of a true minimalist. The way you live influences the way you think: remember to be aware of what you are buying and why.


Illustration by Rose Vittayaset

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