What’s so great about the mod cons?

by Yuko Naito

About two years ago, Hiroko Nakamura, a 40-year-old Tokyo housewife, decided she wanted only truly essential items in her home.

In the 2DK (two bedrooms and a dining room-kitchen) condominium she has lived in with her husband for 12 years, there are only a few things that could be called furniture — a coffee table, some zabuton cushions, a set of rattan drawers, a writing desk and a Chinese wooden box used as a TV/video stand.

The couple have no beds, no dining table, no sofa and no bookcases. They do not even have a rice cooker, a standard appliance in almost all Japanese households, but Nakamura says they have never felt uncomfortable or experienced inconveniences without these things.

What initially inspired her to get rid of her clutter and take up such a simple lifestyle was Eriko Yamazaki’s 1998 best seller, “Setsuyaku Seikatsu no Susume (The Benefits of a Frugal Life).” Not long after reading it, she happened to see a television program featuring the author’s home, which contained only a bare minimum of furniture and appliances. “I was impressed by the simplicity, and immediately thought I wanted to do the same thing,” she says.

Nakamura first started getting rid of relatively small items, such as books, clothes, tableware, kimono and accessories she had not worn for a long time. Bulky furniture, such as the expensive wardrobes her parents bought for her when she got married, were more difficult to do away with, because many recycling shops are unwilling to take large items.

Throwing personal belongings away is tough both physically and mentally, Nakamura says. “It took me great energy to get rid of whatever I had a sentimental attachment to. Because the process was so difficult, I now stop and think twice before buying new things.”

Her minimalistic lifestyle has improved her life in various ways, she says. The apartment looks bigger. She can easily keep the rooms clean and tidy. In addition to saving more money, she no longer envies others who live in more spacious homes or who have more possessions.

“A 2DK condo is never big, but now I feel it is good enough for just the two of us. I’m content with my life as it is,” Nakamura says.

The Japanese today are known internationally for living in “rabbit hutches” stuffed with too many things. Historically, however, they led a simple life for centuries, until American lifestyles were introduced after World War II.

According to a magazine article from 1906, the number of items the average newly wedded couple brought with them when moving from their hometown to Tokyo at that time was only 145, including tea cups, rice bowls, a broom, a newspaper box and only two pieces of furniture — a chest of drawers and a hibachi (charcoal brazier).

The situation was almost the same in the countryside. A survey conducted in 1927 at a mountain village in Saitama Prefecture showed that the average family was living in a 20-sq.-meter house and possessed only 147 items, a figure which included such things as a bird cage and a shakuhachi.

Since those articles were usually kept in an oshiire closet, both the floor and the walls were virtually bare. People ate, slept and carried out their daily activities at home together in the same space.

In the 1950s, a fully fledged consumer ethic was born in Japan. The influence of Western lifestyles led people to stuff their homes with dining tables, chairs and sofas in addition to convenient new electrical appliances such as washing machines, refrigerators, television sets and vacuum cleaners.

It did not take long before most Japanese homes were full of bulky furniture and a number of new tools and devices.

According to a survey by the Consumer-Goods Research Institute, the average Japanese family possessed 1,643 items, ranging from pencils to cars, in 1993, up 34 percent from 1983 and almost 10 times more than in the Meiji and Taisho eras.

With so many homes bulging at the seams with excess possessions, a growing number of people are becoming uncomfortable with the mess. In the last few years, many books advocating the benefits of simple, minimalistic lifestyles have been published, and all have sold well.

One such book, Nagisa Tatsumi’s “Suteru! Gijutsu (Get Rid of It! A How-To Guide)” sold 1 million copies in the first six months after its release in April. The book humorously describes the psychological barriers people face in disposing of clutter and offers practical advice for effective action.

Tatsumi says the Japanese have reached the point where they have to reconsider their “relationship with things.”

When Japan was defeated in World War II, the Japanese unconditionally accepted affluent American lifestyles as an ideal life model, and have pursued material affluence for nearly 60 years. Today, the Japanese have caught up with the United States materially, but they do not find themselves happy and satisfied, she says.

“We finally realized that possessing many things does not make us happy. We feel lost, not knowing what to do and where to go. That’s why many books on simple lifestyles are drawing public attention. People are struggling to find a new way of life,” Tatsumi says.

Some readers reject Tatsumi’s idea that the Japanese today need to overcome their psychological resistance toward throwing things away, however.

Veteran journalist Takashi Tachibana, for instance, writes in Bungei Shunju magazine’s December issue that civilization began when humans started storing food and tools for future use, so disposing of stored possessions contradicts human nature.

Tachibana criticizes Tatsumi’s book for promoting a throw-away consumption-oriented lifestyle.

Tatsumi counters by saying that keeping something without using it for years is the same as not possessing it, and throwing these kind of items away does not necessarily lead to fresh consumption. “On the contrary, I believe the sense of guilt you would feel when throwing things away would discourage you from buying new stuff,” she says.