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Taking a longer view in defense of clutter

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There’s a worrying trend in Japan that is spreading throughout the world: that of throwing things out.

I’m not referring to our wasteful throwaway society. I mean the trend to get rid of things we don’t need and the encouragement to scrutinize each item, by asking, in the locus classicus of author Marie Kondo, “Does it spark joy?”

It’s worth noting that her predecessor was Nagisa Tatsumi, author of ” ‘Suteru!’ Gijutsu” (“The Art of Throwing Away”), which sold more than 1 million copies in 2000. Nagisa tackles the post-World War II lifestyle of consumption and the psychological resistance to getting rid of things, and asks the reader to consider what is necessary to lead a rich life. Her book reportedly influenced the young Kondo, who read the book on the way home from school one day.

The world is looking for simplicity and, habitually, this means looking to the East, to Zen solutions — and even to Japan’s ancient art of tidying up — to organize their own lives. Kondo’s book has been translated into more than 30 languages and was a best-seller in Europe and the U.S.

Why does all this worry me?

When I was growing up, I spent my summers at my grandparents’ house in New Jersey. They had a clean, slightly cluttered house in the suburbs, full of worldly treasures my grandmother had brought back from her journeys around the globe in the late ’40s and early ’50s. She had photos of her riding a donkey through Iraq, straddling a camel in front of the pyramids of Egypt and poised on top of a bus in India.

All these photos were conspicuously missing my grandfather, whom my grandmother described as “not much of a traveler.” Her souvenirs were her trophies of independence, feminism and wanderlust. On her bookshelf she kept a small bottle of dirty river water she had collected from the Ganges, a coconut from Ernest Hemingway’s lawn in Key West, and a gold brass treasure box bought in Chinatown in 1935 (which would go on to be confiscated by a step- brother, who kept it on his live-aboard yacht; it was only returned to her after he died).

We grandchildren played on a wood and leather camel saddle, and clamored over exotic furniture — a farrago of items shipped back from Indonesia, the Middle East and East Asia. One particularly intriguing to our young minds was a wooden table with legs carved into falcon legs, each of the four talons clutching a crystal ball.

When my grandmother died, these things were divided between my mother and her sister, the only heirs. My mother’s house, the one I grew up in, was then cluttered with these treasures, and that’s when I realized there was more.

Much more. There were diaries scrawled by our English ancestors on their first journey across America by covered wagon from New England to Ohio in 1815 (Japan’s Edo Period). There was gold jewelry, diamonds and gems. My great-great-grandmother’s engagement ring and diamond-studded wedding band from 150 years ago. There was furniture that had been brought from England on their first boat trip immigrating to America in the late 1700s. I came upon a battered copy of “The Song of the Hiawatha” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, penned in 1855 — my grandmother’s favorite book as a child. And my cousin’s purple heart from WWII was a poignant reminder of an only child who died for his country when he was just 17.

And then the ultimate thing that sparked joy for me: Four years after I had moved to Japan, in the mail came a package from my mother. It was a handwritten diary, the account of my great-grandfather’s monthlong journey by ship in 1900 from San Francisco to Japan, through the Seto Inland Sea, straight past the island where I now live.

Five years ago when my mother died, the family unit had to decide what to do with these things. No one had a burning desire to keep them, but no one wanted to throw them away either. It was easier then, however, because my father was still alive. When he moved to a smaller abode, we just stored everything in his garage.

But recently my father also passed away, and now there is no place for these possessions to go. My brother took what he wanted, and now his house is filled with wonderful things. My other brother didn’t take anything because nothing sparked joy for him.

Then there was me. I have no house in the U.S. and no heirs. As the only female child, family heirlooms such as jewelry, silver and antique Japanese tea sets were naturally bequeathed to me. I know I will keep most of it, though not all. I’ve relinquished some pieces to museums, who are only too eager to receive historical items from bygone eras, because most people don’t keep things anymore.

Torn about what to do with the remaining effects, I asked some friends what they would do if they were in my position. Most people told me to pitch them. “You can’t drag this stuff around forever,” said one. “Everything can be replaced,” said another. There is some truth to this. In addition, there’s the cost of keeping it in a storage room, and the more obvious fact that I don’t even live within 8,000 km of these novelties. There is definitely a line that needs to be drawn, but where?

People struggle to accept that the current generation in Japan doesn’t care about WWII, doesn’t even know who the Beatles are. They want to work less, enjoy more and have an easy life. Yet is there anything to remind this generation of the lives their forebears led? Is there anything providing them with clues of their struggles, the sacrifices others made for them? What they valued or made them happy? Have we kept anything that was important to them?

In Japan in the 1960s, there were foreigners living here such as David Kidd who started collecting Japanese art and antiques. They mined people’s kura (storage barns) in Kyoto, full of family heirlooms, antiques, paintings and artwork. It was a time when these items were not valued by the Japanese, and in the rush for industrialization people were only too glad to get rid of these reminders of the past.

The foreign visitors, who had a genuine interest in these pieces, bought them for a song and sold them overseas to art studios, exhibitions, museums and personal collections. The Japanese had no idea they were throwing away their precious heritage. Society encouraged them to toss, so they tossed. And who could blame foreign visitors for taking these things off their hands and at least putting them out there on the market for others to enjoy — items that could have quite easily ended up in the garbage?

Every now and then someone on my small island comes to my door with an armload of impedimenta culled from their house. “Amy-san, are you interested in having any of this?” Geta sandals, yukata summer wear, hand-painted porcelain.

Most recently, my neighbor gave me 20 kimonos: silk, cotton, traditional hand-woven patterns. “I hate to throw them out but …,” and I knew she would. She has three daughters and a son, all married with small children (who would love to dress up in them), yet she was giving me the kimonos that had likely been the prized possessions of her mother and grandmother. I took them abroad and gave them to theaters for costumes, to dressmakers, and to seamstresses who make patchwork quilts and other textured arts. It was the best I could do.

My father was a Korean War veteran. He never talked about the war and was never proud of his service. It wasn’t until after he died that I found his scrapbooks full of letters home that documented the highs and lows of being a sergeant on the front lines. It was the proverbial spark of joy that I never knew was coming.

The thrill of discovering a family heirloom is universal. It was the same excitement I felt when my mother showed me my great-great-grandmother’s engagement ring, my great-grandfather’s diary. But how many people have kept these things? If they haven’t kept them, then where have they gone? Apparently, they didn’t spark enough joy for someone to keep them.

Would I deny this joy of discovery to my nieces and nephews? They’re college students now and don’t seem interested in family history. But some day these things may spark joy, even fireworks.

Is Marie Kondo, (reportedly now in her 30s) just a little bit too young to be telling us what we should throw out? What if my brother, for whom these legacies sparked no joy, had been the only heir?

For now, the rest of the heirlooms — the diaries, photos, jewelry and select furniture — are in a temperature-controlled storage room. I will keep these things, because I know they have value. I look forward to the day I can go through them and reflect more deeply on the marvels of my ancestors.

When I walk into houses that are clean and tidy — those of people who have simplified, organized and decluttered — I see a house cleansed of memories and heritage. I only see what is not there, what has been lost.

Perhaps rather than thinking, “Does this spark joy?” we should be thinking, “Will this spark joy for future generations?”

Japan Lite appears in print on the fourth Monday Community Page of the month. Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Diane E Johnson

    A few comments/questions: I thought there was some difficulty in throwing things away in Japan – so are people really encouraged in the book (never read it) to simply toss items in the garbage? And if a person needs a storage space other than temporarily, maybe said person has more than they need. We’re not taking a U-haul with us when we pass on. I think you should keep things you like and not base your decisions on someone else’s opinion. You can donate to places like Goodwill rather than throw used items out. Surely there’s some similar organization in Japan.

    • ntznomad

      She encourages you to donate what is in good shape but discourages guilt about the volume of things that have been held onto so long that their only next step is the garbage. Her entire book is a guide to finding what sparks joy in you. If it’s family mementos, that’s fine. If it’s way too much yarn (blush), that’s fine. The very first thing you do is visualize the space you want. If that’s a cozy, somewhat cluttered collection of mementos it’s okay. If it’s a sparse, minimalist space it’s okay. Her technique, if followed correctly and not dogmatically, can get you to whatever you want on the clutter continuum.

  • Theresa Tyagi Kersten

    I have struggled with these decisions as the family historian who has moved my
    much loved family history around with me. I was liberated by a workshop where the
    person suggested photographing the items and organizing them separate from
    the things like photographs and my grandmother’s very fine Irish crochet work which I love and delight in. With that I could save what gave me joy and release
    the rest. I have sent packages of goodies to cousins who have descendants.
    I have sold miscellanous paper goods to collectors who appreciate them and
    donated historically significant materials to museums and historical societies.
    Those journals of yours are historically significant. I would never give anything
    but junk to Goodwill.
    I teach workshops helping people to organize their genealogy into whole
    stories that delight and fascinate people as it usually makes it more likely that
    it will delight someone somewhere. I also found an online archive where I could
    share my grandfather and father’s baseball histories and it’s been a joy to watch
    the material that we’ve shared become a whole story.
    I’m sorry to hear of the toss it all out trend, I’ve often picked up orphan pictures from probate sales, do the genealogy on them and then post them.
    There is much of various ethnic groups contributions that is being lost. Genealogists work really hard trying to find documents and pictures that are
    callously tossed by others. Have some fun with your family’s history!

  • J.P. Bunny

    Lots of “junk” have I, but many memories do they contain. The TV and computer….no big deal. The 100 yen wind-up toy given to my grandmother by my wife….priceless.

  • Jonathan Fields

    Yeah… It’s not a worrying trend at all. Have you ever been to an older house in Japan? Filled to the brim with stuff. Just stuff. If they run out of storage space, they put it in the hall until there’s barely room to get through. I really wonder how common hoarding is here. We shouldn’t be afraid to get rid of things, even if they’re old. Just because something is old doesn’t mean it has value.

  • Tangerine 18

    Perhaps you’ve been here too long, Amy. The “Japanese trend” of throwing things away has existed in other countries too, for many, many years. I’m sure I can remember my dear old grandmother throwing something away, when I was a small child.

  • Ashwin Campbell

    For me, it’s pretty much common sense what to keep and what to toss. If it’s too valuable to toss but not enough to keep, sell it. The buyer obviously wants it and will use it otherwise they would not buy it.

  • CLJF

    Thank you Amy for an interesting and thought provoking article, particularly on the importance of family, memory and how to pass these on to future generations.