As the minimalism movement gains momentum in the United States, it’s probably a good idea to re-examine the concept on our own shores. Minimalism is a Japanese birthright — what Western culture views as monkish habits, Zen aesthetics or the joys of simplicity, the Japanese have pretty much taken for granted as an ingrained part of the business of living. Abundance has never been part of the average Japanese mindset, nor have things such as dinner sets for 12, linen closets stacked with towels for every occasion, bedrooms for every member of the family, three-car garages and the like. The Japanese house has never been designed to store and absorb any more amenities than the barest essentials and even then, possessions are often an extremely tight fit.
The truth is that many of us simply don’t know what to do with large living spaces. Take my 39-year-old friend Akiko, who bought her own manshon (マンション, condominium) four years ago, only to hōchi suru (放置する, leave it there) in the depths of Ibaraki Prefecture, hardly ever returning to it save for the occasional weekend. The place is a whopping 88 sq. meters — way too big for one Japanese woman and unfathomably huge to someone like my grandfather, whose maxim in matters of space was the traditional okite hanjyō nete ichijyō (起きて半畳、寝て一畳, meaning, a person needs just one tatami mat for lying down at night, and half a tatami mat for the waking hours). Akiko had purchased her manshon with rosy visions of sipping wine on the balcony with a boyfriend or entertaining friends with home-cooked French cuisine. She meant to enjoy the ohitori-sama (おひとりさま single) life to the neon-lit hilt.
What Akiko didn’t bargain for was the dreariness of the two-hour commute to the office every morning, the incredible distance from her door to the nearest decent boutique, and the fact that when she came home at night more than half the windows in the manshon would be pitch dark, since few of the residents came home before midnight. She also found herself wandering from room to room, lonely and a little frightened of what may be lurking in the dark corners.
The result is that she spends most nights at her parents’ apartment in central Tokyo, where she had grown up with her sister in a 55-sq.-meter space.
I used to think it was so cluttered,” recalls Akiko. “Semakute tomodachi wo yobunoga hazukashikatta. (狭くて友達を呼ぶのが恥ずかしかった It was so small I was ashamed to invite my friends).” The tiny 2DK (meaning, two rooms as well as a dining/kitchen space) apartment now seems downright cozy. Her parents welcome her with open arms, and have kept her old futon in the room she once shared with her sister. On weekends, she goes for walks in nearby Yoyogi Park. And she’s impressed by her parents, who have avoided the worries and hassles of suburban home ownership. As it is, they’re steeped in a chic urban lifestyle, buying dinner supplies at various depa-chika (デパ地下, the basement floor of department store, filled with food) and allocating their cash reserves to kaigai ryokō (海外旅行, overseas trips) several times a year.
Until the rapid growth era of the early 1960s, it was the norm for people to rent their homes instead of being tied to mortgages that lasted decades, to take public transportation instead of driving their own cars and to eat modest, low-calorie meals off fold-away wooden tables known as chabudai (ちゃぶ台). The chabudai gohan (ごはん, meals) often consisted of nothing more than rice, miso soup, boiled greens and a piece of fish. In those days, there were no “metabo (メタボ, metabolic syndrome, or the problem of being overweight)” issues to contend with, far fewer people suffered from tōnyōbyō(糖尿病, diabetes) and everyone was less worried about money, as there was none to worry over. The Edo Period concept of hinraku (貧楽, joy in poverty) still held, and though space was scarce (a family of four squeezing onto 10.5 tatami mats was a common scenario), people seemed happier and the divorce rate was practically nil.
Now the pendulum has swung back and the younger generation are not as fond of ownership as their parents. This is part of the reason why apartment spaces in Tokyo don’t seem to get much bigger and car ownership levels are dropping. Like their great-grandparents, young people get around on foot and bicycle, stick to their jimoto（地元, neighborhoods) for entertainment and minimize their possessions to fit into their six-tatami-mat spaces. There’s something to be said for daunsaizu (ダウンサイズ, downsizing) running in the very blood.