At some point in the past decade, the international notion of “weird Japan” — a view in which the country produces more quirky and wacky trends than many other nations, regardless if said example is actually widespread — took a back seat to “boring but profound Japan.”
The pop cultural salvo of TV shows such as “Terrace House” and “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” celebrated relatively dull activities — social interactions with relatively little drama and organizing one’s home, respectively — and connected with viewers abroad. Their country of origin added extra mystique to ho-hum happenings, nudging them close to being exoticized. Palestinian American intellectual Edward Said probably wouldn’t be a big fan of the KonMari philosophy.
Recently, another dull aspect of Japanese life has started morphing into a Western lifestyle trend. A CNBC article titled “I tried ‘Kakeibo’: The Japanese art of saving money — and it completely changed how I spend my money” has created something of a stir online. “Kakeibo” is the Japanese word for a household accounting book and, in recent times, it has morphed into a guiding principle … at least for websites in search of content. Sites such as Bustle and refinery29, among others, have published contributions on kakeibo, as have many niche finance blogs.
It was the CNBC post, however, that caught the attention of people who think the whole thing is silly. Which it is — people tracking their expenses isn’t anything new, and doesn’t need to be wrapped up in a vaguely Orientalist package. (In reality, the core of this overseas interest comes from the shift from digital methods of tracking spending to analog ones, which isn’t a bad premise for a life-hack book in 2020 — only that you can buy notebooks and pencils in the West, too).
For the most part, Japanese netizens and online publications have largely ignored this uptick in kakeibo interest. That might be because, unlike “Terrace House” and KonMari, household accounting has long been a central part of internet content and social media in the country. It’s not overly surprising — personal finance is a popular topic anywhere — but it has evolved in Japan in ways far beyond basic savings advice.
Advice on how to maintain a household account abounds online in Japanese, to the point where organizations such as Japan Post share guides on the internet. Websites, finance-oriented or otherwise, also regularly recycle articles that trumpet the importance of keeping a physical notebook, with a noticeable rise in this kind of content around the new year. Kakeibo smartphone apps feature articles, while those preferring the old-fashioned feel of physical items can find lists highlighting the best notebooks for keeping track of spending.
This type of post is old hat in Japan, even though it comes back over and over again (the very definition of perfect content!). That means it long ago evolved to its next form — netizens sharing their own experiences and tips with kakeibo. It’s common for people to share their own monthly budget breakdowns on Twitter, such as one recent tweet about what one person’s kakeibo looked like after switching from full-time employment to part-time work. Such posts go beyond merely offering general advice, but rather offer a glance into how other people deal with money, which is a topic that remains somewhat hush-hush.
Kakeibo is even more popular on YouTube and, at its best, achieves the same goal. Women working in offices have uploaded clips of them explaining their approach to budgeting, while others go so far as to detail the actual physical creation of a money notebook, down to the best ways to put stickers on it. Such videos can get really detailed.
It also plays out in a much more simple way on Instagram. The #kakeibo hashtag finds users sharing pictures of the actual budgeting notebooks people use to manage their finances. They don’t have to look particularly fancy, although they can also get slightly complicated. Nevertheless, the posts can be somewhat revealing about how people actually use money in Japan.
This is what makes kakeibo discussion on Japanese social media a lot more interesting than its current coverage in the West. Rather than present it as some mysterious all-encompassing life force coursing through Japanese culture — the virtual “wa” of savings — actual users in Japan show that everyone has their own approach to it, which makes it clear that it’s more of a personal undertaking. It might not sell too many books, but it’s far more interesting to see how others do it.