When people think of minimalism, they usually think of the Western world and how those people have taken up the minimalist lifestyle.
But what about other parts of the world? Namely, what relationship does the country where minimalism was born – Japan – has with the minimalist philosophy today?
Japan has changed a lot since the emergence of the minimalist ideals. Nonetheless, these ideas haven’t disappeared from the lives of the Japanese. In fact, they are deeply ingrained in the country’s culture, which creates a distinctive form of minimalism that can only be witnessed in Japan.
In this post, we’ll share some observations about the uniqueness of Japanese minimalism and how it differs from what we see in the West.
Table of Contents
How Did Minimalism Originate in Japan
Japanese minimalism is a byproduct of the Zen Buddhist philosophy, which is thought to have originated in China as a mixture of Indian Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism and was introduced in Japan during the 12th century by the Buddhist priest Myoan Eisai. The “less is more” philosophy that dictated the ways of Buddhist monks inspired others to try and achieve tranquility and find meaning through simplicity.
The Japanese Philosophy of Wabi-Sabi and How it Applies to Minimalism
In theory, it’s impossible to define wabi-sabi since it is essentially a way to view the world or state of mind. However, the concept is commonly explained as the capacity to accept and appreciate imperfection and impermanence in the natural world while finding beauty in simple things, such as an autumn leaf or a sunrise. This concept separates Japanese minimalism from Western minimalism: the latter’s ideal of beauty is set on symmetry and perfection, even within its minimalism movement.
The philosophy of wabi-sabi dates back to China’s Song Dynasty and became more relevant later on with Zen Buddhism.
In the 12th century, a monk called Eisai returned to Japan from China and brought with him Zen Buddhist principles and green tea. Eisai introduced “tencha”, the style of tea preparation in which the matcha powder is mixed with hot water. It didn’t take long for the noble classes to appropriate the Buddhist tea habit and turn it into another formal meeting to flaunt wealth.
Later in the 15th century, tea masters Murata Jukō and Sen no Rikyū saw in the act of preparing and drinking tea the potential to reinforce Zen principles. They, thus, established wabi-cha, a tea ceremony marked by minimalism and wabi-sabi, in which the participants drank tea from imperfect Japanese pottery instead of the perfect, imported Chinese pieces.
Wabi-sabi is a key concept in Japanese minimalism. If we pay attention to Japan’s proneness to natural disasters, it’s clear that wabi-sabi works as a coping mechanism. Japanese people found peace in the acceptance and appreciation of Nature’s strength.
The essence of wabi-sabi can be found in several different Japanese art forms, such as ikebana – the art of flower arranging – zen gardens, and pottery. Wabi-sabi in pottery is widely recognized through kintsugi, the practice of mending broken pots with gold in a way that the imperfections are highlighted.
As minimalists, we can apply these teachings to our daily lives to find beauty and value in what’s simple, imperfect, or even broken. When we find peace in imperfection, we no longer devote our lives to the impossible task of achieving perfection in everything we do and in what we are.
Examples of Minimalist Architecture and Interior Design in Japan
Architecture and interior design have always been close to minimalist concepts in Japan. It’s easy to understand why: minimalist houses take up less space, are more economical, and are easier to clean and tidy.
Even as years passed – even centuries – Japanese architecture and interior design haven’t changed much because they’re already both aesthetic and pragmatic. But there have been a few changes that allow us to distinguish traditional Japanese architecture from modern Japanese architecture.
The most relevant differences between the two lie in the materials in use. Whereas in traditional architecture it is common to use wood and paper, in the modern style the use of concrete, steel, and glass along with the wood is preferred.
Check some examples of minimalist architecture and interior design below.
The SAI Architecture Design Office was approached by a family of four who wanted a house in a small and narrow plot of land. The couple envisioned a home that could fulfill their needs as a family, interact with Nature, and provide green spaces. And, thus, the Melt House was born.
This house, located in Osaka, is a minimalist dream: it’s wooden and it has a lot of natural light, floor-to-ceiling windows, and open space.
Natural elements are indispensable for minimalism in Japan and its minimalist architecture, so the center of the house accommodates a courtyard with trees that reach beyond the ground floor into an atrium.
Photos by Norihito Yamauchi
This tightly packed house is located in a narrow lot in Shiga, Japan, and it’s a perfect example of modern Japanese architecture.
Outside, we’re drawn to the cubist elegance of the metal and concrete cuboids. On the inside, the Japanese minimalist features don’t go unnoticed.
First, there’s Genkan, the traditional entrance to Japanese houses with a step (agari kamachi), where hosts and guests remove their shoes. This style of low-level entries is also an architectural technique to contain dirt that is tracked in from the outside. Then, there are large windows that allow natural light to reach the entirety of the house. Finally, there are wood and glass sliding doors, another typically Japanese feature.
Photos by Norihito Yamauchi
Japanese Minimalist Interior Design Inspired by Muji
This project by 96 Interior in partnership with retail company MUJI combines elegance and minimalism beautifully. Bright and vibrant colors aren’t usually found in minimalist houses because they don’t convey tranquility and lightness. So 96 Interior uses a neutral color palette of white, beige, light wooden brown, and grey for their project.on’ The open space, another common characteristic of Japanese minimalist houses gives an airy feeling to the house while keeping the owners’ options open regarding the layout.
From the passerby’s perspective, the Okinawa House is a weird cluster of three intersecting windowless white blocks with only a garage door and a wooden front door. But there’s more to it.
This clifftop house was designed for a family who wanted to escape city life and relax in a natural environment. For this reason, the most relevant part of the project is at the rear. Whereas the front area provides privacy, the back of the house comes with a beautiful ocean view from its large windows and roof terrace. Inside, the minimalist features are obvious: naked, white walls, oak furniture, and a lot of natural light.
Grigio house does more for its owners than provide a minimalist place to relax and be in touch with Nature. It was designed in a way that it can accommodate their material interests: cars and contemporary art. It’s thus fair to at least question if the owners live a minimalist lifestyle, which, regardless of the answer, does not interfere with the minimalist nature of the house. This comes to show how minimalism – namely minimalist architecture – is entrenched in Japanese culture.
This house comprises a sheltered parking area for two cars and rooms with indirect daylight, ideal for art display. Its concrete structure is exposed, an aspect that dictates the dark color palette of the entire home.
PHOTOS (by Masao Nishikawa)
Japanese Minimalism versus Western Minimalism
When we talk about Japanese minimalism, it’s common to think of a clutter-free country where everyone lives with few possessions and meditates all the time. Well, that image of Japan is not very accurate. The truth is that Japan is, generally speaking, very similar to any western country.
It’s a country where companies promote and push consumerism; a country where there are avenues packed with stores and people carrying several bags. Japanese people aren’t inherently minimalist. However, such as in the rest of the world, the minimalist philosophy is gaining traction again, as a response to the craziness of overconsumption that overtook the world.
But is Japan’s minimalism any different from what is known and practiced in the West?
Naturally, the source of Western minimalism is Japanese minimalism, however, they aren’t the same. The Western offspring did not inherit all of its parents’ features, which resulted in movements with similarities and differences.
Firstly, Japan has the uniqueness of being a country where minimalism is entrenched in the culture. So even though consumerism managed to get its claws into the country, the truth is that it didn’t reach the roots of Japanese culture, where we find bits of the minimalist philosophy. This aspect becomes clear when we observe an area we’ve talked about previously: interior design. The way Japanese people choose functional materials and practical furniture shows how simplicity is an ever-present principle.
Moreover, western minimalism overlooks the Japanese aesthetic elements. Concepts such as wabi-sabi (beauty in imperfection), ma (love of negative space), danshari (separate oneself from unnecessary objects), and seijaku (tranquility among chaos) are essential in Japanese minimalism. They connect the ascetical realm to the tangible world and keep the movement close to the ultimate Zen goals: achieving enlightenment and living a meaningful and enjoyable life.
Tips on How to Start Living a Minimalist Lifestyle Yourself
Start Slow and Be Patient
One common mistake of those who want to become minimalists is looking at decluttering as a single act rather than a process. When you take your time to rid your home of excess belongings, you give yourself space to figure out what’s meaningful to you. Don’t go and declutter every room of the house at the same time. Start easy and simple.
Accept that it won’t be easy all the time: there will be meaningless objects you won’t want to let go of, days in which you’ll buy something out of impulse. But that doesn’t mean you should give up! Don’t forget this is a process – take one step at a time.
Ask Yourself Which Objects You Will Miss
Understanding if our possessions are necessary or not is a vital part of becoming a minimalist. Shift your focus to evaluating the role each belonging has in your life instead of thinking that something might be useful in the future.
Figure out which objects are necessary to you daily and keep those with you. Remember that there’s not a limited number of possessions: minimalism is flexible, and, thus, you can own 50 or 500 things, as long as each of them is meaningful and useful.
Get Your Hands on Relevant Literature
Books are always of great help in the learning process. Read books about minimalism and learn more about the movement; get inspired by stories the authors might share; and take up any tips on starting your minimalist path.
Practice Thinking Before Buying
This one takes a little time to master, but it’s a crucial skill in minimalism. We often buy things out of impulse – it’s what we’re expected to do in this mass production system – but to simply stop and ask yourself “Do I need this?” is enough to prevent you from buying unnecessary stuff. It will take a while to get used to this exercise – and be ready to fail a few times at first – but practice makes perfect.