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Anthropology: What Can We Learn from Zen Minimalism and Design in Japanese Culture?

The Western world has embraced minimalism as a visually pleasing style. However, Japanese zen minimalism sees beyond this. With its roots steeped in years of tradition and spirituality, zen minimalism is more than an appealing trend. It is an entire mode of living that is fundamental to a healthy, fulfilled life.

In a range of fields, from art and architecture to music and fashion design, minimalism is now an accepted point of focus. In each case, the aesthetic image emerging from minimalist themes elevates a simplistic beauty. Put differently, zen minimalism entails an appreciation of what is already there, devoid of any desire to add more.

Importantly, our excessive mode of living in the West has a lot to learn from Japan’s ‘less is more’ mentality.

What is Zen Minimalism?

Rooted in Japan’s traditional Zen Buddhism, Zen Minimalism is an extension of simplicity. The minimalist perspective resides outside of modern consumerism with a focus on living with the bare essentials. Zen minimalism is founded on three primary concepts. Firstly, ma (meaning in emptiness or ‘negative space’); secondly, wabi-sabi (finding beauty in nature’s imperfections); and thirdly, shibui (simple and subtle).

A painted black circle on a white background with the word 'ZEN' written in messy capitals
Image Source: Buddhagroove.com

Ma and Minimalism

The Japanese notion of ma relates to the ‘pure and essential void’ between things. It emphasises the importance of simple living and attributing value or meaning to empty spaces.

The Zen Buddhist term generally translates as ‘negative space’. Therefore, it contradicts the Western modern consumerist lifestyle that seeks to endlessly fill space. Japanese aesthetics have evolved around this concept of space to promote adherence to a decluttered and clean lifestyle.

A useful way of conceptualising Ma: take off one accessory before you leave your house to allow the other things you are wearing to shine. By removing objects and creating negative space, the beauty that is already there becomes more noticeable.

Tidying Up with Marie Kondo: an inspiring Netflix series of home makeovers by world-renowned tidying expert Marie Kondo – encapsulates the concept of ma. With the aim of ‘sparking joy in the world’, Kondo helps her clients clear out the clutter of their homes. Here, ‘negative space’ in the home is intimately linked with reduced stress and overall wellbeing. Unless an object is one that you have an overwhelming affection for, it has no value and should be discarded. ‘Decluttering your home’, says Kondo, ‘declutters your thinking’.

The ‘ode to emptiness’ in the Japanese conception of happiness contradicts the Western requirements of happiness that include accumulation of personal achievements and possessions.

A Japanese Woman in a cream coloured dress sits on her knees with her hands in her lap next to a small wooden table with a plant and some burning incense
Marie Kondo. Image Source: The KonMari Shop

Wabi-sabi and Minimalism

In Japan, wabi-sabi is a foundational concept in traditional aesthetics. The acceptance of fleeting beauty and imperfection are central to this mode of thinking. Accordingly, appreciating beauty is described as ‘imperfect, impermanent and incomplete’

Wabi-sabi is a nurturing of all that is authentic by recognising the realities that nothing lasts, nothing is finished and nothing is perfect (Richard Powel, ‘Wabi Sabi Simple’).

The first part of the term (‘wabi’) refers to rustic simplicity and austerity. The second part (‘sabi’) descriptively implies an antique look. But it also describes the loneliness of living in nature; a flower withered past its bloom.

A silhouetted person stands in a Japanese tea house at the end of a green coloured body of water with trees in the background
Image Source: Alice Blunden

The traditional concept retains relevance in modern design, influencing the works of prominent fashion designers such as Rei Kawakubo and Issey Miyake. Miyake’s works, for instance, have been known for their rugged, organically shaped appearance.

Two models cloaked in over-flowing, abstract green and cream coloured fashion pieces against a white background
Image Source: https://www.heroine.com/

Shibui and Minimalism

Shibui (adjective) are Japanese words that are used to express simplicity, subtleness and a sense of modest beauty. There are seven core elements of shibusa (noun), these are: simplicity, modesty, implicity, everydayness, naturalness, imperfection and silence.

Japanese design built on this concept produces a timeless serenity. By blurring the lines between aesthetic elegancy and rough imperfections, shibusa balances simplicity and complexity and creates a space of modest abundance.

Importantly, Shibusa should not be confused with wabi-sabi. Whilst many wabi or sabi things can be described as shibui, not all shibui things are wabi or sabi (imperfect or asymmetrical).

Japanese Zen Minimalism and Art

Our artistic potential is unchained and released by ‘less’. This is rooted in the ideology of negative space (ma). We maximise our own creative abilities by reducing the help we recieve from external sources.

The essence of ‘less’ has triggered various forms of traditional Japanese art. The traditional poem style of haiku, for example, is premised on a 5-7-5 line structure where less is often more.

Here is an example from haiku master poet, Yosa Buson (1716–1784):

A summer river being crossed
how pleasing
with sandals in my hands!

Light of the moon
Moves west, flowers’ shadows
Creep eastward.

In the moonlight,
The color and scent of the wisteria
Seems far away.

Zen minimalism and art have also converged in the commercial realm. MUJI, a Japanese retail company, promotes the aesthetics of ‘emptiness’ in the design of their products. By removing unnecessary extras and decorations, many of MUJI’s products are ‘empty vessels‘ that inspire creativity in users. Owners of such products make use of the item in a way that enriches their homes. They ‘design their own happiness’.

Black block writing against a white background reads 'MUJI' with Japanese characters next to it
Image Source: Muji
A poster with a grey background, some stacked ball-point pens to the left, and the text 'simply a pen' on the right
MUJI advertising strategy. Image Source: https://www.adsoftheworld.com/media/print/muji_simply

Zen Minimalism and Modern Architecture

The structure of most densely populated Japanese cities resembles a small, densely packed mosaic. So how, one might ask, does Japan’s architecture simultaneously illuminate nature and create a feeling of spaciousness?

The intangible concepts of Zen Buddhism are solidified in modern Japanese architecture. For instance, the uninterupted planes of soft, natural colors create a flowing sense of space. Consequently, these surfaces expand one’s eyesight across a structure’s entirety, rather than drawing it narrowly to single objects like doors and windows.

Two flat, grey and green shaded buildings with neat rows of window overlap one another in an effective use of space
Packed use of space, but a simultaneous image of uninterrupted flow. Image Source: Alice Blunden

With a ‘less is more’ approach, minimalism creates space for the ‘designing of happiness’ (see MUJI) and limitless potential, even in the smallest of places.

Minimalism on the Inside

Inside a Japanese home, what is absent is just as important as what is there. Inherent in Japanese architecture is the elimination of the inessential, a decluttering of clutter.

In Marie Kondo’s lifestyle of minimalism, amassing excessive possessions or unnecessary items within the home, rather ironically, creates a void. This void leaves us wanting more, and above all, taints us with an eternal sense of dissatisfaction.

According to Architect, Ralph Cram (1982 p. 139), the reserved and refined decoration of interior design is essential to Japanese home life. Objects and furnishings are of a simple and utilitarian quality; that is, present if they serve a useful purpose. As Cram asserts, ‘there is no ornament for the sake of ornament . . . no overloading of unnecessary decoration [and] no confusion of furnishings’.

Zen Minimalist Design and Social Harmony within the Home

A minimalist-styled house – with its lack of decorative distractions – forces people to concentrate on the presence of others. The broken down barriers of separateness and individual identity allow hosts and guests to feel more connected (Hoover 1988, p. 144). Importantly, this nurturing of social relationships is allowed for by ‘negative space’. The empty space of the home allows it to be filled, although with less tangible things.

Minimalism in Capsule Hotels

Capsule hotels first originated in Osaka in the late 1970s, and have demonstrated ongoing success in the Japanese market. These micro-accommodation units epitomise the living ideals of many Japanese people. For instance, the dense use of space and services in a utilitarian manner.

A high-rise building constructed of rows of grey cubes with circular windows
Nakagin Capsule Tower sleeping pods. Image Source: Getty Images

The spaces provide guests with a place to sleep, wash and eat – basic necessities. Despite it being an inexpensive overnight stay, the interior designs of many capsule hotels convey an ‘elitist’ image of class and sophistication. With their simplicity and modest sense of beauty, Japan’s capsule hotels embody the Zen minimalist concept of ‘shibusa’

A black pathway with white numbers and arrows is lined either side by small orange lit doors in a minimalist design
Image source: https://24hourslayover.com/

The Minimalist Meal

According to Chef, Adam Liaw, you can make about 85 per cent of all Japanese dishes with nothing more than some soy sauce, sake and mirin. The presentation of this cuisine is certainly an art form, usually following principles of minimalism and beauty.

It is uncommon for a Japanese plates to be full. The concept of ‘empty space’ (Ma) is visible here. Plates will usually be at least 30% empty. This emptiness or ‘negative space’ (also intrinsic to interior design and artworks) focusses one’s gaze more prominently on the creation in front of them.

A black plate with five small pieces of colourful sushi and a pair of chopsticks sits on a black table
Image Source: Kylie Jackson (https://www.kyliejackson.com.au/)

Significance in Anthropology: How Has Japan’s Minimalism Impacted the West?

The core notion of ‘less is more’ has influenced a number of design trends (from interior design to cuisine) in the West. Japanese Minimalism has inspired many Western interior design trends. For instance, simple and light-filled spaces complement natural elements like wooden flooring. Consequently, this design creates a harmony with nature. In this style of home, neutral beiges, browns and whites line the walls, and decorations are minimal.

A minimalist style cube apartment in Belgium:

A sunlit minimalist room with an open window, white and beige coloured bench, floor and chairs with two lights hanging from ceiling
Cube Apartment in Belgium. Image source: Piet Albert Goethals via https://www.caandesign.com/

COMPARE WITH: minimalist style home in Japan

A beige coloured home interior with green plants and two levels. A woman, man and child sit at a wooden table on the bottom story looking up to another man and child on the second floor
Re-Slope House by Tomohiro Hata.
Image Source: https://weburbanist.com/

Beyond merely a stylish trend that saturates ‘dream home’ boards on Pinterest, Zen minimalism has also changed mindsets on a deeper level. Australian writer, Doody Richards, says that travelling to Japan restructured his toxic, cluttered mentality. Richards now focusses on buying experiences rather than things, and takes pleasure in acknowledging the tiny pause (empty space/ma) in between words on a page:

“Cluttering doesn’t show that you have too many things. It instead shows you as someone who never has enough. Decluttering is merely liberating, and my journey to minimalism is only about to begin”

Zen Minimalism in Popular Culture

Japan’s minimalism has also nestled comfortably into the Western entertainment realm. For instance, a quick search of Marie Kondo’s ‘Tidying up’ series on Netflix takes you to a whole host of related shows hinged on the idea of minimalism. These shows are primarily a source of entertainment, however, they also carry an inspirational ‘change your life’ message.

A black screen with six tv show cover thumbnails lined horizontally
Image Source: Netflix

For instance, the American made show, ‘The Minimalists: Less is Now’, recognises that the ‘accumulation of stuff is contributing to [people’s] discontent’. According to one participant in the show, she gained a sense of freedom with each piece of clothing she discarded.

The ‘American dream’ is an idealistic life model that rests upon a cycle of working, earning, spending and accumulating. As a result, minimalism has no place in the ‘dream’, because it contradicts accumulation. Therfore, in adopting a minimalist lifestyle, people reject the socially prescribed American dream and construct their own dream. The influence of Japan’s minimalist style is so enormous that it alters how people live, work and dream on the other side of the world.

Similar to the mini capsule hotels in Japan, the show ‘Tiny House Nation’ follows different American couples as they relocate into tiny homes (like old caravans). In doing so, they attempt to tidy up their lives and unravel their mental strain. These small spaces fulfil only their owners basic needs with an aesthetic and decluttered design.

What Can We Learn from Japan?

Many people in Western societies are chained to materiality. We are chaotically surrounded by an abundance of choice; this makes it hard for us to value things. We can learn to appreciate what we have by seeing space for what it is – empty space ­– rather than as something that must be urgently filled. In doing so, we can kill the relentless desire of always wanting more.

Currently, we tend to combat mental health in an individualistic way. We prescribe medication. We take the individual out of their environment and tell them to talk to others. Immediately after this, however, the individual goes straight back to where they came from. In Japan, minimalism is not a fleeting fashionable trend, it is a foundational element to healthy living. With this in mind, responses to mental health should not be temporary bandaid fixes. Instead, they should be long term structural changes in the individual’s environment.

Certainly, Western societies can look to Japan learn to learn more about how our environments impact our mental health. Through a reordering of our pathologically cluttered environments, perhaps we can cleanse sick and tired minds of the ‘never enough’ mentality. Indeed, many ‘self-help’ genre books sold in Western Countries are hinged on the Japanese ‘art’ of minimalism.

A white and teal coloured book cover titled 'Minimalism: how to live a happier life by becoming a minimalist'
Image Source: Goodreads.com
a pastel pink, red and yellow book cover reading 'The Japanese Art of Decluttering Your World'
Image source: Goodreads.com

As we continue to place more value on material items over intangible connections, we are becoming increasingly segregated in a networked world. In sum, Japan’s minimalist framework suggests that living with less physical decoration and distraction will enhance social connection. This might be what we all need: to live simply and love more.

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