Natural light, empty spaces, compact design. The homes of Japan’s new minimalists are free of unnecessary clutter, but not of personality. Take author Fumio Sasaki. In giving away 95% of his belongings, he became the person he is today: relaxed, joyful, with a centred wisdom. His first book, goodbye, things, reads like a clearing in the forest of stuff that tends to block our vision of what truly matters. By writing it, he has inspired thousands of people to “have less, be free”.
This conversation took place over three time zones, in two languages. Our thanks goes to Rieko Yamanaka for her incisive interpretation.
When did minimalism first feature in your life?
Let me start by saying that I still love material things, I still love objects, I tend to collect them and accumulate them so when I discovered minimalism, I lived in a very small apartment and I owned lots of things. Out of the circumstances (I had to stay in the apartment for about 11 years or so) I didn’t have the means to move out. I was starting to feel very tied down, with nowhere to go and lots of stuff surrounding me. That’s when I discovered minimalism and started to yearn for more freedom.
A minimalist who loves things, that’s a bit of a paradox. Did this make it difficult for you to part with your belongings?
It was very hard, I would take photos of them before I let them go, even when I sold books to used bookstores I would take the cover photos one by one. I didn’t go so far as to read over every book, but it was quite difficult for me, yes. Even when I look back, I just marvel at it. I don’t know how I did it.
I feel that one of the reasons I had so much was because I didn’t have a clear set of values, or a clear sense of identity about who I was but by letting go of these things little by little, I think I started to get more clarity about what’s important to me, about what I value. That was an interesting discovery.
Certainly from reading your book, goodbye, things, I got the impression that it really changed the way you saw yourself in the world and that this feeling was almost spiritual at times.
Right after the big decluttering process, there was a time when my very familiar apartment suddenly felt like a sacred place almost like a temple for myself and I did go through many transformations, inside out. However, after a while that also becomes the new normal. And so that sense of awe or the sacredness of the apartment starts to wear off unfortunately.
When I had the least amount of stuff - the record was about 100 items in my possession - I would just be taking a walk around the neighbourhood and I’d see other animals doing their thing and I would start to feel like I’m just one of the many creatures walking the planet. It’s as if I was not a stray dog, but a stray man or a stray person, just going about my way.
I don’t necessarily think everybody should be a minimalist but that type of experience was very valuable to me.
You mentioned that you’re a diver, could you share some of your underwater experiences?
After decluttering, I started to take more interest in mountain climbing and diving, being in nature. I have been diving in Okinawa in Japan. I also used to live in the Philippines so I did quite a bit of diving there, and what I really enjoy about it is being able to see these little creatures, organisms: there’s like a whole other world down there, even in the darkness for example. Being able to commune with this world, that’s been the most appealing to me, that moves me a lot.
Whenever I want to get one of my friend’s into diving, who has never dived before, I like to tell them that you have yet to discover two thirds of the planet!
The co-founder of your website, Numahata Naoki has written: “one of the most important aspects of minimalism is that you create the space to do nothing.” Does that hold true for you?
One of the things I practice everyday is yoga and meditation which I would have never been able to practice if I had not tidied up because if you try to meditate you’ll notice how cluttered your room is and you’ll want to start straightening things out. Also if I go out on a trip or I go camping with friends, I really cherish the time where we just don’t do anything, like having a bonfire, staring into the flames or just throughout the day if there is a time when I can really empty my thoughts and just do nothing. Even sipping a cup of coffee.
Instead of worrying so much about what I can do for the world, or what I can put out in the world, in those moments you start to realise the only force working between you and the world is gravity. And everything just is.
Just every once in a while, not all the time…
You’ve already touched on what minimalism has done for your ecological awareness. Is there a big conversation around sustainability in Japan, and has it influenced at all the minimalist movement?
For me absolutely there’s a strong connection between minimalism and this awareness because in the decluttering process I started to think more about where the things I use in my daily life come from and after I discard stuff, where does it go and how does it get disposed of. I couldn’t help but develop that awareness of an interconnectedness of the things I was consuming without much thought in my daily life.
I am noticing that there is more discussion happening around sustainability in Japan, even in the morning news. However I think that compared to other countries in the world, Japan has had a very late start and has a long way to go in terms of developing that awareness of sustainability.
“If it’s really important to you then even after you let it go, you will never forget it, it will always stay in your heart”
Are you still decluttering, are you still letting go of things?
Yes, it’s an ongoing process. Right now I’m living with my mother in the house where I grew up, [...] [and] I’ve been helping her go through her possessions, trying to let go of some of them that were no longer in use.
So my father passed away over 10 years ago and my mother had still kept his clothes tucked away in a closet, not really looking at them, not opening the closet at all. They were just sitting there and we ended up donating all of the clothing to developing nations. We used a service that helps the donated clothes provide vaccines to these countries and I do think my mum was relieved, like a huge burden had been lifted off her shoulders, through that act of letting go of my father’s clothes.
I do feel that if it’s really important to you, then even after you let it go, you will never forget it, it will always stay in your heart.
You wrote that minimalists are people “who truly know what’s necessary for them versus what they may want for the sake of appearances”. What could this mean for fashion-lovers, given that fashion is all about appearances?
Before I went into minimalism, I did love fashion quite a bit. Afterwards, I decided it is not something that I would like to spend my time and energy on. That said, there are a lot of minimalists who are into fashion, they tend to own smaller quantities of high quality pieces and seeing TWOTHIRDS’ website, I was quite drawn to the designs of the clothing, I would actually love to wear them. They’re beautiful, they’re simple and they seem to last a good while. When we used to talk about fashion oftentimes it was all about trends that only last for a season or a year at best with big turn-arounds. When people are in that kind of mindset of immediate consumption, short term - not sustainable - then those people will probably not be interested in minimalism to start with. But I do think that fashion and minimalism are not necessarily mutually exclusive in that you could bring the minimalist ideas into the world of fashion or what you wear.
Do you still feel a deep sense of contentment from practicing minimalism?
There was one thing that in retrospect, I was mistaken about in the book: that the sense of happiness lasts for a long time. I’m realising that without experiencing challenges or unhappiness, you can’t really feel or appreciate happiness either. That said, the practice of gratitude is something that has really stayed with me.
Before I go to bed, when I get into bed, I take a moment to be grateful for everything that I have, whether it’s the food I eat, the roof over my head, the clothes I wear, and my health. And that is an act of re-affirming my happiness which really does change the baseline of how I feel about myself and my life. That has been uplifted for sure.