BACK when I used to have a lot of possessions, a typical day in my life used to go like this: I’d come home from work, haphazardly take off my clothes, and leave them lying around wherever I happened to be. Then I’d take a shower, always noticing the crack in the bathroom sink that needed to be repaired. I’d sit in front of the TV to catch up on the shows I’d taped or maybe watch one of the movies I’d rented, and crack open a can of beer. Wine was my drink of choice for later in the evening, and there were times when I’d finish a bottle too quickly and have to dash to the nearby convenience store, already drunk.
I once heard a line that went: "Liquor is not happiness but a temporary respite from unhappiness." That was exactly the case for me. I wanted to forget about how miserable I was, if only for a brief moment.
I’d wake up the next morning feeling cranky and reluctant to get out of bed. I would hit the snooze button on my alarm clock every 10 minutes until the sun was high in the sky and it was well past time to get ready for work. I’d feel weary with a throbbing headache from drinking too much yet again. Sitting on the toilet, I’d pinch the fat around my abdomen as I took care of business. Then I’d open the clothes dryer and pull out the crumpled shirt I threw in there last night, put it on with a quick glance at the clothes that had yet to be washed, and step out the door.
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I’d make my way to the office, sick and tired of the same old commute. I’d go online and visit an anonymous bulletin board to pass the time since I know I can’t concentrate on my work first thing in the morning. Check my e-mail obsessively and respond immediately, thinking that this somehow showed I was great at my job. All the while, I’d keep putting off the actual important work. I’d leave the office at the end of the day, not because I had finished everything I was supposed to finish but simply because it was time to go home.
Back in my pre-minimalist days, I was full of excuses. I couldn’t get up in the morning because I’d been working late. I’m fat because it’s in my genes. I could get right down to work if I had a better living environment. There’s no room to put anything away in my home, though, so how can I help it if it happens to be a mess? I only rent it – it isn’t like I own it – so what’s the use in trying to clean it up? Of course I’d keep it clean if it were a spacious home that I actually owned, but with my limited salary I can’t move to a bigger place.
The excuses were endless, the thoughts running through my mind all negative. I was stuck in that mindset and yet because of my useless sense of pride, I was too afraid of failing to take any action to change things.
Since I minimised my possessions, a drastic change has occurred in my daily life. I come home from work and take a bath. I always leave the tub sparkling clean. Since I got rid of my TV, I read a book or write instead. I no longer drink alone. I go to bed after taking my time doing some stretching exercises, using the space that used to be filled with all my stuff.
I get up as the sun rises, and I no longer have to rely on my alarm clock. With my material objects gone, the shining rays of the morning sun are reflected against the white wallpaper and brighten up the apartment. The mere act of getting up in the morning has now become a pleasant routine. I put away my futon pad. I take time to enjoy my breakfast and savour the espresso I make on my Macchinetta, always cleaning up the breakfast dishes right after my meal. I sit down and meditate to help clear my mind. I vacuum my apartment every day. I do the laundry if the weather is nice. I put on clothes that have been neatly folded and leave the apartment feeling good. I now enjoy taking the same route to work every day – it allows me to appreciate the changes of the four seasons.
I can’t believe how my life has changed. I got rid of my possessions, and I’m now truly happy. Let me share with you the things that I’ve thrown away:
* All my books, including my bookshelves. I must have spent at least a million yen (about $10,000) on those books, but I sold them for 20,000 yen (about $200).
* My boom box and all my CDs. I used to pretend to be an expert on various kinds of music, even if they didn’t really interest me.
* A big kitchen cupboard that had been fully stocked for some reason, even though I was living alone.
* A collection of antique pieces, which I recklessly bought at a bunch of auctions.
* Expensive clothes that didn’t fit, but that I thought I’d wear when I lost weight ... one of these days.
* A full set of camera equipment. I had even rigged up a darkroom. What was I thinking?
* Various tools for maintaining my bicycle.
* An electric guitar and amplifier, both covered with dust. They’d been left sitting around because I didn’t want to admit to myself that my attempt to become a fantastic musician had failed.
* A desk and a dining table, both far too large for a bachelor. Even though I didn’t invite people over, I had this desire to share a simmering hot pot with someone.
* A Tempur-Pedic full-size mattress – extremely comfortable but extremely heavy, too.
* A 42-inch TV that was clearly out of place in my 100-square-foot room, but supposedly showed that I was a serious fan of movies.
* A full home theatre set-up and a PS3.
* Adult videos I had stored on my hard drive. These may have been the items it took me the most courage to part with.
* Roll upon roll of developed photographs, piled up in stacks and stuck together.
* Treasured letters I’d been saving since kindergarten.
Because I had a hard time just discarding things, I took photos of everything I threw away. I shot pictures of the covers of all my books, too. There must be at least 3000 pictures stored on my hard drive.
Now that I think about it, I had everything I needed: a big TV, a home theatre set, a computer, an iPhone, a comfortable bed, and more. But even though I had all of life’s necessities, I kept thinking about what was missing in my life.
I could watch movies with my girlfriend in style, if only I had a leather sofa. (I could casually put my arm around her during the film.) I’d probably look smart if I had a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf. I could invite friends over for parties if I had a grand rooftop terrace. All the apartments I saw featured in magazines had these things, yet I had none of them. If only I had them, people would start noticing me. It was all the things I didn’t have that were standing between me and my happiness. That’s the way my mind used to work.
Back when I first came to Tokyo from my hometown in Kagawa Prefecture, my apartment contained nothing but the bare essentials. But because I couldn’t throw anything away, it gradually became a palace of clutter. And I could come up with justifications for all of it.
I used to like taking pictures. I wanted to capture precious moments and make them mine. I wanted to hang on to everything that might someday become a fond memory.
The books I read are like a part of me, so naturally, I couldn’t part with them, either. I wanted to share my favourite movies and music with others. There were always hobbies I wanted to take up when I had the time.
I couldn’t throw away anything expensive. That would be such a waste. And just because I wasn’t using something at that moment, it didn’t mean I wasn’t going to use it someday.
This is just some of the reasoning that went through my head as I kept accumulating things.
It was the complete opposite of how I now feel. I was a maximalist, determined to save everything, to buy the coolest, biggest, heaviest items I could afford.
And as my belongings started to take up more and more room, I began to be overwhelmed by them, spending all my energy on my objects while still hating myself for not being able to make good use of them all. Yet no matter how much I accumulated, my attention was still focused on the things I didn’t have. I became jealous of other people. Even then, I couldn’t throw anything away, and so I was stuck going around and around in a vicious circle of self-loathing.
But by getting rid of my things, I’ve finally started to break out of that situation. If you’re anything like I was – dissatisfied with your life, insecure, unhappy – try reducing your belongings. You’ll start to change.
Unhappiness isn’t just the result of genetics or past trauma or career trouble. I think that some of our unhappiness is simply due to the burden of all our things.
We’re all born into this world as minimalists, but we Japanese used to lead minimalist lives as well. Foreigners who came to Japan before our industrialisation were shocked. While it might be hard to imagine today, most people owned perhaps two or three kimonos, always kept fresh and clean, as their entire wardrobe. They packed light, their legs were strong, and they could walk wherever they needed to go. Homes were simple structures that could quickly be rebuilt, and people didn’t tend to live in the same place all their lives. Japanese culture used to be a minimalist culture.
My definition of a minimalist is a person who knows what is truly essential for him- or herself, who reduces the number of possessions that they have for the sake of things that are really important to them.
There are no set rules. It’s not like you’re disqualified if you own a TV or have more than 100 possessions, or that you would then become a minimalist if you just got rid of those items. You’re not even necessarily a minimalist just because everything you own can be stuffed into a single suitcase.
My feeling is that minimalists are people who know what’s truly necessary for them versus what they may want for the sake of appearance, and they’re not afraid to cut down on everything in the second category.
Danshari – the art of de-cluttering, discarding, and parting with your possessions – began to create a buzz in Japan around 2010, the year Marie Kondo's newly published book, The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up, became a smash hit.
The Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 not only affected our sense of value, I think it prompted a big change in how we look at our possessions.
Mai Yururi is an artist whose comic format essay series, Watashi no uchi niwa nanimo nai (There’s Nothing In My House), became a big hit. I was one of the many people who had been shocked to see pictures of Mai’s sparse home. She’s been given the nickname Sute-hentai (Weirdo Obsessed with Throwing Things Away). One scene in her book made a real impression on me: all the possessions that she and her family had lovingly kept in their home came crashing down when the earthquake struck, and turned into deadly weapons. All of their cherished objects were washed away by the tsunami. Everything had been ruined.
Considering the rise of information overload, the advance of technology, and the increasing occurrence of deadly natural disasters, I can’t help wondering if the rise of minimalism in recent years may have been inevitable. Minimalism had to be born, not out of a mere spur-of-the-moment idea or yearning for a new lifestyle, but from an earnest desire and fervent need to rethink our lives.
This is an edited extract from Goodbye, Things by Fumio Sasaki, published by Penguin, £9.99