'Goodbye, Things', on Japanese Minimalism, Requires a Certain Maximalist Means

by Mike Schiller

21 August 2017

Sasaki's simplify-your-life minimalism plan requires a certain amount of disposable income to achieve.
 
cover art

Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism

Fumio Sasaki

(W.W. Norton & Company)
US: Apr 2017

One thing right off the bat: It’s difficult to trust a book about changing one’s own life and mindset when it straightfacedly uses a quote from Fight Club‘s Tyler Durden to back up a point.

Okay, one other thing: if Apple is not your preferred tech manufacturer, this book may not be for you. Fumio Sasaki worships at the altar of Steve Jobs, whose name appears with increasing frequency as Goodbye, Things progresses. From the tech that his company spearheaded to the minimal wardrobe he made famous, Goodbye, Things is almost as much a tribute to Jobs’ genius as it is a book about changing one’s own life.

Those are the caveats. Get past them and Goodbye, Things reveals itself to be a quick, fascinating read likely to resonate with anyone short on time and long on obligation.

Goodbye, Things carries with it the subtitle of The New Japanese Minimalism, a philosophy that revolves around the act of removing anything from your life that you don’t desperately need. In a very literal sense, this begins with your material possessions. Do you need a television in every room of your house? Do you need the hard copy of your final exam in Biology from when you were 14 years old? Now, take it a step further: Do you need a second floor? Do you need a sofa? Do you absolutely need that second winter jacket just in case the first one gets wet? Now, take it another step further: Do you need more than one type and/or color of shirt? Do you need any television at all if you have a computer? Do you need more than a single place setting’s worth of dishware?

Minimalism, in this sense, is in direct opposition to our capitalist instincts. The accumulation of possessions leads to waste; the tyranny of choice leads to dissatisfaction almost immediately upon selection.

What makes Sasaki’s ideas so approachable is that he makes no pretensions here to be the utmost expert on minimalism; he makes no claim to being the utmost authority on much of anything, really. He is merely human and trying to express his own experience as a human. He has created a document nearly impervious to criticism despite its structure as a “how-to” manual, by consistently driving home the individuality of minimalist culture. While the instructions Sasaki offers are straightforward and not prone to misinterpretation, his explanations of those instructions are often couched in equivocation, an approach designed to ensure that his readers reflect on his words rather than simply parrot and follow them.

To be sure, there are cracks in his calmly minimalist facade. In a segment that is trying to drive home the idea that a little bit of inconvenience can bring joy to your life, he uses the example of having a single, thin, highly-absorbent, quick-drying towel with which to dry yourself after a shower. One of the benefits of minimizing your linen closet in this way is that those occasions in which you do get to use a larger towel—say, at a hotel or when staying with family—feel like the utmost in luxury. In order for that to be the case, however, doesn’t there have to exist some sort of lingering dissatisfaction with the “everyday” towel that is being temporarily put aside for such luxury?

There is also the idea, as Sasaki puts it, of the city as “our personal floor plan”. When you need some place more comfortable to sit, there is a restaurant or coffee shop to go to. Instead of hosting parties, you can meet at places in the city. If you are without something that will bring you some joy, according to Sasaki you can just go into the city and get it. While again, such an inclination to use one’s surroundings to their fullest potential is appealing as a thought, it is also unrealistic for those who don’t live near such amenities. It is unrealistic for those who live in climates that can quickly become severe. It requires a certain amount of disposable income in order to take advantage of city hotspots on so regular a basis, placing something of a class restriction on a largely universal philosophy.

There is also the fact that every human that Sasaki cites as an example of the minimalist philosophy also happens to be a blogger. While blogging can’t be held against them individually, the prevalence of blogs in Sasaki’s examples raises the question of why so many minimalists seem to take such pleasure in cultivating an audience for their minimalism.

I illustrate these points not to discredit Sasaki per se, but more as a means of illustrating the individual nature of the philosophies he extols. Just because I don’t connect with the ideas (or bloggers) above doesn’t mean that nobody will. Even as I’m coolly discounting those ideas I don’t agree with, I’m nodding my head at points like that of confusing accumulation of property with identity, or the idea that something that’s been sitting in my attic for 20 years probably isn’t that important to me, no matter how sentimental its origins. I’m intrigued by the history of it, the idea that the minimalist movement gained steam following a natural disaster (the tremendous and destructive Tōhoku earthquake of 2011) that destroyed so many people’s beloved possessions, and how those people were quite literally forced to redefine their concept of value.

It’s practically a requirement of Sasaki’s book that readers bring their lives and possessions to mind when reading this book, and pick and choose the portions of advice that work for them—and discard the rest. Sasaki uses the pronoun “we” to explain his concepts when he’s not talking about his own personal experience, bringing the reader in and sharing in the reader’s experience.

It’s an effective device that underscores the idea that Sasaki is attempting to provide a service here, even as he is promoting himself (and openly admitting as much) by publishing a book about his ideas of how urban dwellers should live. His voice is a calm guide, leading us through a series of concepts and inviting us to take part rather than exhorting that we listen to him and only him. Goodbye things is perhaps more about accepting our lives the way they are, rather than dwelling on what they might be. In this regard, minimalism is a way to find peace in a chaotic, overstimulated world. It’s worth considering.

Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism

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