Everyday Zen: The Art of Japanese Minimalism

The origins of aesthetics

Japan is the birthplace of interior minimalism. At a time when luxurious interior styles reigned in the West, from classicism to art deco, the Japanese interior remained true to tradition and cultural values, and eventually turned into a fashion trend that swept the world in the 21st century.  

In European culture, emptiness is traditionally associated with loneliness, trouble and, in general, is assessed in a negative way, in the Land of the Rising Sun, the attitude to emptiness is fundamentally different. Emptiness is sacred, sacred, it is not perceived as a lack or absence of something. Object abundance in Japanese culture is a sign of bad taste.

The attitude towards emptiness in Japan is associated with religion. An empty space is especially left in front of Shinto shrines, where the gods are believed to dwell. This place is covered with pebbles and fenced off with a rope, it is customary to pray here. At the same time, in Zen Buddhism, emptiness is perceived as truth, the nature of all things, not absence, but fullness. This perception of space and the objective world was reflected in the Japanese interior.

If the Western person loves to surround himself with beautiful things, the Eastern person perceives redundancy as an obstacle to the beautiful and seeks to eliminate it. The logic is this: beautiful is what is functional, useless is ugly.

But Japanese minimalism has a more practical explanation: frequent earthquakes forced to abandon brick buildings in favor of houses made of paper and bamboo. The interior filling also had to match, no bulky furniture, only that which can be easily removed, folded, and unfolded. The futon is a traditional mattress that unfolds on the floor and is still a popular alternative to a bed in Japan.

Minimalism today

The style, which came from the most high-tech country in the world, becomes a good basis for modern everyday scenarios, is friendly with technology, although it prefers to hide it behind furniture facades, meets modern eco-trends, and works well in tandem with styles with a related semantic load. Japanese minimalism is especially friendly with Scandinavian styles. Ergonomic Danish chairs feel great in the company of rice paper lanterns, sliding partitions, and Japanese ceramics.

But the main reason for the popularity of Japanese minimalism is its ideological concept, which in our time has managed to turn into a fashionable phenomenon. The same reason can be explained by the outbreak of popularity of the Scandinavian style, which blinded everyone with snow-white interiors a few years ago. The Scandinavian approach is also weighed down by some household philosophies known as hygge, which taught us to see beauty in simplicity and find happiness in everyday life. Japanese minimalism sets itself more serious tasks: to teach a person to be in harmony with the objective world and nature, to be distracted from the hustle and bustle, to discipline thoughts and feelings, to see beauty in the imperfect, and value in the mundane and fleeting.

Against the background of fashion for a certain way of life and thought, the need arose to “deepen” the philosophical principle in the interior. So a couple of years ago, within the framework of Japanese minimalism, a new conceptual trend broke out – wabi-sabi.

Wabi-sabi in Japanese culture is a rather abstract concept. It becomes more understandable in its adapted Western interpretation. In a simplified version, wabi-sabi is interior asceticism, preaching closeness to nature and the beauty of imperfection, calling for abandoning the pursuit of ideal and luxury. In simplified translation, “Wabi” is “modest simplicity”, and Sabi is “a touch of time.” The style gravitates towards vintage, deliberate aging of things and finishes, demonstration of flaws and textures as close as possible to living nature.

Because of their love for the ancient and shabby, the interiors of wabi-sabi can seem sloppy, in fact, every detail is thought out here. Symmetry, furniture sets, and decor elements in the same style considered good form in Western and Russian interiors, are not considered beautiful in Japan. The focus here is on unique things with history, the pinnacle of skill is to assemble an interior ikebana from seemingly disparate elements, as it happens in nature.  

The concept of wabi-sabi is beautiful, but visually such an interior looks specific, and it is not easy to assemble it. For these reasons, wabi-sabi has not gained wide popularity in our area. The Japanese flavor appears in Russian interiors to a greater extent in a modern presentation, in a mix with Scandinavian minimalism or hi-tech. 

Japan at your home

Pure stylization is not in vogue, modern interiors tend to tell individual stories and use only certain features and elements of styles. Eastern minimalism can be a good interior base or a piquant “seasoning”.

To tune the interior in an oriental way, you will need to give up the abundance of decorative elements and abundance in principle. Furniture is only the most necessary and ergonomic, household appliances are hidden. Ideally, both the decoration and the filling should be made from natural materials. The element of tactility is important, so wabi-sabi like roughness and bumps are welcome. 

Japanese minimalism does not like creative disorder but loves cleanliness, discipline in relation to things, and calmness. Therefore, it is not suitable for everyone. Even if you like it conceptually and seems like a good choice, in theory, this style can be an inconvenient decision in everyday life, especially for large families with children.

Decorative plaster, paper, and textile wallpapers will take root on the walls, wood on the floor. The color scheme is restrained, natural. The walls are usually light, often white because white is synonymous with emptiness.  

The mood will be set by the style-forming elements: low furniture, paper lamps, sliding interior partitions, screens, tatami, rough natural textiles, aged wabi-sabi style ceramics, and indoor plants, especially if it is bonsai.

Minimalism in the interior can be seen as a fashion trend or as a global rethinking of values. The main thing, when trying on Japanese minimalism and worldview for your own interior, is to make sure that it suits you. Are you really comfortable among empty walls?

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