The Art of Japanese Living

There is a long tradition of people from the West looking to the Far East for ideas on how to sort their lives out
Japanese Bamboo Forest
Shutterstock Images
Japanese Bamboo Forest
March 17, 2019
By Stephan Phelan

Your front door opens and a petite Japanese woman blows into your house like a curious breeze, gusting across the shelves and through the wardrobes to bring order and harmony where before there was only unhappy disarray. This is the gist of the Marie Kondo phenomenon, which began with a book called (in English) The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up in 2011, and has lately surged with her massively popular and strangely soothing Netflix TV show.

My own girlfriend is a KonVert, as followers of the world’s favourite “organising consultant” are now known. Our baby daughter’s many sleepsuits and little pinafore dresses have been rolled and stored upright according to the patented KonMari method. The real trick is knowing what to throw out – deciding which possessions do not “spark joy”, as Kondo puts it. Most of us can recognise something of ourselves in the nostalgia-stricken hoarders she tries to help on her show, crying into an old running shoe as they try to let go of the past by tossing the thing in
the bin.

There is a hint of Shinto in Kondo’s philosophy. A born tidy-upper who cleaned her classrooms voluntarily as a kid, she later worked for years as an attendant at a shrine. Japan’s native religion holds that all material things possess their own kami, or spirit. The usual emphasis is on natural objects like trees and rocks, but Kondo may apply it to a beloved pair of dungarees, and suggest that you thank them for their service. More broadly, the KonMari method belongs within a long tradition of Westerners looking to the Far East for ideas on how to sort their lives out.

To take a more outdoorsy example, the trees and rocks are performing their own good works. Shinrin-yoku, another Japanese concept recently adopted as a popular lifestyle trend around the world, is better known in English as “forest-bathing.” The simple act of walking deep into the woods has been officially promoted by Japan’s Forest Ministry for its health benefits since 1982. Subsequent research by Chiba University and the Nippon Medical School has shown that immersion in wooded areas reduces blood pressure, heart rate and stress levels in general.

“Forest environments can be viewed as therapeutic landscapes,” concluded one study, which found that breathing in phytonocides – natural oils emitted by plant life – can apparently increase “natural killer” cells in the human immune system. Doctor Qing Li’s book Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health & Happiness now serves as a guidebook for certified instructors and shinrin-yoku walking clubs across the US, Canada and Europe.

But where does this leave the residents of desert environments like the UAE, where trees are very thin on the ground? They might take a step back and ask if they are satisfied with how they spend their waking hours, in the manner prescribed in another bestseller titled Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life.

Marie Kondo

“In Japan, there is no such thing as ‘free time’, as we understand the term,” says the book’s co-author Francesc Miralles. “People tend to work very long days throughout their careers, but when they retire they will often take on another job or task that has more to do with their personal interests. Of course it’s essential to make a living, but also to develop a passion, a means of feeling proud of yourself.” Ikigai refers to a kind of ideal by which an individual might strike a perfect balance between their desires, talents and obligations. The word specifically derives from the island of Okinawa, where Miralles and his writing partner Hector Garcia interviewed elderly villagers and found that this philosophy, for lack of a better word, helped explain their unusual longevity and rare sense of fulfillment. “They were all so active,” says Miralles. “Tending to gardens, joking with friends, just keeping on with things. In other countries retirement activities are usually organised by institutions. Rest homes, social clubs, bingo. But to achieve ikigai it must come from yourself, and how you really want to spend your hours.”

It’s not that the Japanese have all the answers, he admits. Teenagers there are subject to competitive pressures that give them no time to decide the lives they want to lead, nor much choice in the matter. In societal terms, Japan has all the same problems as we do. The cultural exchange has flowed both ways, for good and ill, since the mid-19th century, when the closed society of the Samurai opened up to trade with the West. American products and influences flooded in, while Japan’s esoteric ways of doing things were packaged for export to foreign markets – Zen meditation, martial arts, flower-arranging, calligraphy, haiku poetry.

Later generations of children have had their parents buy whatever Tokyo-based toy and games corporations were selling, from Super Mario to Transformers to Pokémon. Now our homes are filled with stuff, our minds as cluttered as our closets, and again Japan seems to whisper solutions. Marie Kondo’s ikigai resides in proposing that we audit our possessions for their spiritual value. And Miralles found his ikigai, he says, “in helping other people to find theirs.” 

Japan has the third-longest life expectancy in the world. Read more about Japanese living in Ikigai: The Secret to a Long and Happy Life.