Minimalism Around the World: Danshari

When I first started writing about minimalism, I thought of clutter and overconsumption as primarily an American problem. However, from the emails and comments I received, I soon learned that many in the UK and Europe were struggling with similar issues.

Still, I considered it mainly an affliction of the Western world, and never imagined decluttering would have much relevance in the Far East (which has a long cultural heritage of simplicity and restraint).

However, according to an article by Michael Hoffman in The Japan Times Online, there’s a new trend sweeping Japan: danshari.

Kanjiclinic.com included the word in its “2010 New Words” list, and defined it as follows:

断捨離 Danshari – “de-clutter.”
The three kanji in this compound mean “refuse – throw away – separate.”
Self-help author Hideko Yamashita, drawing on yoga philosophy, promotes a three-step system for de-cluttering one’s life (both physical and mental) in Japan:
1) refuse to bring unnecessary new possessions into your life;
2) throw away existing clutter in your living space; and
3) separate from a desire for material possessions.

I love it! One beautiful little word to sum up so many of the concepts we talk about here. Let’s break it down into its components:

断 dan – to refuse
This part is about being a good gatekeeper, and stopping the inflow of stuff into your home. How to put this into action?
* Practice minsumerism
* Seek alternatives to gifts
* Eliminate your junk mail
* Refuse freebies
* Engage in consumer disobedience

捨 sha – to throw away
Here we get down to the brass tacks of decluttering: eliminating all unnecessary items from your life. Some ways to do this:
* Purge at least one item each day
* Let go of heirlooms and sentimental stuff
* Pare down your wardrobe
* Streamline your kitchen
* Donate your castoffs to charity

離 ri – to separate
The final part involves cultivating a sense of nonattachment to your possessions. To achieve this, try the following:
* Break up with your stuff
* Realize you are not what you own
* Embrace the concept of enough
* Cherish space over stuff
* Live like a butterfly

Dan-sha-ri, dan-sha-ri, dan-sha-ri–it’s quite poetic, isn’t it? I think it would make the perfect chant while cleaning out a closet, or passing up an impulse purchase. :)

Danshari refers not just to physical clutter, but also to mental and emotional clutter. It holds the promise that once you’ve disposed of the excess and the unnecessary, you’ll have the space, time, and freedom to live more fully.

Anyway, it’s encouraging to see minimalism rising in popularity in the East, as well as the West. According to Hoffman’s article, books and seminars on the subject are quite popular in Japan, as people seek freedom from consumerism and the clutter that accompanies it.

I’m thrilled that the idea of living with less is spreading throughout the world, and fascinated to hear how the concepts of minimalism and decluttering are taking form in various countries and cultures. I’d love it if some of our Japanese readers can elaborate on danshari, and other international readers on similar movements/trends in their own countries. Please share with us in the Comments!

{If you’d like to learn more about minimalist living, please consider reading my book, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide, or subscribing to my RSS feed.}

36 comments to Minimalism Around the World: Danshari

  • Hey Francine,

    Oh my goodness! I just spent a year in Japan and I remember constantly trying to explain the concept of minimalism to my host family. I’m quite fluent in Japanese but minimalism is quite a tough topic to translate :)

    It’s quite surprising how un-minimalist some Japanese people can be, despite their beautiful zen-influenced culture. I hope more and more people catch onto the new word so next time I’m there I can just use one word to explain why I’m only carrying a single backpack – danshiri!

    Thanks for this!

  • A

    Thanks for sharing this! One section that really struck me got to the roots of having too much – that most are clinging to the past, avoiding the present, or afraid of the future. If we can break our mental habits that keep us from doing these things, it’s much easier to declutter!

  • Robin

    Wow. And here I’d always thought that at its heart the minimalist movement was loosely based on Japanese culture. (I guess warm toilet seats are more common than I initially thought?). Of all the people that would not have a problem with clutter, I’d have wagered on the Japanese. Very interesting.

    To accumulate is human, to declutter, devine….to paraphrase an old quote…

    Thanks so much for showing this angle.

  • ayako

    As a Japanese living in the states, I’m thrilled to see this post:)

    You would think most Japanese people would be already living pretty simply. They are – a lot of them are car-free, cook at home, stick to their budget – but physical and mental clutter? You’ll see a lot of them in this country with little space to store much.

    Japanese have this mentality “Mottainai” (a sense of regret concerning waste) This deeply ingrained philosophy makes it very hard for Japanese to discard anything. And donating/buying secondhand items are not as common. Also, since they value “harmony” with others more than anything else, they almost never say “no” to gift or free stuff.

    Minimalism movement (Danshari – 断捨離) is catching on in Japan and people are starting to realize it’s OK to let to of that wooden statute that’s been sitting in their garage for decades and say no to their relatives who always give them free “stuff”. Because space is so limited in Japanese household, it is a bigger challenge but very rewarding.

  • Carolina

    Since I´m a Swede, I can use the collective love of nature and the simple scandinavian approach to design as arguments in discussions about minimalism. That always seems to work;)

  • I really love that they are trying to push away the Western influence of more, more, more! If only we could adopt more of their value on relationships…

  • Vicki

    Miss Minimalist you are such an inspiration to me. Both in your philosophy and your lovely writing sytle. Thank you for this post.

  • Gary

    The Japanese word WABI denotes poverty or rather voluntary poverty,In the Zen sense that to be thingless is to possess the world. In both China and Japan,this ascetic search for poverty derives from the teaching of the Buddha. A man weighted down by things he said, was like a ship into which water is pouring, the only way hope of reaching safety was to jettison the cargo.

  • Lauran

    Always love your posts! I just read an article on the NY Times website that made me think of you!

    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/08/17/selling-my-mothers-dresses/?hp

  • Great post and inspiration, Francine, although I am sad to hear that the japanese now feel the weight of “clutter”. Love to hear about other countries as I have never visited outside the US.
    Bernice
    Frustrated with the ever-present mess?

  • Toni

    I have one word – omiyage. Its the souvenir gift trade, and it results in HUGE amounts of junk! I was amazed when I went in Japanese homes, they have a very Western feel, with lots of stuff in them. Where I stayed Reiko had a massive room just dedicated to storing stuff.

  • I think I have a new favorite word! Danshari…beautiful :)

    Today I managed to push through my mental blocks and purge some sentimental items. Scary at first, but letting go of the past feels so freeing. It’s absolutely great!

  • I like the breakdown here — especially the links to your archives. That’ll make for some great weekend reading.

  • Ok, I think I have it. I have ben looking for/thinking about my newest tattoo. I have the circle shape in my mind, but wanted the right word to go inside it. I believe your post today has helped me find that precise word. Thanks Francine, DANSHARI – it might just be the one.

  • I think consumerism has spread world wide so I’m not surprised to hear the need to declutter exists around the world as well. Having been to Japan more than once myself and I had the sense that material things were creeping into the psychology of “success” as well.

    Having just gotten rid of all of my stuff and moving to an island the feelings of declutter have been huge and really, really great. Still there are things in this article that are great reminders for me. i.e. seeking alternatives to gifts and purging one thing a day.

    Mahalo for the article and all the great stuff in it.

  • Alisha@Tokyo

    Thank you! for introducing the concept of Danshari. For a few years now, I’ve been pursuing the concept of minimalism, decluttering and danshari in my own way. I was feeling a great sense of freedom letting go of my redundant possessions and taking a very serious look at my relationships… and letting go when needed. Then came the March 11th earthquake… human nature is a funny thing I guess… I suddenly found myself VERY reluctant to “let go” of anything. On the contrary, items that I would have let go without a second thought before… suddenly needed to be guarded at all costs. This phase has passed now, and I am once again in a danshari mode. I’ve realized that to simplify at my own pace, and by my own terms is an extreme luxury… and I am ever so grateful that I am blessed with the luxury to do so.

  • Henny

    Danshari! I love it, along with wabi sabi, which is another wonderful Japanese concept I have embraced since I first heard of it many years ago, at a corporate public speaking event of all places!

    I love the way you broke the word up for those of us who are not fluent in Japanese, explained the meanings so succinctly, and linked back to your previous posts that relate. Very clever and helpful. Thank you!

  • Great job, Miss Minimalist! I’m a big fan. Reading your books has changed my life, improving it. I sent you a PM over on kindleboards. :)

    Thanks! Keep up the great job!

    Nathan

  • Interesting! In our non-stop travel lifestyle ( to 43 countries on 5 continents on $23/day per person) these last 5 years….we have found Americans to be the biggest consumers by FAR. It is always extreme culture shock when we return.

    Most Europeans live in smaller houses or apartments, walk more and use mass transit, most ..even in rainy, cold countries… do not have dryers ( compared to Californians who despite over 300 days a year of sun almost never hang out there clothes to dry) and we have found Asia even more into simplicity ( partly due to the fact that many live in 3rd world conditions and poverty).

    After using tiny, water efficient washing machines continually in Europe and Asia and growing to love hanging things to dry, it blew our minds to see a washer and dryer in Ca last fall twice as big as our 9 year old child! ;) Everything seems so huge, people drive the shortest distances and the number of choices of everything in endless stores is exhausting now.

    By the way, I mentioned your lovely blog in my latest post about minimalism, a travel lifestyle and books!

  • It’s a HUMAN problem. Even through mission work, I’ve learned that the poor with essentially nothing want to “cling” to every thing they have. It’s just human nature.

    We have to relearn, rethink, and repurpose our life.

  • HI Francine,

    Beautiful as always. You always manage to touch on a subject so gracefully. Dan sha ri. Thank you for that.

  • kaori

    hi.
    Having lived on both sides of the Pacific, I can see where Jeanne- soultravelers3 (GREAT lifestyle!) is coming from, re the huge washers/dryers in the US compared to how everyone hangs laundry in Asia. In Tokyo where I live there was a great shift in lifestyle in the 1960s when the washing machine finally liberated women from washing clothes by hand. It was a ton of work, aged women before their time and prevented them from working outside the home. Fast forward 40 some years — Japanese women are now among the wealthiest, most independent and privileged women in the world but in the last few decades, they’ve lost a lot of skills that once formed the mainstays of the Danshari/Zen lifestyle. Cooking, doing the laundry, cleaning and mending all came of tradition and handwork. Most of that have been replaced by machines fueled by nuclear power which we now realize have poisoned the soil and corrupted our minds.
    The counter argument is that this is all part of modern life and progress is good. And as a Japanese woman I’m the first to admit that we’ve reaped the benefits of modern life in a way our grandmothers could only dream about. There’s great sadness however, to know that the art of washing and wringing out a dishcloth (no need for disposable towels), of preparing meals with a few cups of rice and a basket of vegetables (tiny food budget and waistlines) of preparing home remedies for ailments and so on, is slowly dying out. Many Japanese women are disgusted by the thought of so much housework and vow to leave for the US where life is simpler — just get in a car or press a few buttons and what needs to be done gets done. I know a lot of women who left Tokyo for CA, and are now proud owners of huge houses, three cars, walk-in closets, etc. etc.
    Minimalism, Zen, Danshari — while all this may liberate us from material anxiety, it does entail a lot of physical labor- working with one’s hands, walking on one’s legs and striving to live with only the possessions you can carry. To me that’s what minimalism is all about, and to borrow a line from Hemingway: grace under pressure.
    Thanks very much for the post Francine, and for reading the Japan Times!

  • Anna D.

    As an American, I have lived in Japan for three years and Europe for almost as many. While there are some very minimalist and “zen-like” homes I have seen in Asia, consumerism affects Asia as well as Europe (and America) just the same. In Germany (our current home), I see less cars, more mass-transit, but just as much crap as back home in the US. Just like the “green” movement that is taking over, I hope to see more of the minimalist movement spread into the lives of people. The economical downfall might just be the little bump minimalism needs- yeah, more money is nice to have, but it really puts life and our possessions into perspective…

  • […] For a write-up on the Japanese title of this post, click here. Warning: you may need a few hours before you can extricate yourself from the site. Everyday […]

  • […] I came across this lovely article with a powerful little idea, which the Japanese call danshari, which is translated as "de-clutter": http://www.missminimalist.com/2011/08/minimalism-around-the-world-danshari/ […]

  • […] Post correlati: Minimalism Around the World: Danshari […]

  • I love this post! I do like to see ‘the bigger picture’ and part of that picture is the livelihoods of all who make, advertise and sell all these goods some of us have decided we don’t need (me included). Since many of these people are from poorer countries the ethical questions are hugely complex I know…but we still need to consider them. Fascinating post and comments – thank you.

  • […] she mentioned she’s following the Danshari principle, of course I googled it and found this amazing reference and I can’t stop reading […]

  • Tina

    We were driving around with some cousins and they were asking who lived in all the huge houses. I frequently ask my daughter, who works for a real estate attorney, the same question. I can’t imagine why anyone needs a huge house with a 3 car garage.
    I ask the same question when I see ads for the upscale closet fixtures. I’ve even been to house sales where some of the closets are the size of my den. I suppose if I were a celebrity of some sort, I might want to live in a gated community or a larger condo. But I know women who have several evening gowns and just have their closet rods hung higher.

  • It’s trending in China too. It’s a global phenomenon… We have too much.

  • Tina

    We walked around a mall recently because it was too hot to walk outside. I sometimes worry about what will happen when everyone is a minimalist. I don’t think it will happen in my lifetime. People are still shopping like mad. There are all kinds of shopping channels on TV. I buy one or two of most things and yet I see people are still buying bulk sizes of toilet paper and paper towels.

  • Tina

    We live in a condo. We live on the 4th floor and have one car. My friends were talking about moving from their 4 bedroom homes with sub- basements into smaller places and how they would have to get rid of the tchotchkes they’d accumulated. I asked if their kids would take some or they could give some away. One friend, whose 2 car garage is full of her husband’s stuff, said it would take him a year just to go through the stuff in the garage. Danshari indeed.

  • Tina

    I am wearing a 20 year old sweatshirt as I write this. I have a bag of clothes to give away. Some from my mother, some from my husband, and a few from my own closet. I read about denim jeans being recycled into insulation for tiny houses. I only need enough clothes for 6 days. Six winter days, six summer days, a few days in the fall, a few days in the spring. Then I need something to paint in and something to sleep in. As I watch the snow come down, I think how lucky we are to have a warm place to live.

  • Deblina

    Hi! I feel so inspired after reading your blog. I live in India and it’s natural for us Indians to hoard (not in a bad way) everything – from childhood toys to memories to clothes that don’t fit, buttons that have fallen off, defunct electronic gadgets, unused phones etc etc etc – even lipstick that’s passed the date of expiry! Personally, my room is so full of things I don’t need and things I know I will probably never use. My husband and I are both of the opinion that de-cluttering your physical and mental space should be a weekly routine. We will adopt this practice from next week. Thanks for the inspiration! And keep writing!

    Love,
    Deblina

  • Tina

    I fill a bag or two for Goodwill every week. I take two big paper bags of recycling out every week. I can remember buying one piece of clothing this year. I have old blankets and towels for the veterinarian. I use rags instead of paper towels. I gave away. 12 houseplants and have plenty more, they are in margarine containers, yogurt containers, and cottage cheese containers. Craft supplies are either given to me or I buy them second hand. I am just beginning to see a difference.

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