When I first meet Fumio Sasaki, who recently wrote a book called Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism, he is taking a picture of a neon sign that reads, "I WANT IT ALL." There's nothing about Sasaki to indicate that he is a minimalist, someone who advocates purging unnecessary material possessions. Then again, what does a minimalist look like? This one wears a grey sweatshirt over a grey shirt, slim off-black jeans, and comfortable-looking black sneakers. He has thick-rimmed black glasses sitting on his face and he carries a large backpack, the kind people might use to go hiking. Later, I learn, the backpack is all he brought with him for his New York press tour to promote the English edition of Goodbye, Things, out April 11. (Sasaki, who lives in Kyoto, Japan, owns a suitcase but its days seem numbered. "Even if I come to New York, I'm not going to be buying souvenirs," he tells me through his translator, Rieko Yamanaka, "so it seems like I won't be needing it.")
Sasaki estimates he now owns about 300 items. "I would say I used to own 10 times more than I do now," he says. Sasaki wasn't happy then. He would find himself assessing his self-worth on what he did and didn't own — and he wouldn't like how he would measure up. Sasaki then learned about danshari, a Japanese concept of decluttering, and began reading the books of Marie Kondo, whose concept of keeping only things that "spark joy" is so ubiquitous that it got name-dropped in the Gilmore Girls reboot. It took Sasaki four years to declutter his "maximalist" lifestyle and a fifth year to get to "a more minimalist state," eventually even getting rid of his table, TV, and bed.
For Sasaki, minimalism isn't about how little you have, but how it makes you feel. Sasaki credits his minimalist lifestyle with helping him lose weight, become extroverted and proactive, and above all, feel happy and grateful for what he has. "Minimalism is just one of the many entries to a happier life," Sasaki says, "so if people have a lot of things in their home, but they're still able to maintain relationships and feel happy, I think that's awesome." I sat down with the author to discuss the benefits of living a minimalist lifestyle and how sustainable it really is.
How would you differentiate minimalism from what Marie Kondo promotes?
Minimalism is about the absolute minimum that you need — not want, but need — and is the self-reflective process of learning what is your absolute minimum for you personally. It's also about what is the absolute minimum you need to eat, for example, or anything that you consume, not just the material things that you buy. Minimalism is just a principle you could apply to all areas of your life and not just for tidying your home.
In the book, you mention having a souvenir cross that sparked joy but you threw out anyway. Did you end up regretting it?
I wrote in the book about letting go of things even if it sparks joy. Now that time has passed a little bit, now I'm of the mindset that maybe that was going a little bit too far. [Laughs.] But I don't regret it at all. I actually think that the more something is important to you, the more it's OK to actually let it go. Because I remember the texture of the cross, how much it weighed on my hands. I remember everything about it very vividly in my mind. If it was a letter or a card that was really important to me, I remember every word in the card and the letter. It's all inside me. So even though the material is gone, I still hold it very dearly in my heart.
Could you touch on the ways you think you've most benefitted from this minimalist lifestyle?
There are many benefits but first of all, your household chores are so much easier, like cleaning and washing dishes. And that frees up your time and energy to go out and try new things, or spend more time with the people you love. I think the most important thing that I found through minimalism might be the friends I met through sharing the same values, writing this book, the people that I met.
What do you do in your free time?
I enjoy challenging myself to try new things, going outdoors, scuba diving, running a marathon. Anything that I have never done before, I enjoy trying it out. A lot of things I used to think I wouldn't be able to do, like it wasn't for me, now I'm allowing myself to try those things.
Do you have any items that you have that aren't totally functional, that you have just because you like it?
Most of them are functional. I like to drink coffee so I have a [pourover coffee maker]. And I also have Japanese incense. I've come to a point where I'm no longer fixated on how few objects I own. And being a minimalist is no longer my main identity. The most important thing when you practice minimalism is the process of determining what's most important to you personally, and that's the main value of minimalism for me.
How much do you spend per month compared to before you embarked on a minimalist lifestyle?
It's what I spend [my money] on [that's changed]. Before I became a minimalist, I used to buy a lot of things, objects. But afterwards, I would spend more money on experiences, like going on trips. Now that I have left my job and I work from home [and freelance], I'm very conscious of my budget, and I cook all three of my meals at home. I spend about half of what I used to.
What does it look like to travel as a minimalist?
A lot of [my friends] who are minimalists would wear the same things throughout the trip. And their luggage is astoundingly small, even from my point of view. There's a lot of people who only carry a small backpack and put all their stuff in that when they travel. And the towels would be very small hand towels that they carry.
I would imagine you don't stay at lavish hotels when you travel.
Even if I were to stay at a regular hotel, the rooms seem much bigger than what I'm used to back home and it seems like there's actually more stuff in the hotel room than in my own home. So when I do stay at a hotel, and I see that there's a lot of room, and there's a lot of fluffy towels, I feel a little bad that there's a lot of wasteful things that I'm not gonna be using.
Minimalists that I know in Japan lately like to go to guesthouses, which is like a dormitory-style lodging where you could have shared accommodations with your friends and spend a lot of time talking. A lot of minimalists like each other, we like to hang out, so we do sometimes travel together.
How has minimalism impacted your dating life?
It's not different, actually. Because when you go on a date, you usually go outside. You don't spend too much time at home. But before, I used to watch movies at home with my girlfriend. The funny thing is, the reason I was able to let go of my TV is because I broke up with my girlfriend and we no longer needed to watch movies together.
Do you ever buy presents for other people and do other people still buy presents for you?
The other day, I had an interview with a Korean TV show, and just for the fun of it, they gave me a big clock. They did say, "You could toss it if you don't want it," but I am testing it out, so I do have it at home right now. In terms of giving out presents to people, I often give them things that are edible, things that are on their Amazon wishlists. I have a feeling that 95 percent of gifts are kind of failures. Would you say that it's true that we share the same guilt if we receive a present and we don't like it, it's hard to let it go?
Oh yeah, definitely. That actually leads to a question I wanted to ask — were any of your friends or family upset to learn that you had gotten rid of their presents?
Actually, no. And I discovered through that that people don't actually remember what they gave you. The receiver sees it every day and it's on their mind, but people who gave it often don't remember what they just gave them.
How often do you buy something new?
If I think about buying an item a few times repetitively, then I will buy it. I'm not sure about the frequency. I'm actually thinking about buying a classical guitar when I go back [to Japan].
How long have you been thinking about it?
A long time, actually. A few months. So I think I will buy it.
There's been a backlash against the minimalist movement as classist. Some people prefer to buy in bulk because it's cheaper. Or if they throw something out and then later they regret throwing it out, then they would need to buy a new one to replace it. What is your response to that?
There's all types of minimalists. Some people don't care what types of items they own and they just like to spend as little money as possible. Some people love things and they spend a lot of time picking out the perfect item for each thing that they want. When they say people with money can afford to let go of things and buy it if they need it, I think that's true, but at the same time, there are minimalists who are doing it mostly to save money. In my community of minimalists, there are really wealthy people who work at stock brokerage firms, there are people who are unemployed, but it doesn't seem to matter. We're all really good friends and we get along really well. It's a very varied and diverse community.
What kind of minimalist do you identify as?
I do still love things. I really do. So I'm pretty selective when it comes to buying anything. In terms of myself, I haven't really thought too much of my identity as a minimalist or not. I use things because I need to. I think that "minimalist" is a useful label for other people to identify me, but from my standpoint, I don't necessarily have an identity as that. So even though I wrote the book when I was practising minimalism very diligently, I had a feeling that I might no longer call myself that. If I could keep practising the lessons from minimalism, it's no longer necessary to practice minimalism, per se, if that makes sense. But I do highly recommend trying it out just once, to try and get the lessons.
This interview has been edited and condensed.