Lessons in lifestyle pruning from Japan
TOKYO — Consider your closets, your attic, your basement. Look around the space you live in. Lots of stuff, right?
Shoko Ohara has some advice for you. For every new piece of clothing you buy, get rid of a garment. After you read a book, give it to a friend. Part with things you don't use.
Calls to battle excess have been around even longer than buy-one-get-one-free. Some people renounce the acquisition of things for religious reasons or to protect the environment. Some see political gain in consuming less. "Small is beautiful," wrote the economist E. F. Schumacher.
Ms. Ohara, a spare, chic woman who livens up her silvery hair with pink highlights, stresses the practicality of living more simply. She asks if running a race is easier "with a hundred loads on your shoulder" or with nothing at all.
"The answer is obvious," she says. "It's easier without the load." "It's a great relief if you don't have that many things," she concludes. "Life is easier."
She is not a conspicuous non-consumer. But her shinpuru raifu - as it's called in Japanese - is drawing some media notice. Material moderation is enjoying a quiet vogue in Japan, thanks to an enduring recession that more and more people are starting to feel in their bank accounts.
Ohara is a minor public figure here, especially to women of a certain age. During a 40-year career she has published a hundred cookbooks and taught cooking on television and in classes. Part of her small house, located in one of the toniest parts of Tokyo, houses Ohara's British antique business. Her specialty is porcelains.
Hers is the sort of career that might have led to excess. She might have acquired a vast array of cooking implements, insatiable gourmet appetites, an expanded waistline. Instead of just selling baroque cups and saucers, she might have amassed a collection for herself.
But no. She decided in 1991 that her books and recipes were too complicated and started publishing titles such as "One Bowl Cake" and "One Plate Dinner." She also radically simplified her kitchen.
Now she works with three saucepans, two skillets, and one large pot. There is no rice cooker, an omission that leaves many rice-reliant Japanese aghast. She prepares the national grain on top of the stove.
Her cupboards, refrigerator, and countertops are bare.
Upstairs, in the other room Ohara considers personal, rather than professional space, the simple life reaches even fuller expression. The room holds two leather-upholstered armchairs, two Persian-style carpets, a small writing table, and two shelves filled mainly with reference books. And not much else.
She owns a television, which she stores out of sight, and a small radio in case of earthquakes, but nothing else in the way of electronics. She has no car, no bicycle, no sporting gear. No stuff, in short.
A closet holds the futon she unrolls at night and puts away in the morning, in traditional Japanese fashion. But there is nothing particularly Japanese about Ohara's lifestyle, and the room feels Western.
It's an odd mix of styles. Many Japanese homes, even if they are floored with tightly woven grass mats and shaded by sliding rice-paper screens, feel cramped and cluttered. People often have too many possessions stuffed in too little space.
THE Western notion that Japanese interiors are spare and undisturbed is mostly just a notion. But Ohara manages to pull it off.
She limits herself to two suitcases worth of clothes, even though shopping is a favorite pastime and fashion a favorite topic. Her friends, she says, have come to know that she gives away a lot of nice things to make room for acquisitions.
The downside is that she is always missing things that have gone to others. "That's when you need perseverance," she explains.
Ohara says she has always been unimpressed by possessions. When her husband passed on many years ago, she realized she needed to get rid of some things in order to make room for her career.
She's reluctant to draw broad conclusions from her experience. She doesn't believe, for instance, that having many things keeps most people from creating the space needed to make changes in their lives.
"I wondered at one point," she adds, "'Is this age?' but I looked around and saw a lot of older people possessing a lot of things, so I don't think it has to do with age."
She concedes that a certain amount of money makes her version of the simple life possible. But it can work the other way too. "If you really don't have any money - that's a very simple life. The ultimate is to have a lot of money and still live a simple life."