Japanese culture is minimalistic and elegant. What can we learn from it, and how can we implement the best sides of this culture? Do we really need all the stuff that we have, and what price do we pay for it? Elegance and minimalism also cost money. What is the best tradeoff? I will share my thoughts and I welcome you to send your own thoughts and suggestion in an email. The most unique and different suggestions will be invited to post a guest article.
Some researchers think that minimalism arrived from Japan. Rather than have an abundance of colorful low-quality items, minimalists prefer a very limited collection of superb items. Steve Jobs was one of the most famous minimalists with elegant designs and magical look and feel of Apple and Pixar products.
Minimalism usually refers to material goods and their design. It does not have to. We can apply minimalism to movement. And maybe even to knowledge.
Japanese culture is possibly the Israeli culture. And it fascinates me, my wife, and pretty much everyone I know. There is a deep esthetic admiration, not really localized. I personally love Japanese people. Extremely polite and considerate, dignified and respectful, creative and mindful of small details. I love nature in Japan, which appears to be posing to photographers. And I love things produced in Japan.
Consider urushi: lacquerware. The material naturally produced by wood is similar to amber. It amplifies color pigments and is cured by water. It is used for quality pens, knife handles, jewelry boxes, and trays. The material itself invites an explosion of colors, yet in Japanese hands, the results are elegant and beautiful with attention to every detail. This purity of shape and color, combined with impeccable taste is something I am fascinated with.
Possible the roots of Japanese elegance are in Japanese religion, which predates Buddhism. Japanese follow the Shinto religion, which evolved around the concepts of purity. The land itself and everything in it are full of supernatural beings, and these beings respect purity. Rites of purification are conducted so as to restore an individual to “spiritual” health and render them useful to society. The architectural manifestation of this religion are multiple torii or gateways, usually into shrines and in the shrines.
Japanese were historically very clean. When Europeans used to bathe once a year, the Japanese took regular baths. They used clean clothes and every day felt that this was a good day to die.
The morbid pessimism is a less favorite side of purity. Life is messy. Worshipping purity is in a way a challenge to life itself. Even nature was carefully reshaped into scenic and pure gardens with long and inspiring pathways.
Minimalism is expensive. When we use pure items, we require the utmost quality both in production and in service. Every line and every surface needs to be carefully placed. Since manufacturing and service already need to be expensive to meet the quality standards, premium materials are often used. The resulting product is extremely high quality and expensive.
Yet it does not break. This is important since the American paradigm of product design assumes cheap disposable products. Basically, we are supposed to use an item for a year, throw it away, and buy a new one. A quality Japanese item can easily serve its owners for 20 years. Consider Japanese knives from Global. They are beautiful, sharp, well balanced, and virtually indestructible. Over the course of 20 years, 20 disposable knives will cost like one top quality product, and after 20 years the top quality product will still cut.
If we assume an annual risk-free rate of 5% on the investment, the minimalistic and the disposable option cost about the same over 20 years of exploitation. Only using quality products is much more fun, provided its technology is relevant. For fountain pens and quality knives, the technology does not change. For electronics, even the Japanese use a very different approach.
It is remarkable how Japanese brands handle the photography equipment. They carefully separate lenses that hardly ever drop in cost, from the body which needs to be replaced every three years. Only the top of the line product has a quality body. These models are built for heavy use. Everything else has a relatively cheap plastic body, which is expected to be thrown away after 3 years.
Only the Japanese assure quality even with plastic products. So some of my friends use photography equipment for more than 10 years.
Reapplying to knowledge
Can we apply the minimalistic approach to knowledge? Can we have a very beautiful theory build from premium materials that work no matter what?
When I was a kid in Ukraine, we used to learn math this way. I was lucky enough to have an exceptional math teacher. He was my mentor in many ways. He was also the mentor of all of my classmates, and they can be considered overachievers.
The way he taught math, I was able to reproduce the proof of all the theorems I had to use. Moreover, if needed I could easily understand the underlying logic and build new theorems. Never needed to learn formulas by heart.
This is pretty amazing. Applying scientific method to learning science is similar to building knowledge from top-quality Damascus steel. It will not break. Compare this with the regular “memorize and apply the rules” approach my kids learn.
Quality of construction vs deconstruction
Unfortunately, the derivation approach does not apply to biology, social sciences, or literature. These sciences are too complex and erratic, and their knowledge is often disposable. The paradigms change, and with them, there is a need to relearn everything.
Once I came to Israel, I was lucky enough to be allocated to a class of gifted children. We had quality teachers not just in sciences, but also in history and bible studies.
Now instead of building up the science, we learned to deconstruct it. These teachers gave us tools of critical analysis of the texts. Within two years we learned to deconstruct entire propaganda machines.
So when I read about David and Goliath, I know where to find that Goliath was slain not by David but by someone from Bethlehem called Elhanan. And the temple hit by the stone was not a heavily guarded head, but the unprotected knee cap. The answers are easy to find, only the religious establishment prefers the glorified David vs Goliath story. I do not mind this small controversy.
The purity of shape vs purity of essence
The story needs to be beautiful for us to remember and be motivated by it. King David was a glorious ruler. He was not a good man, and his rule was full of war and intrigue. But it was a glorious rule, with impressive projects. Was King Solomon a glorious ruler? Definitely. Was he happy? Read the Ecclesiast book. Does not look like something a happy person will write.
The minimalistic approach suggests one good spouse. King Salomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Probably he had 10 department heads, and each department could potentially grow up to 100 ladies. Exaggeration was common in those days. For comparison… The second Shah of Iran, Fat′h Ali Shah Qajar, ruled from 1797 until 1834. During his lifetime, he married around 158 women, although it has also been reported that he had more than 1,000 spouses. To sustain a harem of 300 or 600 ladies, the country needs to be the size of Moghul India.
In any case, prophets preferred a more … minimalistic approach. The ruler and the court need to be pure, not necessarily glorios. And Jewish kingdoms perished. Modern Jews have only one wife, but that wife is often a very remarkable lady.
One book to read
During the medieval period, knowledge became truly minimalistic. An educated person was supposed to read the Bible, but that was the only book he needed to read. The situation changed dramatically a century before the invention of the printing press. With the rediscovery of classical culture, educated renaissance bankers and cardinals read and knew many books.
Yet the protestant reformation and the counterreformation focused entire Europe back on the one book everybody needed to read. Other books were used by heretics, like the memory arch master Giordano Bruno’s books or Leonardo Da Vinci’s diaries. And some of these heretics were the forefathers of modern science.
So by our education, we are preconditioned against minimalism in reading, unless we are deeply religious. Is that smart? Is that even real? Which percentage of education of the English literature is focused on William Shakespeare? What is the role of Pushin in Russian literature?
There are millions of fiction books published every year, yet only very few of these books are read and remembered by everybody. All other books either becomes a movie or are monumentally important and life changing for very few people.
Minimalistic vs consumerism cultures
Japanese have small homes with very few exquisite objects. They live very close to each other and spend time together. Americans have huge homes with lots of disposable stuff. They spend their evening alone in those homes.
I cannot judge which consumption is better. All I can say: the nature of the culture determines the consumption.
A Japanese master can learn one thing only his entire life and be the best in the world in that one simple thing. An Israeli entrepreneur knows something about everything.
I cannot judge which knowledge is better. All I can say: Israel has more startups, and Japan is the birthplace of some huge corporations.