In Japanese folklore, every object becomes animated after its 100th “birthday.” Wasted objects can become mischievous sprites, while happier ones have been known to be kind to humans. The implications of this legend, both in the expectation of longevity and the possibility for agency in the inanimate world, are ideas notably absent from a traditional American attitude toward our things. Perhaps they are also part of what makes Japan’s exports, from its designers to its self-help authors, so appealing to Americans. In the U.S., we are conditioned to see our belongings as expressions of our individual preferences or, especially when it comes to new technology, personal servants to our desires. But another perspective suggests that, as with people, the objects we are at first dazzled by are not the same as the ones we come to love.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing
(Ten Speed Press, 2014)
(Lars Müller, 2007)
This outlook guides Marie Kondo’s wildly popular The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, whichinstructs us to examine each of our possessions in order to free any of those that do not “bring joy” from the “prison” of purposeless existence by discarding them. For those prone to discarder’s guilt, Kondo advises thanking each object for bringing joy at the time we got it, and verbally acknowledging its lifespan as complete. While Westerners typically reserve this kind of respect for individuals, and the occasional innovative tech gadget, the Japanese seem comfortable imparting it to objects of all kinds.
In another eye-opening book from Japan, Designing Design, Kenya Hara, art director of the home-goods store MUJI, explains the many functions products can serve other than, and greater than, increasing human efficiency, or even provoking human desire. Hara goes so far as to say of his approach to design at MUJI, “We don’t want to be the thing that kindles or incites intense appetite, causing outbursts like ‘This is what I really want.’ Instead we want to give customers the kind of satisfaction that comes out as ‘this will do.’” It’s a radical idea, and if Hara worked for Steve Jobs, he might have been fired on the spot for it.
Danny Boyle’s new movie about Jobs covers the company’s famously theatrical product launches where audiences would chant and stomp their feet like fans at a rock concert. (“It’s like a scene from A Hard Day’s Night out there,” one character in the film remarks.) Hara doesn’t mention Apple outright in his book, yet the comparison springs to mind when he writes of the psychological downsides of desire: “I would like to recognize the fact that desire sometimes involves obsession, causes egoism, or strikes a sour note.” By contrast, famous designers who have worked for MUJI are undisclosed as a matter of company policy; the Japanese word MUJI translates to “no brand.” In Hara’s view, this is not just healthy for the mind and the planet, but competitive, leading to greater customer satisfaction.
Take, for example, my own desire for a new pink iPhone, ignited on the day of the product launch and quickly followed by a host of other emotions. One: wistful sadness that my plan is not up until the phone will already be a year old. Another: fear that my relatively simple, urban lifestyle does not really require all the new features it offers. Then there’s the anxiety about which case will both protect and showcase its gorgeous design. A year from now, if Marie Kondo came to my house as a tidying coach, I might be forced to admit the new iPhone didn’t bring me joy, exactly, and discard it.
Writing optimistically about Japan’s stagnating economy, Hara sees a mature society that has learned the limits of progress and growth, one that finds joy in daily life. Tokyo’s MUJI stores, which abound like New York’s Duane Reades, carry a book called Found MUJI, which documents designers’ inspirations as they travel through China, France, Thailand, and India: local fly-swatters, teacups, shopping bags, and other mundane trappings of daily life are pictured in full-page color snapshots accompanied by haiku-like descriptions that demonstrate the simple genius and dignity of each object. It is this alertness to the beauty of the everyday, perhaps, that causes Kondo, too, to write in dismay of those of us stockpiling spare cotton swabs and toilet paper. Don’t we realize that going out to replace things when we run out is a pleasure and privilege of modern life?
Hara has coined a term to describe this emotional impact of objects, which resides in their physical material’s moment of contact with human life: “sense-ware.” As opposed to hardware or software, sense-ware engages us by tapping into our trillions of stored sense memories. Before language, even as infants, we have begun collecting a massive vocabulary of the senses, which gives us pleasure to use, even if unconsciously. Paper is an example of sense-ware, as are the blunt cutting instruments of the Stone Age. (Hara estimates there are far more than just five senses, a number that strikes him as entirely arbitrary.) In the past, technical skills depended on mastery of our senses. Today, technology often allows us to bypass them. Hara provides the example of the grueling drawing exercises he was trained to do in design school before the development of drafting software. Technology pushes us toward idleness, he laments, while, for example, objects like pencil and paper, which actively engage our senses, bring us more pleasure.
But neither Hara nor Kondo opposes technological advancement. In Hara’s vision, the future should bring a push and pull between the senses and technology. Kondo writes lovingly of her own cell phone, which brought her so much joy she texted it a farewell thank you note before replacing it with a new model. It is not technology that is to blame for the materialistic lust it so easily inspires, but a too-rigid view of the material world. Products are not the creations of God-like inventors, despite what American marketing departments would have us believe. Instead, technological products of all kinds (from stone chisels to iPhones) evolved alongside human society and exist as co-members of civilization, not in a separate realm.
Considering a once-burning desire for an iPhone extinguishes after about a year, it’s safe to assume that, by its 100th “birthday,” both the object and our feelings about it will be obsolete. Therefore, if it’s ridiculous to imagine a crowd stomping their feet to the tune of “We Will Rock You” for MUJI’s trash bins and tea kettles, it should read as equally ridiculous for Apple’s smartphones and laptops. No product is so innovative that it can compete with the intricacies of human evolution or solve the problem of how to accept and appreciate the flow of modern life.