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September 13, 2017 Comments (1) Views: 18080 Looking Back, Nostalgia

The Balkan culture of “gathering things” vs. Japanese minimalism

Of course, it may sound utterly stupid to draw parallels between two cultures so distant of each other and miles away with their corners on Earth. But an attempt to draw a comparison between any Balkan country and Japan certainly illustrates a case where we have two exceptionally distinct states of the human mind.

In the south of Europe, the lands of the Balkans are the home of Slavic people, but for centuries they have mingled and shared neighborhoods with few more ethnic groups. In such a mixed constellation of people, there seems to be an apparent tendency of “gathering things”, all kinds of unnecessary stuff: worn out clothes, old pieces of furniture damaged by moisture, broken washing machines, stoves, and other gadgetry from the previous millennia. As many of their owners (our mothers, fathers, uncles, aunties or neighbors) would comment: “We keep them for bad times.”

When it comes to the “bad times”, it’s true, countries such as Bosnia, Serbia or Macedonia have suffered greatly after the fall out of Yugoslavia, some because of war, others out of poverty and transition. Hence, older generations sometimes appear nostalgic for the “good old days.” In that sense, even a broken washing machine from the times of Tito might be a reminder of how things used to be.

Also, not to forget tensions that might jump around between any of the ethnic groups as politicians regularly introduce agendas without enough clarity, which is another contributing factor why people will store everything “just in case.”

Cluttered rooms are the products of cluttered minds

In case it is not your mother or grandmother refusing to throw off your baby clothes out of the wardrobe, so to make room for your current apparel, then the chaos or nostalgia — both phenomena softly fuse at some undetectable point — can be felt elsewhere.

There are even entire cities cluttered with random stuff, a good example being the center of Skopje. For decades after the 1963 earthquake in Skopje, it was modernist and brutalist-styled buildings that provided for the dominant architectural features of the city.

However, during the last ten years, the Macedonian capital was nothing but a victim of the controversial project “Skopje 2014.” Within the decade long construction efforts, suddenly, numerous facades went baroque, and countless monuments cluttered the city center of Skopje, shadowing everything else that was previously worth seeing.

An example of Japanese minimalism. House interior with shoji doors, and total absence of everyday items, photo credit

On the other side of the world, in Japan, there are more and more people just like Mr. Fumio Sasaki who are adopting a new and radical way of life. A resident of Tokyo, Mr. Sasaki keeps only 20 items in his closet.

His apartment is only 20 square meters, that further contrast one more tendency evident around Skopje or other Balkan cities. Which goes something like: “Let’s add two more floors to our house! One for our son, and one for his children.” (Despite those children are not born yet!)

Back to Sasaki’s apartment, there isn’t any furniture in there as he, in fact, has adopted the philosophy of the Japanese minimalism, to live a “clean, orderly life” by detaching himself from everyday objects. In return, he prefers to spend time on mindful activities, traveling around the country, perhaps doing sports outdoors, or enjoying time with close friends.

A photo of the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo. The museum edifice was built in 1955 and designed by Le Corbusier, who had influenced generations of architects including Japanese Kenzo Tange. Note the bare facade of the building, photo credit

Minimalism makes for a prominent movement in Japan, something which the country has inherited from the ancient traditions of Zen Buddhism. By getting rid of everything you do not need, one is looking for simplicity and more mindfulness in life. Plus, there are the practical reasons. As harsh earthquakes frequently hit the Japanese islands, having not too many possession in your household is actually a good thing. It may just save you out of troubles when your belongings start falling all over the place amid the shaking.

Photo showing a section of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Skopje. Notice its similarities with the Japanese museum in Tokyo, the bare facade, and the ground floor. Photo by Nikolina Hristovska

A similar philosophy perhaps employed Kenzo Tange as he worked on the Hiroshima Peace Memorial edifice, a design which had him distinguished as one of the most influential architectures of the 20th century. Tange purposefully kept the exterior of the Memorial building simple and bare, as well as its inside walls, using no decoration at all. That way, as he had explained, visitors coming inside the venue, were able to focus only on the displayed contents.

Tange went on to further develop his architectural designs and ideas as he submitted re-development plans for Skopje after the 1963 earthquake. In a way, the architectural legacy he left in this city recalled many aspects of the other-worldly culture of the Japanese, where traditionally, “less” means “more.”

An unobstructed view of the Macedonian Opera and Ballet building, before Skopje 2014 commenced, photo by Martin Brož

Sadly, today there are only traces left of it. Take for instance the building of the Macedonian Opera and Ballet (MOB), one of the best architectural accomplishments that came out of the urbanistic plans of rebuilding Skopje after the earthquake. As an important cultural center, MOB emerged as the most significant piece adjoining the cultural complex, positioned by the river bank of Vardar, and as envisioned by Tange’s plans.

It now sits shadowed by newly built administrative edifices with baroque-like facades. As the new buildings dot the river bank, we should bear in mind that they are also constructed on a terrain intentionally left empty within the redevelopment plan, amid concerns it won’t sustain any massive buildings in case of new hazards.

This City Knows

“Cluttered” city spaces. On this photo, the building of the Macedonian Opera and Balet is hidden just behind this messy bunch of buildings weighting on the river bank, photo credit

But a basic knowledge of psychology teaches us that a “cluttered” mind tends to project a cluttered space for living. And over the past few years, such type of mind has produced an entire “cluttered” city out of the Macedonian capital.

Not to mention that well-arranged and healthy city blocks (Skopje is also one of the most polluted cities in Europe) mean happy and healthy citizens too. Finally, also citizens who will let go of unnecessary habits and old patterns of thinking.

Author: Stefan Alijevikj


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One Response to The Balkan culture of “gathering things” vs. Japanese minimalism

  1. koza says:

    slavs are not the only people in the balkans, and the slavic proclivity for hoarding is not one shared across differing ethnic groups.