Zakka: the Japanese joy of everyday things

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While in Tokyo I learned a new word, one that I think readers of this blog would enjoy. The Japanese word zakka is sometimes translated into English as “miscellaneous goods,” but this is like describing caviar as fish eggs: true, but kind of misses the point. Zakka does describe everyday things, but it’s not about ordinary junk. It’s about mundane things that have been elevated or carefully selected to improve one’s lifestyle. Currently, there’s an exhibit called Zakka: Goods and Things at the museum 21_21 Design Sight (worth a visit if you’re in Tokyo no matter what happens to be showing) that explores the evolution of zakka in Japanese culture. The exhibit’s curator, Naoto Fukosawa, a designer for Muij (a store that seems to be built on the very idea of zakka) defines the word as “things that accompany our everyday lifestyle spaces and provide an element of decoration.”

It’s hard to say exactly what is and isn’t zakka — it seems to be an almost entirely gray area. In fact, the word comes from the root zatsu, which means “things that cannot be categorized” or “things mixed together with great variety.” The key element is that zakka provide a decorative value in addition to a functional one. Paraphrasing a description I read in one article: a plastic ashtray wouldn’t be considered zakka, but a plastic ashtray from Paris with a Pernod logo sourced from a market might be. Handcrafts can be zakka, as can packaging, such as a beautiful bottle for hand soap, or cigar box that is saved and used to store photos. But antiques aren’t always zakka, especially if they’re expensive. Stationery, cooking utensils, and toys can all be zakka. Even very humble things, like these plastic gelato spoons, can be zakka.

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The definition of zakka may be amorphous, but the underlying idea is simple, and is a shared philosophy of this blog: if you make good choices about the objects you surround yourself with, they will pay you back with joy. Naoto Fukosawa expresses it beautifully on the copy for the exhibit:

Through acts and experiences of searching for, selecting, buying, using, decorating, mixing and matching zakka, we rediscover the inherent allure of these miscellaneous things, and they in turn bring joy to our lives.

Not all zakka will be joyful objects, but the word presumes some emotional engagement in the process of acquiring them. Lacking a word for this in English, we also lack a framework for thinking about the pleasure of well-crafted, colorful, or otherwise joyful everyday objects. Our primary ways of categorizing objects are based on utility and cost — necessities vs. luxuries — which tends to shift the measure of value from joy to commerce.

The unfortunate side effect of this is that we attach a negative stigma to the act of investing in objects that bring us joy. Because we lack a word for household items that are more meaningful than “stuff,” yet not “luxuries,” we make their pursuit seem frivolous or wasteful, rather than a natural and even integral part of making a home and a life. At the same time, this framework also suggests that we need lots of money to make a home that’s joyful. I often see vibrant, tasteful homes furnished at very low cost, and on the flip side, many expensive homes that are filled with joyless objects. Yet often we fall into the trap of thinking that we can’t afford the things that will make our homes feel good.

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What the exhibit made me realize is that there’s a hole in our language when it comes to everyday objects, and that this linguistic hole is actually a conceptual vacuum. One of the reasons Marie Kondo’s notion of “sparking joy” feels so foreign in the West is that we simply don’t think of our things in this kind of emotional way. But doing so unlocks really lovely possibilities for allowing the objects in our midst to become a joyful part of our lives, rather than just stuff. I think it also invites us to take better care of the things we have. Perhaps we need new language to help us, or perhaps we can simply borrow what exists. For my part, I’m happily welcoming zakka into my lexicon.

If you speak another language, I’d be curious to know: are there words you use for the relationships between people and things that don’t translate into English?

Visit: Zakka: Goods and Things is on view until June 5, 2016, at 21_21 Design Sight in Tokyo

Hey, Guess What?

The Aesthetics of Joy is now a book! Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness is now available.

Learn more

2 Comments

    • Thanks, Michelle! What a beautiful piece – I haven’t read M Train yet but it’s now on the list thanks to that gorgeous review.

      I hope you have a wonderful trip to Japan. I love it here so much. Planning a joyful city guide to Tokyo for the blog in a few weeks to sum up all my favorite spots!

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