Japanese design and architecture through the lens of Zen minimalism

Zen Buddhism helped the emergence of one of the world’s oldest minimalist cultures in Japan during 14-15th century, which is typically known as wabi-sabi (or 東山 (Higashiyama) Culture). Although it has been more than 600 years, the essence of Zen minimalism is still powerful and relevant today.   

Key characteristics of Zen minimalism

  • Attempt to reduce the number of elements only to what’s absolutely necessary

円相 (enso) by 白隠慧鶴 (1686-1769), prominent Zen priest in the Edo era.

One of the key teaching in Zen is to rely on physical training such as meditation to pursue religious goals. During the process, you strip off your emotions, your ego, your opinions and rationalization for everything you experience. At the end of relentless pursuit, truth becomes as universal and celestial as a simple circle. Circule is used by Zen calligraphy and called 円相 (enso) to express a variety of things such as universe, religious truth or eternity. In Zen calligraphy, the shape is never a complete circle to remind that what people do can never be perfect.

Japanese artists often attempts to reduce elements only to what’s absolutely necessary to reveal the truth, as it’s deeply rooted in their DNA.

  • Harmonize with and dissolve into the surrounding enviornment by erasing your ego

桂離宮 (The Katsura Imperial Villa) was built in the 17th century
by an aristocrat family from Kyoto.
Designed as a retreat, the buildings are scattered and dissolved in a vast natural landscape.
The landscape is elaborately taken care of so that it looks natural
while achieving aesthetic delicacy.

In traditional Japanese worldview, people have always been part of the vast environment or universe, that is even larger than what we typically picture for “Mother Nature.” It resonated with the principles of Buddhism, which believes that many (if not all) Buddha “represent” the vast universe one way or the other. (In that sense, Buddhism is very different from Christianity as there is no almighty God who “created” -as opposed to represent or symbolize – this world.) The two became blended and resulted in many forms of art in which the object often became part of the whole. It’s beauty is maximized when it perfectly dissolves into the surrounding.

  • Be bold to embrace the real face of nature such as asymmetry, rustic state or decay

Ikebana, traditional Japanese flower arrangement, was started by 
Zen priests in 15th century. 
Over time, it established solid aesthetic theory, one of which scalene triangle (asymmetric). 

Zen minimalism influenced many forms art during 14th-16th century, many of which became the basis of what we know as traditional Japanese art and culture today. The artists (many of them were Zen priests) weren’t afraid afraid of leveraging qualities that aren’t usually considered “beautiful,” such as asymmetric, small, old, rustic or decaying. They celebrated them because they are all part of the natural cycle. 

Today, you can still experience Zen arts that originated during 14th-16th century such as Noh theater and ikebana flower arrangement. And the influence is still tangible in many forms of art such as painting, design and fashion.

Japanese Architecture with the Spirit of Zen Minimalism 

Japanese architects have unique perspectives on how buildings (artificial creations) and the surrounding environment should work. More specifically, they often attempt to connect the two seamlessly, and it is the gist of wabi-sabi type Zen minimalism. When you focus on the interactions between people inside the building and what’s going on outside it, you do not want to place too many elements in between. Minimalism in Japanese architecture is focused on maximizing interactions between inside and outside.  

Tadao Ando is famous for his “silky smooth” bare concrete, and the reason why he uses such a raw material in a minimalistic design is because he always wants the buildings to dissolve into the surrounding environment. It is also the reason why he often buries part of the buildings under ground.

You may not associate Kengo Kuma with Zen minimalism, but he approaches to materials in a very Zen way. He chooses natural materials often because of their “feebleness.”  It is the same as how Zen-influenced wabi-sabi culture pursued the art of “imperfection.” Find Kuma’s philosophy on materials, especially natural materials.

You can see the culmination of wabi-sabi influenced traditional Japanese minimalist architecture in 桂離宮 (Katsura Imperial Villa). Nested in a green-rich property surrounding a beautiful pond, Katsura’s dozen buildings completely dissolves into the surrounding environment.

You can see the elements of Zen minimalism in MUJI house. MUJI has been advocating for “tiny house” way before the tiny house movement. MUJI’s minimalist house is a flexible box you can modify as your family grows and your needs change.

Japanese design with the spirit of Zen minimalism

You can also find the elements of Zen minimalism in Japanese design. Whether it’s the choice of materials or the relationships of design and functionality, Japanese design often focuses on maximizing what you can experience through using a product, rather than how they look like on surface. 

Traditional Japanese arts influenced by Zen minimalism

If you are interested in knowing the original form of Zen minimalism, explore arts that originate from the wabi-sabi era. It includes ikebana (flower arrangement), kare-sansui (Zen rock garden), sado (tea ceremony) and chashitsu (tea room or tea hut). 


Ikebana: the art of subtraction

Ikebana is Japanese traditional flower arrangement founded by a prominent Zen priest in the Middle Ages. It finds boundless beauty in least number of flowers. Read more


Kare-sansui (Zen rock garden)

Zen rock garden (kare-sansui) elevated core tenets of Buddhism and Zen into a crystallized form of art. People sit in front of the garden, totally absorbed by its silent yet powerful beauty. Read more


Bonsai, the art of condensation

Bonsai is the art of microcosm. It condenses the energy and beauty of overwhelming nature into apprehend-able, edit-able size. Read more


Chashitsu (tea house)

Chashitsu (tea house or tea hut) is a small, often isolated small and rustic room/house used for Japanese traditional tea ceremony gatherings. It maybe the only architecture whose evolution was about becoming smaller. Read more