When I flew home to Italy for the Christmas holidays, I had a friend ask me: “You’re Japanese, right? Have you seen the new Marie Kondo show on Netflix?”
We are now in an age where something on one streaming website manages to affect popular culture in the blink of an eye. There is even the argument that it’s been changing our way of learning languages by creating an entertainment environment where English isn’t king.
So, of course, when a successful author who had already sold millions of copies her book, Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (Ten Speed Press, 2014), started her own Netflix television show (Tidying Up with Marie Kondo), an already pervasive phenomenon became a world trend.
The Success Story
Using the simple idea of going into the homes of particularly messy people and helping them tidy up, Kondo’s method centers around making people reflect on what objects “spark joy” in them, and encourages them to get rid of what doesn’t.
Readers of her book, and people at the end of each Netflix episode, claim to feel a sense of renewal and say it has changed their lives.
Suddenly, my Facebook and Instagram feeds were filled with stories, memes, and articles on Marie Kondo. She has even become a verb, in the same way “Google” has. “I’ve KonMari-ed my apartment,” a friend told me recently.
One might wonder what is special about this woman who claims that there is an art to tidying up in Japan. After all, the idea of zen, feng shui, ying and yang, a sort of ethereal “Asian wisdom” or just people with an artistic sense advising others on how to declutter their lives, isn’t necessarily new, points out Professor Tara Fickle of the University of Oregon’s Department of Ethnic Studies.
With exceptionally good branding, and as a balance to habits such as widespread compulsive consumer shopping, the #KonMari method arrived on the scene at the perfect time. At its core, it encourages people to embrace the magic of a simpler, tidier life. This attraction has led it to take the internet world by storm.
The Inevitable Critics
With success often comes nastiness as well. In Marie Kondo’s case, this has ranged from sardonic comments on random things “sparking joy,” which might be waved away as innocuous satire, to people angrily arguing that the method doesn’t apply to people who have children.
Marie Kondo gained particular attention when on her show she advocated not having more than 30 books — a claim which caused an explosion of angry headlines, such as “keep your spark-joy hands off my books,” and comments calling her method “woo-woo nonsense.”
But it gets worse. Barbara Ehrenreich, a writer and journalist, tweeted that she would start listening when “Marie Kondo learns English” and then followed by deleting her own tweet and replacing it with a non-apology on February 4: “I confess I hate Marie Kondo because, aesthetically speaking, I’m on the side of clutter. As for her language: It’s OK with me that she doesn’t speak English to her huge American audience, but it does suggest that America is in decline as a superpower.”
The language issue might be a fair one if the only audience was American. But most of the world doesn’t seem to care. Marie Kondo has moved from Tokyo to Los Angeles, and at times she does take the center role by speaking English. However, generally the show features her speaking in feminine, business Japanese.
So what has Marie Kondo done to deserve such strong criticism?
The Right Idea at the Right Time
The KonMari method has spread like wildfire on social media. If you believe some of the figures, Netflix is said to have scored more than 68.4 million views of Marie Kondo-related content on YouTube.
But quite apart from SNS trends, Marie Kondo feeds the larger trend of the linear consumer-based economy. With so many cheap possessions, limited space, and low recycling consciousness for things like clothes, stuff eventually needs to be thrown away.
Marie Kondo offers a seemingly “one size fits all” solution which, if you are inclined to give it a try, is unlikely to make you hate yourself in the process. She doesn’t tell people to throw away this or that, she just tells them to ask themselves if something essentially makes them feel happy. With even the slight opportunity of an easy fix to a complicated problem, it’s unsurprising that many people have just eaten this up as “life-changing magic.”
Whatever people might say, numbers don’t lie. Her books have sold more than 10 million copies worldwide, in 42 countries and regions. Some report feeling so inspired by her method that they decided to quit their day job and become Marie Kondo’s assistant, while others say they have experienced an epiphany that the “opposite of happiness is chaos.” In 2016, she was selected as one of TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people of the year.
Her Netflix show was released on January 1, 2019. Whether deliberate or not, it's popularity rode the wave of revelers who potentially wanted to improve themselves in the New Year.
Marie Kondo has also effectively captured the state of this generation's “war on stuff,” so much so that thrift shops have been reportedly swamped with donations to the point that they can’t handle them. Many people, it seems, just needed the extra push to get rid of their things.
Quite apart from the timing, it’s hard not to marvel at the effective branding of the KonMari phenomenon.
It’s interesting to look at the sheer English translation of tokimeku, a word which is meant to express the spark of anticipation and excitement, for example when you are looking forward to an event. This central Japanese concept comes up in the Marie Kondo philosophy as the tidying up guru asks which possessions “spark joy.”
This expression has caused much hilarity in the English-speaking world, perhaps for the fact that objects are not commonly thought to “spark” anything, and their owners don’t exactly go around and claim an object is “joyous.”
But I would argue that due to the uncommon but emotive expression, it has also helped create a unique brand. It’s now sufficient to say “spark joy” on a Facebook post and people will immediately know you are referring to Marie Kondo.
There are also various elements in her interaction with families that make her appealing to the audience. She starts episodes exclaiming happily that she loves mess. Shorter than 1.50 meters and always in meticulously-chosen outfits, she knows how to provoke smiles. When describing to her clients what the emotion “sparks joy” is supposed to feel like, she pulls a t-shirt towards her and closes her eyes with a wide smile, as if she had butterflies fluttering around her.
And thus she has become viewed as an outsider who spreads magic in houses. How is that for an effective image?
Is Japanese Tidying Up Different?
An interesting feature is the use of “Japanese” in her book title, as the self-branding clearly rides the popularized wave of Japanese aesthetics in spreading the culture of tidying up.
In the Netflix show, Kondo has rituals, which she attributes to her early experience as a shrine maiden. This comes out especially in the idea of thinking of kami (a god-like spirit) as present in all things, including objects. So, she takes a moment to greet the house, and does seemingly quirky things like waking up books and thanking possessions for their service before throwing them away.
Margaret Dilloway, who wrote an article regarding the Marie Kondo frenzy for the January 22, 2019, edition of the Huffington Post, acknowledged a view similar to Marie Kondo’s: “According to Shinto animism, some inanimate objects could gain a soul after 100 years of service ― a concept known as tsukumogami ― so it felt natural to acknowledge them, to express my gratitude for them.”
This more intangible dimension has added to the Marie Kondo mystique. More broadly, it seems related to the Japanese concept of mottainai, which reflects a culture of not wasting. Tidying up also can be construed as a virtue of the small Japanese home. Recently with the aging population, there has also been an increased focus on the concept of danshari, the idea of tidying up your belongings so that you don’t leave a pile of things for your children and grandchildren to sort out.
However, as Jolyon Baraka Thomas, assistant professor in religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, points out, “You should never trust just one informant, especially when trying to understand a complex tradition. The same thing goes for a country of 126 million people who clearly have wildly different ideas about both Shintō and tidying up.” Like any society, it’s complicated.
So what can we conclude about the Marie Kondo brouhaha? Marie Kondo has created an incredibly effective brand, although perhaps we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that all Japanese have an innate culture of tidying up.
Whatever one might say about the pros and cons, Marie Kondo has given us a chance of reconsidering the sustainability of our consumerism and the clutter of our lifestyles — messy houses, many books, endless toys, and all.
Author: Arielle Busetto