Tidying Consultant Marie Kondo: Continuing Trends of Western Interest in Japanese Aesthetics

They say that cleanliness is next to godliness, a phrase that originally referred to the importance of personal hygiene to stave infection. But it has since become a mantra for the well organized. The obsessively spotless. The neat freaks whose sensibilities I sometimes envy but could never possess – is there not comfort in a nest of clutter? However, there is something to be said for Marie Kondo’s growing international success as a cleaning consultant. Since its first printing in 2011, her compact guide to cleanliness The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing has been published in over 30 countries, gaining immense popularity in Japan, Europe, and the United States. Recognition spans multiple bestseller lists including 22 weeks on the NPR Hardcover Nonfiction Bestseller List and is currently Amazon’s 15th popular book since it’s U.S. release in 2014.

Kondo proclaims in the introduction of her book that she has devoted 80 percent of her life studying the transformative qualities of tidiness. From a young age, she took charge of her family’s cleaning, following tips from home decorating magazines and learning from classical feng shui techniques. In high school she would be elected the class official for cleaning duties and later worked part-time at a Shinto Shrine cleaning the grounds and selling charms. Once in university, she would start her own lifestyle consultant business at age 19 and now has a steady clientele with a 3-month waiting list (not to mention a waiting list for the waiting list), 4 publications, and a television movie dramatizing her life. It’s obvious Kondo has achieved a level of explosive success that few can mimic – I mean, her name has become popularized as a verb that means to tidy. But what exactly warrants such rapid and international growth?

Kondo InterviewAt a national level, Kondo’s book came during a time of unprecedented necessity. In her article “Gurus: Marie Kondo Will Change Your Life or at Least Your Living Space,” Molly Young of New York Magazine interviews Kondo and her editor Tomohiro Takahashi. Takahashi attributes her success to the 3.11 earthquake as a catastrophic event that forced the Japanese to confront existential questions. He observes, “The Japanese people suddenly had to ask themselves what was important in their lives? What was the true value of sentimental items? What was the meaning of the items they lost? What was the meaning of life?” Supposedly, Kondo’s book offered an answer. Sales boomed in the aftermath with over 1.5 million copies sold in Japan alone.

Kondo BookAt an international level, particularly in relation to the US, Kondo’s business savvy style compliments current U.S. economic conditions. As Jennifer Maloney and Megumi Fujikawa of The Wall Street Journal write in their article “Marie Kondo and the Cult of Tiding Up,” Kondo’s success is part of a larger context of U.S. trends, including changing trends in the self-help genre as well as a recovering economy that promotes both a frugal sense of “downsizing” and increased donations. They reference self-help editor Jessica Sindler who notes a new audience of younger, mindful men and women participating in the genre: “It’s the Ted Talk audience […] It’s about changing your life and self-improvement but it’s sort of a happier, smarter approach.” The genre layout is changing, too. Maloney and Fujikawa cite a Publisher Weekly data analysis, which show that the self-help category has the “fastest growth in print-book unit sales among young adult segments in 2014,” a 15% increase from the previous year.

Both The Wall Street Journal and Elizabeth O’Brien of the Market Watch comment on the recent economic trend of “downsizing.” In her article “Cutting the Clutter for a Better Retirement,” O’Brien acknowledges the baby boomers in addition to the younger generation, stating that boomers are starting to move into smaller homes and radically discarding unnecessary goods to start new lives. Maloney and Fujikawa continue to say, “Ms. Kondo’s book arrived in the U.S. as donations of clothes and household items were growing. Across the U.S., Goodwill Industries International saw 4% more in-kind donations in 2014 than the previous year.” This increasing willingness to donate coincides with Kondo’s methods of tidiness, which emphasis identifying and keeping the things we want and radically throwing out everything that has served its purpose. Essentially, Kondo’s philosophy in conjunction with current U.S. conditions and the changing self-help landscape allowed for Kondo’s success.

However, I argue that there are larger Orientalist and consumerist trends at play in which the West consistently consumes Japanese aesthetics in hopes of reaffirming some lost sense of purpose or spiritual meaning. Kondo’s technique for organizing involved taking all of one’s items, holding them one by one, and asking if the item brings joy – if it sparks tokimeku. Yet O’Brien writes, “[T]his approach might come less naturally to a Westerner than to the Japanese, whose culture has a stronger tradition of anthropomorphism.” O’Brien continues to reason that the Japanese knack for tidiness stems from their homes being smaller than American ones and lacking attics and basements. The Guardian’s article “Top Tips to Joyfully Declutter Your Home, from Marie Kondo” likens this sensibility to a Japanese minimalism and feng shui. In an article for Slate, Kondo herself explains her approach to clutter as one that is rooted in the ego, writing, “[W]hen we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear of the future.” For Kondo, to radically change and organize one’s space is a process that reflects the organization of the self and is by no means a superficial process.

This connection between possessions and identity and Japanese aesthetics and philosophy in the U.S. extends back to post Civil War times. Scholar Chistopher Benfey observes in his book The Great Wave that the U.S. turned to Japan to find and reaffirm lost pre-war values such as “[a] longing for a more rooted connection to the soil, and for the aesthetic and spiritual satisfactions of a simpler life” (xiii). He continues to state, “[I]n Zen austerity and reserve, they found confirmation of their own recoil from Victorian excess and ostentation” (xiv). Though I’ve run out of space, I plan to continue looking at the trend of Japanese consumption using Okakura Kakuzo as a case study and argue for the uneven power dynamics between the two nations.

 

 

Discussion Questions:

While Marie Kondo mentions she is Japanese and alludes to her nationality when relevant, it is her foreign publicity that markets her “Japanese-ness.” Is her service, and indeed her celebrity status, marked as Japanese, or do we perceive her to be culturally odorless?

Going along Said’s theory of Orientalism, can we view Kondo’s international popularity as an uneven power struggle or a reflective other to the Occident?

 

Links and Sources:

http://www.wsj.com/articles/marie-kondo-and-the-tidying-up-trend-1424970535

http://www.marketwatch.com/story/cutting-the-clutter-for-a-better-retirement-2015-01-15?page=1

http://nymag.com/thecut/2015/02/marie-kondo-room-purge.html

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/nov/27/top-tips-to-joyfully-declutter-your-home-from-marie-kondo

http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_eye/2014/12/19/the_life_changing_magic_of_tidying_up_by_marie_kondo_is_a_best_selling_guide.html

Comments

  1. This article reminds me of a quote often attributed to Albert Einstein: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” And usually accompanying this quote is a link to some very impassioned article about the folly of being too tidy (i.e. it show’s you’re not creative or something). So this made me think of a sort of resistance to this movement towards tidiness in which people choose to find their lost purpose in their chaos, the mess itself, rather than in keeping and organizing the things that bring them joy and finding purpose there somehow. But I do agree that there is an intense spiritual connection with Kondo’s method of tidying, and spirituality seems to be a thing that Westerner’s are especially interested in gaining as the popularity of religion declines. By that I mean, it’s a common criticism of atheism and agnosticism that people without religion sometimes forget to focus on spirituality and self improvement. And some people combat that by finding spirituality elsewhere. So my question is: what other factors in the world impact the increased focus on spirituality of the Western world? And can any of these factors be compared to factors in Japan’s focus on spirituality, past or present?

  2. snmelvin says:

    I had never heard of Marie Kondo before this article, but it doesn’t surprise me that she’s gotten big in the West. I think it’s really interesting how some of the references you sight see this drive to cleanliness and the increase in clothing donations as something deeply psychological trend. For me, it’s always been more an issue of economics. Who, in this day and age, can actually afford to live the wasteful life our parents lived, where everyone had a house with a yard and could throw away things without a second thought? Do you think that the US is going to look more like Japan in the future, with tinier living spaces and more people recycling? Also, I agree that there’s an Orientalist aspect to this. Feng Shui is the most obvious example of this kind of Western adoption of Eastern organizational techniques. Great article!

  3. keplunkett says:

    One part of your post that stood out to me was the part about existential questions, and how Kondo’s book supposedly offered an answer. Why do you think this was? Was it the physical devastation and societal chaos that made people crave organization in their own personal spheres, or was it the vast material loss that made them realize the relative unimportance of excess goods?

    I also agree with the previous commenter that this issue has major economic ties. In both Japan and the US, financial crisis has people to confront the reality that they can no longer live wasteful lives and take space for granted. Perhaps Kondo’s book teaches them to appreciate this reality and make of the most of this situation.

    I am also intrigued by your question of Kondo’s “Japanese-ness.” I have not read her book, so I cannot say for sure, but it seems to me that her methods are definitely marked as Japanese, or at least as Oriental, as a direct contrast to the extravagent styles often associated with the Occident.