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

Cosplay Culture: A Study in Transculturation Gone Wrong?

By Victoria Mikolaski

Cosplay is a word that is becoming more well-known everyday with the exponentially increasing interest in everything that has to do with popular entertainment nowadays. The emergence of Marvel films and popular books and TV shows, and countless other franchises, has amassed fans from all over to each respective fandom. One thing that seems to link these fandoms is cosplay.

What is Cosplay?

The word “Cosplay” is an abbreviation for the phrase “costume play”, and is defined as a performance art in which participants dress up in a specific costume with accessories to represent a character or idea from their preferred TV show, book series, comic, anime and/or manga, movie, video games, or any other form of entertainment. This also includes music groups like Visual Kei rock bands, the most popular choice among cosplayers in Japan. Cosplayers buy, or make from scratch, their costumes and props, basing their character’s look on reference pictures taken directly from the source for greater accuracy in color schemes and costume design. All this effort is solely for the purpose of expressing their affections for existing narratives, an effort in reworking these stories through various media. A “fannish subculture”, cosplay culture is also closely linked to other groups set on achieving the same goals: fanfiction, fanart, and fan videos to name a few. Cosplay motivates fans to interpret existing works, and not only perform them but extend them with their own narratives and ideas. It is a way for fans to actualize fiction in everyday life, and in doing so subvert reality for a while.

History: Cosplay’s Origin Story

Forrest J. Ackerman showing off his futuristic costume at the 1st Sci-Fi WorldCon in 1939

Forrest J. Ackerman showing off his futuristic costume at the 1st Sci-Fi WorldCon in 1939

Curiously enough, the origin story of cosplay is still debated among cosplayers today. Based on photographic evidence, I will tell the version most likely to be true. Cosplay is agreed to have been around since conventions began. It is said to have started as early as 1939 in the U.S. with Forrest J. Ackerman when he attended the first World Science Fiction Convention in New York wearing a futuristic costume (made by his girlfriend Myrtle R. Douglas). That led to the ever-increasing interest in costume-wearing at conventions in the 1960s and 1970s, namely shown by dressing up not only as characters from the popular sci-fi TV shows Star Trek and Star Wars, but also characters from the classics like DC comics Batman. Soon after this hobby swept the nation, Nobuyuki Takahashi (founder of Studio Hard) traveled to the U.S. and attended the 1984 Los Angeles Sci-Fi World Convention and encountered costuming practices there. He promptly returned to Japan and wrote an article about his experiences at the convention, encouraging his readers to try the hobby and incorporate it Into Japanese anime and manga conventions. It was he who coined the term “cosplay”. The first appearance of cosplay in Japan was in 1978 at a fan event, so either Japanese fans had the same idea around the time American fans were increasing their practice of cosplay in the 1970s, or the Japanese fans heard about it from America earlier and the encouragement from one of their own celebrities around a decade later got cosplay enough traction to become a major practice in Japanese fan culture. Nevertheless, Japanese fans gained interest in making costumes for their anime and manga conventions and the craze spread from there, finally returning full circle to the U.S. with a distinctly Japanese vibe attached to it.

Cosplay Today: Not What it Once Was

Presently in the U.S., cosplay is restricted to limited and specific settings: conventions and other similar get-togethers separate from the rest of the community. The cultural practices attached to cosplay are intentionally separated from everyday life and the professional atmosphere. In Japan, cosplay is more intertwined with the public domain. For example, participants often gather in public parks of Akihabara and Harajuku districts. Cosplay is also a large part of consumption culture: shops sell wigs and full costumes, and costume restaurants attract fan customers. That cosplay is a professional practice shows that it has a more prominent role in Japanese society than that of the West. Such emphasis in the professional world also indicates that cosplay is a selling point for Japan’s economy nationally and internationally. There is an integration through advertising in which the Advertising industry now uses cosplay models, “Cosplay Idols”, to show off costumes for anime, manga, and video game companies. They are viewed as fictional characters in the flesh, thus encouraging the younger generation’s interest in whatever they are advertising and keeping that interest, as opposed to an inanimate object or character that inevitably falls under the category of fiction and ‘not real’ in its 2D-ness. In recent years these promotional models have been requested for other areas of commercial goods, such as food and beverage commerce as well as fashion stores, clubs, restaurants, and other franchises.

Cosplay/idol group Steam Girls cosplaying Yuki Jirushi Coffee’s café au lait Finalist Mascot Costumes (2013)

Cosplay/idol group ‘Steam Girls’ cosplaying Yuki Jirushi Coffee’s café au lait Finalist Mascot Costumes (2013)

Americans now associate cosplay with Japan. Anime and manga are immediately linked to cosplay, but not original material such as Star Trek or Star Wars. The two types of material have been essentially separated into two different categories despite coming from the same beginnings and engaging in the same cultural practices. U.S. and Japanese goods are even being sold side-by-side at conventions, and still cosplay is considered the “other” and inherently different from the U.S. cultural and national identity. Transculturation in this case complicates the notions of national and cultural identity. Is cosplay now inherently Japanese even through the concept seems to have originated in the U.S. and still practices the same things? I would argue that the West is relabeling this cultural practice as Japanese because it fits into what is considered to be “otherness”. Dressing up as a fictional character and role-playing could be stereotypical of Japanese “weirdness” and “quirkiness” (and often cult-esque behavior). The U.S. would then be Orientalizing Japan to distance itself from its own cultural “weirdness”. Japan is then taking advantage of this “otherness” and capitalizing on the brand nationalism that cosplay provides. This however, leaves the secondary category of cosplay in an odd position. It is not inherently Japanese, but it does follow the same practices.

Two sides of the cosplay coin. Is Deadpool destined to be the only character who can cross this barrier?

Two sides of the cosplay coin. Is Deadpool destined to be the only character who can cross this barrier?

By definition cosplay should be culturally neutral and odorless, because the way it operates is the same wherever cosplay culture occurs. Cosplayers go to the conventions, attend panels, participate in the Masquerade, and buy goods produced by the fandom and the original works’ producers. Cosplayers mirror typical fans in that they serve as consumers and producers simultaneously.  Western and Japanese-based cosplay practices occur in the same space at conventions, so why are they perceived as different? What’s more is that gender, class, age, and identity do not seem to have any bearing on who participates in this culture. All fandoms are welcome, so the range of interests includes all genders and age groups. Because all that is required is attendance and engaging in the fun, class also has no bearing on participation. Identity as a consumer or producer varies, a small but not insignificant portion of the attendees at conventions self-identify as both consumer and producer in the commercial context of selling their wares, which are mainly hand-crafted. Often larger conventions are national and international events. This means that there is no reason for there to be a distinction between U.S. cosplay and Japanese cosplay, as the participants are diverse enough to make the culture nation-less and culturally odorless. Ultimately, it is up to the cosplayers and fanbase in general to decide whether the origins matter.

 

Discussion Questions:

Transculturation is the process of globalization in which an asymmetrical encounter of various cultures result in the transformation of an existing artifact and the creation of a new style. As the products get circulated globally they become by default less marked, more culturally odorless, thus the origins become less important.

  1. By this definition, why has cosplay culture been re-marked as Japanese rather than become culturally and nationally odorless after being circulated globally from the U.S.?
  2. How should the Western category of cosplay be labeled now that the subculture overall has been culturally and nationally marked as Japanese?
  3. Is cosplay capable of transcending nationality and becoming culturally odorless?
  4. Can you think of another product that has undergone a similar transformation? If yes, what allowed it to happen?

 

Sources

Ackerman, Forrest J. “Through Time and Space with Forry Ackerman (Part 1)”. Mimosa 16: 4-6. (1994) Web. 20 Mar 2015. <http://www.jophan.org/mimosa/m16/ackerman.htm>

Baseel, Casey. “Coffee mascot event with cosplaying idols proves to be too much for some fans to handle”. Rocket News 24. (2013) Web. 26 Mar 2015. < http://en.rocketnews24.com/2013/08/09/coffee-mascot-event-with-cosplaying-idols-proves-to-be-too-much-for-some-fans-to-handle/>

Frankenhoff, Brent. 2011, “It All Began…. “. Beautiful Balloons CBG #1677. (May 2011). Web. 21 Mar 2015. <http://www.cbgxtra.com/blogs/beautiful-balloons/it-all-began-%E2%80%A6-beautiful-balloons-cbg-1677-may-2011>

Napier, Susan Jolliffe. From Impressionism to Anime: Japan as Fantasy and Fan Cult in the Mind of the West. First edition. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Winge, Theresa. 2006, “Costuming the Imagination: Origins of Anime and Manga Cosplay”. Mechademia Vol. 1: 65-76. (2006) doi: 10.1353/mec.0.0084

Wrong About Japan: A Father’s Journey with His Son–Can Gaijin Ever Get It Right?

Carey, Peter. "Wrong About Japan: A Father's Journey with His Son." Random House, Inc., 2005. pp 158. $14.10.

By Isabel Bush

Peter Carey is one of Australia’s most famous contemporary authors. His novels and short stories have earned special praise, and he is one of  two writers to win the prestigious Man-Booker Prize twice. For the past two decades, he has lived with his family in New York City. In the early 2000s, Carey took his teenaged son Charley to Japan to explore the culture together. The resulting voyage became Wrong About Japan: A Father’s Journey with His Son, an exploration of his relationship with his son, and that of Japan with Western society. The narrative is pleasant enough to read, but Carey’s conclusions about Japan are disappointing and almost superficial. At times, his experience in Japan seems to have less to do with Japan than Carey’s attempt to connect with Charley as he becomes an adolescent.

Carey first noticed his son’s interest in Japan after Charley began immersing himself in Japanese comic books and animated films (called manga and anime, respectively). Charley was a quiet boy to the outside world, but when his interest in Japan led him to become more extroverted, his surprised father offered to take him to Japan, ostensibly to interview the anime and manga idols Charley so admired. Charley assented on one surprising condition: they would not visit “Real Japan.” “No temples. No museums,” no delicate geisha or the like (11). Carey and Charley would only examine “Real Japan” inasmuch as it could help them understand the country before them. As their trip progressed, however, it became clear that their preconceptions about Japanese culture were mistaken in almost every instance, leaving the reader wondering whether a foreigner can ever understand Japan. Carey concludes that Japan is a delicate enigma wrapped in a lacquered puzzle box, to which gaijin (foreign barbarians) could never get the key.

While Charley wants to understand contemporary Japan, Carey looks to more arcane artifacts of Japanese culture, searching to understand a thoroughly modern, paradoxically traditional culture. One of the author’s fundamental questions is whether he or his son had the correct method for interpreting Japan. Is it better to analyze a culture’s context and condescend, as Carey does, to its modern existence, or is it better to examine a culture only as it is in the present, without any knowledge of how it became this way?

Carey never fully answers this question. Initially, he is convinced that his methodology is correct, but as the story progresses and Carey misses every pitch, culturally speaking, he begins to doubt himself. Every time he thinks he can draw some conclusion about Japan, he talks to another of his experts (and who is more expert than an actual Japanese person?) and he is contradicted again. How Japanese people perceive Americans, how they read their manga, why they enjoy what they enjoy, what they eat for breakfast, how proud they are–Carey strives to understand it all, but blunders into Japanese culture with the delicacy of a stereotypical American tourist. Neither Carey nor Charley speaks Japanese, nor makes any effort to beyond the occasional konnichiwa. Furthermore, they stay in and around Tokyo, and never visit any less-urbanized areas, which are arguably more genuinely Japanese than the Westernized cities like Tokyo.

One of Carey’s most prominent Japanese “experts,” and the narrative’s most confounding  addition, is Takashi, a friend Charley met over the internet, who guides them around Tokyo. He represents another in a crowded chorus of characters who sing a confusing, dissonant melody of what it means to be Japanese. However, Takashi is not real. Takashi is supposed to explicitly show the reader how the Japanese think and live their daily lives, but the knowledge that he was created by a Western man, one who claims throughout his narrative that he cannot understand Japan, only hurts the character’s credibility, and ultimately, the narrative’s. Takashi’s narrative purpose is superficially to compare the young Japan Charley idealizes with the traditions Carey seeks, but he could have been added to allow the author to rationalize his lackluster relationship with Charley.

There is, however, a lurking disappointment to Wrong About Japan. While the story itself is strong, it can sometimes seem a little flat. Carey’s other works, like My Life as a Fake, are vivid and captivating in ways that this book just isn’t. The book takes time to generate its momentum, but once it does, it’s quite enjoyable. The extensive, ambiguous quest in Wrong About Japan is a common motif in Carey’s work, and as he does in his novels, Carey leaves his readers unclear about the story’s conclusion. One never knows if Carey or Charley find what they came to Japan for, or if they ever figure it out for themselves. One of the more irritating aspects of Carey’s narrative is its travelers’ privilege. Carey and his son have a marvelous itinerary, and could have done and learned so much more. It’s disappointing when, after meeting people like the iconic animators Hayao Miyazaki and Yoshiyuki Tomino, Carey is bogged down thinking that he can’t fully understand Japan, and seems to stop trying to. His Orientalist distancing of Japan as the “Other” almost certainly guarantees that he could never fully understand this group of people.

Matt Rigsby

Matt Rigsby here! I am a freshman with the intent of majoring in International Relations or Linguistics. After watching Lost in Translation (hence the picture), I became more aware of the Japan aesthetic (as the movie is set in Japan) but I must fully admit that I am I have just begun my exploration of Japanese Culture. Participating in many Japanese video games and being a Nintendo disciple, I was largely unaware of the Japanese influence. While I played Pokémon as much as the average child, that is about the extent of my foray into Japan. Being a soccer player and an avid fan, I witnessed Japan’s participation at both the male and female World Cups with the interest of more closely following their domestic league and their high profile players, such as Keisuke Honda. Having always had an interest in other cultures but no experience in the realm of Asia, this class is here to expand my cultural awareness and interests into previously unexplored territory. With new found enthusiasm about Japan, I can only hope to broaden my cultural and social knowledge beyond video games and soccer, into territories such as film and literature.



 

 

The Japanese Bestiary of “Cool”

by Arthi Aravind

Japan’s mythological creatures are a source of rich inspiration for the many anime artists who produce the pop culture which has exploded in popularity in the United States in the past two decades. The mystical creatures of this culture’s bestiary are a unique aspect of its gross national cool which differentiate it from the pop culture exports of other countries. These otherworldly creatures, which are so foreign to the Western imagination, contribute to the popularity of Japanese cultural products in the United States because of their novelty value. [Read more…]

Of Divine and Digital Origin: Mythology in Japanese Video Games

by Katherine Stevens

The Japanese video game industry is one of the largest and most innovative in the world. They are lauded for their creativity and longevity, as well as their broad cultural appeal. However, what many consumers don’t realize is that behind the graphics and fantastical plotlines often lies a broader significance. Many of the most popular franchises in Japanese video gaming are heavily based on mythology, both Eastern and Western alike. While it is often not apparent to many players, especially younger gamers or those who are not familiar with the mythological canon, these details give the gameplay and coinciding plots more depth, and can be seen as a reflection on the creators’ view of culture. [Read more…]

Triumph of the School Girl

Simpler times.

by Keenan Thompson

History

The shojo genre was originally aimed at young, Japanese girls. Shojo kai was the first of a series of girls’ magazine’s begun in the early Meiji era as an attempt to increase the literacy rate. Soon after these magazines’ birth, short, comic manga strips surfaced. Usually the story followed the lines of some inept female heroine being rescued by a handsome man, but for a long time, shojo romance was taboo. Eventually the taboo of shojo romance was overcome and the genre became redefined by it. The stories, however, keep the same form of a girl waiting to be saved. [Read more…]

Coming to America: J-Horror

by Mary Grob

Film critics and fans alike agree that the American horror genre entered into a slump during the 1990’s that it has yet to recover from. Gone are the days of psychological thrillers like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and even the slasher film, an American horror stable since the 1970’s, has lost its appeal. Horror fans have been left wanting something new to chill their blood [1]. In the late 1990’s, a new wave of films known as J-Horror began to develop a cult following in the US. Soon after, Hollywood began to take notice of these foreign films, and the answer to America’s horror slump appeared to have been found within Japan. [Read more…]

Nich Schools

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_________________

When I was young, I was fascinated with cultures other than my own. I caught glimpses of China, of Russia, of Italy with every step I took. Little china dolls and pizza shops advertising authenticity seem to pervade every city, every town, every square mile of inhabited land in this melting pot called the United States. But what’s melted into this pot is no more than bits and pieces, generalizations and stereotypes. And when I realized this a few years ago, it ignited a desire in me to seek the truth of these cultures. [Read more…]