Sparking Joy and Spirituality: Kondō Marie Boom Highlights Decluttering Differences

Lifestyle Society Culture

Kondō Marie’s decluttering techniques have won explosive popularity in both the United States and Japan. Yet she seems to appeal to the two cultures in different ways.

Last time I visited the United States from Japan, I experienced the scale of the Kondō Marie boom there. I was out with a friend at a meeting when one of the speakers called for donations of unwanted items to a charity bazaar with a slide displaying Kondō’s picture. Everyone recognized her; the room broke into uproar. Her rise to stardom began with the 2010 publication of Jinsei ga tokimeku katazuke no mahō in Japan; the 2014 English translation by Cathy Hirano, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, became a massive bestseller. Now a new series on Netflix, Tidying Up with Marie Kondō, available since January 2019, has fanned the flames of her fame even higher.

The magic phrase “spark joy” (tokimeku) has been integral to the craze in Japan and the United States—although it seems to me about as distant as one can get from the practice of tidying up. In the following, I will consider the differences between Japanese and American approaches to possessions and housework.

Respect for Past Experience

Kondō begins her tidying routine by sitting and composing herself. When she tucks her legs underneath her and sits on the floor seiza-style, with her classically Asian features, it has quite an impact on US reality TV. There is something comical in the juxtaposition of the slender, petite Kondō seated together with large, well-built Americans that creates an entertaining picture in itself.

Probably even more startling for those she assists is the concept of first achieving spiritual focus. It is hardly typical to bend one’s knees and perform a prayer before clutter-cutting. And I do not think there has been the kind of practice in Western household organization where one touches one’s possessions and decides whether to keep them or toss them based on whether they “spark joy.”

That said, one can discern spiritual overtones in the minimalist movement spreading through the United States. As far as I can see, there are two main varieties of American minimalism. One is a very practical drive based on a real need to reduce the effort that housekeeping requires by reducing one’s belongings. For example, families with many children may find it hard to keep control over a spiraling amount of stuff, and setting a limit can make life easier if a family member has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Then there are the adherents of minimalism who yearn for a pared-back “Zen” lifestyle and extol the spiritual riches of dispossession. The image of Zen in the United States is one of austere beauty and ultimate simplicity. At first glance, this form of minimalism appears similar to KonMari spirituality, but its emphasis is on intangible gains and peace of mind that only come after physical trappings have been discarded and that cannot be achieved by those who find it hard to let go. The KonMari method, however, advocates showing gratitude to belongings soon to be dispensed with, following a process that respects contemplation and past experience. Anyone can be moved by this form of spirituality, and it is extremely easy to convey on screen. I surmise this is why Kondō has been so explosively popular in the United States.

A Sense of Self-Affirmation

How did she win her popularity in Japan? I suggest the biggest factor is that her heartfelt expressions of gratitude to no longer needed items resonated with the common aversion to waste, while speaking to the hearts of the country’s sentimentalists. It may also have freed people from the persistent belief that not being able to throw things away is a character flaw. This was a big difference from the earlier danshari method inspired by yoga philosophy, which was introduced in a bestselling book by “clutter consultant” Yamashita Hideko and became a social phenomenon in Japan a decade ago.

Almost everyone I hear talking about danshari lays the stress on being capable—or incapable—of putting it into practice. One gets the feeling from such conversations that it is a much sought-after skill among Japanese. When people announce the successful completion of danshari, they show the same faint pride of a dieter who has lost weight. Often their news is greeted with cries of “Wow!” and “Well done!”

American minimalism targets Zen territory and talks about spiritual gains, but it has not been embraced by the nation’s mainstream. At times, its practitioners are treated as eccentrics. In Japan, however, those who can perform danshari are clearly portrayed as having reached a higher status than those who cannot.

One senses here traditional Japanese values of simplicity, frugality, and eschewing luxury. Historically, these were found, for example, in reforms instigated by the eighteenth-century shōgun Tokugawa Yoshimune, and the Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors issued by Emperor Meiji in 1882. It has also been a staple of postwar education, hammered into junior high and high school students, that excess is to be avoided.

The widespread acceptance of this belief has led to the condemnation of people who cannot get rid of or tidy away belongings. They hang their heads, while the danshari experts puff out their chests.

Kondō takes a different tack. She professes that feelings and memories associated with objects are important, but if the heart no longer flutters, then it is time to say a gentle goodbye. This message rings true with hoarders who fear waste, fostering a sense of self-affirmation.

A Task to Share

Thus, Kondō’s layering of Eastern spirituality on pragmatic American clutter-cutting drew her into the spotlight in the United States. By contrast, in Japan she won fans by easing the stress and forced nature of tidying. 

I noticed another difference from Japan in the United States on Kondō’s Netflix show. This was the role of men. I have not spent much time watching other such American programs, so this might be a limited phenomenon, but a lot of men appear in Tidying Up. She instructs them, and the location is often a workplace.

This may be connected to her experience as a decluttering consultant for corporate presidents. Yet it is rare to see Japanese workplaces treated in this way on television, either because there is a resistance to portraying them in a light, humorous manner or because the idea of tidying is just automatically linked to the home in Japan.

Women are usually instructed when clearing up skills are introduced on Japanese programs. This might be why I have had the impression that women find it particularly difficult. But the Netflix program regularly shows Kondō helping couples. One of my American friends quipped that the US media may be better at gender balance and the country’s men more interested in tidying than in Japan.

Many Japanese women worry about their ability to declutter, but perhaps the media helps to create this image, as well as neatly sweeping away any question of whose job it is meant to be.

(Originally written in Japanese and published on March 15, 2019. Banner photo: Kondō Marie at a media event in New York on July 11, 2018. © AP/Aflo.)

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