Welcome back, dear readers! I hope you’re having a wonderful Monday. I’m both happy and sad to announce that this post will be my last post of the semester – and of my graduate career! That’s right, I’m officially graduated as of today! It’s been an amazing journey over the past two years, but now I’m ready to step into the working world (and begin looking at Ph.D. programs, of course).
For this last post, I figured we would look at something a little more lighthearted than the novels and short stories we’ve discussed previously. I’d been dying for an excuse to read Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing since Cathy Hirano translated it into English in 2014, and I’m grateful that I was finally able to read it so that I can share my thoughts on it with all of you today. With that being said, let’s get started!
I’d like to begin my discussion of this book with you by telling you all about the slight panic attack I had when I discovered the Japanese translation of the word “magic.” Please feel free to laugh with/at me! So, before I read any Japanese novels in the English translation, I always look up the Japanese titles to see if there are any differences (like there was in “Betty-san” from two posts ago!). Well, I discovered that instead of using the kanji and word for magic that refers to a magic trick (tejina;手品 ), since the folding and organizing that Kondo does is similar to an illusion, Kondo uses the kanji and word for magic that is more associated with witchcraft and sorcery (mahou; 魔法). Of course, because of the West’s previous association of the East with Orientalism and exoticism, both of which have associations with witchcraft since “oriental” women were believed to have the power to seduce Western men *eye roll intensifies*, I scared myself into thinking that Kondo was utilizing her book as an Oriental tool to bring Western attention to Japan.
However, as I began reading the book itself, I noticed that Kondo primarily associates magic with the phrase “life transforming,” which makes much more sense. You can’t make a true transformation if you’re just hiding behind an illusory trick. Kondo’s method, known as KonMari, is a true lifestyle change, and for those who were previously struggling and decide to take on her method to see if they can improve their lives, the drastic difference they see after undertaking her advice and program truly can be magical. Now that my silly blunder is out of the way, I want to tell you about how much I truly enjoyed this book, from the way her prose is written, to the way the book is organized itself (by chapter, then by section, with a full index at the end of the book).
I found it interesting that on the first page of the book, she notes that her approach “contradicts conventional wisdom” (1). Right away, she acknowledges that her methodology isn’t something Westerners will be used to; if they can understand that her way of life is different and are willing to go against their own traditions, then they will be able to successfully complete the program and tidy up their lives. She isn’t telling them that they have to adopt her method and get rid of everything – she’s just acknowledging that KonMari may be a bit difficult for Westerners to understand at first. This is why I was so confused at the uproar on Twitter in 2019; people were tweeting about how Kondo’s methods were a sham and that she wanted them to just throw out everything and buy her organization products, even though that’s not the case if you read the book. One critic, Barbara Ehrenreich, even made racist remarks about Kondo’s language barrier and defended clutter in a now-deleted tweet. Most recently, food critic Alison Roman accused Kondo of being a sellout and “slap[ping] [her] name on shit” people can buy in this New Consumer article. So many Westerners appropriate Kondo’s methodology and words instead of trying to understand them, despite the fact that she is perfectly clear when she says the items should spark joy to you personally. If you want to keep 100 books because they all spark joy, go for it! If you want to keep a few photo albums of your family because they spark joy, great! But, it you have 47 toothbrushes and none of them spark joy, then you should feel free to let them go. Kondo does not force her methodology on anyone, and I think that’s the reason why KonMari is so effective. She explicitly states on page 5 of the book that her goal is for people to have “fewer belongings” and be surrounded by “only things they love,” not for them to throw out everything and buy her merchandise as a replacement. Her line of organizing tools is an added bonus, not a requirement to the KonMari method. I personally think that Kondo absolutely outdid herself in explaining her methods to an audience that extends beyond her native country, and here’s why.
Since Kondo herself was a miko (shrine maiden) for five years, it is expected that she would incorporate Shinto practices into her own personal life, as well as into the KonMari method. Kondo did an outstanding job explaining Shinto principles in plain terms so that those who do not practice Shinto can understand the why behind her methodology. Three specific sections come to mind when I think about how Kondo explains Shinto in plain terminology (though there are countless others throughout the book). The first one that really struck me was her section on the essence of effective storage, in which she explains, “the point in deciding specific places to keep things is to designate a spot for every thing… the reason every item must have a designated place is because the existence of an item without a home multiplies the chances that your space will become cluttered again” (131-132). This explanation immediately reminded me of shrine rituals and how specific they are. Miko cannot stray from the established rituals, as one thing out of place will cancel out the meaning of what is supposed to be occurring and can even anger the gods; when you invite disorder into the shrine, you invite disorder into your life. The same can be said for clutter.
The second section in which Kondo did a great job of explaining Shinto principles so that Western audiences can understand them is when she talks about personal shrines and altars. Kondo notes, “although I use the word ‘altar,’ there is no need to worry about the direction it faces or the design. Just make a corner that is shrine-like…a power spot filled with pure energy” (161). Since Shinto family altars in the home are very specific, Kondo takes care to explain to her readers that they do not have to have the exact same kind. Rather, they should do what works best for them, which is why she uses “pure energy,” a concept that most people – religious or not – can understand, to help her readers better visualize what kind of shrine is possible for them given the space they have. Again, Kondo does not tell her readers what to do and how to do it, she merely explains her own altar using a sort of universal language so as to encourage her readers to engage without making them feel like Shintoism is being thrust upon them (looking at you, Christianity through colonization).
The last section that stood out to me as one that underscores Kondo’s ability to address multiple audiences in ways that allow them to understand her principles occurs when she talks about how a person’s living space can affect their body. She writes, ‘I think the main reason tidying has this effect is because through this process people come to know contentment. After tidying, many clients tell me that their worldly desires have decreased…once they selected and kept only the things that they really loved, they felt they had everything they needed” (195). This statement immediately reminded me of the importance of harmony to the Shinto tradition. This is because one of the core beliefs of Shintoism is that everything (even rocks and trees) has its own energy, called kami; all kami are interconnected and harmonize to create a peaceful state, also known as pure energy. So, if you do not have harmony in one aspect of your life, say tidying up or organization, the rest of the energy around you will be unbalanced and become tainted, which can lead to harmful practices (like hoarding, in most of Kondo’s cases). In connecting her statement to the material world, Kondo is able to explain to her readers that the reason they feel empty is because they do not know what they need, and that the KonMari method can help them find it and finally achieve that pure energy and contentment so that they no longer have to go shopping and hoard items to make up for that imbalance.
Overall, I found that Kondo’s use of client success stories and personal anecdotes added a friendly touch to make the book more approachable to Japanese and non-Japanese alike. I’m now planning on watching the Netflix show, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, to see how well Western TV producers are able to explain her methods and capture the magic we find in her book. Dear readers, I hope you are able to find as much joy in her book as I did.
Until next time.