Why the Tidying Up Magic of Marie Kondo isn’t Life Changing in Japan

Marie Kondo’s manifesto on cleaning – “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” – has received a relatively cooler reception in Japan.

Why wasn’t the book as magical in its home country?

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(From Marie Kondo.)

Now, I do not mean to suggest that her book has not been incredibly popular. She has sold millions of copies of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” Her book is #1 New York Times Best Seller. On Amazon, she ranks #49 overall as an author. Her book ranks #2 in Self-Help Books. The New Yorker called Marie Kondo’s book “world-conquering.” She is an international sensation.

Clearly Marie Kondo has been very successful both in Japan and abroad. But her reception in Japan has been relatively cool compared to her meteoric rise to fame abroad. I have been wondering why…

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(Credit: GastroLust.)

Typically, when items are imported abroad, those items seem to already be popular in their home country. Ramen fever has recently struck the United States. Ramen is a mainstay of Japanese cuisine. Similarly the U.S. exports all kinds of pop culture – movies, music, television shows – and most of these (I would suggest) are already popular in the U.S.

Marie Kondo seems to be a somewhat different case. Yes, she certainly enjoyed success in Japan but nothing like her reception abroad.

My membership in the Cult of Marie Kondo

I am sure my shock at finding that Marie Kondo has not been as popular in Japan is largely explained by my own head-over-heels obsession with the Konmari Method.

I love Marie Kondo and her book, “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” I appreciate her liberating manifesto to let go of the things that we don’t need and that aren’t bringing us joy.

Look at my beautiful Konmari-style folding!

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ASIDE

As an aside, her book reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from another book, Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with DH Lawrence by Geoff Dyer.

That book describes the author’s struggle to write a book on DH Lawrence, in the process he writes another book. It was a struggle at times to read of Dyer’s struggle. (I confess I did not finish the book). One quote has stayed with me. Dyer is explaining his inability to settle, that he is only able to stay somewhere by being in a perpetual state of readiness to leave. Always living on the brink of leaving means that Dyer has to avoid the “trappings of permanence.”

Trappings of permanence.

Since reading that book and hearing it read on This American Life, I have been trying to avoid trappings of permanence lest I be unable to throw all my belongings into a few boxes and depart at a moment’s notice.

I have lived for over 3 years with pretty much no furniture – no bed, no dresser, no desk. Only a simple futon and a low table from Ikea that I planned to discard when I moved.

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I felt my life was “light” and my belongings minimal. Then I started to read Marie Kondo’s book.

Okay, Back to Marie Kondo.

I bought her book shortly after it was released in English in October 2015.

I dutifully read the entire book underlining and taking margin notes. I worked through all the exercises, starting by decluttering my room in California. I returned to my childhood home in Massachusetts and devoted an entire month to cleaning my belongings in my parents’ home.

Doing my papers…

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I convinced my parents to buy the book as well, and now they are decluttering their house. I read the book aloud to K. I recommended the book to all my friends, my classmates, my research assistants, and even to complete strangers.

I frequently begin sentences by declaring, “Well Konmari says…”

Coverage in U.S. Media

And it was not just me!

After the book’s release in October 2015, it held a grip on the New York Times best seller list for months. Marie Kondo and her book appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and countless other publications. She was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people. She gave a Google Talk.

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(Credit: The Simple Year.)

People started Konmari Facebook clubs. People posted pictures of their decluttered drawers, closets, and shelves. “Konmari” used as a verb entered the common vernacular as in this tweet from Elaine Colliar (@MFinthree), “Waiting for the kettle to boil… So I Kondoed my recipe books.”

 Google Trends gives you an idea of the astronomic rise of Marie Kondo in the press and in the wider cultural awareness.  Here is the relative search volume of her name and several phrases related to book following its release in October 2014.

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Wait…Marie Kondo isn’t popular here in Japan??

Given my enthusiasm for Marie Kondo, imagine my surprise when I arrived in Japan and learned that Marie Kondo has been successful (but not crazy astronomically successful) in Japan.

I arrived to Japan in December of 2015, close to the  peak of the Marie Kondo Cult frenzy in the United States.

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My arrival to Japan was also in the midst of my own personal Konmari frenzy. I had just finished Konmari’ing my apartment in California. And I had decided to devote a month to cleaning all my childhood belongings that I had stashed in my parents’ house.

I was so excited to share my love of Marie Kondo with my Japanese friends. And then… I found out she just wasn’t that popular.

The Data: Marie Kondo is just not as popular in Japan

Let’s compare side by side, the trends in the US and trends in Japan. Here I looked at relative search volume for Marie Kondo’s name in English versus Japanese.

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And my Japanese friends agree…

My amateur (and honestly I am not sure how accurate) Google Trends data are telling me the same thing that my friends told me in Japan.

I met up with a good friend in Japan and was eager to tell him all about my Konmari process. He responded, “Konmari who??” I told him the title of the book and then he recognized it. I told him how popular it was in the United States right now. He shrugged and said the book had not been that popular in Japan.

Other friends expressed similar attitudes. Yes, they knew her but there was not the same cult-like following in Japan.

Another case in point: Haruki Murakami

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(Image Credit: Nobuyoshi Araki for The New York Times.)

Marie Kondo is not my first experience like this. Actually I had a very similar experience with the novelist, Haruki Murakami.

In college, I viewed Haruki Murakami as one of the pinnacles of Japanese fiction. I read all his books and then I read them again. I read his novel Khafka on the Shore once per year for years and years.

My college library… Now demolished. 😦

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Among my friends studying Japanese, we shared our love of Haruki Murakami. I tried to introduce his novels to my other friends to him, with mixed success.

I was looking forward to traveling to Japan and sharing my fondness for him with an entire country. (Or so I naively thought…)

Turns out, Haruki Murakami is not *that* popular in Japan. A movie adaptation his novel “Norwegian Wood” was released while I was living in Japan. But at the end of the day, he is one among many great novelists.

So why was Marie Kondo’s book so successful outside Japan?

To me, Haruki Murakami and Marie Kondo present interesting cases. It is one thing to be universally popular, but perhaps more intriguing to be selectively interesting.

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(Marie Kondo’s talk at Google.)

Why did Marie Kondo surge in popularity outside of Japan? A few ideas from me.

  1. Her Ideas Are Already Common in Japan

The importance of cleaning and organizing exists throughout Japanese culture. So Marie Kondo’s book is perhaps not as radical in Japan.

Many of my friends suggested this viewpoint – that Marie Kondo’s ideas are basically an extreme version of a mentality that already exists in Japan.

The focus on cleaning and decluttering in Japan might be partly driven by the small home sizes. People feel more of a need to consider their belongings, simply because there is less space to stash things.

My one room apartment in Japan.

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My first apartment in Japan was considered relatively large – it was a single room roughly 130 square feet. It does not take too many shopping trips before an apartment of that size feels cramped and in need of some organization.

Eating lunch with my dad in my apartment in Japan.

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Cleaning and organizing is a common part of New Years celebrations in Japan. The custom called “oosoji” (which translates as “big cleaning”) is the habit of cleaning up houses and even offices at the end of the year. The process is believed to purify the house and welcome Toshigami-sama, the god of the coming New Year.’

The lab where I worked could have used some cleaning…

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Children are also taught to clean in school, where they are responsible for keeping their own classrooms and bathrooms tidy.

  1. Familiarity with “philosophies” in Japan

I think that Marie Kondo’s book struck me because it presented a philosophy of tidying up, rather than just practical steps. Her philosophy to tidying is methodical and repetitive. You must physically handle each object and ask whether it brings you joy.

When I look around Japan though, the idea of enacting such ritualistic processes as a path to self-improvement is everywhere. It is the traditional Japanese concept of “do” (or 道) borrowed from Taosim. Directly it translates to “street,” although in this context, it is more often translated as “the way.”

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(Credit: Kukaishodo.)

I am still trying to grasp exactly what this word means but roughly it expresses the idea of working towards perfection as a means of acquiring spiritual satisfaction. It is not about achieving perfection but rather seeking perfection through the process of learning and repeating certain patterns.

Much like Konmari emphasizes the need to remove all your belonging and then hold each item in term to determine whether it brings joy. The idea of “do” suggests that you  repeat the same action and through that repetition gain understanding.

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The idea of “the way” can be seen in many well-established arts in Japan, including – sado (tea ceremony), shodo (calligraphy), judo (meaning “the gentle way”), kendo (“the way of the sword”), and many more.

Attempting to whisk a bowl of matcha… Notice the puddle under the bowl. Oops.

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  1. (Possible) Influences from Japanese Shintoism

Some readers have commented on Marie Kondo’s habit of anthropomorphizing belongings. For example, she “greets” the house before starting to clean.

This habit reminds me of Shinto, a traditional religion in Japan. Shinto emphasizes animism, or the attribution of souls to inanimate objects, plants, and natural phenomena. Marie Kondo has said that her book is somewhat influenced by Shinto ideas. People growing up in Japan where Shinto is the indigenous faith might be relatively more accustomed to the idea of imbuing objects with a sense of life.

Climbing up the Fushimi-Inari Shrine pathway lined with gates.

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  1. Already many cleaning experts in Japan

Marie Kondo herself describes how she tried every kind of storage solution on the market in Japan and followed many different techniques before creating her own. There are already lots of decluttering products, experts, and methods in Japan.

  1. Focus on concepts rather than culturally specific items

Among other cleaning experts, Marie Kondo’s book might have stood out because it focuses on ideas, rather than specific objects, making it easy to transplant.

Many Japanese books in the “home interior and organization category” are tailored to the physical environment and culture of Japan. For example, books feature ideas on how to use cheap goods from the 100 yen ($1) store to organize your home. Those items are largely unavailable outside Japan. Or, books show pictures of how to organize the inside of your refrigerator, but the shape and layout of refrigerators in Japan is quite different from the U.S.

Stocked with Make Now & Eat Later foods for the week!

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In contrast, Marie Kondo’s book is almost entirely conceptual. She presents a philosophy, a way of thinking about tidying up, that transcends cultural boundaries.

Her method does not rely on any particular objects, supplies, or culturally unique itmes. The Konmari Method can be practiced pretty much anywhere, which made it easy for people from many places to embrace it.

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If you have not already checked out Marie Kondo’s book, I would highly recommend it! She recently released a new book – Spark Joy – which I am looking forward to reading.

If you have read the book, what did you think? Let me know in the comments!

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Come back on Monday! New recipes and musings on Japan posted here every week.

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3 thoughts on “Why the Tidying Up Magic of Marie Kondo isn’t Life Changing in Japan

  1. Rose says:

    I read the book and loved it. You will never look at your belongings and your surroundings the same after reading it. I love to greet my house when I come home and thank it for being there and what it does for me. Great read!

    Like

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