Note: As with all Unseen Japan content, this article follows the Japanese convention of listing people's last names first.
If you've been anywhere near the internet the past few months, you may have found yourself bombarded with an onslaught of articles, blogs, and memes asking you whether something "sparks joy" or not. If you ever watch Netflix, chances are you've encountered the woman who "loves mess" during almost every pre-show ad. Who is this woman with a penchant for cleanliness? What exactly does it mean to "spark joy?" And even more importantly, why should we care, and who really does (or doesn't) anyway?
Kondo Marie: A Modern-Day Mary Poppins
This modern-day Mary Poppins is none other than Kondo Marie (近藤麻理恵). While only in her mid-30s, she has become an international sensation as the author of the best-selling self-help book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and the star of her own original Netflix reality show, Tidying Up with Kondo Marie. Her written works have appeared in both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, amongst others, and she has even been named one of Times' 100 most influential people. Starring with her in all of her productions is her original, self-titled clean-up method which has practically taken on a life of its own, the KonMari method.
Kondo's method to decluttering is said to include several aspects of Japanese culture, and rather than a simple how-to guide provides an entire new way of life, influenced by minimalism, and focused on things that "spark joy" (Japanese: ときめき; tokimeki).
A tidiness aficionado from a very young age, Kondo began her journey as a professional cleaning lady at 19 years old when she began cleaning her friends' homes for extra bucks. In one of her books, she cites this gig as the moment she realized her passion for cleaning could become more than just a hobby, and decided to make it her profession. After her 2014 book became a hit, she piggybacked off of that initial success with another publication later, and eventually, the TV series that launched her into worldwide fame.
(JP) Link: KonMari: The Secret of Kondo Marie's Hit Tidying-Up Series in the US
The KonMari Method: A "Spiritual" Approach to Organization?
The KonMari method is different from your typical cleaning methods which prioritize getting rid of as much "junk" as you can as it focuses less on simply throwing things away, and more on establishing consciousness amongst the items you own so you can create a space in which you only keep items that "spark joy." A personal sanctuary, if you will.
Rather than a minimalistic approach, the KonMari method is more about organization, and divides all the items in your home into six categories: clothes, books, papers (documents, etc), komono (literally, "small things," referring to miscellaneous items and items that do not fit into any of the other categories), and sentimental items. Kondo suggests doing your cleaning in the exact order mentioned, putting every item from each category into one huge pile, and then sorting them according to what "sparks joy" or not. Things that don't spark joy are then discarded, and the remaining items are then reorganized and put into their own places, stored according to her space-saving folding and storage methods.
One thing many Americans seem to appreciate about her methods is that, unlike other clean-up methods which pressure one to toss away items, Kondo merely encourages creating a stress-free environment. If that means keeping items that do indeed spark joy, then by all means, do so. As for sentimental items, which are often harder to part with, she also suggests rather than letting them clutter storage spaces, put them to use as items that can spark even more joy, such as framing photos and putting them on display where they can add to the joyful atmosphere of your newly de-stressed living space.
Kondo explains the importance of cleanliness in Japanese culture, and describes her methods as influenced by Shinto, the official religion of Japan, Zen, and wabi-sabi, a Buddhist concept which emphasizes "beauty in simplicity and calmness." Anyone who has seen an episode of her series will notice right away where these traditions come into play: Kondo bowing to and greeting the residence upon entering, expressing gratitude for each item before tossing it away, and taking a spiritual "cleansing" approach to purifying the space.
Having worked as a shrine maiden at a Shinto shrine as a teen, it is understandable where Kondo may have adopted this mindset. Combining Shintoism with Buddhist concepts, her ways hint at animism, a central theme of Shinto which attributes lifelike qualities to inanimate objects, and a respect and appreciation for all things. This is seen through the way Kondo "speaks" to the objects as if they were living things, asking for "cooperation" from the home and items before cleaning, and thanking items for their service before discarding them.
Her philosophical stance adds more than just the desire for a clean space, but a respect and sentimental emotion towards one's living space and items as well. While her tips are not necessarily anything earth-shattering, this "spirituality," many believe, is just part of why her method in particular has birthed such a fondness amongst her following, as it takes out, or at least diminishes, the stress too often associated with cleaning up clutter – two things Americans are only all too familiar with.
(JP) Link: The KonMari Method: Why These Japanese Cleaning Techniques Function as Therapy
The American Dream
So why has Kondo managed to gain such a large (and steadily increasing) following in America in particular? Surely there is more to it than simply that Americans are less tidy than their Japanese counterparts?
There have been several reasons stated for her western "boom," amongst them not surprisingly being the fetishizing of Asian, particularly Japanese, culture. This has, in turn, also sparked criticism (and not joy) from her Japanese base. But more on that a little later.
Amongst the more practical reasons for her western popularity are those such as the average size of family homes, capitalism and consumerism, and the western tendency to attribute success and status to material possessions. First of all, while obviously not the case with everyone in the states, it's true that, in general, houses and apartments are much more spacious than your typical Japanese dwelling, which allows people to collect and store more items without necessarily feeling the need to make or save space. Second is the western tendency to almost subconsciously accumulate and store items regardless of necessity or practicality, just because that's what people have always done. This often brings about the end result of useless items piling up, people becoming hoarders, and homes becoming buried under mountains of clutter.
Most Americans who fall into this category are still aware of the clutter. However, most fail to take action. Clutter has practically become a part of life, hoarding a second nature. And while many people often state the wish to be able to be more organized, they never get started - either because of lack of time, lack of desire, or simple lack of know-how. In turn, this constant state of clutter has contributed to the ever-increasing stress level of the average American working man (and woman). Perhaps that's the biggest reason why Kondo Marie's sudden appearance in their late-night Netflix binges has come as a sort of divine intervention, Kondo herself being recognized as the savior of clean and organized living.
However, has this popularity skyrocketed as drastically in her own country of Japan? While recognized in Japan in her specific niche, it seems this boom and exaggerated fame is quite limited to the Western world. What is it about her that is so adored overseas, yet so casually received in her own home?
Not So Big In Japan
With Kondo's huge success and widespread popularity abroad, one might automatically expect the same, if not greater, reception, from her own country of Japan. However, with a simple research into some statistics, and even just by asking some of your own Japanese friends and acquaintances, you may be surprised to learn that that is not necessarily the case.
Despite her critical acclaim here, the fact is that Kondo Marie is just not that big of a hit in Japan. In fact, upon questioning some of my own Japanese friends via social media, in which I asked for their personal opinions on Kondo Marie and her methods, I was met with some rather surprising (and somewhat amusing) responses, including: "Who's Kondo Marie?" and "What is a ‘KonMari' method?" Not everyone I asked knew her name - and those who did had mixed opinions on her success and her methods.
(JP) Link: What The Japanese Think Of Kondo Marie [Street Interview] | ASIAN BOSS
The first theory for her lack of recognition in Japan is that, because cleanliness is already a big part of Japanese culture, her methods just aren't seen as revolutionary on her home turf, and that there are less people there in need of or impressed by her services. (Also, it should be noted that there are a number of other successful so-called "organization gurus," and amongst them, she doesn't stand out that drastically.)
As mentioned above, many Japanese live in smaller dwelling spaces; they also have less of a tendency to hoard unnecessary items. Also, because Japanese Shinto tradition has most citizens annually participating in a New Year's activity called "Oo-souji," a major house-cleaning done before the New Year begins similar to Spring Cleaning, this idea is nothing new and seen as something most people should be doing at least once a year anyway.
(JP) Link: The Difference Between American and Japanese Clean-up Culture: The KonMari Method and 'Sparking Joy'
When I asked the people who were familiar with the KonMari method their thoughts, I received quite a hodgepodge of reactions. Of course, there were many who expressed respect and admiration for Kondo being able to achieve such success in America, attributing it to her hard work, dedication, and loveable personality.
However, there were some who didn't understand what the big deal was, suggesting her methods were nothing special, her personality was "fake" and "forced," carefully crafting her sweetness to appeal to her target American audience, and that her on-screen showmanship was "way overblown," and that Japanese people "don't really do any of that."
Some criticized her reference to Shinto and Buddhism, saying that neither themselves or other Shinto practitioners that they knew actually spoke to their items like that, and that she was exaggerating the concept of animism to further peak the American interest in Japanese traditions: "Ooh, Japanese culture is so interesting and cool." For example, one Twitter user wrote in frustration:
疲れたので『KonMari〜人生がときめく片づけの魔法〜』を流しているのだが、こんまりが片づけを始める前に「お家に挨拶をしましょう」と言うところで止めてしまった。— ふわふわゴミクズ太郎 (@dashi5831) 2019年1月9日
I was tired so I started to watch "Tidying Up with Kondo Marie," but I stopped it the moment she said "Let's say hello to the house before cleaning up."
Some say that her focus on "sparking joy" in fact goes against traditional Buddhist ideals, which seeks to eliminate "desires" and related emotions, and should be more "empty" or "void," as in attaching no feelings at all to earthly possessions. Still others criticize her for going against one of the concepts that practically embody Japanese mindset, "mottainai," which puts the focus on wastefulness, and how not to be wasteful. Because Kondo encourages discarding things that don't "spark joy," and every episode of her series features families throwing away boxes and bagfuls of otherwise good-condition items, many Japanese cringe at her seemingly complete disregard for "mottainai."
(JP) Link: What's Interesting About the KonMari Boom in America
So What Does This Mean For Her Success?
In a word... absolutely nothing.
While it may come as a shock to many, particularly in the western fanbase, that Kondo is not as big of a sensation in her own home turf as she is in western countries, and that she has also received her fair share of criticism from Americans as well, as far as success goes, I think we can let the results speak for themselves. Kondo obviously has no shortage of followers and people willing to buy her almost $90 storage boxes, and her overwhelmingly sharp rise in popularity in America does more than make up for the lack of noise in Japan.
Kondo has made a very strong name for herself, and while criticsm may arise on either side, accusing her personality to be "fake," her showmanship "exaggerated," and her strategies an "over-hyped business trick," it is clear that she knows what she is doing, and she is doing it well (if raising over 4 billion yen is any indication). You can't please everybody, and where you find yourself at the top, there will almost always be people trying to bring you down. And Kondo does a great job of keeping herself above all the noise. (And if rising to "meme status" doesn't say anything about her success, I'm not sure what will.)
(JP) Link: Netflix Star and Cleaning Expert Kondo Marie Raises Over 4 Billion Yen
Netflixスターの片づけエキスパート「こんまり」が40億円超の資金調達へ | TechCrunch Japan
Personally, I also enjoy her works and have put to use some of her methods myself, and as a business person myself, hold her in high respect for achieving her dream of turning her passion into a profession. She may not be everyone's cup of tea, and the KonMari method is certainly not for everybody, however I think it remains to be said that anyone who has an actual issue with her success might want to consider finding something that "sparks joy" in their own lives.
Krys is a Japanese-fluent, English native currently based in the US. A former Tokyo English teacher and translator for several Japanese companies, Krys now works full time as a freelance artist, writer and translator with a focus on subjects related to Japanese language and culture.