If there’s one person who knows about tidying up, it’s Marie Kondo.
The Japanese tidying expert gained widespread popularity in the U.S. back in 2014, when her first book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, was released. It was a hit, becoming a New York Times best-seller and purchased by millions of people worldwide. The “decluttering guru,” as she’s been dubbed, is now making headlines once again thanks to her newly released Netflix series, aptly titled “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.”
In the show, Kondo visits the homes of various Americans and helps them organize their belongings using her trademark KonMari Method, which involves categorizing and finding a place for each item, and only keeping the things that spark joy.
Why do Americans love her so much right now?
“In recent years, the United States has seen a rise in mass consumption and urbanization, leading to a ‘more is better’ mindset,” Kondo told HuffPost via email. “However, I believe that a shift toward mindfulness is occurring. We are beginning to give more attention to each item we own and determine the few things that truly matter. I think people’s interest in the KonMari Method coincides with these cultural changes in American society.”
We aren’t quite there yet, though. As Jericho Apo, digital strategist at The Story Of Stuff, a community of people working to change our “consumption-crazed culture,” told HuffPost, we still live in a very consumer-driven economy, heavily influenced by materialism. We often tend to attach our self-worth and values to the things we own as a result of living in this “consumer culture,” he said.
Basically, we accumulate a lot of stuff, much of which we likely don’t need, and it becomes hard to let go of it. In Apo’s opinion, that’s largely because “we associate who we are and our success, based on the stuff we own.”
Americans spend a lot on things. According to a 2017 report in The Boston Globe, men in the U.S. spent over $26 million on shoes in 2016. That number was even closer to $30 million for women. The Balance reported that retail sales hit a record high of $5.7 trillion in the U.S. in 2017. Somewhat ironically, people have suggested that Kondo’s new show is responsible for increasing sales at The Container Store.
Accumulating and holding onto excess stuff isn’t just an American thing. In her experiences visiting various countries, Kondo said she’s noticed that “everyone around the world has the same struggles with tidying.”
Kondo’s tips are largely inspired by Japanese philosophies
Kondo’s tidying methods are not necessarily groundbreaking ― making sure every item in a drawer is visible, for example ― but they seem to have struck a nerve with American audiences.
Many are inspired by Japanese philosophies. For instance, there’s the ancient Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, which Kondo described as “experiencing beauty in simplicity and calmness” and said “is considered a virtue in Japanese society.” Wabi-sabi comes from Buddhism and is often described as “the art of finding beauty in the imperfect, impermanent and incomplete,” as House Beautiful notes.
“This does not equate to less is more, rather, it captures the feeling of choosing only the things that spark joy for you,” Kondo said. That feeling of “sparking joy” is central to Kondo’s trademark KonMari tidying method, and Spark Joy is even the title of one of her books.
Kondo says that if something you own ― whether a sweater, a pair of shoes or pair of pants ― sparks joy, you can keep it. If it doesn’t, you can thank it for serving its purpose and let it go.
As John Lie, a professor of sociology in the Center of Japanese Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, explained, “There’s also a long-standing Zen influence on Japanese culture, which valorizes minimalism.”
Asia Society explains that Zen, which means meditation, puts an emphasis on using meditative practices “to achieve self-realization and, thereby, enlightenment.”
The Zen influence on Kondo’s practices is evident in the first episode of her Netflix show. In one scene, she “greets” the featured couple’s house, taking them through a sort of meditative process of thanking and appreciating the home for protecting them.
Kondo admitted her observations on the organizational habits of Japanese people are limited to those she’s seen through her work. But she said she thinks “ingenuity born out of the constraint of small spaces in Japan and a love for orderliness are national traits.”
Living spaces in Japan are often very limited, which makes tidying up imperative
“Properties and homes in Japan are tiny!” Kondo said. “I grew up in a house where my family of five would unfold futons and sleep side-by-side in a room of about 13m x 13m. There isn’t much space for storage, so small furniture and appliances are necessary.”
Many individuals in Japan are faced with the challenge of making small living spaces as comfortable as possible, she said. “We obsess about the details in our homes,” Kondo told HuffPost. She also said that lifestyle magazines ― the “catalyst for [her] interest in tidying” ― almost always feature some sort of creative storage solution.
Americans “tend to have a lot more space,” Lie pointed out. Of course, that’s not always the case, but just consider the sheer size of the U.S. in comparison to Japan: America is about 26 times larger than Japan.
“The Protestant aesthetics of minimalism and asceticism have withered away by and large,” Lie said. “It’s not surprising that Kondo is most popular in Manhattan, San Francisco and other large cities with generally limited living space.”
In her experience tidying overseas, Kondo said, she has “not encountered a country where people line things up to store as neatly or expend as much attention on details as Japanese people do.”