Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Mari Kondo brings Japaneseness to America
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Mari Kondo brings Japaneseness to America

I’ve been following the worldwide career of Marie Kondo with bemusement since her first book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” was published in the US in 2014. I’ve watched from a distance as friends have embraced Kondo’s single-minded prescription for people to clean up their lives, physically and emotionally, by focusing not on what to toss out but instead what to keep that “sparks joy” for them.

I’ve followed this fad — which can feel a little bit like a cult — sweep the world from afar because, frankly, I’m not a tidy person.

Recently, I’ve gotten a closeup introduction to Kondo as a personality and her somewhat complicated relationship to Americans through her Netflix series, “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.”

In the series, she visits the homes of people in the Los Angeles area, where she now lives with her husband/manager and their two daughters. The episodes range from a Japanese American couple of empty-nesters to an African American family, a gay couple, a lesbian couple, a widow awash in her late husband’s things – a veritable cornucopia of diversity, equity and inclusion. Each episode tugs at the heart and gives lots of tips and ideas for viewers to tidy up their own homes … and lives.

The second episode in particular touched us because it featured a Japanese American couple, who are like a lot of third-generation JAs we know. Their home has a mish-mash of Japanese cultural items among very typical American furnishings, and the wife made shy attempts to speak Japanese to Kondo — the kind of limited words and greetings almost all JAs know. We felt strongly that their penchant for hoarding was the ripple effect of their families’ wartime incarceration during WWII, and it was powerful to see Kondo curious about and recognizing the pain that still held a pall over some of the family artifacts.

The series’ popularity, which puts Kondo’s pixie-like personality front and center, made her a lightning rod for racial and anti-Japanese sentiment last month over a controversial tweet (now-deleted) by American social justice, feminist and socialist author and intellectual Barbara Ehrenreich. “I will be convinced that America is not in decline only when our de-cluttering guru Marie Kondo learns to speak English,” she wrote.

After a torrent of criticism calling out the inherent racism in her comment, Ehrenreich took down her tweet and posted a non-apology: “I confess: I hate Marie Kondo because, aesthetically speaking, I’m on the side of clutter. As for her language: It’s OK with me that she doesn’t speak English to her huge American audience but it does suggest that America is in decline as a superpower.”

Hey, I’m on the side of clutter, too, but that view of diminishing American “power” is jarringly stupid. It’s as old-school as the Cold War, a shocking and disappointing backward worldview coming from someone who’s supposedly progressive, liberal and forward-looking. And, it reveals that the ugly racist underside of the “politically correct” façade can still fester just beneath the surface of not just white supremacists but also people who should know better.

The fact that Netflix chose to have an interpreter on the show and have Kondo speak much of the time in Japanese (she can speak English, but is probably shy about her accent, a typical Japanese trait of self-effacement) is a great sign that America is becoming more tolerant, and not slipping in stature in the world.

And while we’re talking language, let’s get this straight: Amurricens can’t seem to pronounce Kondo’s name correctly. Her last name is NOT pronounced like “condo” in “condominium.” It’s “KOHN-doh,” like “cone” only shorter. Since she spells her name for westerners as “Marie,” I guess I can’t correct that, except I’d bet in Japan it’s pronounced “Mah-RHIH.”

The show has gotten positive reviews outside of Ehrenreich’s dumb comment, so her language isn’t hurting Kondo’s celebrity brand. Her Japanese is either interpreted by omnipresent yet never intrusive Marie Iishi, who is awesome at converting Kondo’s rapid-fire Japanese into un-stilted conversational English, or translated into subtitle captions on the screen. Anyone who’s watched a Japanese movie or anime with subtitles knows this is not a sign of the decline of Western Civilization.

Kondo’s a perfect package for Western television: it’s easy to assume she’s just cute and hard to take seriously, but instead her confidence commands a powerful presence that demands respect. She has mastered her processes and can show people worldwide with or without language barriers how to fold clothes, or use small boxes to organize the flotsam and jetsam of an unruly closet, garage or kitchen pantry.

Her “KonMari” method – short for Kondo Mariko (as she’s known in Japan) — is a brilliant marketing distillation of the compulsive obsessions that caused her as a child to toss out half her mother’s things when she went on vacation and straighten out her elementary school bookshelves, mixed with traditional Japanese cultural aesthetics.

Those cultural aesthetics include Shinto spiritual traditions, which require constant cleanliness. Kondo worked for five years at a Shinto shrine and was also inspired by the religion’s animist traditions (hence Kondo greets the homes she enters, and urges clients to thank the items they’re not going to keep).

Her method makes perfect sense if you’re interested in cutting clutter in your environment. Instead of tossing out as much as you can stand, Kondo’s brilliant perspective is to decide what you want to keep – by seeing if those items, books, photos or clothes “spark joy” in you. It’s a positive affirmation of embracing the things in your life that matter, not a guilt-tripping need to cut away stuff willy-nilly.

But the KonMarie method isn’t for everyone.

For instance, I’ve never known a single journalist – including myself — whose desk didn’t look like the aftermath of a natural disaster. We like it that way. My surroundings would probably give Marie Kondo a heart attack.

So I appreciate her stardom, and am glad for Kondo’s growing empire of tidy people. She’s bringing Japanese values – and her quirky take on them – to America. That’s a good thing, as we get past the racists and haters and she becomes part of the American mainstream.

I might even fold some of my clothes and stand them up in my drawers. But beyond that, I’m happy to watch her from amidst my papers, cables, gadgets and stacks of stuff, thank you very much.

I’ve added a paragraph about the series’ second episode, which focused on a Japanese American family, which moved both my wife and I. But I didn’t mention it in the original posting. I just read a very good piece of writing about Kondo that made the explicit connection between that episode, her tidying aesthetic, and JA wartime incarceration, by Tamiko Nimura on the Discover Nikkei site, and I realized I should add a comment about that episode myself, above.

Note: Even if you don’t have Netflix, there are lots of videos of Marie Kondo on YouTube. Here’s the trailer for the Netflix series:

UPDATE: Here’s an interesting video report on Asian Boss, interviewing people on the street in Japan about their views on Marie Kondo. Many of the interviewees actually didn’t know about her. Some think she’s a bit weird and say they wouldn’t greet their homes or give thanks before they throw something out. But most agree that tidiness, or cleanliness, is a Japanese cultural value (they’re taught from nursery school on to clean up their space and belongings).