The unlikely television hit of the new year is Netflix Inc.’s “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo.” With each episode, Kondo, a Japanese consultant and author of international bestsellers on how to reduce clutter, applies her signature “KonMari” process to a different Los Angeles home.
The system is simple: Keep only the things that “spark joy” in you. Everything else can be tossed. Evidence of Kondo’s growing influence can be seen at America’s thrift stores, many of which are reporting a surge in donations since the Netflix show debuted on Jan. 1.
Kondo is the most high-profile representative of a wave of Japanese minimalism gurus who have gained attention in the past decade. Yet, far from being a new phenomenon, many of ideas associated with the “Japanese art of de-cluttering,” as Kondo calls it, date back to an early 20th century Japanese enthusiasm for the “scientific management” methods of Frederick Winslow Taylor, which were designed to improve efficiency by reducing waste. After World War II, followers began advocating Taylor’s ideas as a means of household management and modernization.
Last year, Eiko Maruko Siniawer, a history professor at Williams College, documented this legacy in “Waste: Consuming Postwar Japan,” looking at the changing views of Japanese toward waste and wastefulness in the post-World War II period. Earlier this week I spoke to her about the popularity of Kondo and the roots of the Japanese decluttering movement. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity:
Adam Minter: I’m curious to get your take on where the roots of Kondo’s decluttering process might be found.
Eiko Maruko Siniawer: Some of the ideas she has have a pretty long history, dating back to the 1920s, even. They’re influenced by Taylorite ideas of scientific management, especially as they were applied to the home in the 1950s. For example, things that she talks about in her book, like “You should have a fixed place for things and you should always know where to find it so you don’t waste time looking for something” — that’s a piece of Taylorite-influenced advice that’s been given for decades now.
AM: The decluttering movement began to really gain momentum in the late 2000s, not long after the global financial crisis. Was there any relationship between that period of economic uncertainty and the focus on minimalism?
EMS: I think you have to look at it in a longer-term context, from maybe the 1990s and afterwards. Thinking of happiness and joy in your life, and in relation to your stuff — there were hints of that in the 1980s when the Japanese economy was doing really well. In the early 2000s, advice literature concerning waste turned to [questions like] “What do you enjoy? What makes you happy? What is true leisure? What does living a wealthy life really mean?”
And I think that’s about a moment where the economic hardships of the 1990s have really set in. There’s this realization that the country is not going to return to the kind of economic growth that it once enjoyed. So that opens up this space for reflection about what’s meaningful and what’s of value in a setting that’s economically anemic but still relatively wealthy.
AM: You’ve written about this period that Japanese began searching for an “affluence of the heart.” What exactly does that mean?
EMS: I think this idea of affluence of the heart is tied into this other word, yutori, which means “true relaxation and time and comfort and ease.” The antecedents of this go back to the 1980s, where people start thinking, OK, well, in the 1980s you could see Japan as finally having arrived. You know, it’s become this economic superpower. But daily life doesn’t feel as fun and enjoyable and as full of free time and relaxation as people imagined it would be. As they’d been promised it would be. And so this idea of affluence of the heart, which starts to be talked about in the 2000s, [asks] “What is it that really brings meaning in your life? What is it that should be the barometer of real progress?” Not just GDP growth.
AM: In your book you note that the rise in popularity of declutterers coincided with the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 20,000 people and led to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. How did that play out?
EMS: I think there were a few effects. There were some people who said, if all of your stuff could be washed away in a second, that kind of illustrates how unimportant that stuff is. Which is to say, life moves on, you move on, even without all of that stuff. Was that stuff really all that important to you? So in that sense there’s this kind of de-centering of the material [in people’s lives].
But, on the other hand, there are people who say, “You know what, this is the kind of moment to think about those things that really are important to you. And it is quite sad and tragic that people lost things that are important to them.” So on the flip side, there’s this kind of appreciation of things, rather than a marginalization of material stuff.
AM: You’ve written about the gendering of KonMari, and how in Japan it’s particularly popular with working women in their 20s and early 30s and housewives in their 40s and 50s. Why is that?
EMS: This has a long postwar history that taps into the notion of the housewife — and the woman — being the person in charge of running the household. So, most of the advice literature, going back to the 1950s and even before the war, was about “How do you not waste in the household? How do you organize the household? How do you run it efficiently?” All of that was geared towards women. It was very gendered. So you have a residual legacy of that, even in the 2010s when you have much higher rates of women in the workforce. Organizing the household is still considered the woman’s domain.
And this whole notion of joy, and the affluent heart, and what brings you happiness, those kinds of questions have tended to be geared more toward women than men. You see it creeping into advice literature for men, but not nearly in the same way as advice literature for women.
AM: One thing I’ve found in my own reporting on waste in Japan is that Japanese people really like to consume. They like their stuff.
AM: Does that make Marie Kondo more acceptable in Japan? As many critics have noted, Kondo doesn’t really worry about where stuff goes after it’s been removed from the home. She’s not necessarily worried about waste. For lack of a better term, it’s kind of a cake-and-eat-it-too situation.
EMS: I think that’s right. I think Marie Kondo has been popular in Japan for the same reasons she’s popular in the U.S. and other relatively affluent, mass consumer societies. Which is that she is addressing the problem of an abundance or excess of stuff, which is a problem only if you’re of a certain class and can afford to have an abundance and excess of stuff. And she doesn’t actually address the consumption side of things. Some people say it’s implied that you should make do with less stuff. But she doesn’t actually address how and why stuff ends up in your home in the first place.
What I’m uncomfortable with is people outside of Japan saying she is embodying these Japanese ideas of minimalism, and these are how Japanese houses kind of look, and so the aspiration is for American homes to look like Japanese homes. But no! She is peddling an aspiration in Japan as much as she is in the U.S. It’s not like Japanese homes actually look like that. In fact, they don’t. Which is why people in Japan, as in the United States, are buying her book.
AM: You’re a historian who has traced these various ideas and their inspirations through contemporary Japanese history. Knowing what you know about how these ideas haved evolved over the decades, do you think decluttering and KonMari have staying power?
EMS: You’re asking a historian to speculate about the future!
I suspect that it will fade. Let me start with the easier part of that. Some of the related phenomenon, like minimalism or — in the U.S., the tiny house movement — will fade because they’re not lived experiences for most people. And I think the decluttering, too, will fade, certainly in the U.S.
So then the question is, is there some other version of decluttering that will continue to be popular? I’m not sure about that for the U.S. In Japan, there might be another version of it, insofar as there have been many iterations of organizing literature, decluttering literature. What that version might look like depends on the state of the economy and also the fact that mass consumerist societies aren’t going anywhere.