The War on Clutter

KondoThirty-three-year-old lifestyle guru Kondo Marie (Marie is pronounced mari-eh) was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people last year. Her how-to book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, was a #1 New York Times bestseller and has sold more than six million copies worldwide.

In the U.S., a cult has grown up around Kondo and her techniques of decluttering, techniques that combine common sense with Oriental-flavored self-help and motivation. Her name has become a noun for a method (KonMari) of organizing and a verb (Kondoing) for practising what she preaches–a ruthless, rapid downsizing (the “Shock and Awe” Doctrine of Good Housekeeping) in which only things that “spark joy” (tokimeku) are retained and the rest are discarded, but with due ceremony and proper thanks to the possessions that are sent on their way elsewhere –to the Salvation Army, the Third World, and, finally, the dustbin.

Kondo says she has been tidying up her own, her family’s, and other people’s belongings since she was five years old. In a sense, she has done nothing more than elevate her obsessive compulsive behavior into a lifestyle choice that promises “clarity” and “transformation.” Kondo argues that “when you put your house in order, you put your affairs and your past in order, too.” One client, after taking a KonMari course, declares that she has learned “to see what I really need and what I don’t. So I got a divorce. Now I feel happier.” Others testify that they have lost weight, gotten along better with their spouses, increased their sales, even gotten people they wanted to get in touch with to contact them.

Kondoing “is a dialogue with one’s self.” “Confront your own stuff,” Kondo advises, and leave the communal spaces for last (“Don’t let your family see”).  “Before you start, visualize your destination”: figure out why you want to tidy up and try to imagine what kind of clutter-free space you will have if you do.

Kondo suggests setting a definite time limit, six months at most, for decluttering, and sorting and discarding according to categories (clothes, books, papers, photos). When arranging drawers, for example, Kondo says everything must be visible at a glance because piling things in layers constitutes an act of unkindness to the things that end up in the bottom. Hang coats on the far left side of the closet, and then dresses, jackets, pants, skirts and blouses, in that order, so that “as you move toward the right side of the closet, the length of the clothing grows shorter, the material thinner, and the color lighter.” T-shirts should be folded into neat rectangles, no necks showing. Under no circumstances should socks be rolled up because they must be allowed to “rest” in the drawer after a long day’s work outdoors. Papers and documents should be filed, not piled. Keeping freebies and buying additional storage boxes are no-no’s.

The war against clutter has its roots in the Japanese aesthetics of minimalism. In everyday life, a strong ethic of katazuke is at work, with Japanese children being taught from an early age to put their toys away after they are done playing, which is not to say that all kids and their parents actually do so. (Incidentally, the formal term okatazuke can serve as a command or else mean doing away with someone, as the yakuza like to put it).

Kondo views the relationship with things as a form of communion. In so doing, she is tapping into a venerable Japanese tradition of treating things as having a life, a spiritual essence, of their own. In Japan, children bring toys, especially dolls, that they have outgrown to temples so that prayers can be chanted for the toys before they are disposed of. Pencils sharpened down to stubs are also subject to ritual, this time with additional prayers for the children’s success in schooling.

But the reason for Kondo’s international success may not have anything to do with the exporting of Japanese aesthetic codes and spiritual beliefs abroad. As some reviewers have noted, the art of paring down one’s life to “necessary” essentials presupposes a life of (material) plenty. Hoarding, for the poor, is stockpiling for the inevitable rainy days when things need to be used or else pawned or sold or exchanged. Kondo’s clients are the well-to-do sort who are known to throw out two hundred 45-liter garbage bags in one go.

Kondo does not couch her stern advice–“Don’t change the method to suit your personality”– in the gnomic language of the “instruction pieces” that Yoko Ono made famous in the 1960s. Life-Changing Magic is pretty straightforward: “Believe what your heart tells you when you ask, ‘Does this spark joy?'” “One theme underlying my method of tidying is transforming the home into a sacred space, a power spot filled with pure energy.” “One of the homework assignments I give my clients is to appreciate their belongings.” “By eliminating excess visual information that doesn’t inspire joy, you can make your space much more peaceful and comfortable.” “At their core, the things we really like do not change over time. Putting your house in order is a great way to discover what they are.” (Ono’s Zen-like utterances are far edgier, as in the 1963 “Earth Piece”–“Listen to the sound of the earth turning”–and the 1964 “Box Piece”–“Buy many dream boxes. Ask your wife to select one. Dream together.” But then Ono has never been concerned about housework.)

Kondo’s strategy of endowing things with the qualities and sensibilities of people can occasionally be more cloying than mindful: “Clothes, like people, can relax more freely when in company of others who are similar in type, and therefore organizing them  by category helps them feel more comfortable and secure.”

Her spark-joy philosophy, too, creates its own problems. The verb tokimeku (the noun form is tokimeki)–literally, “heart throbbing with joy or expectation”–originally referred to the feeling of being in love. Tokimeki no jikan, for example, means the precious time that one spends with a beloved. The concept has since been inflated (think Japanese bubble economy of the 1980s) to encompass objects.

If Kondo sometimes sounds like she may be more attached to objects than to persons, it is because she is. She confesses to being very shy as a child and finding it hard to form personal relationships, even with her own family members. She writes, “Because I was poor at developing bonds of trust with people, I had an unusually strong attachment to things.” Kondo has apparently built a mini business empire out of her own and other people’s personality disorders.

But there is something specious about the idea that a thing must “spark joy” in order for it to be worth keeping.

The KonMari approach fails to weave its magic on books and the people who love them. Kondo classifies reading materials into four kinds: General (books you read for pleasure), Practical (references, cookbooks, etc.), Visual (photograph collections, etc.) and Magazines. The principal “criterion is, of course, whether or not it gives you a thrill of pleasure when you touch it.”

Kondo admits that the hardest books to discard are those that give her only moderate pleasure. For such books, she has tried copying the sentences that “inspire” into a notebook or else photocopying sections and cutting and pasting them or ripping the relevant pages out of the book, only to realize that she has never once looked at the file afterwards. Her conclusion: “The moment you first encounter a particular book is the right time to read it. To avoid missing that moment, I recommend that you keep your collection small.”

Kondo advises people not to dip into books when sorting through them, because reading “clouds your judgment.”  Her brand of magic isn’t likely to work on academics who try to restore some order to their overflowing bookshelves, only to end up panicking over a missing footnote and rooting endlessly in boxes for books they thought they no longer needed (and which certainly do not “spark joy”!) but now find that they do.

Moreover, reading may not always be a feel-good experience. American Psycho, The Kindly Ones, Blood Meridian or “A Good Man is Hard to Find” do not exactly spark joy. Should these works be thrown out of the bookcase?

Similarly, what if one dislikes one’s father-in-law or brother–should their photos be ripped out of the albums, too? Answering e-mails has long lost its anticipation value, but does this mean that one can safely throw away one’s computer (as Kondo famously did when tidying up a client’s bedroom), no matter how joy-sparking the idea of jettisoning e-mail altogether is?

Since tokimeku applies to things, it may very well describe the pleasure and anticipation that trigger acquisition in the first place and set in motion the cycle of wasteful consumption and radical purging. Junking something once it has lost its “joy” value does not dissuade anyone from buying more things, even though the KonMari method is clearly aimed at encouraging people to live with less and value the few(er) things they have.

When one comes down to it, there is very little that one truly needs to keep. After food, water, a small space to sleep in, and enough means to secure one’s survival, the rest is clutter. How much, though, are people who are already accustomed to a life of plenty willing to shed to simplify their lives and clarify their thoughts? Unloading their used goods on Western Botswana and the Makgadikgadi Pan may spark joy, but how many will choose to live the way of the San Bushmen?

If renouncing material things means renouncing the earthly desire that tokimeki also stands for, then the sad fact is that the world that Life-Changing Magic‘s readers live in is far too complicated to be tidied up so neatly. But at least their houses are neat.

Note: This essay was originally published in “Letters to Narcissus”

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