‘Tidying Up with Marie Kondo’: Translating Japanese Ideas into California Culture☆☆

Living by myself, every 4 months I would clean and at the end of the year, hopefully before New Year’s Day, I would complete a deep cleaning. This was partially timed toward the academic year with an expected chaos during dead week and finals and the necessary clean up afterward, but it is also cultural. With holidays and family visits, you want to clean up and decorate before expected family time.

Living with other people and even other living creatures is about negotiation of space and adapting space for individuals. Before I had dogs, I had rabbits, and there was a time when I had both rabbits and dogs.  I had to consider spaces that were shared and, at times, dog-free zones. I’ve also lived in a few different situations in Japan, mostly in the Tokyo and Yokohama area with a few side trips to Osaka and even more spacious areas like a farm in Hokkaido where I did a one-week homestay and worked on a farm.

“Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” is not about the cramped spaces of Tokyo or Osaka, but it displays an aspect that being in close quarters requires and brings it to the more spacious apartments and homes of California. Of course, everything is relative. I remember that as a Southern California girl, raised in a semi-rural area, I was shocked to hear a group of Hong Kong Chinese in Tokyo talking about how open and spacious things were–that is until I went to Hong Kong and even spent time at a luxury apartment.

So what can Californians and other people in North America learn from Kondo? Maximizing space and minimizing conflict over space. For the record, I don’t really need a translator for understanding Marie Kondo.  Her first name seems oddly romanized to be more comfortingly familiar to English-speaking people (as opposed to the more Japanese “Mari” because in Japanese “Marie” would have three syllables instead of two). She seems to have moved to Los Angeles, at least for the series.

From Twitter and elsewhere, people seem to misunderstand her method. In the series, she doesn’t emphasize what to throw away or getting rid of everything, including collectibles, but she seems more interested in:

  1. Keeping only things that you really want, things that “spark joy” in you.
  2. Every individual taking responsibility for their things and making decisions about what to keep.
  3. Looking at the space and negotiating shared spaces.
  4. Having easy and quick access to the things you’ll use the most.
  5. Taking weaknesses and making them your strengths.

Kondo does ask people to pile things up by category. This provides a “shock” necessary for assessment of what is important to the individuals and to the couple.

Although we still have an English phrase “spring cleaning” and in Japanese the new year is greeted as new “spring,” I’m not sure that every household actually participates in an annual spring cleaning, but clearly there is a need to do so. I’m not sure why no one cleaned up the garages, storage areas or even cockroach infested hall closet in the living situations I was in, but once done, my fellow residents in the US who did not help me were more than willing to “share” the space, but not the clean up or the up keep.

That ultimately doesn’t work in a shared apartment situation–to have someone doing all the cleaning but others expecting to gain space from it. It only breeds resentment and, in the case of the garage, I asked if the new residents of the shared duplex were willing to help keep the mouse/rat and flea population at bay, and that stopped the discussion. But in married or life partner life, shared space and clean up does need to work. This is a very basic problem that has some emotional strings–attachments to things, but isn’t overtly about emotional problems between the two people involved.

The things we keep often have emotional meaning, but not all of them are good. Are we keeping something we don’t want or actually hate because we feel some obligation toward a friend, relative or worse, former loved one? Maybe it was a wedding gift or a special birthday present. Why keep what you don’t like? And clothing can also be a problem. I’m lucky because I still fit into some things from my high school days and I’ve never grown out of my clothes. Keeping clothes to inspired you to be thinner is not necessarily a bad reason from what Kondo has said in the series. She’s not one that subscribes to the notion that if you haven’t worn it in the last year, ditch it. That sort of concept is really meant for men because men’s fashions don’t change that much. Women’s fashions do. The concept of wear it each year or toss is also is painfully business-like. It’s a lifestyle that never attends a decade specific party or spoof dinners. It’s a concept that doesn’t celebrate clothes, fashion or fun.

What I hate to hear is someone throwing out another person’s things. That’s covered in a “Frasier” episode “Give Him the Chair!.” You don’t know what something means to another person. Throwing it away without conferring to them is a violation of trust. It only results in distrust and a feeling of insecurity. One can’t help but think: What next? One can never fully relax in that situation as one is always wary of the other person. Throwing away something belonging to someone else without asking also shows a lack of respect. You care so little about the other person’s feelings, you just toss something of theirs without asking. Coercing someone into throwing things away it little better.

If you really think about it, both throwing other people’s things away and coercing someone to throw things away is about control and somewhat anti-social. Neither attitude builds good feelings or social connections. Kondo subtly emphasizes not only respect between the adults, but also respect by the adults for the children. While the adults can identify what the children currently use, Kondo asks the adults to consult the children and involve them in the decision making and clean up.

Kondo divides cleaning in five categories:

  1. First is Clothing
  2. then Books
  3. Paper
  4. Komono (kitchen, bathroom and garage or miscellaneous items)
  5. Sentimental Items

Episode 1: Tidying with Toddlers

Young couple (the Friend Family) with two kids in Lakewood, California (Los Angeles County) who were married five years ago.  The husband Kevin and the wife Rachel have two kids: Jaxon (4) and Ryan (2). The husband works full-time and the wife has a part-time job as teaching communication at Saddleback College and the University of La Verne. Rachel has hired help to do the laundry who puts things away from her, but Kevin feels this really isn’t necessary.

Episode 2: Empty Nesters

A retired Japanese-American (Wendy and Ron Akiyama) couple in are collectors living in as the second-generation in an old house (inherited in 1994).  Ron’s parents bought the house in 1968. The couple has been married for 42 years. The goal is maximizing the enjoyment of the house. She collects Christmas decorations, especially nutcrackers. He has baseball cards. One of their kids, Russell, is there to help. Kondo’s goal is for them to discover what’s truly important for them in life. Ron and Wendy Akiyama own Sunflower Farm, a nursery and landscape design business based in Gardena, CA. The cool thing is that the Akiyamas find things that belong to his father in the 1940s.

Episode 3: Downsizers

The Downsizers are a young African American couple with two kids (Kayci and Nolan): Mersiers. They moved from Michigan from a four-story, four-bedroom house and now live in a two-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles (Valley Village in the San Fernando Valley). The mother, Katrina, is a hair stylist; the father,  Douglas, is a musician (guitar and cello). They’ve been in Los Angeles for a year and a half. This is a lovely “artsy” family who have dubbed themselves the Fantastic Four.  Katrina feels keeping the home organized is her responsibility, but Kondo emphasizes that individuals need to take responsibility for their own things.

Episode 4: Sparking Joy After a Loss

A widow, Margie Hodges,  in Culver City needs to re-assess her home space after losing her husband nine months ago. She’s lived almost 30 years in the house with three kids (two when she and her husband, Rick, moved in and another came after). The kids, Lucy, Jake and Chelsea are now grown. She doesn’t know if she has the fortitude it takes “to get rid of his belongings,” but she wants to be thoughtful about it and not just dumping it. For Culver City standards, the house is spacious and Hodges has a full-size carousel horse in the house. Hodges has never lived alone and so her two-story house is a lot of territory for one person. From my experience, widows and widowers have a tough time. I’ve seen people getting rid of the deceased person’s stuff on a sudden whim–a cleaning storm that often ends in a regretful shower of tears months or years later. And those who are paralyzed for months, even years and leave everything, including the makeup, toothbrush and soap, the way it was.

Episode 5: From Students to Improvements

In West Hollywood, writers Matt and Frank are a gay couple who met through an app. They met on a Friday and parted on Monday morning. After this 62-hour date (three dates and a week and a half of dating), they ended up just wanting to be together and that was three years ago. The problem is that Frank’s parents of one who has never visited California since he moved here five years ago are finally coming for a visit. Frank and Matt realize that their style hasn’t transitioned from their college days and they want to show Frank’s parents a more mature and stable environment (Frank’s parents have already met Matt). They both have books, papers and DVDs.

Kondo’s attitude toward books has become a hot topic on social media but a lot of that is jumping to conclusions.

In the series, Kondo tells Matt and Frank to see if the book “sparks joy” in them and  also to ask yourself will having these books be beneficial to your life going forward. What kind of information is important to you in the moment. The danger, for me, when I do this, is starting to read a book. Then you get lost and could end up just reading instead of cleaning. Matt could remember reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” in high school for the first time and he says he reads it once very two years. He didn’t feel the spark of joy for clothes, but with books, he was able to understand Kondo’s concept.

I haven’t read her books, but you can see in this episode that Matt is keeping more than 30 books.

Episode 6: Breaking Free from a Mountain of Stuff

Aaron and Sehnita Mattison have been married for 17 years and have two kids: Ashton (7.5 year old) Natalia (2.5 years old). The couple met at the University of Michigan. They’ve been living in their two-story house for seven years. They are thinking of having another kid. You know this is not recent because Ashton asks to go to Toys R Us. Aaron says, “The clutter just feels heavy.”

Sehnita is Pakistani and likes to keep her traditional scarves and clothing, but Aaron points out she hasn’t worn them in a while.  Yet that isn’t what KonMari is about. In the series, she doesn’t talk about rules like if you haven’t worn it in the last year or two years you need to toss it. Sehnita also keeps old magazines, baby clothes kept in plastic bins by age, toys that are no longer used and clothes that she can no longer fit into.

I understand Sehnita’s problem. Her husband looks to be a more easily found size. She is short. She has problems finding clothes, so if it fits, that is a victory in itself. I am a children’s size even in Japan. Finding clothing in the US had been a nightmare until I started wearing upscale children’s clothing.  So essentially, I gave up on adult clothing. Sehnita has a fuller figure. She wouldn’t be able to find children’s clothing to fit her as easily.

Then there’s traditional clothing. I have a kimono that was first my late aunt’s and then my mother’s. Because much was lost during the Japanese American internment, the silk kimono is precious. I’ve only worn it once. That doesn’t mean I want to toss it. My husband also likes having some traditional clothing but that doesn’t mean he wears them even once a year.  So I’m with Sehnita and her keeping traditional scarves and clothing. Maybe her husband should think of occasions when she could wear there, but that’s beyond the scope of this series.

Episode 7: Making Room for Baby

Clarissa and Mario have been together for six years. They have two dogs. They are having their first child and want to clean up  before the baby arrives. This couple loves shoes. Clarissa is really the one who hopes that Mario is motivated by Kondo.  At one point, Kondo is dealing with Mario alone for the miscellaneous items. And then there is Mario and his shoes. Mario has been collecting sneakers (150-160 pairs at this point) since he was 12 years old. He’s had more and he admits that 95 percent were never used and his purchases got out of control to the tune of $10,000 in credit card debt. Some he’s had for over 30 years. Some of those shoes no longer fit. Yet Kondo also sees the pride that Mario has in his shoes so she uses this episode to talk about displaying shoes.

Episode 8: When Two (Messes) Become One

This Long Beach (California) couple has the least emotional baggage.  Alishia is a flight attendant and Angela is a veterinarian. They just got married in June and with their two dogs (London and Teddy) and cat (Earl) moved into a condo they bought together three weeks ago.

There are no years of accumulation of personal stuff or sentimental items to deal with. This is almost a clean slate with only some fine tuning necessary.

I don’t find “Tidying Up” to be “weirdly dark” as one writer did. It helped me re-embrace things I had stopped doing because of my husband’s resistance. I’m third generation Japanese and my mother was raised on a truck farm that grew tomatoes and cucumbers. Cleaning inside is important to keep the vermin outside. I do let things pile up by before big projects I tidy up and after big projects I tidy up again. On my own, I used to do major cleaning projects in December, trying to finish before New Year’s Day because the Japanese superstition is that whatever you end up doing on New Year’s Day is what you’ll be doing the rest of the year (so in my case, taking photos of Pasadena events and eating Japanese food).

Reading what other people have written, I have to emphasize that Japanese living is not specifically about minimalism like you’d find in the Zen philosophy. That is just one Japanese philosophical style. There are certainly collectors and hoarders and bookstores that looks less like regimented order and more like cluttered chaos, but Japan is not the United States. Space is at a premium in the cities and you are forced to make decisions as a result.  I’ve heard there originally wasn’t a word for privacy in Japan and in the Japanese dormitory where I lived for nine months, the bath was communal and everyone had weekly cleaning or administrative chores (answering the dorm telephone).

While many of the foreign student balked at having to clean up the dorm, the Japanese were used to it. Apparently in grade school, students performing clean up duties is common place and that seems to ingrain a sense of personal responsibility that you’ll see in other aspects of life such as movie theaters. In Japanese movie theaters (which are expensive), people usually clean up after themselves  and you won’t find popcorn littering the floor like confetti after a New Year’s Eve party.  At first I thought people in the US were just clumsy, but I sat next to a young man at a Hollywood opening who didn’t always get the popcorn in his mouth with the lights on and I imagine was less accurate after the lights were out.

Some Japanese apartment buildings and houses are not well-insulated or even climate controlled like houses in the US. That means during the winter, which is dry, one might not have central heating. The summer months are hot and humid, which is not a good situation for books what could become moldy.

There are other differences. I once stayed with a friend in a Japanese apartment where the one room served as a bedroom and a living room with large closets for the futons to be put away in.  Perhaps the closest US citizens and residents will come to living in cramped quarters is dorm life which is temporary and doesn’t come with years of clutter. In many cases, Japanese don’t have a car.  In Tokyo, it is expensive to have a car for a variety or reasons, including parking and smog regulations. As a result, while it is easier to use public transportation to get around without a car, since so few people have cars, it is harder to move from one apartment to another and moving house becomes complicated. You won’t likely do it on your own with a handful of friends. Because of this, it’s common to see perfectly good things thrown away (vacuum cleaners, small pieces of furniture).

Kondo could have become that neurotic aunt or neighbor who compulsively re-ordered your house, but she’s used her weakness as a strength to help other people. While some people think of cleaning up as a tiresome chore, Kondo attempts to bring joy and constructive re-evaluation of life goals and values.

Some people have thought she was too polite which was laughable. The Japanese language places a premium on politeness with different levels of courtesy more intense than the tu-vous conundrum one faces in French or Spanish.  Kondo’s Japanese isn’t overly polite and is sometimes relatively informal. Kondo is really more providing a socially positive way of working with other people and encouraging people to make decisions as individuals and as partners. She’s coming from a culture that values pro-social (as opposed to anti-social) activities and she attempts to guide people to work together while respecting each other. She doesn’t attempt to change the dynamics of the family, but help them work toward attainable goals.

“Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” isn’t about the emotionally and physically crippling problems of hoarding and Kondo is not entirely against collectors (and that includes people who collect books). The families chosen all had nice places compared to some of the dodgy situations I’ve seen in Los Angeles and people are well spoken, clean and polite to her and each other.

I don’t agree with all her solutions or her folding techniques, but what’s wrong with trying something different or learning something new? Could learning to clean up with a smile really be all that bad? Wouldn’t it be nice if such habits eventually meant cleaner movie houses, cleaner streets and cleaner cities?

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