Tidying Up the (Racist?) Backlash Against Marie Kondo

Expos, Writing

by Gina Kang

Marie Kondo. She’s become a household name for decluttering your household. Although her famous KonMari method debuted in her self help book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” in 2011, her practices have been widely popularized through original Netflix series, “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo,” released on the first day of 2019. In a matter of weeks, the whole nation was swept away with her philosophy that connects minimalism with happiness. Despite her sweet and innocent intentions, Marie Kondo has become infamous in the eyes of many–particularly, Western viewers that disdain her so-called upheaval of literature and subliminal promotion of goal-oriented burnout culture.

Wait, how did we get there? First, let’s summarize the KonMari method as Kondo intended it.

What is the KonMari Method?

If you haven’t read the book or watched the show, Marie breaks down her process into 5 major steps:

  1. Clothing
  2. Books
  3. Papers
  4. Komono (miscellaneous items)
  5. Sentimental items

In each of these steps, Marie recommends that you hold the object in your hands and determine whether or not it “sparks joy.” If it does, you keep it and fold it or tuck it away neatly with other items like it.  If it doesn’t, you gently thank the item for serving you well and find a sustainable way to dispose of it (usually donation or recycling). The KonMari method has influenced families across the nation to be more mindful of the material objects that they surround themselves with.

The Controversy: Step #2

In episode five of the Netflix show, Kondo explains how to apply the KonMari methods to books in a way similar to how she had already described letting go of clothes, papers, miscellaneous, and sentimental items with tender thought and care about how they make us feel. However, it was her message on books that catalyzed criticism and controversy in news and social media. It is believed that it was caused by her statements about tossing unread books or even ripping out pages that do not spark joy.

A violent backlash surfaced immediately on Twitter; novelist Anakana Schofield is one of many to criticize Kondo for problematically encouraging censorship from anything doesn’t bring us joy, arguing that our libraries are meant to challenge and disturb us, not bring us joy. Kondo has been likened to a “monster” straight out of Fahrenheit 451. Others have blatantly mocked her philosophy with “patronizing and vitriolic” language: “keep your tidy, spark-joy hands off of my book piles,” “finger-waving, woo-woo nonsense.”

Many have since responded to such criticism, arguing that they willfully, deliberately misrepresented Kondo without truly understanding her philosophy. Although she personally keeps less than 30 books, she strives to empower people to be mindful of their own possessions, and her suggestion to apply this method to books may not be for everyone, but it is misguided to consider it dangerous or malicious.

A Racist Caricature?

Writers also poignantly note that subtle undertones of racism that fuel the hateful portrayal of Kondo in social media. In the show, Kondo speaks Japanese and communicates with her clients (and the audience) with the help of her translator. Because Netflix is marketed towards a primarily Western audience, some believe that the language barrier and limited translations have contributed to misunderstanding and mockery of Japanese culture.

Buzzfeed dubbed her “weirdly dark” methods a “pseudo-spiritual animist-inspired system” that seemingly demonstrates the morally-righteous, anxiety-inducing perfectionism characteristic of the millennial “burnout generation.” This is a clear undermining of the Shintoist spirituality that influences her philosophy. The Shinto tradition “imbues objects with a sort of dignity,” and the “spark joy” aphorism associated with Kondo is rooted in the concept “tokimeki” which, rather than joy, means “throb, excitement, palpitation,” which doesn’t exclude books that mentally challenge us.

Still others explicitly charge white western audience (who have unsurprisingly been at the forefront of the anti-Kondo backlash) for constructing a stifling “duality of projected onto Asian women… either a fetishized exotic experience or embodiment of a yellow peril threat.” This argument states that the backlash stems from white expectations of Asian women’s role in the media. This article in Patheos intelligently explains how Kondo fits into the “century-old” icon of the Oriental Monk as a representation of the wise, gentle Asian sage that guides Western pupils on their life-changing quest of self-discovery or awakening. Among others, one key point the author makes is that the monk must be palatable for Western media consumption.

According to this article in Paper, Kondo “first achieved enormous virality likely in part because whiteness deemed her worthy of consumption to alleviate their own first world white capitalist anxieties.” One of the first things I had noticed when watching Kondo’s Netflix show was its stark contrast with shows like “Hoarders: Buried Alive” (that my mom and I used to be kind of obsessed with.) It’s no news that Americans are guilty of hoarding, a lot. There are many psychological theories about the hoarding phenomenon, but it is definitely linked to our culture of constant consumption.
If you want to see seriously problematic approaches to decluttering, you’re more likely to find it with the dramatic emotional distress and confrontation featured on “Hoarders.” Yet, it is the KonMari method that has been attacked for supposedly infringing on the right to own as many books as humanly possible. I don’t personally agree with ripping out pages or getting rid of books I’ve been meaning to get to, but people can mentally benefit from parting from booksthey find unnecessary. We are free to have as many or as few books or objects as we desire; Kondo just reminds us to be mindful of what they mean to us. In turn, let’s also be mindful of how we interpret and respect Kondo’s teachings.