I recently read “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up; The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” and it’s sequel, “Spark Joy” by Marie Kondo. Is it going to change my life? Probably not in the big ways suggested throughout the book, but I’m really glad I read it, and I’m already trying to put as much of it’s information to use as I can. And believe me, combined, there is a lot of information in these two tomes.
If you’re not familiar with these books, the first one was originally released in 2011. It’s been a best seller, and has made waves in the news as a revolutionary way to declutter and as an abject failure as a decluttering method – depending on which review or article you read. Her books have been so popular/ successful that the system she outlines in the books is now referred to as the “KonMari Method”. Go ahead, Google it, it really is a “thing”; spell check even accepts it.
The naysayers tend to expand upon common themes. Most of them say the KonMari Method won’t work for Americans. We have larger homes. Most of Japan is urban. At the time of the first publication, the author didn’t have kids, kids come with stuff. We cook differently. We prioritize things differently based on our cultural norms. We have larger (generational) families and therefore more family heirlooms. You get the idea.
To be fair to Ms. Kondo, it says right in the title, “The Japanese art of decluttering and organizing”, so you know starting on page 1, that there may be a few things that don’t make sense to someone who isn’t Japanese. For me however, that was one of the reasons I wanted to read it – that and I’m feeling overwhelmed by stuff right now.
As Americans, we tend to live in a culture of stuff. Advertising is constantly telling us we need to upgrade gadget X, replace unit G, eat the latest super food to live a better life, and change our wardrobe for the latest colors of the season. McMansions are an everyday sight. Many Americans believe that cars are a right, rather than a privilege of those that can afford them. Then there’s the whole “He Who Dies with the Most Stuff Wins” attitude that so many of us have. So sure, for the average American, her books might be an affront to what we don’t realize are cultural ideals.
I’m not saying that if you think her books are hoey that you’re being ignorant of cultural differences or that I think your lifestyle should be criticized. You’re right. Her books won’t make sense to many people because of a number of cultural differences. It’s likely that a similar book on decluttering written by an American author wouldn’t make much sense to the majority of a Japanese readership either.
As mentioned, I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by stuff lately. Our house, which is plenty large enough for The Goat and I, is still considered small by many Americans’ standards. Because of this, we naturally don’t have as much stuff as some people simply because we lack the space to keep it. However, I don’t want to give the impression that we’re minimalists. I’d say we fall somewhere smack in the middle between hoarder and minimalist. Which is likely a good place to be if you’re trying to declutter – there’s bound to be some excess, but not enough that the excess will be overwhelming. Which also means, I was likely at a good place, mentally, to read these two books.
Did I agree with everything in the book and feel the need to jump head first into tidying our home using the KonMari Method? Yes, and no.
She offers a proper order of attack by categorizing your belongings and working on one category at a time, in a specific order. For example, start with your clothes, then move on to the other categories, with sentimental items always being last. Which makes some sense, but to my mind, leaves out a lot, or rather, the KonMari Method has really large categories. She does expound upon the order in the “Spark Joy” and acknowledges that there will be subcategories or additional categories added or removed from each person’s list based on their life and lifestyle.
Based on my personal schedule and obligations, I’m not likely to follow the order given, however, one of the big takeaways from this categorical listing is that we should declutter by use, not by location. All that means is that if you’re sorting your books, you do ALL of your books at one time, not the ones in your office one day, and the ones in your living room the next time you’re cleaning the living room. By conquering them all at once, you get a better understanding of how many you actually have and it makes it easier to edit your collection in a methodical manner.
Simple idea, but it made sense to me, and I needed to hear it – especially as someone who keeps shoes by the door and in the closet, books in just about every room, medicine in the kitchen and the bathroom, and cleaning supplies in the pantry, bathroom, and kitchen. Having to remember where all the same items are, also helps me realize how many of them we have and if they’re being stored in the best place possible.
Which brings me to another idea expressed in the books – the idea that every object “lives” somewhere. I have a number of family members, myself included, who have been known to say something like, “That doesn’t live there. I need to put it away.” Because for some reason, and I don’t know where it comes from, we have a strong sense of where we think things belong, or “live”. We often us “lives” the way many use “goes” (“The soda lives on the bottom shelf”, for example.)
Another interesting idea expressed in Ms. Kondo’s books is the idea of inanimate objects “wanting” to be of use. Basically, every item was created for a purpose, and every item wants to fulfil that purpose. Receipts want to noted, books want to be read, clothes want to be worn, bowls want to hold things, greeting cards want to say “Hello!”. And once they have fulfilled their purpose for you, it’s ok to thank them and send them on – be it by disposing of it or donating it so that it can serve its purpose for someone else. Sometimes this is a long term thing, such as with clothes or furniture. Other times it’s a quick process, like with receipts or magazines.
This is a cultural thing, and she does explain that in one of the books, so it might sound a bit odd, or even new age-y to some. To some it might even sound a bit sacreligious or as if we’re giving objects souls. However, as someone who has been known to name and talk to her cars, trees, and appliances, it made sense to me.
Reading about this concept made me mentally sigh in relief while picturing Disney’s Belle chit chatting with a tea cup, candlestick, and other furniture and household items. I realized that it’s ok to pass along something that I once loved but no longer wear or use – think Jessie the yodeling cowgirl from Toy Story 2, all she wanted was an owner. These two children’s movies exemplify the same idea, our stuff wants to be of use. Is it really so simple that children understand it innately, but we dismiss it outright as we get older?
With minimalism being a huge trend of late, there are many people searching for a method of clutter management that works for them. It is quite possible that Ms. Kondo’s tidy little self help empire (yes, the pun was intended) may have been the result of being in the right place at the right time. Even though I don’t plan on following all the steps and tips in her books, I would recommend the books to anyone feeling overwhelmed by their stuff.
I know the concepts and ideas she covers may not be new to many, and many of them weren’t new to me either. It was reading about it from a non-American point of view that helped reinforce a few counter cultural ideas that tumble out of my brain occasionally. Getting another culture’s overall perspective on something as personal as one’s home and belongings was both inspiring and interesting – I can do something to manage this chaos we call home, even if we don’t have any enviable Japanese style closets. And I really should pass along a few of my toys, afterall, they just want to be toys.