Photo Credit: SusanLesch via CreativeCommons

This essay was originally published on February 11 2019.

I first sat down to watch Tidying Up with Marie Kondo only after “Bookgate” had already erupted and passed. In early January, a series of viral tweets criticized Kondo and her “KonMari” tidying method for the suggestion that one ought to keep no more than 30 books in the home. Tweets begat retweets which became articles in major publications, all sharing a similar theme: if we should, as Kondo insists, only keep objects in our home that “spark joy,” what items do that better than books — even hundreds and thousands of them? One popular (and subsequently deleted) tweet called Kondo a “monster,” a tongue-in-cheek framing that skirted too close to racist, dehumanizing stereotypes of Asian people at least two centuries old.

The Twitter storm passed especially quickly because, as Vox explained, Kondo never actually made that claim. In her bestselling 2016 book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, she noted that she keeps a collection of only 30 books, but never suggested that this goal is appropriate for everyone.

I knew of the scandal before I watched the series, and so when I settled in for eight episodes of an otherwise anodyne home-makeover show, I started to wonder why the Internet clapped back so quickly at Kondo (for something she never even said). As a historian interested in connections between consumerism in the United States and Japan, which I wrote about in my book Consuming Japan: Popular Culture and the Globalizing of 1980s America (2017), I saw two interlinked explanations, both rooted in the historical experience of the postwar era. First, the knee-jerk reaction to the imagined suggestion that we get rid of our books revealed the extent to which we really do find value and joy in our material worlds, though we’re often taught to feel guilty about this. And second, it demonstrated the way the relationship between the United States and Japan pervades our consumer culture in quiet, but often persistent, ways.

The Guilt of Consuming and the Good of Consuming

Buried in Outrage-Twitter’s defense of books — not a closet full of clothes or a room full of Star Wars memorabilia — lay an unspoken claim about which objects in our material world are meaningful and authentic. Defenders presented books as not just material objects but containers of value and meaning, vessels for ideas and the forms of imagination that challenge us to be better, and to live more just and authentic lives. Books demand that we confront the ideas in them that are not meant to “spark joy” but to provoke and instigate, a perspective with which a historian with too many books to count can empathize.

For as long as the United States has been a consumer society there has been a current of intellectual thought that has dismissed American acquisitiveness — not just buying and using things, but also making meaning out of them — as inauthentic. The “life of the mind” — as opposed to a life full of mass-produced and marketed knickknacks and trendy fashions — was lauded as authentic. Books are not mere “knickers and Tupperware,” as one tweet with thousands of retweets dismissively characterized the kinds of objects homeowners throw away on Kondo’s show. More than material objects, books embody that “life of the mind” that elites from the late nineteenth century on framed as the opposite of mass consumer culture, and to which many Americans still aspire.

Kondo’s critics, then, reproduced a critique of consumer culture dating back at least to the turn of the twentieth century, when Thorstein Veblen dismissed “conspicuous consumption,” in his famous phrasing, as an attempt by the lower and middle classes to mimic their social betters. The masses consumed, in Veblen’s view, to communicate their class aspirations, an argument that Vox journalist Dylan Matthews wryly noted could also apply to Twitter’s self-righteous book collectors. Veblen’s argument appealed to the nation’s intellectual elite, self-appointed keepers of a “Protestant work ethic” — a phrase Max Weber would coin just a few years after Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) appeared — who saw self-denial and delayed gratification as the correct path to social virtue.

The same men were unlikely to put their own material worlds, filled with books communicating to society their own intellectual aspirations, in the same category as the “cheap amusements” that occupied and entertained the lower classes and were often coded as feminine. But recent scholarly interpreters, such as British sociologist Colin Campbell, have cast consumerism in a more generous light, arguing that the “good of consuming” is not about external validation but about internal hopes and aspirations: we buy things because we believe these inanimate objects will help us become the best versions of ourselves. Kondo asks her viewers to recover that imagined self, not necessarily to trash the dress or the running shoes but to rediscover the joy they initially sparked. This can only be accomplished by respectfully discarding objects that divert, or distract, us from that joy. What the Twitter rush to judgment missed is that Kondo’s call to identify the material goods that “spark joy” absolves us of the guilt of cherishing our books, while encouraging us to part with those things that we hoped would inspire us — but now cause anxiety as they amass in closets and garages.

“We’re not going to take for granted the items we had,” says one client in the show’s sixth episode, summoning a noble emotion, even as the heaps of unnecessary items pile high around him. Indeed, Kondo teaches clients to appreciate the material world, not reject it. Even after undergoing a KonMari makeover, homes are full of stuff, but now items are organized in such a way that homeowners can appreciate them rather than hide them away in shame, or worse, forget that they even exist. Even those objects that no longer “spark joy” deserve better than to be thoughtlessly discarded; they are to be “thanked” as they are gently placed in a to-be-donated pile. In her book, Kondo describes how “focusing solely on throwing things away can only bring unhappiness.” “We should be choosing what we want to keep,” she writes, “not what we want to get rid of.” In Kondo’s universe, objects have life and treat us well, and we ought to be appreciative of that. She forgives consumers of their guilt for living thoroughly material lives.

Putting Kondo in Context

The second explanation for the reaction against Kondo on Twitter is rooted in American ideas about Japan dating back to the mid-nineteenth century. It was easy for Westerners in 2019 to believe Kondo’s 30-book rule existed without seeing the evidence because it fit into well-established, often unfounded, Western impressions of Japan, patterns that literary critic Edward Said called “orientalism.” As Japan opened its doors to the West in the second half of the nineteenth century, Europeans and Americans admired aspects of Japanese society and culture that they did not see in their own. Among these was an imagined inherent Japanese eye for simplicity and minimalism.

European artists of the late nineteenth century’s Japonisme movement, including Vincent van Gogh and Edgar Degas, saw in Japan a natural beauty that contrasted with cluttered, urban, industrial Europe. The post-World War II American descendants of this trend, as Meghan Warner Mettler writes in a new book, seized upon the Japanese concept of shibui, a word with several meanings but which for the modernists of the era connoted a “graceful, minimalist Japanese aesthetic” that was “modern yet premodern, familiar yet foreign.”

Japanese cultural practices, from ikebana to bonsai and Zen Buddhism, became American fads after the U.S. occupation of Japan because their expressions of minimalism and naturalism struck a chord with upper-class modernist tastes while also helping to transform a hated wartime enemy into a feminized postwar ally. The “30 books” kerfuffle, then, was a kind of disingenuous a priori reaction, proceeding from the conscious or subconscious assumption that a Japanese organizational expert would necessarily promote a philosophy of minimalism.

It is hard to escape this century-and-a-half legacy of Western readings of Japan while watching Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. There’s a moment in every episode, for instance, when Kondo informs her American clients that she would like to “greet” their home. Faces and body language register varied responses, from bemusement to enthusiasm to discomfort. Up to that moment, Kondo had floated into her clients’ homes with an ear-to-ear grin, introducing herself in a joyous mix of Japanese and English, and then moving purposefully from room to room in exuberant expectation of the work that lay ahead. She then strikes a solemn tone when she explains the greeting, a gesture intended to thank the home for the protection it has provided and alert it to the forthcoming tidying. The scenes offer a surprisingly sweet and sentimental break from the show’s bright and bubbly opening.

It is this greeting, I think, on which American readings of the Kondo phenomenon hinge. In a way, such solemn communing with a home feels wholly un-American. It violates Western religious values that reject the belief that inanimate objects have animate lives; and it challenges the sort of American pragmatism rooted in that Protestant work ethic of self-denial and delayed gratification that Veblen wielded to criticize the masses’ consuming habits. This unfamiliarity, coupled with Kondo’s presentation of Japaneseness — she speaks mostly in Japanese, accompanied by a translator — manifests, despite almost 300 years of Asians living on the North American continent, as a foreignness to non-Asian American audiences. The show deliberately trucks in the contrast between the familiarity of the form — Netflix’s decision to make the show was inspired, to be sure, by the popularity of various home-makeover shows on cable networks like HGTV — and the “unfamiliarity” of Kondo’s Japaneseness and her KonMari method.

Religious studies scholar Melissa Borja has dissected the show on these terms. Drawing on Jane Iwamura’s Virtual Orientalism, Borja argues that, particularly in white American eyes, Kondo is a “magical Asian sage for our untidy times,” the latest manifestation of an imagined “Oriental Monk” trope that dates back to the nineteenth century. Kondo is at once an actual representation of Japanese spirituality (she served for several years, Borja notes, as a Shinto shrine maiden, an experience Kondo explicitly cites for the origins of her home-greeting ritual) and also a Western representation of that spirituality, transmitted to audiences through a show produced by and for American viewers. While not explicitly portraying herself in religious terms, she nevertheless betrays an “otherworldliness” as she floats into American homes and across television screens, delivering the “wisdom of the Orient” to her clients, lost as they are in the clutter of Western overconsumption.

Reading Kondo in this way, I think, collapses history, in the process erasing Kondo’s more immediate context. Since the end of World War II, and especially since the 1970s, the United States and Japan have been interlinked in a trans-Pacific consumer network that has sent goods, culture, and ideas back and forth in a kind of “Moebius strip” of exchange, as journalist Roland Kelts has called it. Neither Japan’s nor the United States’ cultures of consumption would exist today as they do without the other. Rather than bringing ancient Eastern wisdom to our contemporary Western problems, then, Marie Kondo aims to make order out of the shared chaos of postwar production and consumption that have remade modern Japan as much as the United States.

Indeed, while the “Oriental Monk” framing of Kondo implies that she brings Eastern wisdom to the West, most of Kondo’s career to this point has been built helping people in Japan organize their cluttered lives, a task all the more imperative in a country where the average home is about half the size of its American counterpart. To understand Kondo — a smart and successful businesswoman promoting a cosmopolitan twenty-first-century philosophy confronting the global problem of overconsumption — we have to demystify her and her work, placing her in the context of the development of postwar consumer societies in Japan and the United States.

American consumerism was already influencing Japanese popular culture in the interwar years, provoking both cosmopolitan admiration and nationalist reaction. The modan gaaru, or “modern girl,” phenomenon, as Miriam Silverberg has described, in which young Japanese women asserted their social and sexual autonomy through Western-style consumption habits, exemplified this. But the relationship really took off after the war and the U.S. occupation of Japan that ended in 1952. Privileged access to U.S. markets, in exchange for the Japanese state’s commitment to anti-communist U.S. policies, helped the Japanese economy rebound during the “miracle” years of the 1950s and 1960s, creating the world’s second largest economy by the 1970s.

By the 1980s, many of the most popular consumer goods in the United States — automobiles, electronics like the VCR and the Walkman, even haute cuisine like sushi — came from Japan. And while the Japanese economy was built for export domination, Japan too became a rich consumer society in the postwar era, saturated with popular entertainment and fashion and the material worlds they construct. Under the aegis of U.S. empire, Japanese companies created innovative products that promised to “spark joy” in novel ways. Sony Walkmans were not just objects occupying shelf space or desk drawers; rather they opened up worlds of popular culture and entertainment that could be confined to the space between one’s ears. The VCR was not just a hulking monstrosity of metal and plastic blinking “12:00” incessantly; it was also, in the hyperbolic language of observers in the 1980s, a “revolutionary” device that permitted consumers to perform feats no less miraculous than “shifting time.” Consumers bought these goods, or aspired to buy them, because they believed in their promises of personal transformation.

When Marie Kondo encourages us to find what “sparks joy” in our material lives, she asks us to recover the sense of wonder that consumer goods can engender, to rediscover the “good of consuming.” And ultimately Kondo is agnostic about the kinds of things that spark joy — they can be books, of course, but they can also be clothes, gadgets, knickknacks, photographs, or any of the countless other objects people in consumer societies use to make sense and meaning of the chaos. That perspective is a thoroughly contemporary one, rooted not in some mystical past informed by Japanese spiritualism or the “wisdom of the Orient,” but instead in decades of economic and cultural exchange between two societies in which people are increasingly anxious about the problems wrought by consumerism.

Andrew C. McKevitt is an associate professor of history at Louisiana Tech University. His first book, Consuming Japan: Popular Culture and the Globalizing of 1980s America, was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2017. He tweets @drewmckevitt