The Marie Kondo thing

I’ve been avoiding getting into the debate about Marie Kondo’s konmari brand of modernist orientalism, mostly because I’m not that interested, but there are a lot of people making claims about the Japaneseness and historicity of her ideas, so I suppose a comment might be in order.

The most popular article I’ve seen is Margaret Dilloway’s attempt to claim Kondo’s method as authentically Japanese – specifically Shinto animism – and that critical comments are functionally racist, or at best Eurocentric.

I had never seen quite this level of concentrated venom directed toward a self-help/home decor person. Not Martha with her thousand-step craft projects. Not Rachel Hollis telling “girls” to wash their faces and to judge friends based on whether they can keep off weight. Not even Gwyneth when she told everyone to steam their lady parts and wedge a jade egg inside. All received backlash, but none garnered as much misguided indignation as Kondo, long after she managed to sell two million copies of her debut book.

Honestly, I think she’s missed the backlash in all of those cases: they were (and are) ongoing and pretty vicious (and very well-founded, in many cases).

More importantly, she’s making historical connections that don’t exist: Japan’s famously clean cities, and lack of school custodial staff, do not have deep religious roots, but functional and modern elements. As Susan Hanley argued, a society that was based on economically isolated islands (as Japan during the mostly-closed sakoku era of the Edo period) will naturally develop an aesthetic of conservation, minimalism, and efficiency. Though it’s always worth mentioning that there’s also a culture of excess, consumption, luxury, and pleasure, mostly in cities and among elites.

Similarly, when Japan encountered, experienced, and adopted modernism, it became as much of a consumer society as the US or France, accumulating stuff and disposable fashion in ways largely indistinguishable from other industrialized societies.

The concept of “a Japanese aesthetic” is as much a product of modernity as Japanese nationalism: an invented tradition, drawing on existing elements but syncretic, harmonizing seemingly disparate components of Japanese and non-Japanese culture into a distinct brand. 

Eiko Maruko Siniawer’s interview with Adam Mintner highlights the 20th century elements of Kondo’s work: Taylorism, Home Economics, the collapsed Bubble Economy of the 1990s, and the increasingly defunct, toxic idea that there’s infinite storage for garbage and waste in other countries or oceans.

What I’m uncomfortable with is people outside of Japan saying she is embodying these Japanese ideas of minimalism, and these are how Japanese houses kind of look, and so the aspiration is for American homes to look like Japanese homes. But no! She is peddling an aspiration in Japan as much as she is in the U.S. It’s not like Japanese homes actually look like that. In fact, they don’t. Which is why people in Japan, as in the United States, are buying her book.

I would add that Kondo’s work is part of a wave of anti-consumer consumption ethoses, mostly associated with Northern European modernism and fatalism (another invented tradition, but very marketable in the form of funiture line).

Ultimately, as is so often the case, Kondo’s presence in American culture tells us more about American culture than Japanese history or tradition.

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