Marie Kondo and the Life-Changing Magic of Japanese Literature

In Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, the miniseries revival of Gilmore Girls, Emily Gilmore decided to sell her huge French Provincial-style mansion in favor of a serene beachside abode in Nantucket. With such an enormous house, of course, comes with an enormous possession. As part of her process both in grief after the death of her husband Richard and in downsizing, Emily chose to heed to the decluttering philosophy of “sparking joy,” created by Japanese organizing consultant Marie Kondo. The Mindy Project also made a similar reference to Kondo’s philosophy in the series’ fourth season. I started a bookstore job a week after the Gilmore Girls revival was released. I saw Kondo’s books displayed with the cover facing out and not with the spine. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up was published in 2011. An English translation was released in the United States in 2014. Kondo was named one of TIME’s 100 most influential people in 2015. Both of the episodes, which featured the scenes mentioned earlier, were released in 2016.

It was also around this time that I was about to begin my post-collegiate career. After months of self-loathing and ill-fated incidents, I got a job as a content writer for a small company that manages multiple websites and publish non-clickbait clickbait articles. Their target demographic is women who like freak medical conditions, mommy diary entries, and Teen Mom. I kept a bookstore gig on top of my main work in order to keep my head above the water and pay my student loans. It would be an understatement to say that the first two months was exhausting; in fact, it was emotionally and physically taxing both for me and my boyfriend. I didn’t pay any more than a glance at Kondo’s books even after that quick reference on the television shows. Work, stress, and responsibilities kept me on a leash and restrained me from venturing even an inch from the path.

Last January 1st, Netflix released Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, a reality television series where Kondo takes in choice middle-class clients around Los Angeles and help them declutter their homes through her philosophy. Her persona and “spark joy” philosophy took years to snowball into the sphere of pop culture. Kondo defines the spark of joy as something similar to the feeling of “Tokimeki,” or the fluttering of the heart. It happens when your body reacts positively once you touch and hold an object. It doesn’t stop after the process of decluttering and organizing is over; Maintenance of order—or at least prevention of impending mess—is also part of the KonMari method. As the American landscape continues to degrade due to heavy stress caused by the neglected natural environment, the shit show politics, and the increasingly ominous consequence of hyper-capitalism, Kondo’s philosophy offer people—who unknowingly define themselves by the amount of clutter they drown their bodies in—a method and an outlook to reassess their lives and deal with existential crises.

I usually kept my things categorized and neat, although in an annoyingly half- assed manner. For example, I’m organized by way of that I would put most of my books that I’ve read into a medium-sized box to set aside; I’m neat by way of that I’d keep loose things out of sight by just storing them wherever I could. I put the KonMari method into practice for the first time, so as million other people with access to Netflix. I was only able to do the first half of the method, which is clothes and books. Even so, I picked up the gist of Kondo’s philosophy and learned enough to apply it for an extended period of success.

At the same time that Kondo becomes a household name in America, a country in which capitalism and ownership of material things rank higher than personal peace and development, a recent slew of Japanese literature was beginning to make its prominent space in readers’ bookshelves and Amazon wishlists. These works pale in comparison to other novels the Western publishing industry prefer to value and respect, yet they have proven to offer more depth and compassion through their mastered concision. Using the philosophy of “spark joy” as a lens elucidated these books and further enhanced the reading experience. Japanese novels not only served exquisite sentences and paragraphs, but they also gave ample time to bask in their words, relish the emotions I felt, and reconsider my perspective as if I was doing it on my own.

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami (translated by Allison Markin Powell) was the first Japanese novel I read. Originally published in 2001 as “センセイ の鞄” or The Briefcase, it only made its American debut in 2017. Hence, I was able to grab a copy. Strange Weather in Tokyo follows Tsukiko, a woman in her late 30s, as she develops a relationship with her former high school teacher, addressed as “Sensei,” after they met one night in a bar. Despite only having roughly 192 pages, it took me a week to finish it. Kawakami weaved the formation of romance between the two characters through the changing seasons in a realistic pace: slow and acclimatized by shared loneliness and subtle concern for one another. The experience continued in between and after reading. I think about the veiled yet natural process of how Tsukiko and Sensei fell in love. They faced the heartache and growing age that brought them to that bar and pondered on what is most essential to their lives over bottles of beers and hot sakes.

While Kawakami’s novel dwelled on realism as most humans comprehend it, Yukiko Motoya’s collection The Lonesome Bodybuilder (translated by Asa Yoneda) had a different version of human nature in mind. The stories involve conflicts such as the resuscitation of a dying marriage and the inescapable repercussion of restrictive gender roles. The characters resolve these issues by crossing the line to the absurd without any

questions regarding their lack of logic or reason. Motoya doesn’t loiter in setting up the stories. She’d start with a seemingly normal or mundane situation for a page or two, and then one radical decision would take the world upside down. In the title story, a wife who has been married to her husband for seven years has struggled to find new ways to revive the excitement in their marriage decided to become a bodybuilder. In “The Women,” a man found himself in a sudden duel to the death against his girlfriend. Various interpretations lurk in Motoya’s stories. However, she would sometimes humor the probable apophenia, which is the tendency for humans to read too much from things on the surface level. A woman with a high-level position in advertising started seeing a face in an ordinary object in “I Called You By Name.” Motoya exposes how we usually embed meaning and sentimentality in our memories and possessions just so we could say we lived a profound existence.

One taught me that bliss can still exist despite wallowing in emotional solitude; the other taught me that a revision of self requires subjection to the unknown. I read both books for more than a year apart. I’m still just as lost as I was back then. I also went through Lion Cross Point by Masatsugu Ono and Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. Whether these novels grapple common human concerns with either metaphorical absurdity or realistic account of life experiences, the truth would always be with you from the beginning of each story. There will be no deception; the narrative would only linger for the purpose of delivering an artful and enlightening journey.

This is not a manifesto on the perceived healing potentials of Japanese culture. Despite its clear logic and coherence, Kondo’s philosophy of keeping material things that make you happy was met with skepticism and candid racism by people who are, let’s say, have a skewed perception regarding democracy and the advantages of capitalism. Kondo, with her petite frame and eyes that smiled with her mouth, was exoticized into a Japanese forest spirit who would enter your home after you had dropped to the floor and sobbed due to a gigantic mess and bestowed upon you the wisdom to get your shit together.

The KonMari method and the Japanese novels that recently made its US debut offer fresh, honest, and wonderful perspectives, which also serves as antitheses to the prevailing traits of the American dream: materialistic, capitalistic, and redundant. They’re even more necessary and urgent in the current political climate. As the world revolves faster and technology becomes more and more dominant, I can admit that I am struggling to keep up. I am still a mess. Hopefully, by immersing myself to these writers, I can find another way to mold a more favorable path for myself and for my destination.