At a lecture hall in central London, a Japanese woman dressed in white and silver folds a T-shirt. “Thank you for keeping me warm,” she murmurs, then stands it on end on the demonstration table in front of her. The room bursts into spontaneous applause.
We are gathered to watch as Marie Kondo, a 31-year-old “decluttering consultant” and head of an international self-help empire, teaches us the tidying methods she has perfected over a lifetime. It is debatable whether the audience has much to learn: those around me sport “Say no to clutter!” T-shirts, and when Kondo asks, through an interpreter, who has tried her method, many hands go up. This is a room full of Konverts.
Kondo’s folding method, often the first thing new disciples learn about her, involves collapsing clothes into neat rectangles and folding them into little bundles which can stand vertically in a drawer; making them visible and also space-efficient. It’s an apt symbol for her overall approach: something you should have come up with yourself, but never did.
Yet the central tenets of the acronymically named “KonMari method” centre not on storing items, but taking them out, looking at them and discarding any that don’t “spark joy” (the title of her second book published in English) when you hold them close. Decluttering is an old idea but Kondo’s approach has captured imaginations in a way no one has managed before – her first book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, has sold five million copies worldwide and she was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2015. One audience member asks why her ideas are so popular. “My approach is broader,” she says. “It’s about tidying up your lifestyle and your life.”
This dual purpose, while often overlooked in Kondo commentary, is actually central to her method. In answer to another question, she says that the catalyst for those who seek out her consultancy services isn’t necessarily a build-up of clutter, but a cluttered and unhappy mind. She pulls up a slideshow of “before” and “after” photos of clients’ homes, and points out a particularly clutter-covered bed: “Imagine if this was your brain.”
Kondo’s “philosophy”, which, I’d argue, it is, appeals to a new kind of mindful consumerism that rejects both the blind acquisition of the 1990s and the tightened belts of the post-recession decade in favour of focusing on a few carefully chosen, well-loved items. The right possessions, she says, can truly improve your life. Money can’t buy you happiness but your favourite collection of trinkets can.
She argues that we each have a “click point”, at which we have the pefect amount of possessions, and urges readers of her first book to “consider the rent you pay” – which resonates in London, especially – and work out how much you’re paying to store things you don’t really need or want.
Reversion to mess is labelled “rebound” in the KonMari method, but Kondo claims none of her consultation clients have yet succumbed. This track record suggests something even more impressive about the method: it actually works. Kondo argues that it’s the magnitude of the transformation that makes the changes stick. Key tenets of the method, such as working by category (clothes, books, papers) and doing a category in a single day, are designed to create a change so radical that your habits change accordingly.
Kondo’s own life story is so apt and well-known that it has passed into lore. Born in Japan, Kondo became fixated on tidying at the age of five, when she obsessively cleaned “first my room, then my sister’s room, then my friend’s room, another friend’s room”.
Her first book is loosely structured around the trials and errors cleaning up at home and even at school. When she was 15 she famously fainted as the result of too much tidying, and then “heard a voice” that told her: “we should be choosing what we want to keep, not what we want to get rid of”.
“Asking ‘what should I discard?’” she explains now, leads to negative thinking. Deciding what to keep, on the other hand, “sparks joy”, as it helps you appreciate your belongings. She carries out a strange mime onstage to demonstrate how this feels; lifting an arm and a leg into the air as she clutches a plain white T-shirt. She grins. “It’s like every bit of your body is lifted up”.
In person, Kondo lacks the sternness hinted at in her books’ imperative tone (“Rule of thumb: discard everything” reads one section title; “What you don’t need, your family doesn’t either“, another). She has learned several English phrases to break up the translation, many of which are self deprecating: “I’m a crazy tidying fanatic!” she says with a smile.
In her books, however, Kondo hints at her discomfort around other people, writing that since she was young, “I did not like relying on others, found it hard to trust them and was very inept at expressing my feelings”. In one particularly melancholy passage, Kondo feels that something iss missing in her home despite its order, then realises it is because her items were collecting the aura of a life spent away from those she loved. She resolved to spend more time with her family as a result.
The soul of the clutter
As a teenager, Kondo worked as an attendant at a Shinto shrine. Elements of this Japanese religion, which teaches that both animate and inanimate objects can have spirits, inform her teachings. She advises readers to thank objects when we use or discard them and asserts that possessions feel neglected when they are unused or stored haphazardly. This extends to leaving your handbag unemptied overnight. “Being packed all the time must feel something like going to bed on a full stomach,” she says. Even if anthropomorphising your trousers feels a step too far, we can all recognise the peculiar guilt sparked by the objects we dislike or never use.
In a Reddit interview, Kondo wrote that Shintoism is “not particularly a religion in my life”, but that for many in Japan, “it is pretty much blended into our daily lifestyle or habits. It influences me, but not as strongly as you might think.”
This more spiritual aspect to her work may also explain the devotion, even fanaticism, of Kondo’s fans. Pinterest has found its queen in Kondo, and videos and blogposts about the method’s transformative power litter the internet.
Kondo also claims that clients and readers experience life changes that go far beyond the folding in their drawers. In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, she asserts that can lead to a “detox effect on our bodies as well”. Many ex-clients, she claims, have lost weight; others have sought a divorce or changed jobs after their tidying consultations. Some of this seems far-fetched, but it’s true that small achievements often allow us to tackle bigger problems. Maybe her clients’ divorces, marriages and job changes are less surprising than they seem.
There’s also a real comfort in being told what to do, and how to approach decisions. Perhaps it was a result of reading both books in the course of a week, but quickly, on encountering a drawer or a pile of stuff, I could hear Kondo’s calm, clear instructions in my head. “Roll larger jumpers gently. Put them in a smaller bag if needed, to squash out the air. Always store upright. Make sure you can see everything. That dress doesn’t make you happy. Get rid of it.” Kondo grants you the permission to get rid of those clothes that don’t fit, or those plates you never use. The process, as a result, is almost embarrassingly uplifting.
The books do at times seem very specific to women, middle class people, and even Japan – they often refer to large, built-in wardrobes, common there but distinctly lacking in my corner of Haringey. Yet on closer inspection, the apparently hard-and-fast rules give way to repeated appeals to the reader to make decisions about what’s important in their life. Several audience members at the Red event fretfully ask Kondo whether they can break her rules for their particular situation. Her answer is always the same: “That’s fine. If it makes you joyful, do it.”
One woman suggests that Kondo’s advice to tackle clothes first, because they throw up the least difficult emotions, is ill-advised in Britain, where women often feel uncomfortable with their bodies and clothes. She loved Kondo’s first book – “it inspired me to become a professional organiser!” but, due to “body issues”, can’t find clothes she likes. “I only have one drawer of clothes left, and I still can’t find the joy in them.” Kondo answers leaning forward in her chair: “You’ll find the clothes and looks you like. You were right to get rid of all those other clothes – now you can move on. Please don’t give up.”
You are what you tidy
Initial reactions from those who encounter Kondo often follow the same arc. When I started telling friends and colleagues about the book, including the requirement to hug all your stuff, many scoffed, then came back to me a week later clutching photos of their immaculate sock drawer. It turned out I already knew several devotees, who all have stuck to the method ever since discovering it.
Among others, though, there was a widely held belief that tidying, or caring about clutter, is trivial. As my interest in Kondo grew, this idea increasingly irritated me. We all have possessions, and so the ways we manage and interact with them are distinctly human concerns. It occurred to me that our lack of respect for those who focus tidying or decluttering may have a lot to do with the fact that it’s traditionally the domain of women, who “fuss” and “nag” and, in summary, keep homes pleasant, liveable and joyful.
Another widespread criticism of Kondo is that her method is restrictive and fussy. The Life-altering magic of not giving a f*ck, a self-help book published at the end of last year by Sarah Knight, trades off a parody of Kondo’s first book’s title and its supposed message that we must all panic about our clutter. But when an audience member asks Kondo what she’d do about a client who likes their clutter, she shrugs. “That’s fine!” Her method is designed to make people more comfortable with their possessions, whether that involves getting rid of them or not. She’s aware that it’s not for everyone.
In Spark Joy, Kondo tackles the subject of non-tidiers quite seriously. She says clients and readers often ask her what to do if a husband or family member won’t tidy the way they want them to, and her advice is, basically, leave them to it, and even try to appreciate their attachment to the items you see as “clutter”.
As a tidying evangelist teen, Kondo eventually realised that her family only began to emulate her habits when she tidied for herself and herself only. (This realisation came via an unfortunate incident in which she threw away her family’s rarely used coats and handbags without asking first.) They eventually saw how happy and contented she was, and some followed suit.It was only after the publication and enormous success of her first book that her father finally asked her to help him to de-clutter his room.
In fact, tidying, Kondo maintains, brings a contentment and peace which kills the desire to enforce the rules on others. Her ruling on this is pulled out from the text of Spark Joy in bold: “Only when we accept unconditionally people whose values differ from our own can we really say that we have finished tidying”.
So is this a self-help method for bored, privileged people with too much stuff? In a word, yes. But it also seeks to change our relationship with our possessions in a way that neither diminishes their importance, nor excuses piles of meaningless clutter.
“The relationship with the material world,” Kondo writes at the close of Spark Joy, “is one of mutual support… Cherish the [things] you want to keep, just as you cherish yourself.”
All imags are extracts from Spark Joy by Marie Kondo, published by Vermilion £12.99
This article appears in the 20 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East's 30 years war