How Marie Kondo Bucks Japanese Tradition

Marie Kondo. Photo: Richard Bord / Getty Images Entertainment

Iam a tentative Marie Kondo fan. While I don’t fold my shirts into neat rolls or divide my junk drawer into easily identifiable sections, I read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and thought, That’s cool. I threw away a couple of old shirts and sweaters, maybe a few old binders, and that was that.

Perhaps the reason I don’t find Kondo’s tidying-up strategies particularly shocking is because I spent five years in Japan, training as a Zen Buddhist nun. For three of those years, I lived and worked in a convent called Aichi Senmon Nisodo, sharing a room with five Japanese women. We spent all day cooking, cleaning, sewing, and performing ceremonies.

Reading the discourse, backlash, and backlash to the backlash surrounding Kondo’s methods, it has occurred to me just how little Western people understand about Japanese culture. They tend to fixate on and exaggerate Kondo’s innocuous suggestions (for example, to keep only 30 books), while overlooking the parts of her philosophy that deviate from the norms of her culture — in other words, the aspects of her practice that are quite groundbreaking.

It’s important to understand both where Kondo fits into a larger tradition and where she breaks away. This will help us avoid projecting our own exotification and xenophobia onto her.

Let’s start with the things about Kondo that are not groundbreaking. First, there is clear overlap between her philosophy of cleanliness and Zen practice. In a Buddhist monastery, cleaning is elevated to a religious art, and most of the day is devoted to cleaning. In the convent where I trained there were at least five different cleaning rags, each with its own unique function. The “zokin” was only to be used on the floor, whereas the “jokin,” combining the character for “pure” and “cloth,” was reserved for cleaning sacred spaces such as the altar. A “fukin” (pronounced FOO-kin) was used for drying hands. Mixing up any of these cloths at any time was blasphemy.

Japanese religion and spirituality have for many centuries focused on the sacredness of inanimate objects.

In addition to physical cleanliness, neatness was also paramount. I remember one day hanging some tea towels (“chakin,” another kind of towel) in a haphazard, crooked way and having a senior nun yell at me. “This is zazen!” she screamed, pointing at the crooked towels. (“Zazen” refers to Zen meditation.) “You came to Japan to study zazen, but you don’t realize that these towels are zazen!”

She had a point. Japanese religion and spirituality have for many centuries focused on the sacredness of inanimate objects. For millennia, Zen practitioners have debated whether objects have “buddha-nature,” the ability to attain enlightenment. As the scholar Fabio Rambelli points out, the Tendai and Shingon schools of Japanese Buddhism argued that nonsentient objects such as nature, the environment, and inanimate objects “exert a salvic influence over sentient beings.”

This understanding that inanimate objects hold salvic power spread to Zen and other forms of Japanese Buddhism, and arguably, to most of Japanese culture. Japanese animisim/Shintoism also recognizes the aliveness of inanimate objects. As any scholar of Japanese religion will tell you, at a certain point, the distinction between Buddhism and Shintoism breaks down, and it becomes difficult to distinguish where one ends and the other begins. Both relate to inanimate objects as things that can feel and thus deserve our respect.

Kondo takes up where these Buddhist philosophers left off. She approaches cleaning with the basic understanding that objects are more than objects. In the Netflix show, she often has families kneel on the floor and ask the house for “permission” or “cooperation” before they clean. She encourages people to say “thank you” to clothes as they fold. Over and over, she treats inanimate objects as living things, speaking to them and communicating with them, and encouraging us all to do the same. In this way, she fits neatly within the conventions of Japanese Buddhism and other forms of indigenous Japanese spirituality.

Ifind it more interesting to look at where Kondo breaks away from tradition. First, she explicitly says to prioritize joy, or to choose objects that “spark joy.” The word she uses in Japanese, “tokimeku,” is an intransitive verb that means to throb or flutter. Think of the feeling you get when you see your crush, or when you take a turn on a mountain highway and can finally see the ocean. That’s tokimeku.

Kondo has taken the emptiness of Zen and combined it with the fluttering of a childhood crush.

Japanese Buddhism has not always valued tokimeku. It values emptiness, and space, and decorum, but not throbbing or fluttering. Kondo has taken the emptiness of Zen and combined it with the fluttering of a childhood crush.

The other way I see Kondo deviating from traditional Japanese culture is her relationship to wasting. Japanese culture actually prioritizes not wasting, as opposed to throwing away. Anyone who has lived in Japan has probably encountered the phrase “mottainai,” which means “don’t waste.” The phrase is used to express displeasure about wasting and describe instances of throwing away either tangible or intangible things.

For example, when I told a young woman in Japan that I didn’t want to get married, she exclaimed, “You’re young! Mottainai!” Back in the United States, when I lament my declining Japanese skills, people often agree, “Mottainai!” And of course, in the convent, if we ever considered throwing away some week-old tub of leftover soup, someone would inevitably utter “Mottainai!” And the soup would end up as part of our dinner or creatively incorporated into another dish.

Kondo doesn’t do mottainai, or if she does, she does it very selectively. She prioritizes emptying out our closets, rather than preserving them. This is obvious if you’ve watched her show or read her books, but it might not be obvious just how radical this is within Japanese society.

When I was getting ready to leave the Buddhist convent, I asked a senior nun how many socks she thought I should take with me. She thought about this for a few seconds.

“Five,” she said.

“Five?” I asked, incredulous. “Five pairs of socks?”

The nun turned to her friend and repeated my question.

“Four,” the other nun said without pausing.

The exchange reflects how Zen practice is the living embodiment of “less is more” — a philosophy that also runs through Kondo’s books and shows.

It’s clear that Kondo, a Japanese woman, is heavily influenced by the culture around her. But she is also her own person, with her own style. In this way, she both embodies and breaks with tradition, one Netflix episode at a time.