How the Marie Kondo Backlash Is Rooted in Ignorance and Misunderstanding

If you haven’t yet heard of Marie Kondo, you’ve probably been living under a rock — or under that pile of National Geographics you haven’t read and probably never will. Does that pile make you feel happy? Or is it a stress-inducing reminder of the money you spent on a subscription to yet another magazine you don’t really need?

Marie Kondo is very misunderstood, if the backlash is anything to go by. (Image: Gracie Wilson/Livestrong)

That’s what Kondo wants you to figure out. Do your possessions make you feel joy? If not, get rid of them. The author of the best-selling books “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” and “Spark Joy,” and now the star of her very own Netflix show, Kondo has taken the tidying world by storm. So much so that her followers use “Kondo” as a verb, synonymous with tidying according to the KonMari method (e.g., “I need to Kondo my house before my in-laws come over.”)

This sunny, always-smiling, 4-foot-11 Japanese woman is the fairy godmother of cleaning, who genuinely wants to help people declutter their homes and live healthier, happier, calmer lives. And judging from the hugs, tears and heartfelt thanks she receives on her Netflix show, she achieves just that.

So why do some people love to hate Kondo? Ever since her first volume was published in 2014, a backlash of articles and social-media posts have accused Kondo of espousing “woo-woo nonsense” and a decluttering method that is “as ruthless as it is unrealistic.”

In the wake of the “book-burning” saga, in which she was accused of telling people to get rid of their books, one author even called her a “monster,” in an Instagram post that she later deleted in response to accusations of cultural insensitivity. Never before has the act of cleaning incited such controversy.

“I believe that people are very quick to jump to conclusions and misinterpret what she said without listening carefully or rereading the book,” says Alison Lush, a Montreal-based certified professional organizer who has studied and presented on Kondo’s strategy for decluttering, the KonMari method. Many haven’t read the books at all. Perhaps that’s the reason they don’t appear to have a clue what they’re talking about.

A Misunderstood Method

At its core, the KonMari method aims to help people not only declutter their lives, but also to become more “mindful, introspective and forward-thinking” when it comes to their possessions. The KonMari method is much more than mere tidying: It’s meant to be a complete overhaul of your environment and how you relate to it.

Such a big change requires big actions. Rather than tidying room to room, the KonMari method involves tidying in five different categories:

  • Clothing
  • Books
  • Papers
  • Komono (kitchen, garage, miscellaneous)
  • Mementos (sentimental items)

Each category is completed before moving on to the next category. There’s a reason for this: The categories progress from easy to more difficult, which helps you get better at decision-making as you go along. By the time you get to mementos, the hardest category for most people, you’ve strengthened your decision-making muscle and can make more logical, rather than emotional, decisions about what’s really worth keeping.

What puts a lot of people off is that Kondo says you must do this in one “tidying marathon.” This doesn’t mean you tidy for 36 hours straight without sleeping. It means that you commit to tidying thoroughly, without losing focus or giving up. It’s also not a process that should be rushed. “Rebound occurs because people mistakenly believe they have tidied thoroughly, when in fact they have only sorted and stored things halfway,” Kondo says. In other words, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

It’s not just about getting rid of things. Kondo also provides techniques for maintaining tidiness over time. For example, her much-debated method of folding clothes and standing them up vertically in drawers. Why? Because when you can see all of your clothes at one time, it prevents you from having to rifle through stacks of shirts to find your favorite T-shirt. Ultimately, a lot of rifling over time leads to a big mess of shirts all over the place, but not one on your back — quickly, when you need it, and without breaking a sweat.

“The average person lives in an environment that sabotages his or her best efforts at every turn,” Kondo said. “You can accomplish more, quicker and with ease, if your environment literally nurtures and supports you.” If that means your shirts stand up, so be it.

This is how Kondo fulfills her claim that you will only need to do this once. Because once you have learned to tidy and stay tidy, you will never find yourself drowning under a mountain of clutter again.

What Does It Mean to ‘Spark Joy’?

The KonMari method prescribes getting rid of anything that doesn’t spark joy. Kondo asks people to actually touch their possessions and pay attention to how those objects make them feel. If they feel good about the object, they should keep it; if they feel like it doesn’t add joy — or purpose or meaning — to their lives, they should discard it.

This simple two-word phrase that is the title of Kondo’s second book is perhaps the most misunderstood concept of the KonMari method. There are as many different interpretations of what Kondo means as there were copies sold of her first book (more than 8 million worldwide). Perhaps no one but Kondo herself can really pinpoint its true meaning, but here’s what “spark joy” doesn’t mean:

It doesn’t mean that you need to feel overjoyed about the TV remote. But can you imagine life without it? You’d literally have to get up to change the channel. Ugh.

It doesn’t mean that you should throw out your towels because they don’t make you feel butterflies in your stomach like your first crush. You need those. Unless you have the time to drip dry.

It doesn’t mean you have to throw out all your books. That’s right, Marie Kondo does not hate books, contrary to claims she told people to get rid of all but 30 of their most joy-sparking volumes.

What she did say (in the third chapter of “Life-Changing Magic”) is that you do not need to keep every book you own, because books, as venerable as they are, are stress-inducing clutter when they get out of control. Kondo chooses to limit her personal library to 30 books, but she did not suggest that was everyone’s magic number.

“Let go of all the books that aren’t actively contributing something of value to your life,” Lush says. Such as “All About Macrame,” or textbooks from your senior year of college (because you’re 37). “If you keep this book or you keep that book it’s OK, as long as it adds quality to your life, it adds joy to your life. That’s supposed to be the ruler. It’s not an arbitrary number.”

But try telling that to book critic Ron Charles, who, in his Washington Post article “Keep your tidy, spark-joy hands off my book piles, Marie Kondo,” confessed to having thousands of books all over his house, “Under the table. On the table. On all horizontal surfaces,” and not wanting to let go of a single one. “It’s not ideal, but my wife and I wouldn’t have it any other way. We’re not after sparks of joy — we want to swim in wonder,” he said.

Here’s the thing: “Wonder” certainly falls under the category of joy, and no doubt Marie Kondo would agree. If you are that passionate about books — and/or if you are a book critic — by all means, keep your books. Although it’s a good bet that there are at least 10 books in Charles’ collection that do not contain even enough wonder to sip, much less swim in, and it couldn’t hurt to clear them from the dining-room table so he could use it for other things, such as eating.

What about more mundane objects that are functional but lacking in the joy department? “I think it depends on how narrowly a person decides to interpret the ‘spark joy’ phrase,” says Lush. “If I look at my wrench, maybe it doesn’t spark joy for me, but I think that what she intends me to do is to look at the wrench and ask myself if it adds value to my life.

And I do think my wrench can add value to my life, because it means that I can fix something; it gives me the opportunity to be independent in the future and fix something and actually solve a problem.”

What Kondo doesn’t intend is for you to have five wrenches that are rusted and buried so deep in a drawer in your garage that you’re screwed (pardon the pun) if you need to fix a leaky faucet.

That ‘Woo-Woo Nonsense’

Western audiences can’t be expected to have a deep understanding of Japanese culture or religion, but they should at least try before they denigrate Kondo’s roots. Kondo is heavily influenced by the Shinto religion, the essence of which is a devotion to spiritual beings and powers.

“Kami are Shinto spirits are present everywhere — in humans, in nature, even in inanimate objects,” explains author Margaret Dilloway, whose Japanese mother practiced Shintoism.

“At an early age, I understood this to mean that all creations were miracles of a sort. I could consider a spatula used to cook my eggs with the wonder and mindful appreciation you’d afford a sculpture; someone had to invent it, many human hands and earthly resources helped get it to me, and now I use it every day. According to Shinto animism, some inanimate objects could gain a soul after 100 years of service ― a concept known as tsukumogami ― so it felt natural to acknowledge them, to express my gratitude for them.”

When Kondo thanks a shirt for its service, she’s showing appreciation for all that went into its creation. When she kneels in a silence that resembles prayer to greet a house, this is an expression of the ritual that is sewn into the very fabric of Shinto life. Although it may be considered bizarre, eccentric nonsense to many Westerners, it’s commonplace in Japan, where 80 percent of the population participates in Shinto practices.

“I have no expertise at all on either Japanese culture or Shinto religion, but I think I understood enough in the book to realize that there’s a strong cultural and religious underpinning to what she’s presenting,” says Lush. “It would be foolish of me to evaluate the way that she greets the house or the way she thanks clothes for their service. It would be foolish of me to judge that or interpret it based on Western standards.”

It’s Not for Everyone

KonMari is a one-size-fits-all solution, but all are not going to find it fits for them. The KonMari method is very straightforward, with little wiggle room. It tells you exactly what to do and in what order. At no point does it give you the option not to do something if it doesn’t feel right for you or fit your lifestyle. It’s just not that kind of program.

In the first chapter of “Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” Kondo writes, “Don’t change the method to suit your personality.” This isn’t going to work for people who chafe at having their individuality stifled, and that’s OK. It is going to work for a lot of other people who like being guided with a strong hand, are open-minded and ready to try a unique approach to ending their clutter woes.

“I think part of the reason why her philosophy is so attractive to so many people and part of why it attracts so much criticism is the fact that she literally promises success. She literally says, ‘you do exactly what I tell you to do and you will not have any clutter anymore,’” said Lush, who is also president of the Institute for Challenging Disorganization. The KonMari method leaves little room for interpretation.

For people who don’t like being told what to do, this smacks of arrogance. Skeptics criticize her promises, mainly because they are not willing to follow the method as she’s prescribed it and thus are not successful. This is similar to hiring a personal trainer who says, “If you follow this exercise and nutrition program, I promise that you will see results in six months.”

But results depend on you actually following the program as your trainer designed it, without picking and choosing which elements work best for you. You hired the trainer and asked for his professional help, just as you read Kondo’s book hoping it would help you live a clutter-free life.

You’re free to choose whether or not you want to follow the system, but if you don’t you can’t complain that it’s flawed.

The Present and the Future

The minimalism movement has been trending over the past decade, especially with millennials who came of age during the recession and are drowning in student debt. Kondo’s astounding popularity is an offshoot of that. Yet some at the forefront of the minimalism movement claim Kondo is missing the point.

“Owning less is great, but wanting less is even better,” wrote Joshua Becker, author of “The More of Less.” “Unfortunately, the question ‘Does it spark joy?’ does little to rewire our thinking in that regard. After all, when we’re standing in the department store, many things we pick up spark joy. That’s why we leave with so many of them in our shopping carts.”

This is when Lush’s belief that people aren’t listening closely (or reading the book) becomes evident. Kondo isn’t just saying “discard, discard”; she’s saying learn to value the possessions you have and make better decisions about what you want to surround you — now and in the future. In chapter 5 of “Life-Changing Magic,” she writes about “learning that you can do without” and “identifying what is truly precious.” If that’s not plainly espousing “wanting less,” then what is?

It’s clear that acquiring more things just because they make you happy is not the purpose of the KonMari method. Teaching people to really consider the value and meaning of their possessions is, and it has more far-reaching consequences than Becker realizes. Once you have invested in decreasing the quantity and increasing the quality of your possessions, it’s highly unlikely that you will be tempted to once again fill your home with useless baubles from the department store. If the KonMari method works as it is intended, you will be able to look at future purchases through a more discerning lens, asking yourself if owning the object will truly add value to your life.

The Important Lessons

Details are important, but critics, as is their nature, often devote too much time to picking apart details without examining how they fit into the bigger picture. This is what it means to be unable to see the forest for the trees, or, in this case, to be unable to see your running shoes through the pile of clothes you took out of the dryer last week and still haven’t put away.

Kondo’s tidying philosophy isn’t about trees or running shoes. It’s about the landscape of your life. She asks you to create a mental picture of your life and how you want to live it. She asks you to be more mindful of how you relate to your possessions and to your environment and to be grateful for the things you have. Buddhism has long taught us that if you practice mindfulness and gratitude, you really can change your life.

While the Netflix show is entertaining, it’s worth reading the books. That’s where the real nuggets of wisdom are. And when you’ve finished the books, if they don’t spark joy, Kondo encourages you to pass them along to serve their purpose elsewhere.

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