Marie Kondo's war on clutter
The Japanese home-organization guru has built an empire on the premise that tidying up will change people's lives. Not everyone is a believer.
Joy points upward, according to Marie Kondo, whose name is now a verb and whose life has become a philosophy. In April at the Japan Society in New York, she mounted a stage in an ivory dress and silver heels, made namaste hands at the audience, and took her place beneath the display of a PowerPoint presentation. Now that she had sold nearly 6 million copies of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and had been on the New York Times best-seller list for 86 weeks and counting, she was taking the next logical step: a formal training program for her KonMari method, certifying her acolytes to bring the joy and weightlessness of a clutter-free life to others.
The 93 Konverts in attendance (and me) had been given lanyards that contained our information: our names, where we live, and an option of either the proud "Tidying Completed!" or the shameful "Tidying Not Yet Completed!" In order to be considered tidy, you must have completed the method outlined in Kondo's book. It includes something called a "once-in-a-lifetime tidying marathon," which means piling five categories of material possessions — clothing, books, papers, miscellaneous items, and sentimental items, including photos, in that order — one at a time, surveying how much of each you have, seeing that it's way too much, and then holding each item to see if it sparks joy in your body.
The ones that spark joy get to stay. The ones that don't get a heartfelt and generous goodbye, via actual verbal communication, and are then sent on their way to their next life. This is the crux of the KonMari — a soon-to-be-trademarked nickname — and it is detailed in The Life-Changing Magic and her more recent book, Spark Joy. She is often mistaken for someone who thinks you shouldn't own anything, but that's wrong. Rather, she thinks you can own as much or as little as you like, as long as every possession brings you true joy.
Her book was published in the United States in 2014, quietly and to zero fanfare and acclaim. Kondo's inability to speak English made promotional radio and talk-show appearances hard sells. But one day, a New York Times Home section reporter happened upon the book and wrote an article discussing her own attempt at KonMari-ing her closets; the book caught fire. Soon it was the subject of every kind of press: the adoring profile, the women's magazine listicle, the feminist takedown, the personal essay, the op-ed of harrumph.
By the time her book arrived, America had entered a time of peak stuff, when we had accumulated a mountain of disposable goods but hadn't (and still haven't) learned how to dispose of them. We were burdened by our stuff; we were drowning in it.
People had an unnaturally strong reaction to the arrival of this woman and her promises of life-changing magic. There were people who had been doing home organizing for years, and they sniffed at her severe methods. But then there were the women who knew that Kondo was speaking directly to them. They called themselves Konverts, and they say their lives have truly changed as a result of using her decluttering methods.
At the Japan Society, we were split into workshop groups, where we explained to one another what had brought us here and what we had got out of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. A woman named Diana said that before she tidied, her life was out of control. Her job had been recently eliminated when she found the book. "It's a powerful message for women that you should be surrounded by things that make you happy," she said, and her and everyone else's faces engaged in wide-eyed, open-mouthed incredulous agreement, nodding emphatically. "I found the opposite of happiness is not sadness," Diana told us. "It's chaos." Another woman said she KonMari-ed a bad boyfriend. Having tidied everything in her home and finding she still distinctly lacked happiness, she held her boyfriend in her hands, realized he no longer sparked joy, and got rid of him.
Joy is the only goal, Kondo said, addressing the group, and the room nodded, yes, yes, in emphatic agreement, mouths agape in wonder that something so simple needed to be taught to them. "My dream is to organize the world," Kondo said. The crowd cheered, and Kondo raised her arms into the air like Rocky.
When she enters a new home, Kondo says, she sits down in the middle of the floor to greet the space. She says that to fold a shirt the way everyone folds a shirt (a floppy rectangle) instead of the way she thinks you should (a tight mass of dignified envelope-shaped fabric so tensile that it could stand upright) is to deprive that shirt of the dignity it requires to continue its work, i.e. hanging off your shoulders until bedtime. She would like your socks to rest. She would like you to thank your clothes for how hard they work and ensure that they get adequate relaxation between wearings. Before you throw them out — and hoo boy will you be throwing them out — she wants you to thank them for their service.
She is tiny — just 4-foot-8. When I interviewed her, not only did her feet not touch the ground when we were sitting, but her knees didn't even bend over the side of the couch. When she speaks, she remains pleasant-faced and smiling. The only visible possessions in her hotel room for a two-week trip from Tokyo were her husband's laptop and a small silver suitcase the size of a man's briefcase. Her ankles are skinny but her wrists are muscular. When she shows pictures of herself in places she has tidied, before she starts, she looks like a lost sparrow in a tornado. In the "after" picture, it is hard to believe that such a creature could effect such change.
Her success has taken her by surprise. She never thought someone could become so famous for tidying that it would be hard to walk down the street in Tokyo. "I feel I am busy all the time and I work all the time," she said, and she did not seem so happy about this, though her smile never wavered.
Kondo does not feel threatened by different philosophies of organization. She leaves room for something that people don't often give her credit for: that the KonMari method might not be your speed. In Japan, there are at least 30 organizing associations, whereas in the United States we have just one major group, the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO). Kondo herself has never heard of NAPO, though she did tell me that she knows the profession exists in the United States. "I haven't had a chance to talk to anyone in particular, but what I've heard is that thanks to my book and organizing method, now the organizing industry in general kind of bloomed and got a spotlight on it," she said. "They kind of thanked me for how my book or method changed the course of the organizing industry in America."
The women — and maybe three or four men — of NAPO would beg to differ. More than 600 of them descended on Atlanta for NAPO's annual meeting in May. They refer to this gathering only as Conference, no article, the way that insiders call the CIA just CIA. I went along, too, in order to better understand the state of stuff in America, and to study Kondo's competition.
At Conference, I met women who organize basements. I met women who organize digital clutter and those who organize photos. I met a woman who organizes thoughts, and please don't move on to the next sentence until you've truly absorbed that: I met a woman who charges $100 per hour for the organization of thoughts. I heard the word "detritus" pronounced three different ways.
Conference was different from the KonMari events that I attended. Whereas Kondo does not believe that you need to buy anything in order to organize and that storage systems provide only the illusion of tidiness, the women of Conference traded recon on time-saving apps, label makers, the best kind of Sharpie, the best tool they own ("supersticky notes," "drawer dividers"), and the best practices regarding clients who won't offer their organization goals in a timely manner. I heard about the crises in the industry: that there are clients who print out Pinterest pages and say, "I want that"; that the Baby Boomers are downsizing for the first time; that there is a rising generation that isn't interested in inheriting their parents' old junk.'
While NAPO members don't share any standardized method for organizing, they are fairly unified in their disdain for this Japanese interloper. They have waged a war through their fuming blog posts and their generally disgusted conversations, saying that she is a product only of good marketing, that she's not doing anything different from what they've been doing since she was in diapers. They don't like that there's a prescribed order for tidying; they think you have to yield to what your client wants done and has time for. They don't like the once-in-a-lifetime tidying marathon, which on average is completed in six months; sometimes organizing is a many years' effort. They don't like that she hasn't really addressed what to do with all your kids' stuff.
At the opening-night cocktails/trade show, I asked some women eating spring rolls what they had against Kondo. The nice ones, struggling for something that wasn't overtly bitchy to say, said they appreciated that the popularity of her book has brought attention to their industry, which still lobbies to be recognized by the government as an official occupation. But they also feel as if they've been doing this for years, that "she just has one hell of a marketing machine, but she's doing nothing that's so different from us," at least three of them said to me.
Each organizer I spoke with said that she had the same fundamental plan that Kondo did, that the client should purge what is no longer needed or wanted; somehow the extra step of thanking the object or folding it a little differently enrages them. This rage hides behind the notion that things are different here in America, that our lives are more complicated and our stuff is more burdensome and our decisions are harder to make.
"It's a book if you're a 20-something Japanese girl and you live at home and you still have a bunch of your Hello Kitty toys and stuff," another NAPO member told me.
They even hate Kondo's verbiage. The word she uses, "tidying," is annoying and arcane to them. "Tidying is what you do before your mother-in-law comes over," said one woman, while her two friends nodded. In addition, what Kondo offers is limited. Ellen Faye, the president of NAPO, told me, "You know, I have a client who got me the book. I did page through it. I think her first book is kind of like the grapefruit diet; that there's nothing wrong with just eating grapefruit. It's not going to get it all done."
Ultimately, the women of NAPO said that Kondo's methods were too draconian and that the clients they knew couldn't live in Kondo's world. They had jobs and children, and they needed baby steps and hand-holding and maintenance plans. They needed someone to do for them what they couldn't naturally do for themselves.
The last time I saw Marie Kondo, we were in a hotel room in New York, a different one, and still the only visible objects in it were that metal suitcase and her husband's laptop. But one item had been removed from the suitcase: a spray bottle that she keeps around. She sprays it into the air and the scent signals to her that she is finished working for the day, that her obligations, which seem endless lately, are done.
I think the NAPO women have Kondo wrong. She is not one of them, intent on competing for their market share. She is not part of a breed of alpha-organizer "solopreneurs" bent on dominating the world. She has more in common with her clients. But when it comes to stuff, we are all the same. Once we've divided all the drawers and eliminated that which does not bring us joy and categorized ourselves within an inch of our lives, we'll find that the person lying beneath all the stuff was still just plain old us. We are all a mess, even when we're done tidying. At least Kondo knows it. "I was always more comfortable talking to objects than people," she told me. At that moment, I could tell that if she had her way, I would leave the hotel room and she would spray her spray and be left alone, so she could ask the empty room if she could clean it.
Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in The New York Times Magazine. Reprinted with permission.