I find 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.