When a friend told me about the KonMari tidying method, my first reaction was, “That’s very Japanese!” Marie Kondo systematizes decluttering by going through categories — clothes, books, papers, miscellaneous items, and finally the toughest, sentimental items. She recommends touching each item, keeping only the things that spark joy, and saying thank you to the ones you let go.
Having lived in Japan for seven years, I have been in a constant struggle in reconciling my perspective as an outsider with how things are done in Japan. Many expats find such differences frustrating. However, growing up in the Philippines, I have insight on both Asian sensibilities and “Western” values, which help me navigate daily life in Japan.
Tidying up with Marie Kondo, a Netflix Original, features the KonMari method applied to American households. The method has received mixed reviews because some nuances of Kondo’s philosophy are lost in the TV series format.
More than decluttering our homes, Kondo is demonstrating a uniquely Japanese attitude of respect towards material things. A simple illustration of this attitude can be found in how the Japanese handle business cards.
Japanese business card etiquette
As trainees in a Japanese company, one of the first lessons taught to us was how to exchange business cards. We spent an afternoon role-playing a first meeting. We exchanged cards in the order of our assigned ranks. During the exchange, we used both hands with the card facing the other person. We handed the cards under, never over, the customer’s card. Finally, we kept the received cards on display for the duration of the meeting.
At the core of this ritual is treating the business card with respect, as if it were the face of the other. In Japan, the business card is considered an extension of the person. The card itself is imbued with the business person’s spirit.
Eight million gods
Yaoyorozu no kami or “eight million gods” is one of the concepts of Shinto, the traditional religion of Japan. Eight million is a large number, thus alluding to the infinite places and items in which gods dwell.
The Japanese believed that nature hosts sacred spirits. Mountains, rivers, and waterfalls have become places of worship. Aside from natural phenomena, the Japanese also believed that gods resided in regular things, say the cooking stove or a grain of rice. As such, the Japanese treated all of these material things with respect.
“As I reflected on the nature of these relationships, it occurred to me that Japanese people have treated material things with special care since ancient times. The concept of yaoyorozu no kami, literally, ‘8,000,000 gods,’ is an example. The Japanese believed that gods resided not only in natural phenomena such as the sea and the land but also in the cooking stove and even in each individual grain of rice, and therefore they treated all of them with reverence.” — Marie Kondo, Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up
Spirit in everything
In the Japanese mind, material things (such as business cards) are filled with spirit. Marie Kondo explains that there are three possible sources of this spirit:
- The person who made them;
- The person who uses them; and
- The materials from which the things are made.
We can relate to this because we know how a painting or a piece of pottery can contain the artist’s spirit. What we create is filled with our intimate thoughts, our hopes, and our message to the world.
We understand how a grandmother’s ring is filled with the spirit of the women who’ve worn it. It represents beauty, elegance, and commitment.
We must remember that the tables we dine on and the paper we write on used to be majestic trees; that the tiny parts that make up our computers are mined beneath the earth’s skin.
Marie Kondo is advocating for curating our homes and filling it with things that are meaningful to us. Your house is your museum. This applies not only to pieces of art and heirlooms but also the mundane kitchen tools and bath items. Each of our belongings should be loved, respected, and given their place where they can be kept with dignity — as if gods live in them.
I still think that not all the things in my house necessarily need to “spark joy” in my life. However, Marie Kondo has made me pay more attention to what I keep and what I buy. I find myself more curious on the type of materials used, where the products are made, and who made them.
When it comes to interpreting Japanese ideas, it’s best to look at them with fresh eyes and dig deeper into the culture behind it. Beyond Marie Kondo’s practical approach, her message to us is to simply have more appreciation and be mindful of the material things that support our daily life.
Gakuran, Michael. What You Need To Know About Exchanging Business Cards in Japan. 25 July 2016, blog.gaijinpot.com/exchanging-business-cards-japan/. Accessed 13 Jan. 2019.
Kondō Marie. Spark Joy an Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up. Kindle Edition, 2016., pp. 275–279.
Yama, Megumi. Spirited Away and its depiction of Japanese traditional culture. The Routledge International Handbook of Jungian Film Studies, 2018, pp. 254–262.