Cultural Roots of Marie Kondo’s “Tidy Up”

It is fair to say Marie Kondo is one of the most well-known Asian names today.

As her Netflix show “Tidy Up” debuted with instant success in January, the KonMari Method and her catch phrase “Does it spark joy?” has sparked national trend to declutter. Thrift stores and charity donations have experienced nationwide lift ever since. People have even taken her approach further to other aspects of life: managing their LinkedIn profilepersonal relationships, and much more. “Marie Kondo” has officially made its way into the dictionary as a verb and the epiphany of joy.

But, few people recognized the deep cultural influence behind the KonMari method – its Shinto roots.

Shinto is the traditional religion in Japan for thousands of years. As much as 80% of the Japanese population still practices in Shinto rituals, even though only a small percentage identify as “Shintoists”. Shinto is a devotion to invisible spiritual beings and powers in Japanese culture. It is believed spirits (kami) exist in almost everything, from wind to animals, from human beings to buildings. Showing appreciation and taking care of these spirits will in return provide us benefits and protection.

In modern Japanese culture, people don’t think of Shinto as a religion. Instead, it is deeply ingrained as a ritual, a mindset, and a way of life. Japanese culture expects everyone to respect where they live and work, and therefore other people. This is why some school children in Japan clean their cafeterias. It’s also why some Japanese picked up trash after the World Cup. It’s not because they are genetically tidier. It’s because many are culturally taught that people, places, and objects have spirits, and it is important to show appreciation and taking care of them.

Similarly, to Marie Kondo, tidying up is not about discarding. It is a celebration of the contents in the house. It is an appreciation of the spirits that have built priceless memories with you. Treasure what you have. Treat the objects you own as not disposable, but valuable, regardless of their monetary worth. Create displays so you can value each individual object. These are all Shinto ways of living.

Many of Marie Kondo’s rituals are also inspired by Shinto practice. Greeting her clients’ houses before the tidying up process is based on the etiquette of worshipping at shinto shrines. The choice of wearing a dress or blazer instead of sweats while tidying up resembles the respectful manners of visiting a shrine. Her most controversial ritual to “wake up books by tapping them” is essentially her way of paying respect to the living spirit in books – just like waking someone up by gently exposing them to some fresh air.

You don’t have to be a clean freak to appreciate Marie Kondo’s ideology. Just like you don’t have to be a Shintoist to understand the cultural roots of her method. More importantly, her kind, respectful and joyous approach is a fresh breath of air in media. After all, we are all thirsty of some humble and gracious energy in today’s American culture.

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