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Tea Leaves

In praise of mess: the Marie Kondo syndrome has gone too far

Japan's most famous housewife has turned decluttering into a new religion

Marie Kondo poses for a picture during a media event in New York in July, 2018.   © AP

There are few people whose names become verbs, William Hoover being the most famous. Now a Japanese woman in her mid-30s has joined that select group. Marie Kondo, the "decluttering guru," seems to be everywhere as the media advises on how to "Kondo" your apartment, your shopping and your children.

"KonMari," as she is known in her country, first became a publishing sensation in Japan. But her book, "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing," has since topped the New York Times bestsellers list and sold 5 million copies globally. A Netflix TV series, "Tidying Up With Marie Kondo," has turned her into an internet phenomenon, spawning oodles of social media memes.

In that show she descends into the tat-filled homes of ordinary Americans like a being from a more advanced planet. Equipped with an interpreter and an eerily invincible smile, she "sparks joy" in the home-makers' benighted lives by making them get rid of possessions they don't really need. The result is a quasi-religious transformation as they look forward to brighter, more orderly futures in mess-free living spaces.

In the developed world we live in an era of deflation -- where the real price of almost everything has gone down, repairing gadgets and clothes makes no economic sense, and many poorer people suffer from obesity, not emaciation. In abstract areas too -- such as politics, art, music and academic studies -- increasing supply seems to lead to deteriorating quality. Helplessly drowning in "stuff," we realize that "more" has meant "less." Into this maelstrom of superfluity comes Kondo, as dainty and minimalist as her philosophy.

I can see the appeal. As I write, I am surrounded by piles of coffee-ringed papers, pens that have ceased to work and shelves of books, many of which I will likely never open again. What if I "Kondo-ed" the whole lot? According to her prescription, only 30 books would remain. Any objects that do not "bring joy" to me -- such as that box of old shoes -- would have to go.

Perhaps I should "Kondo" my human relationships too, narrowing down my circle of acquaintances to 30 joy-bringers. Come to think of it, the whole planet could do with some decluttering. Reducing human numbers to, say, 3 billion from the current 7.5 billion or so would surely be an aesthetic improvement, as well as environmentally more sustainable.

Japaneseness is a key part of the Kondo mystique. She evokes the austere strand of Japanese aesthetics exemplified by Zen Buddhism, the tea ceremony and Noh theater. Indeed, the Buddhist monk Yoshida Kenko could be considered a "decluttering guru" of the 14th century. In Essays in Idleness, he observed:

"Things which seem in poor taste: too many personal effects cluttering up the place where one is sitting; too many brushes in an ink-box; too many Buddhas in a family temple; too many stones and plants in a garden; too many children in a house; too many words on meeting someone; too many meritorious deeds recorded in a petition."

Austerity, however, is not the only strand in Japanese aesthetics. The extravagance of Kabuki contrasts with Noh; the roaring din of a pachinko parlor with the Zen garden at Ryoanji Temple; the friendly yell of irasshaimase (welcome) at your local yakitori joint with the hallowed atmosphere of the Michelin-starred Sukiyabashi Jiro sushi restaurant in Tokyo. Many Japanese homes, far from being models of tasteful restraint, are crammed to bursting point with bric-a-brac, as captured in Kyoichi Tsuzuki's eye-opening photo book, "Tokyo Style."

The reality is that in any society a balance is necessary between imposed order and creative anarchy. Recent trends suggest that the former has the upper hand, as institutions get mired in health and safety rules and compliance requirements. In Tokyo, the glorious mess of districts like Shimo-Kitazawa is being replaced by coldly impersonal new developments. "Kondo-ing" the urban environment may end up destroying something precious. "Will the city be any fun?" was a key issue for the great urbanologist Jane Jacobs. The same could be said for homes, and indeed many other aspects of human experience.

Some of us need clutter, even find it inspirational. Unlike Yoshida in his mountain hut, I am not a hermit. I keep my books and stacks of CDs, DVDs and even LPs because I don't know if or when I might need them. It may be a mess, but it's my mess -- and it took me a lot of time and effort to create it.

Peter Tasker is an author and analyst with Tokyo-based Arcus Research.

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