Japanese Art of Tidying Up

TidyI read a strange little book – little at about 100 pages, strange because it’s a self-help book. That’s not the usual choice for this blog.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo, caught my eye first because I thought the word “tidying” was a funny choice – too cute. The book is translated from Japanese (by Cathy Hirano), so that may explain the choice.

The title looked like typical self-help hyperbole otherwise. But there was a long waiting list at my library. It’s a New York Times Best Seller, and has four and a half stars on Amazon with over 5,000 reviews. What could it be?

Best Parts

For me, the best parts of the book have little to do with its tidying mission.

I found several interesting bits of Japanese culture to enjoy. I don’t know how universal these scraps are – Kondo takes a fairly spiritual approach and most of her clients (she tidies for a living) seem to be single women. One client said tidying was “far more effective than feng-shui or power stones and other spiritual goods” for her life.

I’d be nonplussed if Kondo “greeted” my house on a consultation. She will “kneel formally on the floor… address the house in my mind… Then I bow.” She says this is based on the etiquette of entering a Shinto shrine and shows respect for her client. See what I mean about Japanese culture?

There are other tidbits:

  • Japanese people believe a clean home brings good luck
  • Dobutsu uranai is a popular form of Japanese astrology, and there is also “zoological fortune-telling.” (The whole world’s culture doesn’t descend from ancient Greece!)
  • Herbal tea is popular.
  • A typical young-adult apartment may be a “seven-mat room (seven tatami mats take up about ten by thirteen feet of floor space) with a built-in closet and three sets of shelves.”
  • Koromogae occurs in June – the annual switch to summer clothing. It “originated in China and was introduced to Japan as a court custom during the Heian period (794-1185 AD).” In the late nineteenth century it spread to schools and businesses, and later to homes. October goes the other way.
  • “The recent trend in Japan” is to attend early morning seminars and keep materials handed out by the lecturer as a “badge of honor.”

I also found small reminders of my own family and myself. Hey – I fold my socks that way (in “potato-like lumps”). My mother did that. I’ve tried this. Sometimes “right” and sometimes “wrong,” I enjoyed the memories.

I won’t burden you with my memories – read the book and enjoy your own. As Kondo says, “order is dependent on extremely personal values.”

KonMari System

You may be curious what her system is – it’s simple. Choose what to keep, not what to discard. Keep only those things that bring you joy. (She also acknowledges you’ll keep a few things, like tax records, because you must.) If you have trouble discarding something, thank it (out loud) for contributing to your life, say farewell, and toss.

Plan a marathon tidying (which may take weeks) and plow through your entire home. Getting it all done in one campaign makes it easier to stay tidy. Pile everything from a category on the floor. Touch each item. Does it bring you joy, make you happy? Set it aside to be stored. Otherwise, into the trash or donation bag. Kondo’s clients often dispose of over half their possessions.

Dumping everything on the floor and touching each item sounds strange – but I think I get it. No matter how analytical your personality, your possessions have emotional content. You have to deal with that to get and stay tidy.


She has some interesting storage ideas, too. Don’t buy commercial storage “systems” and units. “Storage experts are hoarders.”

Most clothing should be stored in drawers, and she has a delightful technique to fold everything so it stands on end and you can see all your clothes “like the spines of book” – nothing hidden at the bottom of a pile. That made me smile and – no – I haven’t done it with my own stuff.

What’s Not To Like? From Amazon Reviewers…

Kondo’s sort of New Age approach – talking to her clothes and such – didn’t click for some readers. Despite being a short book, some reviewers found it repetitive – and I agree. Kondo does tell similar stories throughout, and the process of sorting clothing (say) is the same as sorting books is the same as sorting other stuff. The book seems aimed at single women, so reviewers with children felt left out.

Kondo inserts stories from her own life – she has been a tidying fanatic since five years old and is a decluttering nerd. One reviewer said the stories felt like clutter in a book telling you how to declutter.

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