After a month in Japan, I can see exactly where Marie Kondo is coming from.
Kondo, featured in the documentary Tidying up with Marie Kondo that premiered on Netflix this month, is the 34-year-old genius who says we should get rid of possessions that don’t bring us joy. So right. Can someone please remove my washing machine and clothes line right now? (I’m lying. I actually love laundering. It’s a sickness). Kondo wrote her bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing when she was just 27, which is devastating because at that age, I was cluttered and very disorganised and not much has changed in the ensuing decades.
I still have an old armchair of my mother’s and the arse has fallen out of the seat, the brocade upholstery is so worn the stuffing competes with the pattern but I couldn’t bear to throw it out and it has nothing to do with joy, more tenderness, memories and regret.
Japan, Kondo’s country of birth, is a country where the culture is tidy by design; and I’d guess most would be appalled by the old armchair. Here, even the cistern has a double purpose. When you flush, water comes out of a tap that drains back into the cistern. You wash your hands as the cistern refills. This is a genius idea and one I’ve only ever seen in Australia at Melbourne’s iconic Vegie Bar.
The beds are a whole other thing. They roll up and out of the way and suddenly the screens – room dividers - slide sideways and that tiny bedroom in that tiny apartment becomes part of a huge living space, where chairs pop up and tables fold out. If they ever indulge themselves with what Jews call tchotchkes, there is little evidence except in the gift shops of their major art galleries (which are weirdly terrible) and at Tokyu Hands. Also, grown humans have fluffy joys attached to their handbags, which are interchangeable at the first sign of desolation.
Ok, I’ll be frank. It is my first time in Japan and I am boggled. I am not alone in my adoration. Japan was Australia’s fastest growing tourist destination last year. The number of Australian visitors to Marie Kondoland has surged in the past 10 years, up 340 per cent, with more than 80,000 Australians heading there over July and August 2018 alone. We are not the only ones who love Japan. Last year, Traveller predicted a nearly five percent increase in tourists in just one year.
While there are reports the Japanese are sick to death of tourists and winding back on their famed omotenashi, they must be winding back in a measured way. The citizens are bloody amazing. Mainly what people tell you about Japan is how great the food is (yes, it is) and how wonderful the scenery is (shrines, mountains, a water feature round every corner, flowers, leaves, ducks, cranes, ceramics, snow).
They don’t tell you that you will be lost in Shinjuku station and some Japanese guy visiting his parents for the holidays will notice you look lost and will walk 20 minutes out of his way to show you how to get to some ridiculously tiny subway. Or the people sitting opposite you at the fancy Michelin-starred restaurant feel sorry you have no idea how good the sweet potato tempura is so they give you theirs. Nor will anyone reveal that their cab driver, unsure of how to enter the funny little one-way street your apartment is in, will turn his meter off a good two minutes before arrival and then refuse to accept a gratuity. He will then get out of his cab and check the building number. The entire nation refuses tips. Where am I?
Nor do Australians who visit emphasise the design thinking that goes into the Japanese way of life. It’s not just the glorious toilets that flush as soon as you get up or the cisterns. It’s not even the extraordinary public transport system where, like any Australian, you get to the top of the stairs to see your train departing. And before you have the chance to say bloody hell, a new train has arrived, with heated seats and a “hold on handle” to suit passengers of every height. This country has the most accepted passport in the world, with its citizens able to enter 190 countries without requiring a visa, according to the new 2019 Passport Index. I’d personally invite them all to live in Australia if they could only fix our public transport.
The sheer ease with which this country appears to run is probably why I have never felt more untidy or ungainly in my whole life. And this is where Marie Kondo comes in. She is the human manifestation of Japanese design thinking, empathy, definition, ideation, thinking of a prototype to solve the problem and then testing it. And her test has come up with the joy division, the separation of us from our joyless junk.
But if I had to apply the Kondo method to my life, I’d be stark naked on the Hume Highway mainly because my possessions don’t spark joy (this includes my books, a function of PhD misery).
But my messy old family does. And so does Japan. My friend Alison describes the discovery of Japan as an addiction. I think she might be right.
Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney.