Consider these 2 pictures. Before: Single, living alone in a 29 square meter apartment in Tokyo. The place is so filthy it’s a struggle every morning to shower, get dressed and get to the door. The toilet hasn’t been cleaned in 4 months and the tiny kitchen defies description. After: Living with a younger, handsome boyfriend in a new apartment twice the size of the old one. Clean hardwood floors and ample closet space. The bathroom decor features rose pink wallpaper and every household item is put away as soon as it’s used.
Needless to say, Japanese women toughing it out in the big city aspire to the “after” picture. Yet for many women trying to get by on this archipelago, reality edges ever close to “before” if not actually a precise duplicate.
Japanese women were once famed for being fanatical in their pursuit of cleanliness in the home and willing devotees at the altar of household chores. Now for many females, the mere thought of picking up clothes strewn on the floor, washing dishes piled in the sink and sorting combustible trash from the non-burnables and actually taking them out to designated spots on designated days of the week – all this is enough to bring on a mild case of eczema and/or insanity attack. We all have viable excuses to pull out at a moment’s notice: not enough time, not enough motivation, not enough cash left at the end of the month to buy cleaning products, not enough love during childhood, sibling troubles, boyfriend troubles…the list is enough to give Freud himself a nervous breakdown.
Enter the clutter consultants or chore specialists, all of whom comprise a huge chunk of the TK billion yen decluttering market. Among these, Marie Kondo or “Konmari” as she’s called in the US, has taken the concept out of the country and out into the big leagues. Time Magazine sited her among the “100 Most Influential People” alongside the other Japanese: Haruki Murakami. Apparently, a personage no less than Jamie Lee Curtis recommended that she make that list. Konmari’s book (US title: “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up”) is a New York Times bestseller. There’s a rumor that Michelle Obama picked it up, read it and loved it. Her oft quoted advice about de-cluttering: “Don’t keep anything in the house that doesn’t spark joy.”
Over on the homefront though, Konmari is just one among many decluttering specialists who exhort Japanese women to take control over their lives by taking control of their stuff. It’s an interesting philosophical proposition: no god, man, ideology or diet is going to be that magic wand, but the will and strength to clear out one’s closet and scrub the toilet. Once you’ve made de-cluttering a habit, “everything in life will follow,” according to Konmari. Uh-huh. Kinda like “Field of Dreams” without the baseball. If you clean it, he (or romance) will come.
In this journey of de-cluttering, the Japanese woman will encounter two enemies: her possessions, and her mother. She wants to follow Konmari’s maxim of throwing out everything that doesn’t spark joy. She will start out with every intention of doing so. But every time she tries to trash her belongings (her high school year book, old boyfriend photos, clothes bought at bargain sales and never worn, shoes growing moldy in the cabinet, body shaping underwear, cosmetics, bags of rice from three years ago, exercise equipment galore are among the popular items) her resolve falters. She is after all, a Japanese woman who has the word “mottainai” stamped into her DNA. “This might come in handy someday,” is a refrain she’s heard since childhood – from her parents, from schoolteachers, from relatives and friends her boyfriend’s mother. Besides, it’s a huge hassle to sort out the trash. Better just let sleeping garbage lie around until the right man comes along and asks to stay over in her apartment. THAT’S when she’ll clean up. Really.
Often, her mother enables her in the task of clutter fossilization. Every Japanese mom over 50 is a sucker for stuff anyway and the older they get, the stronger their obsessions. Take the case of my grandmother, whom I revered in childhood as a cool old lady. She could speak a little French, she smoked a pack a day and quoted Spinoza when the mood hit her. But when she died, the entire family were dumbfounded to discover huge boxes of horded bottle caps (used) and disposable chopsticks (unused) pushed into a dark corner of her closet. Kimonos that she hadn’t worn in decades were rumpled into another box, every one of them black with mold. In the kitchen, she had 4 kettles that were never used and about 500 spoons pushed every which way in a huge drawer. We finally gave up trying to clean the place and hired an expert team that deals exclusively with dwellings of the elderly. They charged 200,000 yen for the first 6 hours, and 150,000 the next day. Her daughter (my mother) complained endlessly about the expense and my grandmother’s hording habits but she’s now exhibiting the very same behavior. Last month, I discovered a box full of unused disposable chopsticks and nearly had a panic attack. Et tu, Mom?
Indeed, every de-cluttering specialist warns about mothers, especially if you happen to live with her. De-cluttering specialist and blogger Mai Yururi lived with her mom and grandma in an old house in Sendai – when 3.11 hit, the house was left standing but the colossal amount of stuff, accumulated over the years, came down in an avalanche and nearly killed them. After that, the two older women finally agreed to throw out some things, but if not for the earthquake, Yururi writes: “I could have never convinced them to de-clutter.”
There’s no doubt about it, the path to a clean, spare room with things that only spark joy is not just littered with stuff no one wants anymore, it’s practically a hallucination glimpsed among the dunes in the Sahara Desert. Oh, for a bottle of water.