The Religion of Marie Kondo and her KonMari Method of Tidying

A wildly popular Netflix show streaming to the US features a tiny Japanese woman who delights in tidying messes. She teaches clueless American families how to organize their clutter for maximum joy. She also teaches them a bit about Shintoism through her KonMari method.

Marie Kondo, 34, wears white, buttoned cardigans and perfectly-tucked flowing skirts to “greet” homes on her knees, hips on her heels, head bowed, eyes closed, in dignified silence.

“I’m going to first introduce myself to your home,” she tells a young couple, two men, sitting on their couch. “This is a ritual I do before we begin.”

Eyes closed, Kondo leans forward onto her palms, facing backward, then folds her hands in her lap. The guys smile politely in amusement and curiosity. Kondo speaks to them through a translator she brings, who echoes Kondo’s soft, hopeful voice.

“I’d love for you to picture your vision for your home,” she says. “Communicate that to your home.”

In each episode (there are eight so far since its release on Jan. 1), Kondo teaches her clients the same method. Start with laying all your clothes on the bed, so you can see the full mountain range of stuff you own. Then pick up each item one-by-one. If an item “sparks joy” – that’s her catch phrase that has inspired thousands of memes and tweets – keep it. If it does not, thank it and gently pile it for discarding.

She teaches the same with books – she taps them first to wake them up to the process – and then papers, and finally, everything else, including the kitchen, bathrooms and garage. The key, she says, is to tidy in the correct order and quickly, over a weekend and not over several months.

Her methods, first popularized in Japan, Australia, Europe and then the US with her best-selling 2014 book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, draw quite a bit from Shintoism, a pre-historic Japanese religion that’s been diluted today to cultural customs like shrine visits. But a key to her success is that she has found a way to bend and sell these customs to Americans, who according to the media have been inspired in mass to declutter for the new year.

Kondo has always loved tidying and began as a child, she told Googlers in 2015, though she became serious about it as a teenager reading her mother’s Japanese magazines about organizing. She also worked part-time at a Shinto shrine as an administrative assistant. At age 19 in college, she started an organizing business to earn extra money.

“Shintoism, for me, is not particularly a religion in my life, but it is a natural habit in our daily life,” Kondo told a reddit user in 2015. “Shintoism, for Japanese people, is not the same religious feeling as a lot of American people might feel, but is pretty much blended into our daily lifestyle or habits.”

Most Japanese people, like Kondo, don’t consider themselves religious, though they follow many Shinto and Buddhist customs. Confucianism and Taoism (from China) also have an influence, and to a lesser degree because it’s seen as a Western religion, Christianity.

Shintoism is concerned mostly with life on earth, teaching that natural objects contain various gods (called kamis) and ancestors with supernatural powers. Shinto followers don’t believe in a Supreme Being, and there’s hardly a belief system to adhere to. Instead, Shintoism is about performing rituals to revere kamis and the divinities in them.

Many Japanese visit Shinto shrines to pray for good luck, business success, good exam results, fertility, health, and general happiness. In a recent PBS documentary, Sacred, a young Japanese couple visits an offbeat Shinto shrine surrounded by penis statues, and leaves a penis charm on a shelf next to others, with a written wish for a child.

But for the afterlife, many people turn to Buddhist teachings. For funerals, they visit Buddhist temples, where bodies are cremated.

“We have a super strange religion,” Yumiko Campbell, a 70-year-old Japanese woman who lived in Australia for decades and returned to Osaka, said. “For the Christian society, you go to church at a happy time or sad time. For us, it depends.”

Yumiko leaves a cup of steaming green tea at her mother’s shrine every morning, then rings a bell. She was six years old when her mother died, and growing up in extreme poverty, began working at age eight.  Yumiko is part of an older post-war generation in Japan taught not to waste anything. She hasn’t heard of Marie Kondo.

Sometimes, while picking up trash from the riverbed near her home (some people do litter in Japan but at night when no one can see them) she saves a child’s toy. Yumiko believes the river gods will reward her for her tidying.

“We just show respect to everything,” she said. “We don’t throw things away easy.”

The Konmari method is a softer approach to minimalism from the Zen sect of Buddhism. Kondo’s version of minimalism is simply that you should see all your items in one glance. All her clothes-folding techniques are designed to place items sideways in drawers, for example. This technique is similar to a workplace organizational discipline called 5S, which teaches that the eye can more quickly find items it’s looking for when all unnecessary items are removed.

One draw for Americans to the Konmari method is that although it reduces clutter, it doesn’t make you feel bad for having a lot of stuff. There is sometimes an initial gasp at a pile of mess on the floor, but it’s quickly forgotten. You are left free to keep anything that sparks joy for you, especially if you can find space for it. In many American homes, that’s not too difficult. Actually, while decluttering, you could be inspired to go shopping next.

Kondo is now also selling various organizing tools commonly found in Japan like small boxes, used to compartmentalize your things like electronics cords that we often leave tangled in a drawer. You should store your things that spark joy in a container that sparks joy, Kondo says. (Her boxes sell for $89 a set.) If you are tempted to throw away useful items, you do not respect those items enough and should be more grateful to them, Kondo also teaches.

In Japan, perhaps because people are already so tidy and live in smaller spaces, it’s costly and difficult to get rid of things. And as more of the aging population passes, their children are left to pay for their possessions’ disposal, which can be a few thousand dollars despite small amounts accumulated. And while some second-hand shops are popping up to profit from leftover goods, it’s a tough business on the island, in large part because of the Shinto influence. 

“The idea of buying second-hand things is not as done [in Japan] as in the US because there’s still some weird spiritual thing about buying someone else’s things, because their spirit could be attached to it,” Boa, Yumiko’s daughter, said. “You just don’t know the history of the item. Maybe the person committed suicide.”

Legends say that Japanese swords, for example, reflect their creators’ personalities. If you receive a sword with unknown history, maybe its properties will make you want to kill people.

“Sometimes it happens just like a curse,” Yumiko said. “This expensive item like a kimono or diamonds or whatever, sure it has value, but it has a sad history, a nasty history.”

In the first episode of Tidying Up, a couple with young kids struggles to keep their home clean. The mother hates folding laundry but seems to come to slightly better terms with it after learning Kondo’s methods. Then in a more meaningful episode, a grieving widow clears out her late husband’s closet full of clothes. The tidying process becomes very much like a spiritual journey, helping her find peace and start a new chapter in her life, with a blank hobby room ready for new creations.

It’s hard not to stand up from the screen at least wondering how the Konmari method could change your own home or you. And for those who really believe in Marie Kondo, there is a certification system designed to convert even more followers.