It began with the books.
In the fifth episode of her new Netflix series, Tidying Up, organizing consultant Marie Kondo guides a young couple through the process of de-cluttering their stacked tomes: Collect all of the books in your home into a mountainous pile, hold each one in your hands, and ask, “Does this spark joy?” Soon enough, the “KonMari method” came in for criticism, some rooted in misinterpretation—the notion that requiring books to “spark joy” militates against challenging literature—some in misinformation—an erroneous meme in which Kondo suggests keeping no more than 30 books—and some in cheek. “Suddenly people have noticed the dark side of Kondo’s war on stuff,” Washington Post book critic Ron Charles wrote, in a flailing attempt at humor: “She hates books.”
Though Charles admits that Kondo’s advice is not quite so “outrageous,” he prefers to regale us with the organizational systems he’s developed as an academic-turned-critic-turned-Pulitzer Prize judge. (Call it RonChari.) As such, he manages to quote three of Kondo’s broad aphorisms—two from the TV series and one from her bestselling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up—but misses out on the reality program’s main appeal, which is seeing her method in action. After all, the lesson she teaches the young couple reflects an avid reader’s feelings about books: To explain what she means by “spark joy,” she asks one of the men to touch a book he couldn’t imagine parting with, and he leafs through a dog-eared copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, fondly remembering the experience of reading it for the first time.
Had it ended with the books, with garbled messages and short-lived controversies, one might’ve described the reaction to Tidying Up as following the pattern of most cultural criticism: argument, counterargument, rebuttal. Rather than petering out, though, the discussion of Kondo, her method, and her Netflix series, which premiered on New Year’s Day, has now smoldered on for more than a month, covering the limits of minimalism, elitism and “social signaling,” and, on Monday, author Barbara Ehrenreich’s ill-conceived “joke” about the series’ use of subtitled Japanese and the decline of American power. For comparison’s sake, my rule of thumb as Paste’s TV editor is to cover streaming series within the first two weeks after their release. Tidying Up with Marie Kondo has touched a nerve.
As Muqing Zhang writes at Paper, Kondo’s race is a factor here, such that the response to Tidying Up reflects the treatment of Asian women as “either a fetishized exotic experience or embodiment of a yellow peril threat.” But to say that “the white public has suddenly turned against her” de-contextualizes the complex of anxieties Kondo provokes, reducing the reaction to a kind of viral backlash. Race, nation, and language are key to understanding why Tidying Up—bringing change to its subjects’ homes that seems insignificant alongside the metamorphoses of Netflix’s Queer Eye, to say nothing of Trading Spaces, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, and HGTV’s slate of real-estate porn—has become the most unlikely of cultural flashpoints, but it’s the specific, intertwined histories of Japanophilia and Japanophobia in the United States that might help us understand why now.
In the form Zhang identifies, the incoherence of American attitudes about Japan and its people dates back to the second half of the 19th century, when elite appreciation for Japanese art, fashion, and culture—not to mention immigrant labor—began to erode in the face of xenophobia, stoked by race scientists, poets, journalists, and politicians, and often supported by the white working-class. (As it happens, my undergraduate honors thesis at the University of Southern California was on the origins of anti-Chinese and anti-Japanese nativism in California. The remainder of this paragraph is drawn from that research.) To this end, the San Francisco Chronicle identified the Japanese as a “Danger at the Door” in 1893, the year before the Japanese Pavilion, which became a popular teahouse, was built in Golden Gate Park; the founding president of Stanford University, David Starr Jordan, recruited Japanese students and formed the Japan Society of Northern California in 1905, only for the Roosevelt administration to enter into an informal “Gentleman’s Agreement” with the Japanese government to limit immigration two years later. Many of these contradictions fell within the realm of the intimate or domestic, too: As architects imitated Japanese techniques, socialites donned floral kimonos, and the Los Angeles Times cited Japanese “good-boys” as a solution to the “exceedingly difficult problem of domestic help,” for instance, the Chronicle warned that “the intimacy encouraged between Japanese servants… has resulted very disastrously, from the standpoint of morality.”
This American attraction to/repulsion from Japan has played out again and again, often in unexpected cultural arenas. Admiration for the sacrifice and self-denial described in Nitobe Inazô’s Bushido became concern over its antiquarian militarism after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, for instance, while heightened interest in Japanese corporate management in the early 1980s morphed, within the course of a decade, into Japanese domination (or worse) as a pop cultural trope, from Die Hard to Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun. In short, our dual (and dueling) fascination with and fear of Japan, its culture, and its people tends to appear, in sometimes surprising fashion, at moments of acute socioeconomic distress—the Gilded Age, the Great Depression, the Reagan era, and now, perhaps, the present.
As historians say, the cycle of fetishization and vilification Zhang describes is “contingent,” born of particular factors coming together at particular places and times, and in this framework, the scale, duration, and intensity of the reaction to Kondo is no longer so surprising. Just as the samurai of Inazô’s reckoning might be seen as “traditional” or “antiquarian,” and the Toyota of the 1980s as “efficient” or “robotic,” the “clutter” and “mess” in Tidying Up become the blank canvas onto which the series’ subjects and viewers alike project their concerns about space, time, money, gender roles, and much more besides. The first episode alone, featuring Rachel and Kevin Friend and their two young children, doubles as a précis of profound dislocations in modern American life: the division of household labor, including childrearing—Rachel does most of it—the length of the workweek—Kevin’s is 60 hours or more—the emptiness of rapacious consumerism, and the collective havoc these wreak in the couple’s marriage. In the course of eight episodes, “tidying up” emerges a metaphor for empty nesters facing retirement, millennials striking out on their own, a couple trying to balance career dreams and financial reality, and a widow finding new purpose, and the eagerness to celebrate or condemn the series—an otherwise milquetoast entry in the home improvement genre—suggests that it’s the situations in Tidying Up we’re responding to, as much as Kondo’s solutions.
Understanding why it is that Japan holds this place in the American imagination—and not China, Korea, the Philippines, or Vietnam, despite being subject to many of the same stereotypes—involves more specific, intertwined histories than I can reasonably outline here, though I suspect the United States’ distinct relationship with Japan, neither colonial trading post nor Cold War proxy, is at the core. Knowing that it does, though, begins to explain the defining feature of the Kondo phenomenon, which is that the sense of grievance or affirmation American audiences seem to find in Tidying Up is far more engrossing than the series itself. In fact, by ushering the series’ subjects through the KonMari method, in which one’s belongings are amassed in a giant mound, Kondo replicates Japan’s long-standing role as a projection of American anxieties: As she says through her translator when Rachel Friend expresses embarrassment at the heap of clothes on her bed, the process is designed to “confront” us, in this case with a material reflection of our selves.
My point isn’t that critics of the series necessarily harbor anti-Japanese sentiments, or that its fans are necessarily fetishists, though the language used by Ehrenreich and others underscores that such attitudes remain all too common. Rather, whether you bristle at minimalism or decide to embrace it, find yourself inspired to clean house or revel in clutter, your reaction speaks to hopes and fears that are political as well as personal, contingent as well as universal, historical as well as eternal, an insight that Tidying Up renders so explicit you cannot help but confront that, too. The books I accumulated in high school and college remain boxed up, untouched, in my parents’ garage after nearly a decade; I own artwork I’ve been meaning to get framed for five years; I managed to procure a hand-me-down mattress from a friend last summer but never added a box spring or bed to match—yes, this is the decision-making, or more precisely the paralysis, of a man afraid to commit, a footloose bachelor in his early 30s, but it is also the plight of a generation for whom job security and home ownership, much less creature comforts, are thwarted desires, not promises kept.
It’s at the moments in which the wires cross, when contentment with the American system bleeds into anxiety about it, that we tend to look elsewhere for a model of how to live, and in turn find ourselves enchanted by, or resentful of, what we’re told about how things are, or should be. In fact, the season’s most telling sequence suggests much the same confusion, as Rachel, arguing with Kevin over what to do with 200 clothes hangers, poses two questions in quick succession. “Do they keep you up at night?” she asks. “Do they bring you joy?” It’s Tidying Up in a nutshell, the perfect contradiction, and no matter the reaction you have to your belongings—or the series itself—the answer should precipitate a follow-up question: Why?
Tidying Up with Marie Kondo is now streaming on Netflix.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.