Joy Meets World

 
Decluttering doyenne
Marie Kondo is poised to build the next lifestyle empire,
but will it spark joy?

She’s wearing a white bathrobe and standing next to a bouquet of pink cherry blossoms. She has asked for soft instrumental music to be piped into the room. It appears to calm her on this February morning in Los Angeles as a dozen production workers mill about, capturing footage that will show Kondo’s 2.5 million Instagram followers how to dry brush their faces. Kondo closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, and starts making small circular motions on her forehead. When she opens her eyes, she has conjured up a euphoric expression for the camera.

Kawahara isn’t buying it. He taps me on the shoulder to show me his phone, on which he has pulled up the word ticklish in large letters on Google Translate. “Doesn’t that brush look ticklish to you?” he whispers to me, saying the word in English for the first time. He proceeds to wiggle as if someone is tickling him, giggling so much that his dapper gray fedora threatens to tip over on to his glasses. “There’s no way I would put that thing on my face.”

Kawahara, chief executive of KonMari Media, which he co-founded with his wife in 2015 and which is headquartered in Hollywood, California, is a fixture at Kondo’s photo and video shoots, like the one today showcasing products sold on the KonMari website. The production crew often turns to him expectantly, waiting for him to exclaim, “Beautiful!” or “Excellent!,” a signal that they have nailed the shot and can move on to the next one.

He’s also the life of the set. His goofiness is a foil for Kondo’s quiet spirituality, which is central to her mission, something she describes to me as “helping others to choose what sparks joy.” Kawahara punctures any seriousness, making funny faces, telling jokes, and putting everyone at ease. It’s partly his personality, but it’s also a strategic effort to relax his wife. Kondo has been in the public eye since 2011, when she published The Life-Changing, Pulsing Magic of Tidying Up in Japan, but she’s still happiest at home, with her daughters, ages 3 and 4.

“The time that I spend with my family sparks joy for me,” she says, in a voice so quiet that only her interpreter seems able to hear it. (She speaks English but is less comfortable doing so than Kawahara.) “I have to be a public figure so I can spread this message. But it’s much harder for me than for people who naturally excel at being in front of a lot of people. Takumi has really helped me.”

Over the past year, Kondo has been forced to negotiate the tension between her introverted personality and her desire to introduce her philosophy to larger audiences. Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, her Netflix series that launched in January 2019, went on to become the global streaming service’s most-watched non-fiction show of the year. Suddenly, Kondo was vaulted into a new constellation of stardom, alongside other goddesses of wellness and domesticity such as Martha Stewart, Oprah Winfrey and Gwyneth Paltrow. By the end of 2019, she had established an e-commerce site, a blog, and a newsletter. She had also increased the size of her consultant network – people whom Kondo personally instructs in her decluttering method – to 40 countries.

Now, Kondo is bringing her method to the workplace, backed by the $12 billion (R197bn) Japanese e-commerce conglomerate Rakuten, which acquired a majority stake in KonMari Media in August. In April 2020, Kondo released a new book, co-authored with Rice University business school professor Scott Sonenshein, called Joy at Work: Organizing Your Professional Life, which opens the door to selling organising products and services to business types. “Tidying your workplace gives you an opportunity to reflect on how you are working and what you like about the job,” she says.

As she goes after the corporate world, Kondo appears to be wrestling with the question of what kind of work makes her happy. For several years, it seemed like she was following the playbook of other celebrity entrepreneurs. But now she has clearly decided to throw that strategy out the window. Apparently, it no longer sparked joy. Perhaps it never did.

Kondo was a 21-year-old college student when she first met Kawahara, who was also 21. They were in Tokyo, waiting for a lift. Kondo remembers that Kawahara was wearing a suit with a little badge on it featuring the Japanese symbol for the word dream. “When I saw that, I thought, what a passionate person!” she says. “Even though Takumi’s more extroverted and I’m much more introspective, we’re the same on the inside.”

Kondo had dreams of her own. She had already decided to turn her lifelong passion for tidying into a career. At the elevator, she gave Kawahara a newly minted business card with a small butterfly on it. Kawahara didn’t need her help: “Fortunately, I’m already an organised person,” he says. They decided to stay in touch.

Kondo had become fascinated with home organisation as a 5-year-old, flipping through her mother’s home decor magazines. As she got older, she began to see tidying as a manifestation of something deeper. She felt a spiritual connection to certain objects that spurred tokimeku, a Japanese word that refers to the flutter you feel in your body when something delights you. This idea became the foundation of her tidying approach, now known as the KonMari method: keeping belongings that inspire that feeling and shedding ones that do not.

At 18, Kondo felt drawn to the Shinto tradition, and she applied to become a shrine maiden, performing sacred rituals at Shinto altars. “I think the shrine was a natural match for me because the foundation of Shinto expresses gratitude toward inanimate objects,” she says. In college, Kondo studied sociology and then went to work for a Tokyo staffing agency, but she hustled every night and weekend to build a business helping people clean their homes of accumulated goods. As demand for her services grew, one client suggested that she write a book so that people could do it on their own. It was during a six-month writing course that she wrote a draft of The Life-Changing, Pulsing Magic of Tidying Up. At the end of the programme, she pitched it to publishers, and when it hit shelves in 2011, Kondo’s book was an immediate hit in Japan. She was bombarded with even more requests for her consulting services.

As Kondo adapted to fame, she reconnected with Kawahara, who was working as a human resources strategist in Osaka. He didn’t fully grasp how famous she had become. “I had organised my home so much that I didn’t own a TV set, so I had no idea,” he says.

He remembers Kondo sharing her plans with him over dinner. “The first vision was simply to finish tidying all of Japan,” he says.

From then on, their relationship and careers were intertwined. “We both love to work,” Kawahara says. “We’re always talking about work, even in our private moments. The division of labour in their relationship was clear. “She was an author who was very good at transmitting a message to the world,” Kawahara says. “I was good at creating businesses and establishing networks.” They married in 2014, the year of her book’s US debut, and in 2016 they moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. “I’ve always responded to a call to action,” says Kondo. “I came to the United States because it had the strongest reaction to my book.”

That Kondo’s philosophy caught on anywhere outside of Japan still baffles Kondo and Kawahara. “In Japan, everybody lives in small houses, so you can understand that people were having difficulties tidying,” says Kawahara. “But our image of the US is that everybody lives in such big houses.” Within a year of its US release, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up sold 2 million copies. (The word pulsing was dropped in the English translation.) “The sheer volume of readers was just shocking,” Kawahara says.

There was also an inevitable backlash. Some critics lumped her philosophy into a broader critique of minimalism, deeming her approach classist because poor people don’t have the luxury of only owning things that “spark joy.” Others accused her of pushing an anti-capitalist agenda that could cripple the economy. Then there were the bibliophiles who were downright livid that she seemed to encourage people to get rid of books. “When it comes to the criticism that I’ve received, I think, I haven’t expressed myself well enough,” Kondo says.

Along with the attention came a spate of new business opportunities. The couple launched a premium mobile experience in Japan in 2015 allowing subscribers (paying about $3 a month) to ask Kondo tidying questions. The following year, they released a free iPhone app, and in Australia KonMari trademarked the term “spark joy” for computer software related to organising and guidance about personal lifestyle – a TurboTax for tidying, if you will. “It was an explosion,” Kawahara recalls, his hands bursting open like little fireworks. “Neither of us spoke or understood En-glish, so Google Translate was my best friend. We were trying to figure out what was even being offered.”

By far the most effective conduit for spreading the KonMari method has been TV. Kondo’s book was made into a Japanese drama in 2013. (NBC commissioned an American sitcom based on it in 2015, but the show wasn’t picked up.) In 2016, Kondo starred in a two-part English-language documentary special called Tidy Up With KonMari, for the Japanese network NHK, in which she helped New Yorkers tidy up their homes.

In some ways, that was a dry run. Gail Berman, the veteran TV and movie producer who had acquired rights to the book and sold the sitcom idea to NBC, and even fielded offers for a Tidying Up movie, put together a presentation for “how this unscripted reality show might work with her at the centre of it dealing with families in the US. We pitched that, and ultimately there was an interest from Amazon and from Netflix,” she says, with Netflix winning the deal by doing a straight-to-series order.

The key difference in this project was casting Kondo herself, not just her concept. “She is the real thing. She is delicate and beautiful and committed,” Berman says. “Showing that was very, very important for succeeding with the show.”

When the eight-episode series Tidying Up With Marie Kondo debuted on Netflix on New Year’s Day in 2019, the response was staggering. Google searches for “Marie Kondo” were 100 times what they were when the book went on sale in the US. The Container Store, which had been struggling (and is unaffiliated with the show), saw a nearly 9% sales increase. Circular-economy apparel company ThredUp saw an 80% year-over-year increase in people ordering “closet clean-out kits” in the show’s first three weeks. Netflix ordered a second season immediately, as it had done with the reality hits Nailed It! and Queer Eye.

Then, Kondo did something unusual for someone with aspirations to expand her business: She sat on the offer. In fact, she has still not signed on for a second season of her Netflix show. When asked about the status of season 2, Brandon Riegg, Netflix’s VP of unscripted originals, who was involved with the acquisition and creation of the show, says, “We’re excited to continue working with Marie, and we’re still discussing what the next steps would be.”

By all accounts, the rigours of TV-making took their toll on Kondo. “This opportunity became a source of enormous stress to her,” says Kawahara. “We struggled to maintain a balance between our private life and business.” Netflix was aware of this, Riegg says, and worked to accommodate her needs. “What she does takes a ton of focus and energy, and when you add a layer of TV production, it becomes a different demand on her,” he says. Multiple sources indicate that the production schedule was modified to give Kondo more time off set.

“I wasn’t used to the process at all, so I became really physically exhausted,” Kondo says. “But I think at those points in life, it’s very important to take a moment to sit down and ask yourself, ‘What do I need to change here? How can I prioritise better?’ ” When I ask Berman about the show’s plans for a second season, she says, “No, Marie is not ready for that yet.” Berman also reveals that she has moved on to focus on other projects.

Although there is some speculation that Kondo could do specials that would be less demanding than a season of shows, her decision not to pursue a second season has had ripple effects throughout the KonMari ecosystem. When Tidying Up debuted, KonMari had approximately 250 certified consultants. By the end of 2019, her network had swelled to 400 people. Interest in the Netflix show “catapulted me into this business,” says Phoebe Cusack, a consultant in Boston. Cusack expected a second season to launch at the start of 2020, leading to a stream of new clients, but when it didn’t, business began to dry up. “I was counting on it,” Cusack says. “I feel like she wasn’t thinking of her consultants.”

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