Early in 2019, a Japanese woman named Marie Kondo started a commotion on the internet after her Netflix series Tidying Up with Marie Kondo premiered. Seemingly everyone started talking about her decluttering method: throwing away items that fail to “spark joy.”
Many of the responses—from the ostensibly playful to the overtly racist — reiterated familiar ambivalences about Asian femininity: she was “a little doll” and/or “a monster.” And in one of what became an infamous series of tweets, Elaine Showalter, an eminent Victorianist, wrote: “She is certainly a pretty little pixie, & I am keen on decluttering but I am immune to Tinkerbell teaching me how to fold my socks.”
I am a half-Japanese woman who studies Orientalism in turn-of-the-century children’s culture, so this was all a little bit much for me. Not only did Showalter, despite her long history of working as a cultural critic, rehearse Orientalist tropes with their origins in the period of her expertise, but she directly invoked a character from a turn-of-the-century children’s story to do so. Neverland is many things in JM Barrie’s 1911 novel Peter and Wendy — but one of them is certainly an imperialist fantasy.
If it is a world of fairies, it is also a world peopled by “Indians” who call Peter Pan “the Great White Father.” Barrie’s novel is just one more point of evidence that people of color have long provided the source material for Euro-Americans to imagine places that are supposedly entirely fictional. At the same time, the Victorians gave us the idea that Japan itself is, to quote Algernon Charles Swinburne, “not… a serious world” but a “fairy-land.”
The thing is, I am not unattached to these fantasies of Japan myself, although I may experience them differently. Growing up in America, I often felt shut out from a Japanese aesthetic that I also very much desired: the pleasure of containers that stack perfectly inside one another; crisp, unbruised pears in foam mesh netting. Before I was born, my mother worked in the gift-wrapping section of a Tokyo department store, and when I was little, I labored to imitate her skills. I liked scissors gliding through paper in a straight line and tapes with delicate patterns.
The responses that Marie Kondo provokes in US audiences can’t be separated from our aesthetic and affective attachments. The Japanese term for “sparking joy” is tokimeku (ときめく), which means to flutter, to throb, or to palpitate. “Sparking joy” is necessarily an imperfect translation. To ask “does this thing tokimeku?” is to ask “does this thing make my heart flutter?” The English translation misses the idea of expectation. What remains in its place, though, is another promise — a belief that a state of Japanese perfection is out there, sparking joy, just out of reach.
Japan’s “floating world” has long provided the West with fantasies of both attachment and detachment, with the promise of refashioning our lives by “decluttering” and surrounding ourselves with only the most exquisite objects.
Marie Kondo offers us a dream of minimalist Japanese beauty not unlike the dream of Japan that first enchanted the West in the Victorian period. This dream is both alluring and threatening, because it is imagined as strange. As one of Oscar Wilde’s alter egos, “Vivian,” quipped over a hundred years ago, “The whole of Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people.” Vivian tells the story of a Victorian painter who is “fond of Japanese things” and visits the country to find it vacant, made up of nothing but “a few lanterns and some fans.”
What interests me about this story is what it says about the pleasures of both accumulation and emptiness. The painter, Vivian implies, is disappointed because he mistakenly believed that Japan could be anything more than a floating aesthetic. The painter should therefore stop pursuing the real Japan and instead indulge in the imaginary construction. But I wonder if that absence is contained within the dream itself, if absence is part of the dream’s melancholy beauty. There is something erotic about stripping life down to nothing but the gorgeous essentials.
When Euro-American artists appropriated the clean lines and abstract forms that they admired in Japanese art, did they think that they were taking something? Or did they think that they, like Marie Kondo’s many followers, were throwing something away?
After watching the first few episodes of Tidying Up, I felt, more than anything, sad. The show reminded me of the desire that I still feel for a dream I should know much better by now than to believe in. I have been inside enough Japanese homes with books stacked up along every inch of wall space. I have lived in Japanese dormitories with other women who left clumps of hair in the shower. I am also personally aware of how being seen as a fetish object can lead to domestic and sexual violence — that fetishization is ultimately dehumanization. Yet I have never been able to detach myself from the Victorian fantasy of Japan’s pristine beauty.
A few years ago, although I have never liked clutter, I began impulsively collecting Orientalist items from the turn of the century. The things I could afford were pathetically dilapidated: dolls with loose sockets, picture books with missing pages. I found them tacky, but also somehow precious. I had never collected anything before.
One of the items I purchased was a light, square-shaped metal coin, about one inch by one inch in size, with a hole punched through its middle. I found it for only a few dollars on eBay. One side of the coin reads:
10 CENT CAKE
WHEN YOU BUY
A kind of proto-coupon, this coin was once part of a mass marketing campaign for one of the most popular soap brands of the early twentieth century. A translucent yellow soap in a yellow package, Jap Rose capitalized on Japan’s allure as a place of sparkly, effervescent cleanliness, a tradition that Marie Kondo, whether knowingly or not, has repackaged for our present moment.
After receiving the coin in the mail, I slipped a chain through its middle and thought I might wear it as a pendant—against my skin and close to my heart. For some reason, though, that didn’t feel right to me. I now keep it tucked away in a drawer somewhere, along with many other things I probably don’t need.
Erica Kanesaka Kalnay is a Ph.D. candidate in English Literary Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.