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When I saw this book in a bookstore, I had to give it a go. Like just about everyone, I saw Kondo’s series on Netflix last January (I have never seen a more well-timed release in my life) although I hadn’t read her books.
And then you know, manga. The Japanese invented manga, just like they invented Marie Kondo. So I had to check it out.
The manga has a plot line, which involves “Chiaki Suzuki” hiring Kondo to help her organize her apartment, and they is a romantic subplot involving Chiaki’s cute neighbor, who lives in a neat, organized apartment and is a bit shocked by Chiaki’s mess. And grossed out by the trash bags on her balcony, which adjoins his. It seems she can’t even keep her trash days straight.
Tidbits explaining Kondo’s philosophy are interspersed into the plot.
I had seen the Netflix series but hadn’t read any of the books, so the manga version was a really good review for me.
But I don’t have an organizational problem with my things…if anything, it is with my computer files!
Living in Tokyo: what it’s really like
The cover photo I chose for today’s post is a historical representation of a Japanese apartment, but a Tokyo apartment you might find today is not that different. It used to be common to put the clothes washer on the balcony, but now it is often in a room with the vanity (bathroom sink). In the historical apartment, there may not have been a shower/bath as people went to public bath everyday. The WC/toilet is always separate anyway.
I really enjoyed reliving my 6 years in a Tokyo apartment by following Kondo’s client, “Chiaki Suzuki” through her lessons with Kondo. And of course, the romantic subplot makes it even more fun.
Also let me add, that if you read this book and are surprised by the size of Suzuki’s apartment, in reality her apartment is a pretty decent size for someone living alone…she has a separate bedroom. Honestly, I would wouldn’t have been surprised by a studio, which I think is a bit more common.
The bathroom, which might seem large in proportion to the rest of the apartment, is totally normal for a Japanese apartment, if you are wondering. It is supposed to actually be three rooms: a toilet room, a room for the sink and washing machine, and a separate room for the shower and tub. You get completely clean in the shower before using the tub: families often share the water and then recycle it into the clothes washer. The bathroom system comes from the old Japanese baths, where you sit in a little stall and wash yourself, then go get in communal tubs to soak (all female or all male as far as I know). The toilets, aside from the many functions you have heard of, also usually have a little sink installed on the back of the toilet. When you flush the toilet, the faucet in the sink runs automatically for you to wash your hands, but the sink water comes from the pipe and then runs into the toilet, not the other way around!
Ever since I lived in Japan, I have said that my dream house has an American kitchen and a Japanese bathroom. I had a slightly bigger kitchen than Chiaki does, but the kitchens are tiny. They don’t usually have ovens (just a very small “grill” that fits one fish) and little else, although I managed to bake enchiladas in it. They don’t usually have automatic dishwashers either; my daughter worked out just fine. I really didn’t want one because the power and water to run it is expensive. Some people have small countertop models, but I didn’t really get the point of those: they take up a lot of room, are very small, and I wasn’t sure they would get the job done.
Japan, and Tokyo in particular, has great take out…even the convenience stores (conbini) have very nice prepared salads, for a very reasonable price, so single people actually don’t need to cook that much. My big splurge for take away was a box of about 10 pieces of sushi from the grocery store for about $7 US (700 yen), and there were many options that cost just a dollar or two. In most large cities, economy of scale and the expense of real estate (large grocery stores and kitchens) make take away economical, I think. You can get a decent, healthy takeaway meal for the equivalent of $5.
They also don’t usually have tumble dryers, but they do have very efficient clothes hanging systems that I would also love to install in my house although I kept and still use my basic hanging rack like the one pictured.
Manga Conventions in this book
For much of the book, I was kind of bugged by the fact that Chiaki and her neighbor both have blonde hair. Japanese do not have blond hair, of course, although a few people color it. Usually those would be college students though…no one working regular corporate jobs would be allowed to do that. This is a country where they tell you on the news the official day that men aren’t allowed to wear jackets to work (in the spring) and the day they have to start wearing them again (in the fall). Otherwise, the men wear them all summer and explode the country with the AC bills. The women’s work attire is just about as strict, and clothes for everyone are more formal and conservative than the US or Europe.
In teacher training, I was taught that it’s bad if students don’t color in the skin because when they draw people it’s supposed to indicate some type of racially based self-hatred. But of course, “Marie Kondo” is drawn with lovely black hair. And then I realized that that is my answer: manga is very stylized, and the other characters are drawn with “no color” (or shading) to indicate that they are not important. “Marie” is the center of the show. So don’t let that throw you, and keep in mind that other things you see that seem strange are also conventions of the genre. You should be able to figure them out…the are pretty instinctual…so just enjoy the ride.
Thankfully, the English version of this book is read from left to right, and you get to hold the binding on the left, as in English books, not the right, as in Japanese books. I’ve tried to read some manga in English that keeps the Japanese language book style, and it drives me mad!
Japan was an isolated country for thousands of years, and they were never colonialized, so they did and do things their own way.
Fun fact: the kanji (Japanese characters) in the logo for this site read “ni-hon”, which is Japanese for Japan. The kanji to the right, “hon” is also the kanji for book, “hon”. So Japan can also be read as “two books” (“ni” also means 2). How can you not love a culture that named themselves “two books”?
Also this is just one example of the normal wordplay you get in Japanese, and why the artwork in manga is so symbolic.
Marie Kondo’s Other Books
Like the rest of the United States and probably most Netflix subscribers around the world, I’ve seen Marie Kondo’s video series, but I had not read any of her books. I also checked out her other two books to compare them to the manga.
To me, it looks like all three volumes and the Netflix series have the same information. I am most attracted to the video series and the manga versions because the narratives in each draw me in, and of course it’s easier to understand her ideas if you see them in practice. Of the two, the Netflix series, filmed in American homes, is probably more informative, but really, the advice is the same. I thoroughly enjoyed the “Japanese” aspect of the manga because it reminded me of my years in Tokyo, and believe me, if you have never been there, the manga provides great insight into the everyday life of a typical (if somewhat Westernized) Japanese lifestyle.
The books are so similar: What should I choose?
If I were going to choose one of these books to own, it would be the third, Spark Joy. If you need detailed illustrations (and because of their written language, Japanese are very good at instructive/illustrative diagrams), this is the book. It is also easy to reference if you are struggling with particular items in your home.
I hear quite a few humorous references to “sparking joy” from Americans these days, and I can understand how the concept mine seem a little silly, if not downright idolatrous, to Americans. And also we may not want to admit that the concept may strike us all a little bit “closer to home” than we care to admit. We like our stuff, no question…but let me also tell you that Japanese do too…and they have a LOT of cool stuff. Most of the clothes in Japan don’t fit me, and I quickly had everything I needed for my apartment (and they are small), but I still enjoyed shopping in Japan. I had to force myself to stay out of their huge, vertical malls just to keep from spending money.
But where we fall short, and maybe Japanese have too, is of really appreciating everything that we have. And she’s right that our possessions, and our surroundings, are visual representations of who we are. If we can’t let go of something that we aren’t using, it probably is because it represents something to us. Or if we can’t get our house organized, I’m sure it’s because there is something in there that we just don’t want to face. Have you ever had to distance yourself from someone because you realized that person just can’t live without drama, and after while, you can’t take it? Isn’t it usually obvious what that person is trying to avoid?
On that same track, here is something that I’m still thinking about. Kondo writes, “…I’ve learned that people who haven’t yet met someone they really like tend to have accumulated a lot of old clothes and papers, while people who are in a relationship but are feeling ambiguous about it tend to be careless with their things. Our relationsips with other people are reflected in our relationship with our things, and likewise our relationships with things show up in our relationships with people” (251). What does that mean to you? It has made me think of times in my life where my house has been neat and organized, and times when I have felt that I have accumulated too many things. What changed my thinking?
On a different tack, just this weekend, I got my home office set up the way I want it, and it amazes me how much better I feel about working in here. I started working at home a few months ago, but I wasn’t sure how long/often it would be, so I bought a small desk, a bookcase, and a table for my printer. I still shared the room with a twin bed. For more than a month, I have become more and more uncomfortable with that bed in here even though it seemed more practical to have it, so the room could double as a guest room.
This weekend, the bed was finally removed, and the room was organized so that it now looks completely like a functioning office. I would be comfortable putting visitor chairs in here and seeing clients. Every time I walk in here, it’s as though I can breathe easier, and although technically the bed was not crowding me, I feel more relaxed now that it is gone. I don’t get it, but the feeling is intense.
You may have heard Kondo misquoted about keeping books. Think about what the books you keep means.
If some of Kondo’s ideas about “sparking joy” and “thanking your things” get on your nerves, thing about this.
If you want to put it in the “people of the Book” monotheistic traditions (including Christianity), everything that we, as humans make, comes from the materials that God give us. He also gives the intelligence and creativity to make those things. So in that way, aren’t the manufactured goods in our home a part of His creation? So doesn’t it make sense to have respect for our things, and to also show them the same respect when it’s time to let them go?
Many of the videos on Youtube simply rehash the ideas in her books. Try these for slightly fresher versions.