A diminutive Japanese woman kneels, eyes closed, caressing a rug with open palms. She appears to be praying — to a house. She greets it, thanking it for its service.
The camera pans to her American hosts, Kevin and Rachel. Ensconced in armchairs, struggling to keep a straight face, they look a little like children in church — and in a way, they are. In her new Netflix series, the decluttering guru Marie Kondo is shown not just sprucing up people’s homes but also reimagining them as sacred spaces — channeling her experience as a former assistant at a Shinto shrine, along with the related belief that life, even consciousness, of a kind, courses through everything.
The series leans on Ms. Kondo’s nationality in other ways, too: The conspicuous presence of her interpreter helps to create the impression of a cultural chasm being effortfully but productively bridged; Ms. Kondo’s own energy and kindness is tinged with an artfully ill-concealed sadness at these desperate Americans, their homes and minds choked with trash. When her first book came out several years ago, Ms. Kondo’s publisher did much the same: To “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” it added the subtitle “The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.” Readers would no longer be doing chores; they would be engaged in a cultural and possibly spiritual activity.
Marie Kondo is by far the most successful participant in a larger trend of the past few years: packaging inspirational but fairly universal lifestyle advice as the special product of Japanese soil and soul, from which Westerners might usefully learn. We’ve had “ikigai,” which translates as the familiar concept of value and purpose in life. We’ve had forest bathing, as though the soothing power of nature had not occurred to people like Wordsworth and Emerson. Such advice books may be having a moment, but they are not new. Rather, they’re the latest installment in a surprisingly old tradition: Japan and its culture marketed as a moderating force in a world otherwise overwhelmed by the West.
The tradition goes back to a civil war in 1868-69, after which a new and forward-looking group of Japanese leaders found themselves facing a conundrum: How do you modernize without simply Westernizing? Ideas from the United States and Western Europe on science and medicine, philosophy, fashion and music were pouring in, while Japan, it seemed, was sending precious little back in the other direction. From beef to ballroom dancing, sideburns to suits, there appeared a real risk that Japan would forget its past completely, winding up a mere Asian facsimile of Western life.
And so, there followed a rooting around in the cupboards in search of things that might usefully define “Japan,” offering reassurance at home and material for export. The most successful of these played on the idea that the technological superiority of countries like Britain and America had been purchased at the cost of the Western soul. They were societies, as an adviser to the Japanese emperor put it in 1879, whose “only values are fact-gathering and techniques.” Japan’s mission in the world, some began to say, should be to succeed where the West had evidently failed: creating a form of modern life that integrates technological with spiritual progress, rationality with intuition and emotion, individualism with a deep feeling for community. As exports went, it beat geisha dolls and paper umbrellas.
This grand mission came closest to success when Westerners themselves willingly signed up. One of the reasons many in the West have heard of Zen but not any other big Japanese Buddhist sect is that from around the turn of the 20th century, canny Zen advocates worked with allies in the United States and elsewhere to present it as the answer to Westerners’ prayers: Meditation promised direct spiritual experience, shorn of Christianity’s increasingly unpalatable doctrines and institutional authority.
The reality of Zen in Japan was rather different — no shortage of rules, rites and philosophical complexity. Still, here was one culture helping to refresh another, offering a precious new practice while helping to rekindle awareness of Christianity’s own contemplative dimension — from the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the third century to Meister Eckhart a thousand years later.
But there was always the potential for this polarizing of Japan and the West to go too far, moving from mutual enrichment — rooted in shared spiritual aspirations — to aggressive contrast and competition. People’s everyday lives and habits easily became the fodder for sweeping and heavily politicized cultural conclusions.
Some went as far as claiming that Zen revealed the essence of Japanese life: simple, intuitive and relatively free of the wordiness with which Europeans and Americans so complicated their existences. Zen as the ultimate decluttering.
Others harped on the state of Japanese versus Western homes. The philosopher Tetsuro Watsuji argued that the thick internal walls found in Western homes indicated the real meaning there of “family”: pragmatic cohabitation by self-interested individuals. By contrast, Japanese homes’ movable internal partitions of wood and paper reflected the true and natural state of humanity: never solitary, always in relationships, always putting others first.
As Western empires had their “civilizing missions” in India, Africa and elsewhere, so Japanese leaders drew on the likes of Watsuji to supply cultural ballast for their own empire-building and war-making. First, the Koreans and the Chinese needed to be taught how to live well. Then the malign influence of a corrupt and materialistic Anglosphere had to be countered, not just on battlefields but in everyday life: Messy haircuts that drew inspiration from Hollywood were “tidied up.” Record companies switched from jazz to a more rousing “national music.”
World War II and its aftermath put Japan and much of the West on opposite sides, and encouraged an emphasis on contrast: Ruth Benedict’s famous study of Japanese culture and personality, “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword,” published in 1946, was a popular best seller, not just in the West but in Japan, too, where for years after the war, many were more comfortable seeing their country defined by culture than by recent history. But in the end, the war made little more than a dent in entrepreneurial efforts to sell “Japaneseness.” And the wealth to which postwar leaders encouraged a poverty-stricken population to aspire helped to generate the consumer culture, and clutter, in Japanese homes that gave the likes of Marie Kondo her start in life.
Such connections are worth bearing in mind, because so little has really changed in 150 years. We in the West still hanker after new and exotic ways to make our lives better. And Japan still seeks to fit the bill. Its foreign policy is constrained by a pacifist Constitution and a one-sided alliance with America. Its economy has seen better days. But it flourishes through cultural “soft power,” offering Westerners at once a quieter life — the serene hush of forest or temple — and a quirkier, more fun one, courtesy of a world-beating pop culture. (Prime Minister Shinzo Abe went as far as dressing up as Super Mario at the closing ceremony of the Rio Olympics in 2016, promoting his country’s hosting of the Games in 2020.)
There’s no reason both sides can’t keep benefiting from this venerable tradition of compare and contrast. As ever, the challenge on both sides is not to take it — or indeed ourselves — too seriously. The success of ikigai, forest bathing and Marie Kondo may indeed be telling us something. But it isn’t that Japan possesses a particular genius for good living. And it isn’t (just) the power of a consumer trend once it gains some momentum. It is that for some perverse reason, the most valuable human insights are easily lost or forgotten. Being gifted them again in some fresh form is surely good for us — we just shouldn’t get hung up on whose they are or where they come from.
Christopher Harding, a senior lecturer in Asian history at the University of Edinburgh and a contributor to BBC Radio, is the author of, most recently, “Japan Story: In Search of a Nation, 1850 to the Present.”