If you’ve watched the Netflix show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, then you can confirm that its appeal is a combination of three things: One, judging other people’s lives, two, psychoanalyzing other people’s damage, and three, Marie Kondo’s facial expressions. The first two are standard reality television, but the third is really special. I don’t say this ironically; Marie Kondo is an interesting person, and it’s a pleasure to watch her interact with people and move through space.
As far as I can tell, the reaction to the show on Twitter has been humorously nihilistic, like, “How do I throw myself away” and “The joke’s on you, Marie Kondo – I no longer know how to experience joy.” In print media, the running joke about The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up has been that none of us can escape the awful capitalist hell we’ve trapped ourselves in, and not even Marie Kondo can save us now. (See, for example, this cartoon that ran two years ago in The New Yorker.) Also, some people have gotten passionate about not wanting to throw away their books, and other people have mocked them for their performative intellectualism, and this exchange has become a meme in and of itself.
And then, after two weeks of people having fun with a silly show on Netflix, other people started bringing race into the equation. If you watched the show, you’re racist. If you didn’t watch the show, you’re racist. If you make fun of Marie Kondo, you’re racist. If you respect and appreciate Marie Kondo, you’re racist. If you have no idea who Marie Kondo is but still insist on folding your shirts in a certain way, you’re racist and you don’t even know it.
The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up was originally published in translation in 2014 by Ten Speed Press, a small outfit in California that specializes in “healthy lifestyle” and crafting books. They have a good list of nonfiction and autobio comics as well; and, if you’ve ever seen one of those ridiculous “How to Draw Manga” books in a chain bookstore, they probably published it. The press commissions a lot of translations, and their scope is fairly international. When they put out their translation of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, they gave it the subtitle “The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” not because they were playing to some sort of “Oriental mysticism” but because there is a huge market for books like The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living and The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter and Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. Essentially, people in the United States want to escape the awful capitalist hell we’ve created for ourselves, but we don’t want to give up our perceived standard of living, so we want people in other “developed” countries to tell us what we’re doing wrong and how to fix it.
I won’t deny that racism may play a part in this, because we live in a system of global white supremacy in which racism plays a part in everything, but what the publishing market has done is to group Japan with what I think it’s fair to call “fancy Europe,” which is problematic but not, I think, overtly racist. In the book itself, which is a translation of something originally published in 2010 in Japanese (人生がときめく片づけの魔法), Kondo does indeed talk to her Japanese readers about “ancient Japanese cleaning rituals.” Japanese writers have been doing this before America existed, however, and they will probably continue doing this after America fails. I therefore don’t think it’s fair to make American conceptions of Orientalism the center of a conversation about what’s going on there.
This is what bothers me so much about the application of American configurations of race to who Marie Kondo is and what she’s doing and how her work has been received – America is not the center of this particular transnational cultural phenomenon, and assuming its centrality is not “racist,” exactly, but extremely arrogant. Within the specific context of American conversations about the Netflix show on Twitter, there are so many different voices from so many different people that you would specifically have to go looking for white people being racist. They exist, obviously, but who does it benefit to treat their gross fringe options as the most important voices while ignoring everyone else?
Meanwhile, speaking of Japan-America relations, the nuclear waste from the Manhattan Project is still under St. Louis, and it’s still giving people cancer; and, if you care about such things, it’s still disproportionately affecting African-American communities. Flint, Michigan still doesn’t have clean water, and we’re still imprisoning the children of refugees, and the federal government is still shut down because of a legitimately racist pissing match over a “border wall,” and… I mean, you know, everything. I feel that we’re all constantly under assault during the administration of POTUS45, and the sort of incessant angry buzzing noise generated by endless waves of thinkpiece articles about how some innocuous Netflix show might be covertly racist only makes everyone more exhausted without actually doing anything to help anyone.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t like the “Which One of Your Friends Is A Secret Racist?” game that I’ve seen (white) people play on social media. If the basis of judgment is liking a tweet of a round animal or watching a self-improvement Netflix miniseries on New Year’s Day, then we’re all racists; and, by implication, we’re all just as guilty as POTUS45 in making the world an awful place.
It’s like, then why even do anything, you know? Why even try.
The problem with an insistence on ideological purity is that it denies the existence of allies and punishes people who don’t have the resources to devote to following the minutiae of the social media conversations surrounding whatever cause or movement they’d like to support. This is especially upsetting at the current moment, as trying to help people affected by the administration is not some sort of abstract intellectual game, especially since so many of us are doing our best to stay afloat ourselves.