| Nov 16, 2022

Sparking Joy and Cleaning Up: How KonMari Became Big Business

Four-foot-seven Marie Kondo has created an outsized reputation for making order out of chaos not just in people’s homes but their lives.

They are called Konverts. The disciples of the Japanese high priestess of decluttering, Marie Kondo, who live “for the high of domestic purging.” Kondo’s followers see her trademarked system of space clearing as a meditation on the value of possessions and what makes them happy. In an age of overconsumption, it is a spirit of enquiry that has caught fire.

Kondo’s New York Times best-seller, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” has been translated into 44 languages and spawned multiple books, two Netflix series, and a place in the cultural zeitgeist. Along with husband and CEO of KonMari Media, Takumi Kawahara, Kondo’s net worth is estimated between $8 and $10 million. 

After beginning as a 19-year-old organizing consultant when she was at university in Tokyo, Kondo’s rise has been extraordinary, if not fated. She told The Australian newspaper that her obsession with tidying up caused her to have a nervous breakdown and faint when she was 15. What followed helped define the course of her business.

“When I came to, I heard a mysterious voice, like some god of tidying telling me to look at my things more closely,” Kondo, now 38, said. “And I realized my mistake: I was only looking for things to throw out. What I should be doing is finding the things I want to keep. Identifying the things that make you happy: That is the work of tidying.”

What Sparks Joy?

Kondo’s epiphany evolved into the signature question of the KonMari method. For people decluttering their homes, asking “What sparks joy?” helps them decide which belongings to keep and which to discard. But it is much more than that. “What sparks joy?” is the anchoring principle of Kondo’s philosophy. 

In Japanese, the phrase “spark joy” is written as tokimeku, which literally translates as a flutter in the heart in anticipation of something positive. Kondo’s success is built on how well this term, part of a uniquely Japanese aesthetics of experience, has been adapted for a Western audience. 

In the KonMari method, people are asked to keep or discard belongings one category at a time, rather than use a room-by-room approach. The five categories are ordered by sentimentality, from the least to the most — clothes, books, papers, miscellaneous, and sentimental — to help people gradually attune their subtle senses to whether an object sparks joy. 

This worldview hasn’t always translated well. Rather than joy, it has sparked critiques as a minimalist dogma that homogenizes homes. “Marie Kondo was about cleansing yourself into nothing,” one interior designer maximalist told the New York Post. Twitter users have even coopted her method as shorthand for getting rid of anything unwanted from colleagues to boyfriends. 

An Omnimedia Strategy

Such pop culture irony may not have been the effect Kondo intended, but it speaks to her public profile. She has proven a savvy manager of her brand. A Vulture review of her first Netflix series noted that it was a virtual commercial for her books and products, but was very watchable nonetheless.

Kondo and her husband, an executive producer of the premiere season of “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo,” have kept a tight rein on her image. After using Instagram to build a community, she now takes advantage of features like Stories and in-feed shopping to market everything from watering cans to leather bento box-inspired cases to her 4 million followers. 

She has further leveraged her book and television success by creating training courses to learn the KonMari method and a certified consultancy program for practitioners that costs $2,750. It is a long way from charging $100 for five-hour tidying sessions as a young woman.

How to Write a Bestseller

There are two stories about how Kondo went from an organizing consultant to a bestselling author: Each in their own way creates a mythos around Kondo’s rise. 

Kondo told The Cut that her clients urged her to write as the waiting list for her services grew to six months. In this version, she wrote her first book in three months. Sales then boomed after the earthquake and tsunami of 2011. 

However, the Japanese publishing journal Shin-bunka reported that her editor, Tomohiro Takahashi, had made the winning bid for the book proposal Kondo submitted to a training course called “How to write bestsellers that will be loved for 10 years.” Takahashi told the journal that he felt a “mysterious energy” around Kondo. “She’s going to be on TV and become famous,” he told himself. 

The editor mentored Kondo through writing the book over eight months, followed by an internet marketing campaign. She then made her TV debut tidying the residence of a well-known Japanese comedian and a star was born. 

The Joy of Perfect Marketing

By 2015, the translated version of Kondo’s book had hit the U.S. and she was named in TIME’s list of 100 most influential people, marking a stunning turn in fortunes. She has since overseen continuous growth with a mindset cultivated by her attention to detail. “Tidying never lies,” Kondo writes in “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”. “When people revert to clutter … it is not their room or their belongings but their way of thinking that is at fault.” 

At the heart of Kondo’s success is the question of what sparks joy. In marketing terms, this iconic phrase appeals to the groundswell of people now willing to buy the change they want to see in the world. It perfectly captures the aspiration of an intentional lifestyle freed from physical and mental clutter. After growing from a child obsessed with tidying to a one-woman global brand, Marie Kondo is not just preaching to the Konverts anymore.

Justin Ballis

Opinion Contributor, Strixus

Justin has 20 years' experience working in the Australian media as a production editor, and is currently interested in the intersection of mental health, psychology, trauma, and mysticism. view profile


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