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Adam Minter

What’s in Marie Kondo’s Closet?

A Q&A with historian Eiko Maruko Siniawer about the real roots of Japan’s obsession with “tidying up” and eliminating clutter at home.

Japanese are enthusiastic consumers. 

Japanese are enthusiastic consumers. 

Photographer: Buddhika Weerasinghe/Bloomberg

The unlikely television hit of the new year is Netflix Inc.’s “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo.” With each episode, Kondo, a Japanese consultant and author of international bestsellers on how to reduce clutter, applies her signature “KonMari” process to a different Los Angeles home. The system is simple: Keep only the things that “spark joy” in you. Everything else can be tossed. Evidence of Kondo’s growing influence can be seen at America’s thrift stores, many of which are reporting a surge in donations since the Netflix show debuted on Jan. 1.

Kondo is the most high-profile representative of a wave of Japanese minimalism gurus who have gained attention in the past decade. Yet, far from being a new phenomenon, many of ideas associated with the “Japanese art of de-cluttering,” as Kondo calls it, date back to an early 20th century Japanese enthusiasm for the “scientific management” methods of Frederick Winslow Taylor, which were designed to improve efficiency by reducing waste. After World War II, followers began advocating Taylor’s ideas as a means of household management and modernization.