The Life Changing Magic of Questioning Assumptions

I must admit to witnessing the recent KonMari phenomenon with some bemusement. Like millions of others I did indeed buy Marie Kondo’s book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up some time ago. Since I read the book I have tried to be mindful of its approach to de-cluttering your house (and, by extension, your mind). Her central idea is to keep only what sparks joy in you and to let go of everything else. Kondo applies these principles to her clients’ homes by reducing and reducing until the ideal, felt state is reached.

That I am a lazybones and my house is as messy as ever does not invalidate for me the power of the ideas in her book which are based upon the foundational Japanese cultural elements of Zen.

Zen embraces an aesthetic that reaches its height when enough unnecessary elements have been taken away that only the essential essence of the object or place remains. One of its most important principles is the notion that we must free ourselves from attachments, including our belongings. The letting-go of attachments is believed to bring the disciple peace and freedom, just as Kondo tries to inspire in her clients.

A key Zen truth is that nothing is permanent. Therefore it follows that attachment to transient objects will bring suffering. Accepting the impermanence of life will free us from a feeling of loss when we let them go.

Another sophisticated concept that Kondo has elegantly weaved into an activity as mundane as tidying up is Wabi-sabi, which describes the beauty of transience. Wabi-sabi seeks a mindful approach to everyday life by honouring the beauty of things that are imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. This renders obsolete the capitalist pursuit of continually amassing things and upgrading to newer and shinier versions of everything. At the same time, it allows us to see our belongings as impermanent. We are not bound to them.

Now, my practical failure to take her ideas on board could be marked down to my rebellious gaijin (foreigner) mind. However, in the course of my work as a market researcher in Japan, I have visited hundreds of everyday Japanese homes and it seems the majority of them also haven’t quite got the KonMari ‘memo’.

As Japan is often viewed as the epitome of a minimalistic culture, one question remains in my mind: Kondo wrote her books firstly for her fellow Japanese. She whisked through Japanese homes to de-clutter them before Netflix was even a thing. So how can it be that the Japanese with their pure ideals of aesthetics need a tidying-up fairy? Surely their living rooms contain nothing but a single flower in a vase placed under a hanging scroll and some hidden cushions stacked neatly behind sliding doors silently waiting for some subdued and respectful guests to entertain for a tea ceremony.

Anyone who has ever set foot into a Japanese family home knows nothing could be further from the truth! More often than not, you will be greeted by piles of shoes that seem to flow out from the much too small shoe cabinet in the genkan, or entrance area. The living room is taken up by mismatched furniture that is likely cheaply made and overflowing with cups, glasses, maybe books, but more likely series of manga (comic books), and souvenirs from overseas trips – all collecting dust. In the kitchen, a Westerner might scratch their heads as to where the family actually prepares meals, since groceries, the ubiquitous rice cooker, and kitchen utensils take up every square inch.

The apparent absence of Zen and Wabi-sabi in daily life also extends into the business and marketing world. To provide just one example, if you have gotten used to Amazon’s fairly simple design, you will feel thrown back to the early ages of the Internet when first laying eyes onto Rakuten’s landing page, Amazon’s biggest competitor in Japan. Prepare for an onslaught of colors, banners, and various fonts–with a strong disposition for Times New Roman–all fighting for your attention at the same time. Or, take a walk through any neighborhood drugstore where you will be met by a riot of different products with seemingly very little organising principle.

So, it seems that the culture that brought us minimalism is also the master of maximalism. Ahhh … the contradictions of Japan!

While confusing, it helps to always keep in mind the benefit of holding two thoughts in your mind on any topic in Japanese culture and accepting that both could be true.

Take, for example, the area of fast-moving product design. If you workshop with Japanese women to arrive at what their ideal package for a drug-store product will be you will more likely than not arrive at a prescription for something very clean, muted, often pure white and with a classy accent such as a gold lettering or a subtle swoosh of deep color. And following the prescription in a way true to the client’s brand can indeed provide a pleasing and attractive package. However, said package based on ‘ideals’ can also become lost in the mad-cap real-life world of the drugstore. This partially explains why many product aesthetics we see in Japan seem to break all the rules.

The point really is that decisions and priorities in Japan are driven by context. For this reason, I’m a strong believer in marrying consumer context with whatever you may ‘know’ about Japan (including facts and figures). Ethnographic-style market research approaches offer a powerful tool in providing a comprehensive picture. That ‘perfect’ product design workshopped in the focus group, may completely fail to pop with consumers when placed on a shelf in the Japanese drugstore maze.

We spend much time in (often un-Kondolike) Japanese homes observing the inhabitants go about their daily lives. We also leave the homes and navigate with our subjects the customer experience in the crowded world they often find outside their cluttered homes. This gives us clues as to why and how a product or experience needs to be adapted to be practical, or indeed to pinpoint the correctly defined opportunity for new concepts.

In any case, the next time you watch Marie Kondo smile on Netflix you might now understand why she is not horrified by the clutter of the standard American house–she knows it all too well from back home.

This article was originally published on February 20, 2019, on

Let's Talk