Canning chaos with charisma


Noriko Kondo is often described as a “charismatic role-model for housewives.” Always seen smiling, she pops up all the time in homemaking magazines and on television offering tips on how to organize the chaos in the average Japanese kitchen, closet or creaking set of drawers in homes filled to capacity and beyond with stuff.

“People think it’s very difficult to organize their home, but it’s actually fun and simple,” says Kondo, 45, whose books are best sellers and who has a series of DVDs due out next month.

Speaking from her experience of visiting more than 2,000 homes through her husband’s house-moving and home-cleaning business, in addition to her visits for TV programs, Kondo believes the main reason many Japanese have trouble organizing their homes is not so much because their homes tend to be on the small side, but because they often lack any fundamental vision of what they want for their home — and life.

Fundamental confusion

“It’s obvious to them that something is wrong and has to be done, but they often don’t know what it is they are actually having problems with,” Kondo says.

This fundamental confusion, she believes, stems from the simple fact that many people tend to get carried away buying things. “Japanese people were obsessed with consumption during the years of rapid economic growth until the bubble burst in the early ’90s, and our lives were happily filled with material objects — but we never really knew how to enjoy them,” Kondo says.

“Now, with the economy stagnant, there is no one but yourself to rely on and Japanese have finally begun to realize that they have to face themselves and consider what it is they are truly looking for in life.”

This same lack of vision is also probably why most Japanese don’t remodel their homes on their own, she notes. “Westerners are probably more clear about what they want, but if a Japanese tries remodeling on their own without a clear vision, they could end up unsatisfied, and that makes them unwilling to do anything further,” Kondo says. “But then, even in the West no one has been trained to do those things. All it really takes is practice.”

The current upsurge of interest in home remodeling or reorganizing is a good sign that people have finally began to consider what they value about their home comforts, Kondo says. “But this shouldn’t be a superficial trend. The important thing is to think thoroughly about what you like, and then you will find out what suits you.”

To begin with, though, Kondo puts great emphasis on storing things tidily, using empty boxes, containers from 100 yen shops or the karabokkusu self-assembly wooden boxes in different sizes that cost less than 2,000 yen.

She also demonstrates how, with basic do-it-yourself skills, several karabokkusu can be screwed together or shelves can be tailor-made to fit any space.

“It’s the same as driving,” Kondo says. “You start by practicing — in this case with cheap materials — and when you get used to it, that’s where you get your license and then you go on and really learn to drive — or you learn what you truly want or need and then you can finally go and buy nice furniture from the Conran shop.”

Whenever Kondo visits a home, she first focuses on getting the clueless client to talk.

“We discuss ideas until I understand in detail what she needs to deal with, and eventually, things become clear to her as well.”

Then, she makes several suggestions, but has a strict rule not to be too pushy about any of them. “It’s the client who has to decide. If she can’t make up her mind, we talk again,” she says.

Lacking courage

Kondo also always asks her client to work with her to reorganize the closet, the kitchen or whatever. “By the end of the day, my client recognizes why she had trouble getting things right, that she lacked the courage to act — but most of all, she understands that organizing the house is not as difficult as she thought.”

Surprisingly, Kondo says she “hated” organizing or cleaning her own home, and was “very bad” at it. Now, though, she has come to enjoy it — “a little” — because she has got rid of things she doesn’t need and has stopped doing unnecessary things.

“Life isn’t about organizing the house, it’s about living happily,” she says. “And only you can make it happy.”