The phenomenal success of Japanese home organizational guru Marie Kondo has turned “decluttering” into a global buzzword. However, Japan’s love affair with organizing and storage solutions was well-established before Kondo found international fame with her first book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” and her recent Netflix series, “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.” A plethora of Japanese books, websites, magazine articles and TV show segments cover the subject, and if the DIY approach doesn’t appeal, you can always enlist the services of a nationally accredited professional organizer.
Amid this general trend, one particular type of decluttering and organizing has grabbed media attention in the past few years — 終活 (shūkatsu), or “end-of-life planning.” A play on words, the term is pronounced in the same way as the expression for job-hunting activities, 就活 (shūkatsu), but with a different character used for the first part of the kanji compound.
In a nutshell, shūkatsu means getting one’s affairs in order before departing this world, thus relieving children or others of any burden. Although the term suggests this can wait until the advanced senior years, organizational experts advise starting well before reaching that stage.
“That sounds like waiting to die! That’s not how I see it. Every day has to be lived fully and in a happy state,” says Nathalie Brantsma of iQuitClutter. Originally from the Netherlands, the professional organizer currently makes her home in Tokyo.
“Your life is now, and if clutter is in your way, that is something you can control. Make a decision while you still have control,” she advises.
Japanese tidying professional Mari Komiya agrees that it’s better to get organized before getting to the point when you run out of time and options.
“Your children and grandchildren will appreciate it if you make your own decisions about possessions and what to do with them,” says Tokyo-based Komiya. She frequently appears in the national media and recently published a book about getting the entire family on board with home organization, “Okāsan Dake ga Ganbaranai Rakuchin Katazuke” (something akin to “Easy Organizing: Mom Doesn’t Have to Do Everything”).
“It’s sad if you wait until you are suddenly faced with moving to a smaller house or entering a care facility,” Komiya points out. “At that point, you might not have much time to decide how to organize or dispose of your possessions, and it will be stressful for everyone involved.”
While it is one thing to know and understand the value of having a well-organized home, it is often quite another to put it into practice. Kondo’s method of attacking clutter all in one go, based on categories, works well for some people, but isn’t the only means to a clutter-free home.
According to Brantsma, what matters is finding a method that works for you and to understand your own personality and any issues that might be holding you back. “Change requires us to step out of our comfort zone, which is scary,” she explains. “It’s not necessarily important to declutter all possessions, in the sense of getting rid of them. What’s important is to make room for the things that make you truly happy. And all the items you use need to be organized well in order to be accessible and tidy.”
Brantsma’s tips include visualizing the kind of home and lifestyle you desire; starting in an area where you can see immediate results; scheduling organizational time in your calendar; rewarding yourself for progress; and building in accountability by involving a friend, family member or professional organizer.
The ultimate goal isn’t to have a picture-perfect home. “It isn’t about what a space looks like — it is about how the space functions, and that’s different for everyone. It is what works for you,” says Brantsma. She adds that home organization isn’t just limited to physical possessions, either. It can extend to legal documents, financial information and even purging ourselves of toxic “friends.”
Even though dual-income families are on the rise in Japan, traditional expectations of gender roles often mean that women believe they should be responsible for all aspects of home organization — a situation that can backfire, says Komiya. She shares an anecdote from when she was hospitalized for cancer surgery several years ago.
“My husband knows where things are in our house, so he managed quite well while I was in the hospital, looking after our children and running the house. However, the woman in the next bed got no peace! Her husband was constantly calling to ask where this or that was. It was clearly stressful for her, and it surely must have hindered her recovery,” Komiya muses.
In a nation where 1 in 3 people affected by cancer are of working age, it seems prudent to involve your partner in home organization — and sooner rather than later.
Decluttering tips for a loved one’s final years
Sooner or later, many Japan-based foreign nationals will be faced with the task of helping elderly parents declutter their possessions. For those with a Japanese partner, it might also extend to assisting in-laws in this country, too.
People in their late 70s and over grew up when much of the world was still recovering from the aftermath of World War II, and in an era very different from today’s consumer society. Along with the security they represent, possessions often hold a lifetime of memories, and the idea of decluttering goes against the grain for many members of this generation.
Nathalie Brantsma offers some tips for helping parents get organized when issues such as advanced age, chronic illness, cognitive decline or the death of a partner necessitate a change in living circumstances.
• Firstly, recognize and be sensitive to the fact that your loved one is probably experiencing loss in multiple areas of their life: loss of health, loss of partner, loss of friends, loss of memory, loss of familiar surroundings.
• Allow them to have as much control as possible about what happens to their possessions. Respect their wishes, as forcing decisions upon them is very likely to lead to conflict and resentment.
• Decluttering the possessions of a lifetime can be an emotionally charged process for everyone involved. Bringing in a professional may be helpful, as they can be nonjudgmental and suggest various solutions based on their experience.
• If an elderly family member refuses assistance with decluttering, shift the focus to establishing a safe environment for them and make that the priority: Remove cables and clear pathways so there is less risk of a fall; ensure they can bathe and use the bathroom safely; check for any potential fire hazards and so on.