Culture | CULTURE NOTES

Marie Kondo and Momo: The new faces of Japanese culture

by Patrick St. Michel

Japanese soft power has seen two faces in 2019. One is that of tidying guru Marie Kondo. The other is the horrifying visage of Momo, an unsettling sculpture turned viral hoax.

The two couldn’t be more different — Kondo encourages viewers to de-clutter their closets, while Momo pops up on social media and encourages kids to stab their parents or harm themselves — but they have both managed to be among 2019’s most visible pop culture developments, and both originate from Japan (though Momo is better known as hailing from the dark regions of the web).

Despite their differences, both Kondo and Momo’s successes in the greater global pop culture discourse share plenty of similarities. Most strikingly, each phenomenon shows how to capture attention at a time when everything feels ephemeral. Hint: confusion goes a long way.

It has been surprising how omnipresent Kondo and her “KonMari” method have become since the Netflix debut of her show “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.” What seemed like a play by the streaming service to capitalize on New Year’s resolutions turned her into a superstar.

Three months on, people are still writing articles about Kondo, and she has appeared on late night shows and the Oscars’ red carpet. Her guiding principle — does it spark joy? — has mutated into a meme and prompt for YouTubers everywhere.

Meanwhile, Momo, like Kondo, has been around a while, starting life as a piece of art made by Keisuke Aiso that appeared in a gallery, as Aiso told The Japan Times. The “Momo Challenge” even popped up at times over the past few years, but it was only when American and British sources noticed that it turned into a good ol’ fashioned moral panic.

Celebs such as Kim Kardashian begged YouTube to put a stop to the Momo Challenge, and then websites and TV stations picked it up. Nevermind that the challenge wasn’t real, YouTube creators and others needed to react to it and meme on it. It reached peak visibility when Momo was parodied on American comedy show “Saturday Night Live,” signifying she had made it.

Plenty of things can capture attention for a day, but Kondo and Momo have persisted longer than most by connecting with all corners of modern media, flourishing online, on TV and beyond. And confusion — aided by their Japanese origins — contributed to this. Debate about Kondo and Momo pushed both to a higher level.

With the latter, it was a straightforward “is this real?” discussion, with Momo’s murky origins contributing to the head scratching. Kondo, though, inspired debates on the value of books and Shintoism. None of this is really important when cleaning up your kitchen, but people love arguing about something they don’t have all the details on nonetheless, helping to make it more prominent.

And, as a result, Kondo and Momo feel like part of the monoculture, at least until “Game Of Thrones” returns to TV for its final season. Whether they remain prominent in 2019 or fade away, they’ve both achieved a fame rarely seen by Japan-born art. Maybe Cool Japan should pivot to cleaning and nightmare fuel.