National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Aging population spurs drive to tidy nation's cluttered homes

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing Writer

KonMari? Let’s, by all means.

If that’s meaningless to you, you might want to ask yourself this question: Is my life clogged, cluttered?

Marie Kondo is one of the world’s most influential people. American weekly news magazine Time said so in 2015, conferring a rare distinction on someone whose expertise lies in so seemingly humble a sphere. What does she do? She tidies up.

Well, so do I, so do you — up to a point. Not up to her point, or we’d be famous, too. We’d be consultants, having written a best-selling book. Hers, published in 2014, is titled “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.” It has sold millions of copies worldwide. Evidently it strikes a chord. A great idea is often so simple it’s beneath our notice — until somebody notices it, gives it utterance and sparks a revolution. What Kondo noticed is the revolutionary potential of housecleaning. Emerge from your household clutter and reinvent yourself, she says in effect. Be reborn. Welcome the new you.

“KonMari” is her name, compressed. The “KonMari Method” figures in Toyo Keizai magazine’s extensive feature this month on housecleaning, literal and figurative, physical and mental, as preparation for a new life and as preparation for death. Yes, death. Aging rapidly, the nation faces death on a scale unprecedented in peacetime. To leave clutter behind is to encumber your heirs. There’s a movement afoot called shūkatsu (preparing for the end) — which, say two of its advocates and exemplars, actress Shino Ikenami and her actor-husband Akira Nakao, you’d better start while you’re young and strong. It’s no light undertaking.

We won’t have space to consider shūkatsu in any depth, but it’s noteworthy in passing that a whole new industry is burgeoning around it, comprised of experts, consultants, heavy lifters — whose performance, warns Toyo Keizai, citing complaints received by consumer life counseling centers nationwide, suggests at times the parasitic side of human nature. Cost overruns and careless disposal of precious mementos are allegedly recurrent.

The magazine speaks to a woman in her 40s who, her father suddenly dead and her mother gaining admission to a care facility, made up her mind to declutter the parental home herself before moving out — only to be defeated at last by the enormity of the task.

Tired to begin with after a day at the office, she’d labor into the night, picking away at the stuff little by little. The old clothes and shoes could go out with the burnable rubbish. Dad’s fishing gear she’d give to his fishermen friends. The futons, dishes, kitchen utensils were earmarked for relatives. “Done!” she exulted a month later — only to suddenly realize she’d forgotten all about the furniture. How could it have escaped her? Dismayed, deflated, defeated, she gave up, called a professional — whose average fee, Toyo Keizai says, is ¥100,000 a room.

KonMari emphasizes rebirth, not death. We are a strange species. We struggle so hard to acquire things — shopping to find them, working to pay for them — until suddenly we notice, or the awareness dawns little by little, that what we really want is precisely what we no longer have: space.

Things choke us. Space sets us free. What to do? Trash stuff, free space — obviously. But what stuff? The books you’ll never reread? The photo albums you never glance at? The dusty old clothes you couldn’t wear even if you wanted to, which you don’t? This table, big enough to seat six people, but we’re only two? That sofa, so ugly and uncomfortable, which has been in the family for generations? Get rid of it, dispose of it — it’s easy to say, but to actually lay hands on it is to confront a mysterious truth: there is life in these useless old relics; my life. Present, they do nothing for me. Absent — what a gaping emptiness they’d leave behind.

Enter the expert. Dispassionate and detached, having handled hundreds of cases like yours (however unique you think yourself), she or he leads you to reason. Kondo’s key word (it’s one word in Japanese) is “spark of joy.” Go through your stuff one item at a time, she counsels. Does seeing or handling this particular thing light in you a spark of joy? If so, it stays. If not, out it goes. Simple. Except that it’s not simple. If it were, who’d need an expert?

But experts — and presumably expertise — abound. Toyo Keizai’s feature fairly bristles with expert advice. Once we’ve tidied up our own lives we must urge our aging and increasingly apathetic parents to tidy up theirs. The longer we live the more we accumulate; the more we accumulate the less willing we are to part with it; the more we age the more precious things grow, especially old things, with their links to that far-off, long-lost time when the world made sense, or seemed to. That’s all very well, but do the elderly appreciate the dangers posed by the congestion of their living space — the blocked passages, the obstructed movement?

Be careful how you state your case, warns Toyo Keizai. The elderly have their sensitivities. Don’t, on pain of having them get their backs up, say to your parents: “How can you live in this mess?” “Why do you keep all this junk?” “We better get this cleaned up before you develop dementia.” You’d think the manners of the average civilized person would have evolved to the point of not needing an expert to drill this home. Evidently not. Maybe there’s a subconscious revenge motive at work here — we all remember these same parents nagging us as children: “Clean up your room, how can you live in this mess?” — and so on.

There’s much to be said for tidying, cleaning, organizing, rationalizing, streamlining and similar related impulses — so long, of course, as it’s within bounds. To cut too close to the bone is to risk waking up next morning to a living environment that in the clear light of day looks glaringly skeletal, the space created not so much free as empty. Toyo Keizai doesn’t consider this.

“What have I done to my world?” you may ask yourself in despair. Too late! What’s gone is gone. You must adjust as best you can.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.

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