How an Obsession With Organizing Built an Empire: Inside Marie Kondo's Controversially Tidy World

"I was obsessed with what I could throw away. One day, I had a kind of nervous breakdown and fainted. I was unconscious for two hours."

By Billy Nilles Jan 24, 2019 7:03 PMTags
Inside Marie Kondo's Tidy WorldNetflix; Melissa Herwitt/E! Illustration

"I'm so excited because I love mess."

It's the first thing Netflix viewers hear Marie Kondo say in her streaming series, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. And it's that love of mess—or, more accurately, the love of figuring out how to rid one's life of said mess—that has propelled the Japan native from a mere organizational enthusiast to an international best-selling author and star of her own TV show, proselytizing the cluttered masses on her KonMari method and its concerted effort to have our living spaces be full of only things that "spark joy" in our lives.

In her series, Kondo swoops in to one family home per episode like some sort of stuff-obsessed Mary Poppins, teaching her charges—and, by extension, the rest of us slobs watching along at home—how to bring order back into their lives, one uniquely-folded t-shirt at a time. (As for everything that doesn't spark joy? Why, you thank each item for its service and gently dispose of it, of course.) However, benign as she may seem, her dual rises to fame—now, thanks to the Netflix exposure, and in 2011, thanks to the release of her first book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up—haven't been without their hiccups, with the spirit of her mission habitually finding itself lost in translation.

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Kondo's origin story as a master organizer is every bit as fantastical as the woman herself. As she tells it, she first developed her interest in neatness when she was only five years old, around the time the principles of feng shui began to become trendy in her home of Tokyo. (Feng shui, a Chinese concept, claims to use energy forces to harmonize individuals with their surrounding environment. Essentially, it's a way of orienting one's home to make it conducive to the greatest flow of positive energy, or qi.) "My mother was applying the method, but to my eye, the house was not tidy enough to have the feng shui effect," she told The Cut in 2015. So began to take matters into her own hands, at first helping her mother. "Well, not so much helped, as I was the one who tidied," she told the outlet. "I actually executed all the tidying up."

When her parents would go out, she would take it upon herself to clean the house, leaving a perfectly bleached and sparkling kitchen for them to return home to, Kondo revealed during a chat at New York City's 92nd Street Y in early January. By middle school, she was already "deep in my research" on tidying, she told the crowd, explaining that, at that time, tidying was mostly about throwing things away. With that mindset, when she would return home from school, before she would even take her coat off, she would begin hunting through the house, trash bag in had, looking for things to throw away. Her parents quickly tired of their daughter and banned her from tidying altogether, she said.


At 15, though, that obsession with finding clutter not worth keeping got the best of her. "One day, I had a kind of nervous breakdown and fainted," she told in 2014. "I was unconscious for two hours."

But it was through that bizarrely traumatic experience that Kondo sparked onto what would become the guiding principle of her life's work. "When I came to, I heard a mysterious voice, like some god of tidying telling me to look at my things more closely," she continued. "And I realised my mistake: I was only looking for things to throw out. What I should be doing is finding the things I want to keep. Identifying the things that make you happy: that is the work of tidying."

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When she turned 18, she celebrated her birthday with a trip to Japan's national library, lost among the large collection of tidying, decluttering and organizing books that she'd been barred from visiting until that very day. (The library doesn't admit anyone under 18.) "Quite a few books about decluttering are published in a year," Kondo, who as a girl would hide out in her classroom, tidying up the bookshelves, while her classmates were playing in P.E., told The Cut. 

You see, in Japan, the living spaces are quite small and the consumerism is quite large, so finding ways to keep your clutter organized is a priority for the citizens of the Asian island, thus making this niche in the self-help industry a lucrative business plan.

Around the same time, Kondo also began working as an attendant maiden at a Shinto shrine, a part-time role that saw her keeping order for the shrine elder, performing tasks ranging from sacred cleansing to performing the sacred Kagura dance, while also selling lucky charms at the kiosk. "I didn't practise Shintoism deeply but it has an influence on my tidying method," she told The Telegraph in 2016. "In Shintoism and in shrines, tidying and cleaning are regarded as mental cultivation and spiritual training. I suggest people develop their home as if it is their own shrine, which is a power spot to its residents."


At 19, she enrolled at Tokyo Woman's Christian University as a sociology student with an emphasis on gender. It was there that she wrote her thesis, "How to Declutter Your Apartment," and happened upon a book called Women With Attention Deficit Disorder, written by Sari Solden, containing discussion over women who are too distracted to clean their homes. As Kondo told The New York Times in 2016, she was bothered by the idea that there was little consideration that a man might step in to pick up the slack in such a situation, that a woman with A.D.D. was thought to be broken because she couldn't keep things tidy on her own. Already offering her tidying services to friends for money, she realized that the work she was doing was much more psychological than practical.

By the time she graduated, she was charging $100 per five-hour block for tidying jobs before and after her day job and was able to quit her the staffing agency that employed her. Soon, the wait list for her services reached six months. "I had so many clients—a months-long waiting list," Kondo told The Cut. "They requested that I write a book so they could learn about my method while waiting for their consultation." So she wrote her first tome, she says, in just three months and its Japanese edition was published in 2010. It sold fine, but then, in 2011, the March earthquake and tsunami happened.

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As her editor Tomohiro Takahashi told The Cut, the catastrophe had an unexpectedly positive effect on sales. "The Japanese people suddenly had to ask themselves what was important in their lives," he explained of the tragic 9.1 earthquake's aftermath. "What was the true value of sentimental items? What was the meaning of the items they'd lost? What was the meaning of life? It was, unfortunately, a fortuitous event."

Sales of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up exploded soon after.

At face value, the origin story Kondo presents for herself is quite a fairy-tale. However, some have quibbled with its authenticity over the years. In 2015, The New Yorker ran a profile on the author that uncovered a story in the Japanese publishing journal Shin-bunka that revealed exactly how the sausage was made. Despite Kondo's claims that the book was written in three months at the request of wait-listed clients, it turns out that, in 2010, she entered her book proposal in a publishing training course called "How to write bestsellers that will be loved for ten years." 

One of the judges was Takahashi, an editor at Sunmark, a Tokyo self-help and business publisher known for its best-sellers and hands-on editorial approach. He made the winning bid for Kondo's book, of which nothing had yet been written. Kondo was a writing notice, but the editor told himself, "She's going to be on TV and become famous."

"I felt a mysterious energy around her that I had never experienced around other people," he told the publishing journal. What followed was an intensive eight months of author and editor working side-by-side. Once the book was finished, he got her on TV right away, taking her into the home of a famous Japanese comedian and making her a TV sensation. 

While Kondo was becoming a big deal in Japan, she met and fell in love with Takumi Kawahara, whom she married in 2012. At the time he was working in sales support and marketing at an Osaka corporation. But once his wife's career took off, he left his job to become her manager and, eventually, CEO of Konmari Media, LLC. "He was able to clean and be very organized even before he read my book, but it was certainly even more pronounced after he read my book," she told Good Housekeeping in 2016. "He became even more efficient. Fundamentally speaking, we're in the same groove." The couple have two young daughters, Satsuki and Miko.

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The arrival of her first child made little impact on her devotion of avoiding clutter. "Before I gave birth to my baby daughter, I finished all my tidying sessions together with my husband in order to make enough room for my baby items," she told The Telegraph six months after Satsuki's birth. "My home is as tidy as usual even after I welcomed one more family member to our space. Actually my daughter is still very small, not even a toddler, so she doesn't make a mess by herself. Yet my life has been changed dramatically after her arrival. She needs me all the time even when I have urgent tasks to be done. Now I am a self-employed working mother with multiple tasks all the time. But for now, it doesn't really change my approach to tidying. I feel the most happiness when I am folding baby clothing. That is one of the best relaxing times for me now."

But as she told Good Housekeeping just a few months later, motherhood had begun to loosen the rigidity that Kondo presented in the pages of her book. "I think I became more forgiving after my baby was born, especially because I'm so much more limited in time and [given] the sheer number of things that increase," she told the publication.

And though she's already training both kiddos on her method, she's the first to admit that it hasn't been without its hiccups. "I try to teach them how to fold clothes. Children are very close observers so I try to make it so they can watch me folding clothes," she told the Associated Press in 2018. "From time to time I do feel anxious. It's not 100 percent. It's not perfect."


When Kondo's first book received its English translation in 2014, she was finally introduced to the Western world. And, as is our wont, the think pieces and criticism over this tiny woman and her rigid beliefs on how one must approach tidying began pouring in. There were people who took issue with her apparent complete lack of consideration for life with children. And people who found her stance on books—"In the end, you are going to read very few of your books again," she write in bold type, encouraging people to find new homes for the books that don't spark joy upon touch—downright barbaric. (Though, their interpretation of her words was a bit misguided. More on that in a minute.) And people who took the word "magic" in the title a bit too literally, scoffing at her humanistic approach to inanimate objects—verbally thanking them for their service before tossing them out, similarly thanking a client's home for its protection as she enters it—as childish and something they failed to understand.

Despite all this, the book and her subsequent three follow-ups—of which only one, Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up, has received an English translation, in 2017—have sold more than 11 million copies in 40 countries. In 2015, she was included on Time Magazine's list of 100 most influential people. She quickly began growing her empire. First came the 2016 formal training program designed to create consultants certified by Kondo herself to be sent into 23 countries around the world to spread the KonMari word. There are now 300 independent consultants operating globally. 

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And in 2018, however antithetical it may have seemed to her whole anti-clutter M.O., she launched her first product line, six-piece sets of sturdy paper boxes meant to help her acolytes actually complete all these steps in her sorting method. At launch time, the sets sold for $89. Customers ordering the boxes also received a series of emails and other online help meant to guide them through the process and hopefully connect her devotees to one another.

"I often hear that it is very difficult to sustain your motivation to tidy when you're doing it all by yourself, so I very much feel that having this community is very important," she told reporters at the launch, per the AP.


Fame hasn't been without its downsides for Kondo. Before she and her family relocated to San Francisco, it had gotten to the point where she couldn't walk down the street in Tokyo without being recognized. And the quick growth of her company has been a bit overwhelming for the woman who told The New York Times, "I was always more comfortable talking to objects than people."

"I feel I am busy all the time and I work all the time," she told the newspaper, with the writer suggesting that Kondo did not appear happy about that fact.

When the Netflix offer came along, it represented an opportunity for Kondo to scale back and travel less than she once was while she was on the lecture circuit, certifying her consultants. The opportunity to work one-on-one again was a highlight for her. "It was a very exciting, very enjoyable experience for me," she told the AP in July 2018. "I've been engaged so much in giving lectures, doing media appearances and so on."

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But, of course, it also meant that Kondo once again had to go on the defense. With Tidying Up becoming an overnight obsession with Netflix's global audience after it's January 1 launch, there were those who were discovering her for the first time and, again, misunderstanding much of what she had to say. 

"Some people on the show questioned why they would thank an inanimate object for its service," she told Vulture in December. "This was a revelation. I know now that I must explain some aspects of my work more clearly."

And then there was the whole book thing. A severe misinterpretation of Kondo's thoughts towards books began circulating around Twitter, claiming that she argues you ought to only own 30 despite her clearly stating in her book that it was merely her personal preference. In an interview with IndieWire, she clarified what she actually meant.

"It's not so much what I personally think about books. The question you should be asking is what do you think about books. If the image of someone getting rid of books or having only a few books makes you angry, that should tell you how passionate you are about books, what's clearly so important in your life. If that riles you up, that tells you something you about that. That in itself is a very important benefit of this process," she told the outlet, making clear that she's never advocated for throwing the books away or, God forbid, burning them. "I always recommend donating them, so if that's part of the misunderstanding, then that's certainly being mixed up."

As the book kerfuffle showed, bringing Kondo's uniquely Japanese sensibilities to space and belongings to the American public has been an exercise in shifting perspectives—for her as much as for us.

And for those who can't get down with the KonMari Method, know that Kondo thinks that's OK, too. "I think it's good to have different types of organizing methods," she told the NYT, "because my method might not spark joy with some people, but [another] method might."

Tidying Up with Marie Kondo is now available to stream on Netflix.