Why Marie Kondo’s Netflix Show Is Such A Big Deal To Me, As A Japanese-American Woman

by Mika Doyle
Courtesy of Mika Doyle

Americans just can’t seem to get enough of Japanese organizational guru Marie Kondo’s new Netflix series Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, which premiered on Jan. 1 on the streaming service. I have to admit I’d only just heard about Kondo and her KonMari Method of organizing last year, so I tuned in to see what the hype was all about. As the daughter of a Japanese mom and an American dad, I hit play with a lot of skepticism because whenever something "Japanese" starts trending in America, I usually find that that thing — whether it's Memoirs of a Geisha or the white-washing of Ghost in the Shell ends up being full of Asian stereotypes, misinformation, and cultural appropriation. But when I watched Tidying Up, I actually got to see a representation of a Japanese woman that made me feel like I was sitting at the kitchen table making gyoza with my mom.

Now, let me just say right up front that Kondo and my mom are nothing alike, apart from the fact that they're both Japanese — obviously, just because they’re both Japanese women doesn’t mean they’re the same. My mom was born in Osaka, while Kondo was born in Tokyo, a distinction that is super important to Japanese people. There’s a pretty big cultural difference between Osaka and Tokyo, kind of like how there’s a cultural difference between the American West Coast and the American East Coast. I saw this immediately when watching Tidying Up. Throughout the show, Kondo was quiet, kind, and reserved, though she has moments where she brings a kind of playfulness and joy to her work. My mom is also really quiet when she's around people she doesn't know, and she's the kindest person I know.

But with family, my mom is a true Osaka native. She's loud, hilarious, and has always appreciated my sarcastic, biting sense of humor. After watching just one episode of Tidying Up, my mom turned to me and commented, "Wow, [Kondo] is very Japanese." That's not to say Kondo might not be a very different in the privacy of her own home, but this is the Kondo my mom and I saw when watching her show.

But there were times when watching Kondo on Tidying Up hit me on a deeply personal level. In the first episode, Kondo introduces the idea thanking each item before discarding it, as well as greeting the house and thanking it for protecting the family, principles which are spelled out in her 2014 book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. My mom has always believed in gratitude, whether it’s for family, for the items in our lives, for the roof over our heads, or for the events that have happened in our lives. She and my dad moved out of my childhood home last year, and on their last day in that home, she went from room to room and thanked the house for providing for our family for more than 20 years.

Like Kondo, my mom has always believed in treating the items in our homes with respect, but particularly any of the items I’ve gotten in Japan, like my kokeshi dolls or my ichimatsu doll. I can be bad about taking proper care of my things, so Mom reminded me recently to get the dust off them and show them love and respect. It's an act that resonates so much with Kondo's style: “The things that are around you, inside your home […] are there to support you, and this really gives you that sense of inner peace, and […] even though […] the world is quite chaotic, having that sense of inner peace really helps you,” Kondo told Bustle in an interview last year.

There’s also Kondo’s use of little boxes to organize things, which seems so revolutionary to American people — a fact she points out in Life-Changing Magic — but is actually quite commonplace in Japan. My mom told me Japanese dollar stores sell small boxes and drawer separators to make organizing so much easier. But since she’s never been able to find those in the United States, she’s always saved shoe boxes and other small boxes to use inside drawers and bins. When I saw Kondo teaching Americans this method of organizing, I immediately picked up the phone and called my mom. I couldn’t believe something she’d been teaching me all my life was on a Netflix show.

But this isn’t a competition between Kondo and my mom about who organizes the best. This is about how I finally saw someone so similar to my mom on Netflix that I felt the urge to call her. And that’s such a big deal, because I have rarely ever seen my culture represented without stereotypes in a mainstream American production.

Before the 1960s, Japanese men in American films were typically portrayed as small people with black-framed glasses and big teeth, says Japan Today. Women, on the other hand, were typically portrayed as the “geisha” stereotype, or hyper-feminine, subservient, and eager to please men, according to Japan Today. Later, Japanese people were able to “diversify” into roles like samurais and ninjas, says Japan Today. Today, Asian actors are starting to get better roles (Crazy Rich Asians FTW, right?), but they’re still only representing one percent of the leading roles in Hollywood, according to Teen Vogue.

I couldn’t believe something [my mom had] been teaching me all my life was on a Netflix special.

But in Kondo's Netflix special, Kondo is just herself. She's just a regular Japanese woman teaching other people how to tidy their houses. And unlike the many people who have spoken loudly or slowly to my mom for having a foreign accent — something so many people in America who speak multiple languages face — most of the people on the show speak to Kondo at a normal pace. I wish more people would show my mom the same kind of respect Kondo received on her show. After all, my mom is smart enough to speak not one, but two languages.

Most people are watching Kondo's show to get her super awesome tidying tips. Me? I'm getting those tips, too. But I'm also watching in the hopes that Kondo's show is a big step in normalizing Japanese culture to a country I've called home my entire life.