How cultural ignorance fuels criticism of Marie Kondo

Netflix

The debut of Tidying Up With Marie Kondo on Netflix has riled up a number of book lovers in western society. Kondo says she personally keeps less than thirty books and this turned bibliophiles into an enraged Internet mob. One of the most vocal was author Anakana Schofield, who wrote an article in The Guardian about how Kondo was wrong.

As someone who has been living in Japan for around ten years, the backlash against Kondo was surprising to me. I’ve never seen Kondo’s show, nor read any of her books, but when I saw people sharing memes and calling Kondo a monster, it struck me as extremely bizarre.

The number of physical books you own doesn’t measure your love of books

There seems to be this idea that if you don’t personally own a massive number of books, you somehow aren’t a true booklover. It’s a ridiculously elitist concept for a few reasons.

First of all, you don’t need to buy books in order to love them. Some people don’t have the disposable income to afford dozens of books. This is why libraries exist, so people can read books even if they don’t have the money for them. Are we now going to start looking down on people who mostly read through the library? I thought as booklovers, we were supposed to be champions of libraries.

Second, book-reading has changed. Books are no longer bound volumes of paper. Ebooks and audiobooks have changed the way people a lot of people read. When people can store literally hundreds of books on their phone, the necessity for home libraries decreases a lot. I know some booklovers will balk at this, but reading books is more important than how you read them. Reading a book on your phone or listening to a book being read to you on your commute doesn’t make it less of a book. The notion that it only counts as a real book if it’s printed on paper is nonsensical.

And third and most importantly, not everyone has the physical space to accommodate a massive home library. If you do, then wonderful for you. But if someone lives in a small apartment or has to move around a lot, then holding onto books they’ve already read and will probably never read again just isn’t feasible.

This brings me to the crux of my argument.

Japan is a different culture

This shouldn’t come as a shocking revelation. We’ve all seen stories and memes about how different Japan is from the west. And yet, Kondo detractors don’t seem to consider that she is from a culture where the way books are kept is very different.

Japanese homes are much smaller than homes in the west. In my house, I have space for exactly one small bookcase. The university I teach at provides me with the textbooks I use in my classes. Those plus some Japanese study materials constitute my entire physical library, and it’s all I have space for. If I wanted to own more physical books, I’d literally be tripping over them.

My situation is not uncommon in Japan. Many people live in homes about the same size as mine. I live alone, but in my building, there are four-person families who live in apartments exactly the same size as mine. Minimalism is not just a recommended way of life here, it’s pretty much a necessity.

Another factor is mobility. It’s not uncommon for Japanese employers to transfer employees to other parts of the country, often on very short notice. Moving costs here are not exactly cheap. And though employers may provide some assistance with the cost, there’s a limit to their contribution. For government employees, there’s a very good chance they can be transferred every three to five years.

That doesn’t mean the Japanese aren’t readers or that they’re constantly throwing perfectly fine books in the trash. Quite the contrary. Used bookstores are quite popular and plentiful. Many people buy books from these shops, read them, and then sell them back. There just isn’t much to gain in keeping books you’ve already read and may never read again.

Home libraries are mostly about vanity. People like it when they have guests over who marvel at the size of their library. But it’s very uncommon for people in Japan to have guests over. The concept of hosting parties or gatherings in someone’s home is very foreign over here. Not only because of the small size of homes, but also because how thin the walls are.

Have you ever seriously thought about why you keep books?

This question would have seemed ridiculous to me ten years ago. During college, I lived with my parents and commuted to campus. After graduation, I continued to live with them for about two years before I first moved to Japan. I had these three massive, floor-to-ceiling bookcases that took up an entire wall of my bedroom. Every single shelf was loaded with books. In my closet, I had three old filing cabinets I repurposed for my comic book collection, each one filled to capacity. Before I came to Japan, I had run out of space for all my books. I had stacks of them sitting in any corner I could find. I never once would have thought about trimming my collection down.

When I first came to Japan, I wasn’t sure if it would be a temporary or permanent move, so I knew I was only going to take what I needed. I brought a few of my favorite books and movies, but left everything else in my parents’ house. It was 2008 when I moved to Japan so at first, I’d buy English paperback books through Amazon. Eventually I bought a Kindle and while new books I bought were digital, I still never thought about what I’d do if I had to get rid of my physical books back home.

Then two years ago, my parents decided to move. I had been gone for years and my younger sister was planning to get her own place as well. The house was too big and too old for them to justify maintaining, especially as my father’s health had declined. They wanted to buy a condo, which meant they had to take serious stock of everything they’d accumulated for over thirty years.

I came back to help and I took stock of everything I had left behind in my former room. I realized I couldn’t hold onto all these books anymore. It would cost a fortune just to ship them to Japan and I knew I just didn’t have the space for them.

That was the first time I took a serious look at all the books I’d accumulated. As I took each book off the shelf, stared at the cover, read the back description, flipped through the pages, I realized something.

I really didn’t need these anymore.

I wasn’t going to read these books again, and if I ever got the urge to, I could easily find them on Kindle. So what good were these books doing collecting dust on my shelves where no one ever touched or even saw them? Books are meant to be read and if no one was coming into contact with them, how was that better than throwing them in the garbage?

I took them all down and donated them to the local library for their frequent book sales. I went through my comic collection and sold off every last issue I owned. It was a long and extremely tiring process, and once it was finished, I knew it was one I never wanted to go through again.

Do what’s right for you

Kondo never said you must keep less than thirty books. In an interview for IndieWire, she explicitly said the opposite:

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.

In other words, keeping less than thirty books is what works for her, but that doesn’t mean everyone should do the same thing. The whole point of her process is to figure out which of your possessions you’re truly passionate about and which ones you don’t mind letting go.

If you want a big personal library, more power to you. If you want stacks of books everywhere, that’s perfectly fine. But one of the strangest things I’ve seen is the judgmental nature of many of these comments. Why does the idea of some stranger who lives on the other side of the world having only two dozen books anger you? How does that impact your life in the slightest?

There are so many things happening in the world right now you can be justifiably angry about. The number of books Marie Kondo owns is not one of them.

Born and raised in Chicago, now residing in Japan. I teach media and film, host podcasts, and write genre fiction. PercivalConstantine.com