A response to HuffPost’s “What White, Western Audiences Don’t Understand About Marie Kondo’s ‘Tidying Up'”

A still from Netflix's "Tidying Up with Marie Kondo."

Dilloway: “Backlash to the Netflix show ignores an essential aspect of the KonMari method: Its Shinto roots.”

Source: What White, Western Audiences Don’t Understand About Marie Kondo’s ‘Tidying Up’ | HuffPost

Those darned white Westerners! Always screwing everything up…

Nonetheless, despite being a white Westerner, I have a great deal of admiration and appreciation for Shinto – and many aspects of Japanese culture – myself.

And although I, personally, am not likely to reduce my book collection to thirty (yes, I realize Marie Kondo only stated that she herself only kept 30 books at a time, she was not decreeing it for everyone), I definitely recognize that I could benefit – both my living space and my head-space – from some pretty substantial de-cluttering!

My problem with this essay is that its author, Margaret Dilloway, chose to racialize the issue – ironically, since that’s exactly what she was complaining about others doing to Ms Kondo – and to do so in a way that is either ignorant of certain facts, or else intentionally disingenuous. I do not claim to be qualified to judge which of the two! But in any case, she writes:

“Either way, the mostly white people who are not professional organizers had no problem telling Kondo, a woman of color and highly recognized person in her field, that her approach is objectively wrong.”

This is not, again, a comment on Ms Kondo; she may very well be the greatest thing since sliced bread, her method is probably marvelously freeing for those who choose to adopt it, and I am quite sure that her intention genuinely is to help people. My beef is more with Ms Dilloway, and the fact that she fails to see in herself the sort of prejudice she decries, however rightly, in others.

To put it bluntly, she is complaining about people responding in what she considers a racially and culturally insensitive manner by saying “all you whites and amateurs should shut up! You just don’t understand.” Now, she may be right about the lack of understanding; but I’m sorry, I see a problem with this attitude. More than one problem, actually.

First and foremost, it is entirely possible for a woman of color (just like any member of any other demographic), no matter how highly recognized in her field she may be, to be objectively wrong. And if so, she should be called out for it. I’m not saying Ms Kondo is; I’m speaking as a matter of principle: sometimes the Emperor truly has no clothes – and I don’t mean the current holder of the Chrysanthemum Throne!

Second, right or wrong, being a recognized person in one’s field does not immunize one from critique (justified or otherwise). As a clergyman, I may wish people would defer to that status and just accept it when I say something related to that field, but I’m not going to hold my breath until it happens. Nor is it necessary for one to be an authority in a field to have an opinion on it! To imply otherwise, as Ms Dilloway seems to be doing here, is to stray into a type of elitism that I suspect she would decry, if it were coming from someone else.

But she goes further. This is the line that caused me to write this piece:

“But to wholesale dismiss [sic] her suggestions with xenophobic language and unadulterated Western hubris is to dismiss an entire ancient cultural tradition that has harmed exactly no one.”

Oh, really? “Harmed exactly no one”…? Tell that to the victims of the rape of Nanking, or the families of the sailors entombed in the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor, or those who died or were maimed for life on the Bataan Death March, or… well, you get the picture.

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that Ms Kondo is in any way responsible for the atrocities of Imperial Japan, nor am I suggesting that Shinto can be reduced to them.

But both the Shinto and the Buddhist leadership in Japan enthusiastically supported the militaristic, imperialistic, and yes, highly xenophobic military junta of General Tojo, which operated with at least the tacit approval of – certainly with no opposition from – the Emperor, until it became clear that the very survival of Japan itself was in jeopardy.

And the earlier samurai, who I also admire in many (but not all) ways, could hardly be said to “harm no one.” It was permissible, at least at certain periods of Japanese history, for a member of the samurai class – the same warrior-aesthetes who practiced calligraphy, poetry-writing, tea-ceremony, bonsai-growing, etc. – to test his katana on any peasant who happened to be nearby!

Western hubris and xenophobia? What about the hubris and xenophobia of Imperial Japan, who (with a few wise exceptions such as Admiral Yamamoto) believed that the “Yankee barbarians” were soft and effeminate milksops that would roll over and beg for mercy as soon as Dai Nippon flexed its muscles?

Again, I am not trying to be reductionist, here. I am simply pointing out that the issue is not “Western” or “white” hubris, here; it is human hubris – and ironically, Ms Dilloway fails to recognize that she herself is guilty of a like hubris, as well as some of the same sort of xenophobic judgmentalism she decries.

Ms Dilloway clearly honors and reveres her mother, her ancestry, her ancestral culture. As she should! There is nothing wrong, and much that is right, with that. But she has allowed it to blind her – or at least, that’s the impression that comes out in this essay – to the fact that her ancestral culture, while it has much to commend it, is not without its own flaws and faults, either.

Again, the issue is not a Western or white issue. It is a human issue: all have sinned and fallen short; “there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Psalm 14:3, Romans 3:12).

And while I actually am in agreement with a fair bit of what I understand Ms Kondo to be saying about decluttering and valuing what you have, Ms Dilloway seems to fail utterly to comprehend that for Ms Kondo to come in and try to re-order an important aspect of Western culture – how we interact with our personal space – to suit Shinto norms is simply going to rub some people the wrong way (even as others embrace it), just as it would if Westerners were to do the same thing in Japan.

I agree, it would have been better all around if some people had simply chosen to say, as I did, some variation on, “Ummm… no, thank you. I’m going to keep my books!” But who is practicing cultural authenticity and who is engaging in cultural colonialism has a lot to do with, as my late mother might have said, “whose ox is getting gored.”

The original meme (later altered by someone else to remove the clergy context), by Rev. Jeremy Smith, who commented, “The original tweet was meant as a commentary on clergy clinging tightly to their books. It wasn’t a slam on Kondo at all (my house has KonMari’d for years).” Highly apt to me, as a clergyman myself!

Author: The Anglophilic Anglican

I am an ordained Anglican clergyman, published writer, former op-ed columnist, and experienced outdoor and informal educator. I am also a traditionalist: religiously, philosophically, politically, and socially. I seek to do my bit to promote and restore the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, in a world which has too-often lost touch with all three, and to help re-weave the connections between God, Nature, and humankind which our techno-industrial civilization has strained and broken.

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