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Personal Essay on Asian Role Models and Marie Kondo

Don’t Let Marie Kondo’s Appearance Mislead You, We Need More Female Asian Role Models

The following post was originally published on Medium.

Unless you've been living under a rock, you will have heard of the Japanese organizing consultant Marie Kondo. Since her decluttering makeover Netflix series dropped at the start of the year, the general hysteria, especially in America, has been palpable  —  even her name has become a colloquial verb, to 'Marie Kondo' your home. On watching the show, my knee-jerk reaction to her as presenter, character, and Japanese woman wasn't something to be particularly proud of. I found her annoyingly cute and perfect  —  something about her whiter-than-white cardigan, her pristine eyelashes and the tone of her spoken Japanese. I saw her as a caricature of patriarchal norms and a symbol of the submissive Japanese woman. Threatened, I joked that she was some sort of OCD sociopath that would obsessively cleanse her body as soon as she left the chaotic Americans' houses.

But Marie Kondo is a fierce force to be reckoned with. Alongside TV show Queer Eye, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo has successfully reinvigorated the tired home-makeover genre with the KonMari method, a mindful decluttering exercise that asks homeowners to purge any possessions that no longer "spark joy." Right now, Marie Kondo is the biggest Japanese export, a phenomenon with legit business credentials. In 2015, she was named in Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people, she has sold more than 11 million copies of her book Spark Joy worldwide, and there really can't be many non-English-speaking Japanese women presenting their own Netflix series (she has a translator on the show.) If that isn't impressive enough, there are plans for a lifestyle-based e-commerce site, KonMari, that has the potential to rival Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop.

"Why, when there aren't many female Asian role models out there, hadn't I welcomed her with open arms?"
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Why, when there aren't many female Asian role models out there, hadn't I welcomed her with open arms? And why, especially when I consider my personal MO to be cute and fierce, was I threatened by this feminine version of a successful businesswoman? As a half-Japanese, half-English woman, having had my initial judgement, I was curious to unpick the underlying bias from both my Asian and white sides — to understand not only why the show didn't "spark joy" in me but also to unpack my negative visceral reaction to her.

My Japanese childhood provided me with a more traditional set of values than life in England. Back in the '90s, when I was at secondary school in Nagoya, like most teenagers, I was doing my best to blend in, feeling the pressure to be more feminine and a cuter version of myself. The word cute is synonymous with Japan, so much so that you may well already know the word, kawaii, but a term you are less likely to know is "burikko," which refers to women who fake their cuteness to attract the opposite sex. The performance usually involves being ditzy, talking in a high-pitched voice, and sometimes even acting younger or babyish. The popular girls at school would use this word to bully other girls. At the time, we were young, confused, and trying on different versions of ourselves, but now I realize we were competing, even demonizing instead of supporting each other, and all of this to impress some boys. The Japanese patriarchy dictates what a woman should be, and from a young age as girls, we are taught by society that being cute or feminine are valuable assets. As my Japanese mother used to say, "Being funny won't help you meet a suitable husband." Of course, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with choosing to be kawaii or enjoying cute things, but my initial judgement of Marie Kondo has partially stemmed from my upbringing in Japan and Japanese sexism: something of the burikko mentality has stuck, making me suspicious of the motivation behind ultrafeminine women.

It wasn't just Marie Kondo's hyperfemininity; I was also intimidated by just how perfect she was. Japan is a nation of perfectionism, known for its immaculate attention to detail and precise levels of organization. From an education system that requires pupils to clean their own classrooms to a train network that always runs on time, an upbringing in Japan provides one with an organically instilled and innate sense of organization, cleanliness, and tidying. However, this exemplary standard to be perfect has its downfalls, putting immense pressure on its people. As a mixed-race Asian friend of mine who grew up in Tokyo put it, "It's incredible to consume and enjoy the heightened perfection in Japan as a lazy white person, but it can be too much pressure to live as an Asian person." Nowhere does this idea of perfection manifest itself more strongly than in the Japanese patriarchy's idea of the woman, and therein lies another unconscious bias for me. Marie Kondo's appearance represents a sexist standard of perfection — petite, pretty, and polite — that I have and always will struggle to keep up with.

My British upbringing didn't do anything to help me find Marie Kondo's brand of femininity appealing either. In my 20s, I was influenced by career self-help books Nice Girls Don't Get The Corner Office and Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In, which advised women that to advance in one's career, being nice or likeable wasn't going to earn you a seat at the table. Certainly, the experience of my early career, working in the male-dominated music industry, was that being "girlie" was anything but a useful asset if you wanted to be taken seriously. Although Sheryl Sandberg was a feminist icon at the time, she was also accused of being elitist, and looking back, I also see her ideas were aimed predominantly at white feminists, not at WOC and certainly not feminine Asian women. It wouldn't be for another decade, until the likes of Ali Wong and Constance Wu started coming through, that I really found my cute-yet-fierce Asian role models.

There is also appeal in America for the perfect feminine Japanese woman described above, but to understand the organizing consultant's success stateside and my final Marie Kondo bias, there is more to this trope than first meets the eye. The key to the KonMarie method's connecting in America lies in the collective subconscious connection that many non-Asian people hold of a "spiritual" east. Early features from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal picked up on the spiritual side of her organizing and created a fresh narrative for her, manifesting her as the Asian personification of the Western phrase "Cleanliness is next to godliness." While the spiritual side of her organizing was mostly ignored in Japan, in America, her background of working several years as an attendant maiden in a Shinto shrine has made for an authentic story and an unlikely crux to her charm. Even Marie Kondo herself, according to this Forbes Japan interview, was surprised by her rise to fame in the States, but when asked how she broke America, she also puts it down to the interest in the spiritual aspect of her work. Although any references to this spirituality within the actual TV show are fairly muted, the potent combination of the media's narrative and the "oriental" fantasy trope have made her an authentic superstar. Earlier this year, Marie Kondo appeared on American TV show The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and just like in her TV series, where homeowners would kneel, as if praying, taking a moment to show their gratitude toward their homes, she joined the host to meditate on Colbert's appreciation for the studio. Colbert jokes saying "I don't understand what you are saying when you say it . . . but I would follow you to a cult compound and never leave," and while this is all fairly harmless, part of me, mainly my Japanese side, feels uncomfortable that the organizing consultant is being painted as some sort of magical sage with mystic cleansing powers. It's not just Colbert here, and even though I can see that these tropes have actually aided Marie Kondo to carve out a niche for herself in the dominant culture, I can't help but feel uncomfortable as on a level they are simply racist.

Having said all this, I won't let Marie Kondo's appearance mislead me. I choose to see through my initial judgements of the ultrafeminine woman, the perfect woman, the patriarchal woman, and the "oriental" woman because I won't let the veneer of these sexist and racist biases prevent me from seeing the fierce Asian woman that she is. I am again reminded that I need to support not criticize, admire not compete, as women are entitled to look like and be whatever version of their successful selves they want to be. Marie Kondo is making room at the table for Asian women next to the Sheryl Sandbergs and Gwyneth Paltrows of the world. So join me in welcoming in this cute, fierce business lady, because after all, we need more diverse role models and leaders.

Image Source: Netflix
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